When "political correctness" hurts: Understanding the micro-aggressions that trigger Jonathan Chait

A new opus on progressive racial extremism features the liberal writer’s trademark mix of insight and overreaction

Published January 27, 2015 5:50PM (EST)


When New York magazine teased Jonathan Chait’s coming opus on race, politics and free speech last Friday – “Can a white liberal man critique a culture of political correctness?” -- the hook alone was enough to send his Twitter haters into multiple ragegasms. I thought folks should save themselves some grief and at least wait until the story itself appeared before defaulting to fury. Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad.

But to anyone who hated that teaser, I’m sure, the story itself is just that bad. Chait continues to pick the scab of his suffering over the fact that the every musing of white liberal men (and women, to be fair) about race and politics is no longer welcomed for its contribution to the struggle. He no doubt finished his piece before the Twitter backlash against Nick Kristof for suggesting the police reform movement find a more “compelling face” than Mike Brown, because he doesn’t mention it, though it’s the kind of thing that sets him off.

This is not to say that there are no good points in Chait’s piece, only that his tone of grievance and self-importance, as though he’s warning us of a threat to our democracy that others either can’t see or are too intimidated to fight, makes it very hard to parse.

Chait is over the terms “mansplaining,” “whitesplaining” and “straightsplaining,” as he thinks they’ve become efforts to silence or subdue men, whites and straights. He hates the whole concept of “micro-aggressions,” and I will admit here, I have my own ambivalence about the term: There ought to be a better word for the myriad slights from white people that undermine people who aren’t white. The label mocks itself; if they’re really  “micro,” shouldn’t we be spending our time on our bigger problems? Like so much rhetoric from the left, it’s best used preaching to the choir: I’m not sure anyone who isn’t already comfortable with the notion is going to have his or her mind opened by it.

But in his obsession with attacking ideas like “micro-aggressions,” Chait seems unaware that what he is seething about is just his own version of a micro-aggression. Because, really: If you want to dismiss the necessary project of making white people aware of their own racial subjectivity, and privilege; if you want to reduce that project to its smallest and most easily mocked components – well, you’re as fragile a flower in your own way as the women you criticize.

And make no mistake: It’s almost exclusively women of color being called out in this piece.  On behalf of white liberal women who’ve had our feelings hurt on social media over the years, I feel like I'm supposed to thank Chait for coming to our defense. Because that’s how much of it reads: as an attack on women of color for saying some not-nice things to white progressive women. It’s chivalrous, almost; and chauvinistic, too, as though we can’t speak up for ourselves.

He singles out MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry and Salon’s Brittney Cooper for rhetorical excess. He cites the brave work of white feminist truth tellers like Michelle Goldberg and Hanna Rosin – women I admire, by the way – and defends them from their critics, though they’re perfectly capable of defending themselves. He discusses one or two male victims of the p.c. backlash – but does not appear to name a single male perpetrator of p.c. excess.

Chait devotes a lot of space to a flap within the progressive Facebook group “Binders Full of Women Writers,” which “found itself frequently distracted by bitter identity-­politics recriminations, endlessly litigating the fraught requirements of p.c. discourse,” he writes. Chait’s sources sent him conversations that irked them, and he prints a whole thread of jargony, p.c., all-caps ranting. This is supposed to show us that the threat of p.c. has moved from the campus and has taken over liberal media, but I’ve never been someone easily convinced of a grave social threat by reading a Facebook thread. Most of his other disturbing examples actually take place on campus.

And then there’s the debate over the best way to protest the Charlie Hebdo attacks. While Americans on the left and right were united in revulsion and outrage, it’s true that a division within the left opened up about the slogan “Je Suis Charlie.” Some people wanted to be able to express outrage at the violence without having to identify with the magazine, which sometimes seemed to punch down at France’s lower-income, marginalized Muslim community.

Of course, nobody of any stature was defending the attacks on Charlie Hebdo; they were merely reserving their own right to protest in the way they thought made sense. It seems to me another form of political correctness to suggest that if you wouldn’t declare “Je Suis Charlie” you were insufficiently devoted to the cause of free speech.

Chait says a few things I agree with, including this: “Politics in a democracy is still based on getting people to agree with you, not making them afraid to disagree.” And yet I fear that in his revulsion at what he sees as a p.c. backlash, he’s going in the other direction, using ridicule and righteousness to mock ideas he doesn’t like. I wouldn’t charge him with trying to make his opponents “afraid to disagree,” as I don’t think that’s his goal. But the tone of outrage and even disgust isn’t marshaled in order to change their minds, either.

Like I said about Kristof Monday: I’m not prepared to dismiss Chait as hopeless, or put him in the enemy camp, though we mixed it up over his last opus on race and politics. I think he’s been wounded personally in some of these scuffles over race. And I understand: I write as someone who’s also been scuffed up in these sorts of battles. I’ve lost friends, or “friends,” over these issues, and it has sometimes been painful.  But I decided I had more to learn than to complain about, and I’ve hung in there, not ready to equate attacks on me with an attack on free inquiry, or on liberalism itself. I hope Chait comes around.

By Joan Walsh