Safe spaces aren't about you: Why the anti-P.C. crusaders completely miss the point

Jonathan Chait has been writing the same screed since 2006. His argument was blinkered then, and it's blinkered now


Published November 13, 2015 8:30AM (EST)


This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet Two recent incidents of alleged political correctness run amuck have lit a fire under American media's anti-PC police. The first incident was a Yale student aggressively confronting a sociology professor, Nicholas Christakis, whose wife and colleague had supposedly downplayed racist Halloween costumes in a widely circulated email. The episode was caught on video and quickly went viral in social, and eventually, mainstream media.

The second episode involved a group of activists, broadly known as Concerned Student 1950, barring a photographer from entering a "safe space" where students were protesting a recent wave of racist episodes that resulted in the firing of University of Missouri president Tim Wolfe.

These events are different in many respects—intensity, context, free speech implications—but they do have one thing in common: they've ignited a litany of hot takes from the anti-PC brigade. Some terrible, some not so terrible, but all whiny, and ultimately missing the point.

One, in particular, focusing on the events in Mizzou, has gone viral. In "Can We Start Taking Political Correctness Seriously Now?" Jon Chait follows up his nuclear hot take from January that took on campus activism and what he broadly calls "p.c. culture." Chait is a skilled writer, and an even more skilled sophist. His anti-PC critiques weave together superficially appealing anecdotes designed to build the reader to a fever-pitch of outrage. An example here, a tweet there, all thrown together like a good late-night conspiracy YouTube video to create the illusion of connection. Except, when examined further there's much to be desired, namely that he has nothing more than a string of anecdotes and sample biased chats with personal friends à la Thomas Friedman. The case he focuses on here, the episode at University of Missouri (Mizzou), is missing much context and begins with a distortion, willful or not:

At the protest on Missouri’s campus yesterday, on a space that is expressly open to free expression, protesters barred journalists from covering the demonstrations. In one scene, protesters surrounded and harassed Tim Tai, a photographer with the student newspaper, chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, journalists have got to go.” The scene is captured on a video here, which rewards close watching until the end, where Melissa Click, a professor of mass media working with the protest movement, calls out, “Help me get this reporter out of here. I need some muscle over here.”

Firstly, the photographer in question wasn't working on behalf of the student newspaper; he was on a freelance assignment for ESPN. He wasn't a scrappy citizen journalist, he was being paid to document the event for a corporation worth $44.5 billion. To free speech absolutists this may not matter much, but it's an important piece of context.

Secondly, there's a long history of protestors wanting to fence themselves off from the media, especially the corporate media. The idea is, you don't want a reporter lurking for soundbites or setting people up in their most vulnerable moments. Freelance racists, for example, constantly troll and run false flags on activists, namely African-American activists, in order to disrupt or misrepresent them. Mainstream media routinely paints protests as money making scams or a call to incitement based on isolated gotcha moments. On the more extreme end, Operation Veritas, the Breitbart-connected rightwing troll factory run by James O'Keefe, has paid agent provocateurs to yell "kill cops" at Black Lives Matter protests and secretly recorded the daughter of Eric Garner, enticing her to say bad things about Al Sharpton. There's a long history of distrust amongst black activists and the media for a very good reason. One may not think this merits barring a photographer from their "safe space" but it's an essential piece of nuance Chait omits. As Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report put it:

Tai was not so much making a case for his right to “report” – which does not convey any special privilege to infringe on other people’s rights – so much as his right to hawk his pictures to ESPN, the media conglomerate owned by The Walt Disney Company and the Hearst Corporation. One cannot imagine two companies less worthy to package and transmit Black people’s images than the foundationally racist Disney and genetically reactionary Hearst outfits.

Black students understood perfectly well whose privilege Tai was really defending. "It's typically white media who don't understand the importance of respecting black spaces," one tweeted.

This isn't to say the ESPN photographer was acting in bad faith or part of any corporate conspiracy to undermine the protest, but he was serving a system that has been traditionally hostile to black interests. The amount of media frenzy that descended on these young activists in Columbia that day was tremendous. That they would want their space to demonstrate and share and be vulnerable is entirely logical. Indeed, those in power routinely create "safe spaces" where the press is barred from interaction. $50,000 plate dinners,Hillary Clinton roping in the press, unwanted protests corralled out of public sight. The only thing that makes Concerned Student 1950 different is they didn't have the institutional bona fides the press reflexively respects. Yes, this was a public space, but public spaces are the only places those without the power and means to purchase private ones can assemble.

The rest of his piece, like Chait's previous work, simply builds on anecdotes combined with a preemptive "How could you possibly not see what I see?" tone. It's a Serious problem and Serious, not biased Real Liberal Jon Chait needs you see what's so manifestly obvious:

The upsurge of political correctness is not just greasy-kid stuff, and it’s not just a bunch of weird, unfortunate events that somehow keep happening over and over. It’s the expression of a political culture with consistent norms, and philosophical premises that happen to be incompatible with liberalism.

It's unclear what "greasy-kid stuff" means but, once again, Chait has simply repeated his thesis as fact without really convincing the reader this is a terribly urgent problem relative to the issue at hand. A series of racist events on campus at Mizzou had gone on for so long and was ignored for so long that even an institution as conservative as college football—including the white head coach—thought it merited drastic action. And despite head-faking towards context in his opening paragraph he never really addresses that context again. Even if Chait did have a point - that the barring of journalists from a public "safe space" was a grave threat to free speech - he still has all his work ahead of him: who, to put it simply, gives a shit? Even if one thinks PC has gotten too far it's still a misdemeanor compared to the multiple felony counts of everyday, institutional and interpersonal racism the students at Mizzou evidently experienced. But Chait isn't done, before he exits he must randomly red-bait (to prove, once again, his Serious Liberal credentials):

The reason every Marxist government in the history of the world turned massively repressive is not because they all had the misfortune of being hijacked by murderous thugs. It’s that the ideology itself prioritizes class justice over individual rights and makes no allowance for legitimate disagreement.

I'm not quite sure what this means but what he seems to be saying is that these PC thugs at Mizzou didn't care about personal rights. But the thing is they did care about personal rights, just not those of the persons in his profession or that look like him. Safe spaces are meant to protect people from traditionally hostile forces - which, yes, the corporate, white-owned press has been - so they can grieve and organize and share experiences. This may not make much sense to Chait, but there is a logic and a historic continuity justifying it that isn't just PC jihadis out of control. Indeed, the false urgency Chait suggests that there's an "upsurge" of political correctness, is belied by the fact that Chait, himself, has been writing this same anti-PC screed since 2006 when it was also at unprecedented highs. The reason PC is nothing new is because there is, was, and, for the foreseeable future, will be a logical reason for black-controlled experiences skeptical of establishment narratives and language. If this offends or upsets Mr. Chait, well, this is precisely the point.



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