This is not about political correctness or Internet outrage. It's about where we draw the line

Coddled college kids! PC run amok! Writing hot takes for Fox News or the Atlantic is easy. Just follow these steps

Published November 13, 2015 9:19PM (EST)

Students gather following the announcement University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe would resignMonday, Nov. 9, 2015, at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson) (AP)
Students gather following the announcement University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe would resignMonday, Nov. 9, 2015, at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson) (AP)

I know why you’re here. Something has happened that has pushed you over the edge. You know, with regards to “political correctness.” Or “call-out culture,” or the “Internet outrage machine,” or whatever you want to call it.

It’s been a lot of little things up until now — you know, comments that you’ve seen on social media, or protests that you’ve heard about, all condemning people for supposedly “bad” things they may have said or done. But something recently happened to someone famous, or someone you respect — for anonymity’s sake, let’s just call them the Person of Stature. And as an example, let’s pretend the Person of Stature was invited to speak at a University, but then some students started complaining about supposedly “bigoted” things that this Person of Stature has said about some minority group in the past. Or present. And these students started protesting. They even passed a petition around. The nerve of them!

And now you are the one who is outraged! No, sorry, outrage is too strong of a word. You are a well-reasoned journalist and/or pundit. So instead of leaving angry comments in the comment section (like all the other troglodytes), you will pen a seemingly well-reasoned article that will be published in a well-established news/media outlet, and that compels readers to identify with your outrage (by which I mean well-reasoned position).

And here is how you will do it:

1) Make it clear from the very beginning that you are an open-minded, social justice supporter, preferably on the left side of the political spectrum. This will contrast your take on “political correctness run amok” from those of right wing commentators — you know, those hypocrites who are pro-free speech when it comes to white, straight, Christian people making fun of minorities, but against free speech when it comes to #BlackLivesMatter, or discussions about sex education and women’s reproductive rights, or secular holiday celebrations, or homosexuals and their so-called “agenda.” You are nothing like those hypocrites! Plus, you are pitching your soon-to-be-trending article to someplace like The Nation or The Atlantic, so you will most certainly need to win over liberal readers.

2) Repeatedly remind readers (through both blatant and subtle appeals) that Free Speech = Good; Censorship = Bad. Be sure *not* to mention that the Person of Stature’s freedom of speech is not really at stake — like the rest of us, they are free to make any bigoted comments any time they want. Even more importantly, whatever you do, *never* acknowledge the fact that protests, petitions, and social media comments critiquing the Person of Stature also constitute acts of free speech. This is Pandora’s Box #1 — whatever you do, do not open it! Because if both the protesters and the Person of Stature are seen as having free speech, then this becomes a “marketplace of ideas” issue, and your readers will then feel entitled to make up their own minds as to who is in the right and who is in the wrong. And you can’t let this happen, because you have already decided this for them!

3) This can’t just be any Person of Stature, or any old comments or actions against a minority group. To use a few extreme examples, if the person was a Neo-Nazi, or if their platform was returning to the time when women were considered their husband’s property, or if they called for homosexuality to be punished by death, then the article won’t work at all. First off, your liberal readers would likely feel that these things (while constituting free speech) are beyond the pale, and they will be disturbed by your attempts to go out of your way to defend such people. Indeed, you yourself probably feel the same way: If these sorts of people were invited to speak at a University, and if students protested, you would not find such protests to be outrageous at all. Who knows, you might even join in those protests yourself! But we will never know for sure, because it’s unimaginable that any University would ever give any of these extreme groups a public platform to speak in the first place.

Actually, come to think of it, these examples highlight the fact that there is already an established (albeit unwritten) code in our society regarding what expressions are deemed tolerable and which are deemed to be beyond the pale. This is Pandora’s Box #2 — once again, do not open it! Because if you bring attention to this unspoken line-in-the-sand regarding acceptability, then your readers will recognize that this story is not really about “free speech versus censorship” (because once again, all the aforementioned people are free to speak their minds), but rather how do we (whether as a society, a public institution, a workplace, or as individuals) decide where to draw this line? Where does one person’s right to free speech end and another person’s right to go to work or school without having to deal with bigotry or harassment begin? This is an extremely complicated matter that would take way more than one pithy article to cover. Plus, there is no cut-and-dried answer to this question, just a mess of differing opinions as to where to precisely to draw this line. So you need to pose a different question, one that has a clear right answer (which non-coincidentally coincides with your position).

What you need is defendable Person of Stature — someone who is likeable and/or on the right side of most issues, despite the current controversy. And the controversy itself has to be something that most mainstream self-identified liberals will consider to be a “minor issue” or much ado about nothing. Perhaps the Person of Stature has made comments or used language that you could easily get away with five, or ten, or fifteen years ago, but which now seems somewhat problematic or unsavory (because the unspoken line-in-the-sand is always shifting over time — but remember that’s Pandora’s Box #2, so don’t mention this!). This is perfect, because your readers have maybe said similar things themselves way back when, so they will identify somewhat with the Person of Stature. Or maybe they feel somewhat disgruntled by how fast the times are a-changin’ (they can barely keep up!) and/or they are starting to think that things were better in “the good old days” when they were younger (i.e., when they were the upstarts who mocked people who believed that things were better in “the good old days”).

But what’s even more perfect is if the minority group in question is one that has made some progress, but is still far from being fully accepted. To this end, might I suggest transgender people? Because as far as most of your mainstream self-identified liberal readers are concerned, there weren’t really any transgender people at all (outside of the occasional Hollywood movie or Jerry Springer show) just five, or ten, or fifteen years ago. But now they’re on television all the time, and there are all these articles and books about them — it’s like they’re suddenly crawling all over the place! And as if that wasn’t bad enough, now they are asking for things! Like, safe bathrooms. Or having their identities respected. Or not having to constantly face hateful or derogatory speech on a regular basis. And while your readers are not opposed to transgender people per se — hey, whatever Caitlyn Jenner decides to do with her body and in her own bedroom is her own business — they definitely feel like this is all happening way too fast! For them, at least. Plus, they probably feel confused or squeamish about trans people themselves (although unlike the Person of Stature, they probably know better than to say that out loud in public).

Okay, so now that we’ve found the appropriate minority group and Person of Stature to generate outrage — I mean, serious concern — in our readers, onto the next step:

4) Pick an overarching theme: There are two obvious paths here.

Make it about “political correctness run amok”: For instance, you might open the article with the transgender students’ protesting the Person of Stature’s University talk. But then you will pan back and show that this is but one instance among many in a much larger and disturbing trend sweeping the nation — aka, “political correctness running amok.” (I am not sure why political correctness is always “running amok” as opposed to other synonymous phrases, but just roll with it.) And at this point, you can simply provide readers with a laundry list of seemingly similar incidents of activists and minority groups taking things way too far with their “political correctness” and “censorship.” For examples of this laundry-list approach, see recent high profile pieces by Jonathan Chait, Michelle Goldberg, and Caitlin Flanagan (there are countless others — The Atlantic alone seems to be churning out one or two of these per month!). The benefit of this approach is that you don’t have to go too in depth about any specific issue (e.g., interviewing all the parties involved, accurately conveying their differing perspectives, etc.) — you can just hastily depict all of them as being outrageous. Additionally, this allows you to conflate some potentially legitimate issues (e.g., protests of the Person of Stature) with a bunch of random mean things that random people (who have no stature) have said on Twitter.

Make it about the “minority group gone too far”: In this strategy, you will place the focus squarely on this one minority group (i.e., transgender people) and portray them as crossing a line that no other respectable minority group would dare cross. The advantage to this is that most people are already suspicious of transgender people and unfamiliar with trans issues, so it will be relatively easy to convince your readers that this group is up to no good and/or overreacting to things. The disadvantage is that, if not handled adeptly, you may come off as being prejudiced against this group yourself. So you have to at least create an aura (however superficial) of fairness. One way to do this is to go to great lengths to make it seem like you are telling both sides of the story, even though your retelling of events is heavily slanted. (Don’t worry, 95-ish percent of your readers will not know enough about trans people and issues to recognize this bias.)

Alternatively, if you are writing a shorter op-ed, then you may want to go with a hybrid of the two approaches. Make it mostly about the transgender protests of the Person of Stature’s talk, but don’t offer any details that may raise concerns for your readers. For instance, do not include any of the Person of Stature’s actual quotes (see bottom of linked article), and most definitely do not link to or include trans activists’ perspectives or concerns about the matter. (Pro tip: putting “transphobia” in scare-quotes, to subtly suggest that its very existence is questionable, goes a long way!) And after a brief mentioning of this particular affair, you will broaden the lens and make the case that this is a free speech/censorship issue. And you will passionately argue that we all need to be more tolerant. Not tolerant of transgender people of course, that would be preposterous! But rather, tolerant of People of Stature who are right about most issues, but maybe wrong about others (and I say “maybe” here because your readers will not be able to judge for themselves, because you didn’t share any of the Person of Stature’s actual quotes or beliefs about transgender people).

5) All of this may sound straightforward enough. But there are a couple more Pandora’s Boxes that you will need to avoid in order to be successful:

Pandora’s Box #3: If the Person of Stature happens to be a renowned feminist, then whatever you do, do *not* remind readers that the things that the transgender protesters are doing now — penning critiques of the Person of Stature’s previous comments, passing around petitions, trying to convince the University not to offer this Person of Stature a public platform to potentially spew even more prejudice and disinformation about the marginalized group in question — these are all things that feminists themselves have done over the years! In fact, during the late ’60s and early ’70s (back when sexism was rampant, when women were not taken very seriously, and when this very Person of Stature first came to prominence as a feminist), feminists were routinely protesting institutions and events that they felt contributed to their marginalization. These are simply the types of things that you need to do when you are a marginalized group who no one takes seriously, and if you want people to pay attention to your issues and potentially change their minds. Otherwise, why would they even care? Or take a stance on the issues you face? Or god forbid, potentially even lift a finger?

If you accidentally open Pandora’s Box #3, then readers might begin to see parallels between feminists back then and transgender activists today. They might recognize that these sorts of tactics are simply how marginalized groups slowly move the unspoken line-in-the-sand (that we are not supposed to mention — see Pandora’s Box #2) toward their preferred direction. Toward respect and equity, as far as they are concerned.

Pandora’s Box #4: Remember earlier, when I mentioned how (in your mainstream self-identified liberal readers’ recollection) there were hardly any transgender people at all a mere five, or ten, or fifteen years ago? Well, they were actually around that whole time! It’s just that they were hardly ever given the opportunity to speak, or to be heard, in public settings. Hell, just ten years ago, it was far more common for such protests to be directed against transgender people speaking at Universities rather than the other way around.

And if you were to ask trans people who lived through that time, they would likely point out that freedom of speech — which as an abstract concept, virtually everyone embraces — doesn’t mean shit when 95-ish percent of people think that you are worthless, and/or abominable, and/or immoral, and when they use their overwhelming-majority freedom-of-speech powers to make sure that you are never allowed to share your experiences or perspectives in a public setting, or hold a position where you can influence public policy or popular perception in any way.

So as I’ve been saying all along, this story is not really about free speech. It’s about where we — as individuals, as a society — draw that unspoken line-in-the-sand with regards to what we deem to be permissible, and what (and often whom) we deem beyond the pale.

And if you can’t see that the real issue at stake here is the unspoken line-in-the-sand, then that’s most likely a sign that who you are and what you believe is already deemed permissible in our society. But as a trans person who has lived most of my life being deemed by 95-ish percent of society as being beyond the pale — who stayed closeted the first twenty-seven years of my life because I knew most people wouldn’t accept me, who attended secretly-held trans community meetings because it was not safe for us to congregate in a public space during that time and place, who still to this day faces regular discrimination and harassment that large swaths of our society condones — to me, that unspoken line-in-the-sand is blatantly obvious. It basically determines whether or not I am allowed to exist, whether or not my perspective and concerns are taken seriously.

That unspoken line-in-the-sand is right there, doing real work, directly impacting many people’s lives, even if you choose not to see it, or refuse to acknowledge its existence.

So if you want to write an article called “Feminism Needs More Thinkers Who Aren’t Right 100 Percent of the Time,” go ahead — freedom of speech and all that. And I generally agree with the sentiment expressed in your title — hell, I even wrote an entire book about how we need to be more accepting of difference (including differences of opinion) within feminism. But when accepting people who “Aren’t Right 100 Percent of the Time” is coded language for accepting someone who didn’t just say one offhand remark that made a few trans people upset, but rather someone who is fiercely committed to the idea that trans people are beyond the pale, that our identities should not in any way be accepted by society — if this is what you think we should accept — then you are not promoting tolerance. You are condoning intolerance. And you are not championing Germaine Greer’s freedom of speech (she still has that, and as a Person of Stature, she also has a platform to express it), but rather you are drawing a line-in-the-sand — a line that renders me and other trans people’s concerns as irrelevant and unimportant.

You have every right to draw the line wherever you want. Just as I have every right to try to push the line in my preferred direction (which may, or may not, include protesting people who express vitriol and disinformation about trans people, and/or people who tacitly condone that vitriol and disinformation). But don’t obfuscate this particular matter by pretending that this is about free speech, or tolerating dissenting views, or activists going too far.

This is about the line-in-the-sand.

You can’t have a society where women are fully respected, but where expressions of rampant sexism are also condoned. It is simply not possible — as a feminist, surely you can see this. By the same token, it is simply not possible to fully respect trans people while at the same time condoning people who express rampant transphobia — these things are mutually exclusive.

So go ahead and draw your line, the one that determines whether you deem trans people to be beyond the pale (as historically has been the case), or whether you deem transphobia (sans scare-quotes) beyond the pale. But you can’t have it both ways.

And once you draw that line, own it. Because this is all about the line.

Finally, to all the people who have written, or are considering writing, articles rallying against “political correctness,” or “call-out culture,” or the “Internet outrage machine,” or whatever you want to call it: This may surprise you, but sometimes I agree with some of the points you make. As I previously mentioned, I wrote an entire book about how activism — in the course of advocating on behalf of certain marginalized groups — sometimes veers into the realm of invalidating or marginalizing other groups. So I strongly believe that there is common ground for us to have smart and necessary conversations about how we can balance civil discourse and differences of opinion, while at the same time fully respecting one another as people.

But if instead of engaging in such smart and necessary conversations, you’d rather just write the flip-side of the “Internet outrage machine” article — where instead of stoking outrage about people who have allegedly committed acts of sexism, or racism, or transphobia, and so on, you instead stoke outrage about the people who are protesting these potential acts of sexism, or racism, or transphobia, and so on — and/or if you want to dismiss or condemn these activists’ and minority groups’ protests without addressing any of the Pandora’s Boxes that I have described along the way in this article, then fuck you. Seriously. Fuck you. You are a hack who does not want to have a serious conversation about these super-important and super-complex issues. You just want to be in the right.

And I think you are wrong. That is where I draw my line-in-the-sand.

Originally published on Medium (along with this follow-up)

By Julia Serano

Julia Serano is the author of four books, including the acclaimed modern classic "Whipping Girl." Her writing has been published in the New York Times, The Guardian, TIME, Salon, Ms., and B*tch Media. She holds a PhD in biochemistry from Columbia University, and lives in Oakland, California.

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