I don’t have much to say about Jonathan Chait’s recent missive against the new wave of political correctness. The debate he sparked has followed predictable lines: most lefties deny the problem or downplay it, adding a healthy dose of ad hominem against Chait to build their case (he’s not a true leftie, he’s said bad things in the past, and he’s a white guy, so case closed.) Debating the merits of these accusations is, in the larger scheme of things, beside the point. Even if individual examples can be dismissed, the totality of the evidence proves that the problem exists.
I’d like to focus instead on a debate that unfolded between fellow lefties Freddie deBoer and Angus Johnston. Both bloggers are worth your time, but to state briefly, deBoer argues that political correctness is a major problem that is stifling free speech and preventing would-be activists from joining liberal causes, while Johnston is much more optimistic and finds the issues Chait and deBoer raise overblown and easily addressed within an in-group setting. If the dynamics of this exchange sound familiar to you, it’s because this debate is a carbon copy of the ongoing missives between ex-churchgoers listing the reasons the church has failed us, and the Christians chiding them for leaving the fold.
Johnston has adopted a social justice version of The Gospel Coalition position: activist organizations are great, people are welcoming, and you just need to make an effort to be respectful in order to fit in. If there’s a problem or you feel unwelcome, it’s likely your fault.
deBoer is taking the Benjamin Corey position: activist organizations are unwelcoming, cliquish, and thick with their own coded language that separates rather than unites. If there’s a problem and you feel unwelcome, then maybe it’s the organization’s fault after all. (If you’re skeptical of my take, skim over Corey’s first nine bullet points about why people are leaving churches and switch out “leave church” with “quit activism” or “quit being allies.” The similarities are astonishing.)
While it makes sense for churches and activist groups to set behavioral expectations, it’s worth asking why liberal activists sweat the small stuff so much (and invent small stuff to sweat over). I’ve worked with both conservative and liberal activists over the years (sometimes concurrently), and I believe that the answer can be found within the culture of activist groups themselves.
We live in an age when women’s health clinics are being shut down at an unprecedented rate, yet there is little effort to reverse this trend. Activists seem to care more about making sure reporters get quotes from women of color in articles about the closing of health clinics than whether the clinics themselves stay open. Rather than fight for gay housing and employment rights, they focus on making sure activists say “cisgender” instead of “straight.” Instead of fighting to reverse the trend of cutting programs that support the disabled, activists waste time scolding people for using the word “disabled.”
I believe that the cause of all this infighting over political correctness is an underlying pessimism among liberal activists. By and large, activists do not believe that abortion rights are salvageable in the short term (due mainly to the conservative make up of the higher courts, and the rightward swing of state and federal governments.) Most do not believe that global warming will be reversed because oil companies and climate change deniers wield too much power. The battle for racial equality mimics the misfortunes of gun control advocates: a tragic shooting happens, then a big media flare up follows. Protests, grassroots energy, and hope for genuine change surge. Sometimes that energy grows to the point where it looks like the Left might finally be getting its act together. But then the sound and fury fades. The media loses interest, conservatives change the terms of debate, and the Left flitters off to the next controversy or tragedy. With few exceptions, the momentum is on the conservative side.
Some of this pessimism is warranted. By design the modern Left attempts to stand up for the powerless, so the people they’re advocating for lack the resources to sustain their cause. It’s a lot easier to defend billionaires than the poor. The decline of unions and blue collar liberals has led to greater dependance on academia and young people. This adds up to a largely unreliable voting base that lacks resources and the self-discipline to sustain political causes beyond 4-year presidential election cycles. An aging population coupled with rising costs of college may deal another major blow.
So that leaves us with the kind of activism that young people with short attention spans can sustain. Activism that can win small victories with minimal effort. Activism that people suffering the weight of massive debt and time-consuming jobs can participate in. And yes, activism that can often bring positive results.
Language has proven to be the easiest thing to police online. What begins as noble intentions (be considerate of others’ feelings and experiences) and clear cut goals almost everyone can get on board with (racism and misogyny suck) easily morphs into the bullying campaigns deBoer and others describe: someone famous says something ignorant. So you spread the word, call them out for it and get them to recant. With a few days’ work, you’ve helped communicate your message globally, established your reasoning, and discouraged others from using the same language. Often this creates positive change, but it’s usually superficial change, and it creates the illusion of genuine political victories.
As these quick successes multiply, in-group expectations intensify. Some of these are positive (like pointing out that women of color have lacked a voice in feminism) while others are negative (like condemning anti-war veterans for using masculine language to express their frustration with the military-industrial complex.)
Instead of acknowledging that people who travel in different social and economic circles will not be familiar with their in-group language, activists attempt to transfer the environment of their online community into the real world, full of people who don’t tweet or don’t have time for their meetings or learning their lingo. So you end up with the same alienating dynamic evangelicals experience when they try to use Christianese in public, except liberals resent the fact that people aren’t hip to their lingo more than evangelicals do.
As a result, even the best ideas become unwieldy and incapable of being translated to non-academic circles. Does anyone believe that your average fifty-something blue collar Dad with a GED diploma could ever get his mouth around the phrase “reinforce patriarchal and heteronormative stereotypes of women,” even if he’s a lifelong Democrat?) So instead of translating their ideas for the public, the public is expected to learn activist’s language. The whole process is so convoluted that you end up with situations like the ones deBoer describes, where people just give up rather than risk offending people, even when they mean well and want to contribute.