Jonathan Chait Doesn’t Really Care About Free Speech


“Can a white male liberal critique the country’s current political-correctness craze (which, by the way, hurts liberals most)?” asks the print-edition subtitle of New York Magazine pundit Jonathan Chait’s latest provocation. (For maximum outrage-baiting effect, the version that appears in the magazine is also titled “Trigger Warning,” and the subhead ends with the tease, “We’re sure you’ll let us know.”) A better question would have been, “Can any writer connect the Charlie Hebdo shootings to trigger warnings in college classes, protests against universities hosting bigoted speakers, the term ‘mansplaining,’ and a Facebook group for women writers without sounding hysterical?” The answer, of course, is “nope” — and, furthermore, “grow up.”

In the few days that passed between New York‘s warning that the piece was coming and its publication, in this week’s print edition and now (accompanied by noticeably tamer headings) online, I wondered why Chait would choose this moment to get into the trigger warning fight. That front has been mostly quiet since last spring, when the New Republic broke the news that college students were demanding that professors preface any potentially disturbing reading or viewing assignments — including, in one case, The Great Gatsby — with a trigger warning. Then, the realization washed over me like a wave of nausea: Chait was going to mash it into a trend piece with Charlie Hebdo.

And that is precisely what he has done, enlisting just about every available rhetorical sleight of hand in the process. (Notice how often Chait quotes respected feminists, some of whom will surely not be thrilled to have their words included, with little context, in his essay.) The piece begins with the horrifying tale of college students bullying their Muslim classmate for a column he wrote… BUT WAIT, in a shocking twist, the writer turns out to have penned a piece lampooning “the culture of taking offense that pervades the campus” for a conservative newspaper! This is supposed to make progressives, leftists, or whatever term Chait wants to use to differentiate liberals like himself from a group he stops just short of calling “social justice warriors” pause for a moment. Do we feel conflicted about Omar Mahmood’s freedom to express his opinions without facing harassment now that we know he’s not “on our side”? As far as I, and I suspect far more left-of-Chait readers than Chait thinks, am concerned, there’s no reason to give the incident a second thought. A college student’s right to myopic, youthful churlishness is absolute. The harassment is, without question, unacceptable.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that Mahmood’s satirical rant against “a white cisgendered hetero upper-class man” should be immune to criticism — even if that criticism happens to be of the angry and offended, rather than the calm and collegial, variety. And this is where Chait’s logic starts to get muddy and self-serving. Like most critics of leftist “outrage,” he conflates passionate debate and the struggle of oppressed people to make their own voices heard with censorship and the use of coercion, force, and/or rules to shut down opposing views. This is how he gets all the way from American college campuses to the Charlie Hebdo shootings in France.

At first, it seems as though Chait only wants to talk about the public response to the massacre. Here is how he introduces the subject:

The recent mass murder of the staff members of Charlie Hebdo in Paris was met with immediate and unreserved fury and grief across the full range of the American political system. But while outrage at the violent act briefly united our generally quarrelsome political culture, the quarreling quickly resumed over deeper fissures. Were the slain satirists martyrs at the hands of religious fanaticism, or bullying spokesmen of privilege? Can the offensiveness of an idea be determined objectively, or only by recourse to the identity of the person taking offense? On Twitter, “Je Suis Charlie,” a slogan heralding free speech, was briefly one of the most popular news hashtags in history. But soon came the reactions (“Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie”) from those on the left accusing the newspaper of racism and those on the right identifying the cartoons as hate speech.

By the end of the paragraph, he’s ready to tie these examinations of Charlie Hebdo‘s politics — necessary, thoughtful, and distasteful inquiries alike — to the Internet outrage wars we’ve been publicly discussing for the past few years. “These sudden, dramatic expressions of anguish against insensitivity and oversensitivity come at a moment when large segments of American culture have convulsed into censoriousness,” Chait writes.

From there, he runs through the typical anti-“PC” talking points: trigger warnings, microaggressions, Twitter crusades, college students’ demonstrations against speakers on their campus that they see as bigots (Bill Maher) or war criminals (Condoleezza Rice). He takes a lengthy and bizarre detour into the arguments about race, gender, and sexual orientation that have supposedly ravaged a Facebook group for women writers (which, hilariously, he has only experienced via screenshots) — as though there’s anything surprising about discord in online communities whose participants number in the tens of thousands.

The argument Chait is building, one we’ve heard a thousand times before, is that the “outraged” left is working against one of the tenets of liberalism, as established during the Enlightenment: free speech. He writes that “political correctness is not a rigorous commitment to social equality so much as a system of left-wing ideological repression. Not only is it not a form of liberalism; it is antithetical to liberalism.” While Chait, or perhaps his editor, wisely steers clear of explicitly linking leftists to the Charlie Hebdo shooters, it doesn’t take a PhD-level close read to draw out the implications of sentences like this one: “Politics in a democracy is still based on getting people to agree with you, not making them afraid to disagree.” And here’s an even more hysterical moment, from a passage that refers vaguely to Marxism: “While politically less threatening than conservatism (the far right still commands far more power in American life), the p.c. left is actually more philosophically threatening. It is an undemocratic creed.”

Before I go further, I want to make it clear that I don’t disagree with Chait on many of the issues he discusses. I’m on record as opposing trigger warnings; not only do they abridge free speech, but they misappropriate psychological language, undercut the judgment of individual professors, and infantilize adult college students.

In fact, infantilization is a more pervasive issue here than may be apparent at first. Chait’s most striking examples of what he calls “political correctness” truly are disturbing violations of the right to free speech, but they’re also childish temper tantrums: acolytes of Catherine MacKinnon stole a videotape from a sex-positive art show about sex workers (in 1992); a professor of feminist studies stole signs from anti-abortion protesters at her school, shoving one of the protesters in the process; and, of course, there are Mahmood’s harassers.

Chait’s own childishness — and disingenuousness — kicks in when he extends his cries of censorship and illiberalism to instances in which leftist critics engage in precisely what he is supposed to be defending: loud, impassioned criticism. Social media hashtag campaigns aren’t censorship; they’re speech. The same goes for debates about language and inclusiveness in online communities. And when students voice their opposition to speakers on campus, they’re not preventing free and open debate; they are, at least in part, questioning why their astronomical tuition fees are subsidizing hate speech and disinformation.

The most telling glimpse into Chait’s true agenda comes in a passage where he wrings his hands about the term “mansplaining.” While originally useful, he generously allows, in cases like Rebecca Solnit’s — a rhetorically powerful extreme scenario in which the writer listened to a man explain her own book to her — he claims that

it has now grown into an all-purpose term of abuse that can be used to discredit any argument by any man. (MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry once disdainfully called White House press secretary Jay Carney’s defense of the relative pay of men and women in the administration “man­splaining,” even though the question he responded to was posed by a male.)

Because, hey, there’s nothing absurd or self-serving in a man explaining why he makes more money than his female colleagues.

Perhaps “mansplaining,” along with similar coinages like “whitesplaining” and “straightsplaining,” has become too much of a catch-all term. But Chait’s accompanying lament that his status as white and male makes it “impossible” for him to respond to accusations of the above without further accusations of “tone policing” reveals how little he actually understands — and even cares about — the universal right to free speech. Because, for fuck’s sake, look around — in no way is Chait being prevented from expressing views that might offend proponents of identity politics. He has, in fact, been given the platform of a national magazine with a circulation of 1.8 million.

What Chait is really angry about — as his vast, weird, and otherwise inexplicable underestimation of the philosophical threat posed by conservatism also betrays — is the fact that social media, the Internet in general, and the current, identity-driven climate of progressive politics have given his formerly voiceless critics a platform from which to challenge him. This defense of his own right to pontificate without being held accountable for the assumptions his position in society might lead him to make isn’t about Enlightenment liberalism; it’s a fundamentally conservative insistence that the rabble remember their place, remain meek and disempowered. Sure, they can speak their minds, but not in the numbers and with the anger it takes to be heard above the din of well-funded media, business, and government voices. Too bad for them, but that’s just how free speech works!

Those of us who genuinely care about the Enlightenment and its legacy — that is, those of us who see it as more than just an increasingly sanctimonious game of Rich White Men Decide What’s Sacred — would be better off reading Pankaj Mishra’s complex analysis of the Charlie Hebdo aftermath. His Guardian essay, “After the Paris attacks: It’s time for a new Enlightenment,” considers how we might update Enlightenment ideals for the global, multicultural present. Despite having been published a week before Chait’s piece, it feels like the perfect rejoinder to it. Here is Mishra’s conclusion, which deserves the last word here, too:

We may have to retrieve the Enlightenment, as much as religion, from its fundamentalists. If Enlightenment is “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity”, then this “task”, and “obligation” as Kant defined it, is never fulfilled; it has to be continually renewed by every generation in ever-changing social and political conditions. The advocacy of more violence and wars in the face of recurrent failure meets the definition of fanaticism rather than reason. The task for those who cherish freedom is to reimagine it – through an ethos of criticism combined with compassion and ceaseless self-awareness – in our own irreversibly mixed and highly unequal societies and the larger interdependent world. Only then can we capably defend freedom from its true enemies.