Jonathan Chait and Anita Sarkeesian: What It Really Means to Be Silenced

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By now, it’s safe to assume that everyone who cares about “political correctness” — pro, anti, or “it’s complicated” — has not only absorbed Jonathan Chait’s New York magazine cover story on the topic, but read plenty of rebuttals to its arguments. Flavorwire’s Judy Berman took a polite chainsaw to Chait’s piece a couple of days back, and I don’t have a lot to add to what she said. But at this point, it’s worth taking a look at how Chait’s reacted to criticism of his essay: with, for the most part, the perception that people are focusing on him and his identity, rather than his arguments.

Which, look, I get it. No one likes being made, a priori, part of a monolithic group, and ascribed characteristics on the basis of that and that alone. But wait! This is precisely what people who are not part of the group that Chait comes from deal with every single day, in far more serious ways. If you’re stereotyped as a white male and get told to shut up by someone on the Internet who takes one look at your profile picture and tells you that you’re a walking manifestation of patriarchy, you find it mildly frustrating and then get on with your life.

That’s not to say it’s right — treating any group as monolithic is lazy thinking, and ultimately leads to reductive and lazy arguments (especially, I dare say, on the Internet, where nuance is all too often lost to absolutism). Bloviating rhetoric about “male tears” and such things is tiresome, certainly — but it’s not oppressive. If the worst you have to deal with is being denied entry into the Secret Facebook Group That Dare Not Speak Its Name, your life is pretty OK.

Chait is well aware of this — he spent most of yesterday on Twitter emphasizing that he claims no personal persecution here, and that the PC policing he’s railing against haven’t actually affected him at all. (Which would seem to suggest that it’s less of a pervasive problem than his piece argues…) Instead, he clarifies that he’s worried about the more general effect of what he perceives as language policing in leftist communities:

(The whole interaction between Chait and Glenn Greenwald is worth reading, by the way, not least because the two seem to loathe one another.)

In fairness, Chait has a point about the left’s infighting — internecine leftist disputes have always been, in some ways, more of a minefield than arguing with the right over abortion and health insurance. But the examples of people he feels have been “bludgeoned into silence” are illuminating: Bill Maher. Christine Lagarde. Condoleezza Rice. I mean, Bill Maher has a national television program where he’s free to blather on, weekly, about religion and whatever else has upset him at any given moment. Lagarde just spoke at the World Economic Forum. Condoleezza Rice is happily speaking at many other universities.

These people have not been silenced. They’ve been denied one of many platforms for their views (and college students who are paying outrageous fees for their education have every right to have a say — indeed, the say — in who gets paid to speak on their campuses). That’s not to say that the decisions to prevent them from speaking were necessarily correct or justifiable. But these people are doing fine, and what’s happened to them is not silencing. Genuine silencing is a culture-wide phenomenon that’s based not on the speaker’s views, but who they are.

Here’s a depressingly perfect example: a week’s worth of what the feminist video-game critic Anita Sarkeesian gets in her Twitter feed day after day after day. Go on, click here and have a read through tweet after tweet after tweet, and see how long it takes to lose entirely lose faith in humanity. (I made it about halfway down the page before I had to give up reading for fear of drowning in spiritual vomit.)

This is what “silencing” means. When Chait talks of people like Condoleezza Rice or Bill Maher being “silenced,” he means that they are denied one specific platform on the basis of a decision made on a point of principle. They have had speeches canceled at universities because they may or may not be bigots (or, in Rice’s case, war criminals). Sarkeesian has speeches cancelled because of bomb threats. This is an ongoing, concerted effort to make her go away forever, one that finds expression throughout an entire culture.

It finds expression in organized efforts to discredit and threaten people like Sarkeesian for rocking the gaming boat, the most prominent of which is Gamergate. But it’s important to note that the antipathy to Sarkeesian extends far beyond Gamergate (and, indeed, predates it) — Gamergate is just one manifestation of a culture-wide hostility toward women like Anita Sarkeesian. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the abuse she gets is spontaneous, not the result of an organized campaign.

People disagree with Bill Maher, but they never threaten his right to speak (or live). People aren’t disagreeing with Anita Sarkeesian: they’re threatening to rape and kill her. And they’re doing so not because of what she says — I mean, for god’s sake, you don’t threaten to kill someone because they say something less than complimentary about Call of Duty — but because of who she is. This is what silencing is — the systematic and yet decentralized response of an entire culture to someone it feels is being uppity and speaking out of turn. It’s not the removal of a single platform; it’s the denial of the right to have any platform in the first place.

If you’re Jonathan Chait, or me, or any of the other lucky ones, the platform is never in question. Chait is using the cover story for freaking New York Magazine to complain about various colleagues being “silenced,” for heaven’s sake. (The irony of this appears to have escaped him, sadly.) If you’re not one of those lucky ones, you have to fight your way to the podium, and once you’re there, you have to deal with people throwing things at you — not the tomatoes that Chait is dodging, but knives and brickbats and bombs and death threats. To keep talking requires courage, and sometimes it gets you killed.

It’s worth noting here that men — of all races — most certainly are silenced on certain topics: it’s incredibly difficult for men to express gender identities that diverge from the masculine norm, or sexual orientations that fall outside the gay/straight binary. Mental illness is largely a taboo subject for men. But social justice? Free speech? The way things “should” be? Nope. We’re doing just fine.