Welcome to the Internet: Jonathan Chait and the Death of False Consensus
Well, Jonathan Chait recently said something “un-PC” and he pretty much instantly got the response to being “un-PC” that one thinks he would reasonably have expected—and, some uncharitable readers might say, probably sought out.
Alex Pareene’s thoroughgoing takedown on Gawker is an admirable rebuttal to the idea that the “PC Left” has any kind of stranglehold on the halls of American power, and the fact that Chait reads said rebuttal as purely an ad hominem speaks to the problem here.
Me, I already said the definitive response to Jonathan Chait and the entire white moderate cohort he represents was already written in 1963 by a far better man than any of us talking now, and it is in fact extremely depressing that two weeks after his birthday it’s even more glaringly apparent how few “liberal” Americans have read anything he wrote or care about anything he said.
The thing is a cry for civility and reason by a self-proclaimed liberal against the howling leftist mob isn’t new at all. It doesn’t just go back to the 1990s, the origin point of Chait’s analysis of “political correctness.” Read any 1970s critique of the “New Left” by a tsking liberal Democrat; read the inspirationally titled “A Call For Unity” that inspired Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail”; hell, John Adams’s stern warnings against the dangers of the democratic mob in 1814.
But this latest wave of complaints drags the Internet into it, and that’s where I come in.
There’s a curious tendency with complaints of this sort to reify the Internet or reify specific websites, to personify “Tumblr” or “Twitter” as being a unified group of people who all hold the same positions and all use the same tactics. And then to treat this horrifying unified movement of Internet denizens as very, very scary.
“Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars” isn’t just a nicely alliterative headline, it suggests the issue isn’t feminism itself, or the individual feminists who have disagreements, but the medium over which these disagreements are broadcast. Andrew Sullivan moans that the difference between now and the 1990s is that “extreme identity politics have transcended the academy and arrived in”—gasp—”social media.”
Folks like David Denby get to slop their incredibly broad brush in all directions at the general institution of “bloggers” over the general concept of “snark.” Most tellingly, both Sullivan and Chait approvingly link to Freddie deBoer telling us how Tumblr and Twitter—as a monolithic, terrifying unified force—require dogmatic conformity in all things, and gives as an example #CancelColbert.
It is absolutely not the case that nobody dared defend Stephen Colbert on Twitter, that #CancelColbert seized power over the court of public opinion with an iron fist and then, the very next season, The Colbert Report was canceled. (Well, it was, but not for that reason.)
I mean, go search the #CancelColbert tag on Twitter right now. You’ll find months and months’ worth of snark, almost all of it directed against Suey Park and the hashtag. Almost immediately “counter-hashtags” appeared—a phenomenon that anyone who actually spends time on Twitter would know is as predictable as the tide rolling in—varying wildly in tone from #BuildDontBurn to #GetOverIt to #DeportSuey.
The Internet Left, including the Asian-American Activist Left, generated a flood of thinkpieces, which, again, almost all took a stance against #CancelColbert, be it measured and thoughtful or deliberately inflammatory.
Even a young blogger desperately trying to find an “angle” for his post-viral-celebrity writing career named Arthur Chu got in on the act.
I stand by the overall sentiment in that piece, but I’ve since publicly apologized to Suey Park over it. Yeah, I thought and continue to think #CancelColbert was a terrible idea, but really, what was I doing but just repeating something the entire rest of the blogosphere was saying? And worse, echoing Freddie deBoer and acting like snarking about Suey Park was somehow standing up and being courageous, as opposed to joining the centrist majority in mocking someone on the fringes?
Colorful metaphors about the “firestorm” or “hurricane” or “tidal wave” of #CancelColbert tweets abound in the post-hashtag thinkpiece landscape. But if you actually read the hashtag it was a small minority of sincere #CancelColbert posters against, well, nearly everybody else. Much as even in 1990, which Jonathan Chait pegs as the zenith of PC Power, the terms “politically correct” and “PC” were mostly used to mock or criticize the idea.
There’s an old joke about people complaining about being “stuck in traffic”—“You’re not in traffic, you are traffic!” Along similar lines, there’s something deeply ironic about someone complaining about the Internet PC Police on the Internet, getting a loud posse of “anti-PC” voices agreeing with them, and then proceeding to go around in large numbers bothering PC people and telling them to shut up because their anti-free speech PC orthodoxy isn’t wanted here.
Yes, Tumblr, just to take the most obvious example, has a brand strongly associated with a certain kind of young “social justice” crusader, with being a mess of offense-taking at popular media, bickering over “preferred pronouns,” etc.
You know where you can find some of the nastiest, most cutting attacks on such people? On Tumblr. You know where this stereotype originated and got disseminated to the rest of the media? On Tumblr.
If you actually have a Tumblr that espouses radical left-wing rhetoric, you will last maybe a few days before someone reblogs you with a snide remark mocking your beliefs, and this will turn into a pile-on from other rebloggers who decide that making fun of or “debating” you is the new mission for the day. Sometimes this comes from a Jonathan Chait-style moderate left-wing position, sometimes from a right-wing, neoreactionary or outright neo-Nazi position (all groups that do, in fact, have their own following on Tumblr). Most frequently it will just be someone who mocks all earnest political rhetoric as cloying, naive and insincere, because this is in fact the easiest and therefore most common stance for someone on the Internet to take.
The same goes double for Twitter. Twitter has been characterized by deBoer and Chait as a haven for ivory-tower social justice warriors to rain down retribution on perceived sexists and racists.
And yes, there’s hashtag activists who rain retribution on each other for being insufficiently left-wing. There’s also hashtag activists who rain retribution on each other for being insufficiently right-wing—click on the #tcot (Top Conservatives on Twitter) tag if you want a sampling. For every massively trending feminist hashtag there’s a prominent feminist who can’t get through one week on Twitter without wading through so much harassment that third-party tools are needed just to make the platform usable.
The Internet isn’t some massive social justice echo chamber. It’s a massive number of infinitely customizable “echo chambers” that run across the political spectrum. To take an oft-cited example, if I hop onto Reddit I can instantly find subreddits for anarcho-capitalists, scientific racists, and men’s rights activists, all points of view that are far too right-wing for traditional media but have found a warm home thanks to Web 2.0.
Nor are these echo chambers really “echo chambers”; the reason that the blocking/muting/filtering that Chait decries as inimical to discourse have become necessary is that social media has, in fact, made it easier than ever before to track down people who disagree with you and give them a piece of your mind.
Letters to the editor may go in the trash, dissenting opinions on your own blog may go unread, but you can always pop up into someone’s life and grab at least a few seconds of their attention with an @-reply on Twitter. If you say something controversial you will get massive blowback in your mentions over it—and if you’re one of the blowbackers you, yourself, are likely to get blowback from the blowback. And everyone will eventually get mobbed by commenters calling everyone involved in the conversation pathetic for even having the conversation (except themselves).
Complaining on the Internet about the mess that is Internet debating is, of course, the very definition of old news. For better or for worse, it’s the natural result of democratizing communication so that anyone, no matter how horrible an example they are of their “side,” gets to “have a voice.”
But it’s telling that guys like Chait and deBoer focus their handwringing on left-wing activists who occasionally manage to get a hashtag off the ground like #CancelColbert, and not, say, the much longer-lasting, more massive, and by far more damaging anti-social justice crusade of angry Internet right-wingers known as #GamerGate—or, for that matter, the motivations of people who decided to mock Zelda Williams and harass her off the Internet because it would be the most hilariously sociopathic thing to do.
The more common and more accurate Internet-age jeremiad is “polarization”—that it’s not just that the Left has gone further Left in the Internet age, but the Right has gone further Right, the libertarian fringe has gone more libertarian fringe, the racists have gone more racist, and the disaffected nihilistic trolls have gone more nihilistic and disaffected.
But Chait doesn’t seem to think that’s the top priority, even though right-wing rage is terrifyingly violent, has led to the pointless defunding of charitable organizations, the firing of public servants, and the occasional mass murder.
No, he’s most worried about the stridency of people on the Left who disinvite speakers from college campuses—worried about their ability to flood the mentions and inboxes of guys like him and make him feel bad about their liberal cred.
And he’s profoundly uninterested in the fact that there are tons of aggressive, angry factions online other than the one he dislikes—and that he himself is part of a faction, the “Reasonable Liberal Who Thinks Toxic Feminists Need to Shut Up” faction, and that his faction floods inboxes and mentions just as readily as they get flooded.
As many have pointed out, Chait’s response to “calling out perceived microaggressions” is an example of calling out perceived microaggressions. Chait’s resistance to condemnatory discourse that chills free expression is condemnatory discourse that chills free expression. Chait isn’t stuck in hostile, combative, online traffic. He is traffic.
One thing that people who blog about “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” fail to recognize is that, especially online, these are ideals, not realities. There isn’t actually any such thing as a “safe space” online. If you announce a site is a “safe space” for people of color, you will almost instantly attract trolls, either blatant trolls who spam you with racist memes or concern trolls who demand you engage them in debate over whether you have the right to make that declaration.
There is no actual “safe,” comfortable ivory tower for feminists and anti-racists to sit in, smugly unaware of dissenting opinions. It’s the diametric opposite. Being outspokenly political online is a constant uphill battle. Using terms like “mansplain” or “whitesplain” inevitably attracts critics demanding to litigate your right to use those terms without being “the real racist” or “real sexist.” “Calling out” any public figure triggers an inevitable response of that public figure’s fanbase calling you out in turn.
I invite anyone who thinks Chait has a point that Internet feminism is an easy, hassle-free way to earn popularity and cash to try it for a while. Most people who do try it find it to be an incredibly wearying grind.
The most audacious point Chait makes is to try to claim that the famous Bill Clinton “Sister Souljah moment” was some kind of grand gesture of neutrality to suppress hostile political rhetoric. It was nothing of the kind—it was a response to hostile political rhetoric with hostile political rhetoric. Sister Souljah fired a shot at moderate liberals, Bill Clinton fired back, and Bill Clinton won.
The reason left-wing activists come out swinging, the reason they seem so “mean,” the reason they make bingo cards and “block on sight” and otherwise hurt Jonathan Chait’s feelings, is that they have a history of losing these battles. The reason Chait’s faction of the Left gets to act genteel and polite and reasonable is they have a history of winning these battles, usually without much of a fight.
All that’s happening with “polarization” now is that these battles aren’t so easy to win anymore—you can laugh the radical feminist out of the room and freeze her out of your publication but she can now take to Twitter, start her own blog and generally refuse to be silenced. A sizable fraction of black Americans shouted “This is bullshit!” at Clinton’s Sister Souljah moment to their TVs and were ignored; when Obama repeated the act with Jeremiah Wright, they shouted it into “black Twitter” and were heard.
The “fracturing of the Left” doesn’t seem to me to be a real shift in political opinion, just a shift in technology preventing a small minority of privileged consensus-makers from steamrolling the loud, diverse, opinionated set of factions that makes up the actual Left without a fight. Same with the “radicalization of the Right”—the Tea Party is nothing more than ordinary Republicans saying things ordinary Republicans have always believed without the benefit of “respectable” country-club Republicans filtering them out.
What we end up getting is, yes, an ugly, messy landscape where Reasonable Men like Chait can’t talk without being called out, put down, hammered with attacks or simply ignored—sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly.
In other words, we get a landscape exactly the same as what “extremists” of all kinds—Left, Right, and Other—already lived with.
Welcome to the Internet Age, Jonathan, where respectability matters little and everyone has to fight to be heard. Your side still, routinely, wins in the end—Colbert didn’t get canceled, #JeSuisCharlie beat #JeNeSuisPasCharlie by a huge margin, and you get to write for New York magazine while your hashtag detractors toil unpaid on Twitter.
But you don’t get to win without a fight anymore. None of us do. Get used to it.