We have all been waiting for the answer to this question, “Can a white man criticize the p.c. culture of the liberal left?” and Jonathan Chait has answered this question at length . The answer is apparently, “He CAN, but probably SHOULDN’T.” Much better writers will do much better responses to this, but it’s left me so irritated that I couldn’t help but write at least a little bit.
There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s start with…I guess…let’s do “commencement speakers”, and maybe ask a few questions about why guys like Jonathan Chait get their knickers in a twist when a student body tries to block one person or another from speaking at their commencement.
Let’s at the very outset get something straight: commencement speaking is not an academic act, it is not part of a conference, it is not delivering a paper, it is not expounding on research, it is not contributing to the free exchange of ideas. A commencement speaker is a cheerleader, hired by a school, to on the one hand give the thumbs up to the graduating class, and on the other, show how wealthy and connected the school is by scoring someone good.
The academic life of the students (who, incidentally, are graduating at this point, so we might rightly suspect that about 99% of their college education is complete) is not hampered in any way by having one person or another as a commencement speaker, any more than it would be by not having a commencement speaker at all. This is not an important part of your education. It is not anything more or less than gladhanding, a mutual reach-around between university and speaker, the former enhancing the prestige of the latter, and enhancing its own prestige in a never-ending cycle of admiration.
So, there is nothing particularly fascist, particularly oppressive, particularly destructive to intellectual freedom to say that I, as a member of the student body, don’t prefer to be involved in that mutual cycle of admiration with some culturally-notable dipshit.
Here’s Chait, worrying about Bill Maher:
Bill Maher, who has criticized Islam (along with nearly all the other major world religions).
First of all, Bill Maher hasn’t just “criticized Islam” – like, after years (or even months [or even weeks, one suspects]) of theological or sociological study, he’s come around and had some salient point about the theory or practice of Muslim theology; the guy just reads a bunch of polls somewhere and talks about how he thinks Islam is philosophically different from other religions, and that by extension its adherents, at the very least implicitly, must therefore condone and support all manner of disgusting crimes.
And considering that the position of “commencement speaker” is not actually a part of the academic sphere, it seems to me that blocking a speaker who seems to genuinely believe that some of the students in this very class either are secretly itching for the chance to stone people to death, or at the very least morally condone the idea of stoning people to death, and who is just as likely to use this opportunity as any of his other platforms to slander them, is pretty reasonable.
Speaking of, by the way, it’s not like Bill Maher isn’t a regular guest on CNN or Charlie Rose or whatever, it’s not like everything he says doesn’t get turned into a meme and put on my Facebook timeline, it’s not like Bill Maher doesn’t have a fucking television show; you can’t seriously tell me that by “First Amendment” you mean that we’re morally obligated to make room for hellacious pricks like this everywhere. I’ve got to make sure he keeps his show and his twitter feed, and I’ve also got to stand up for him so he can be a (commencement) speaker (not an academic speaker or a researcher or anyone who is actually qualified to have an opinion on a subject), what else do I have to stand up for? He’s already allowed to walk around the Berkeley campus and tell anyone he likes what he thinks is wrong with Islam. Shall we keep space for him open at, I don’t know, public sporting events or something, in case he decides he has something to say? Should I make sure he has a spot at children’s birthday parties, too? Where, exactly, do we say that an asshole is basically unwelcome? What kind of ludicrous bullshit is this?
Chait’s got some wonky ideas about who deserves to be a commencement speaker, and I don’t know if he just couldn’t find examples that were actually good – like, again, I don’t know, proponents of unpopular research being excluded from conferences or something – or maybe he just has a real serious commitment to the academic freedom of the role of commencement speaker. Here are other people who were excluded from commencement speaking: at Smith College, Christine Legarde, “managing director of the International Monetary Fund, [the students] blaming the organization for ‘imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide’” (Chait does not specifically address this charge, so I wonder if he considers the possibility that the IMF actually does that to be patently false? Or does he just think that it’s irrelevant, and if a college wants a representative from an organization that, you know, does bad things, then the students should just shut up about it? Just take it on the chin, and swallow their contempt or something? A solution is not provided); at Rutgers, Condoleeza Rice (see previous; many people still seem to be upset about that Iraq war thing); at Haverford, Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau “who was disqualified by an episode in which the school’s police used force against Occupy protesters.”
I mean. “Who was disqualified by an episode in which the school’s police used force against Occupy protesters.” Sure, when you put it like that, it hardly sounds like anything at all. Good thing our entire culture isn’t embroiled in an ongoing discussion about just how much force police ought to be allowed to use and when, about how people can exercise their First Amendment rights without getting fucking tear gassed (but please, remind me again what an offense it is that Bill Maher was denied one of a hundred major media platforms), about just how responsible people in power are for the effects of oppressive systems – it’s a good thing that those questions are all settled, and we live in a safe and secure world, a universally just and fair world where we don’t need to worry about any of those kinds of questions, otherwise Jonathan Chait would look like a fucking idiot.
I don’t want to go too far into this, because for fuck’s sake there’s like twenty paragraphs here and I’m still working on the first five, but here are some other things Jonathan Chait thinks that p.c. culture – that suffocating miasma of people demanding other people respect their identities – has a problem with. These things are presented as though the simple fact that students have blocked them is, in itself, laughably absurd. To be clear, these are protests that are self-evidently stupid or oppressive, not things that he has to justify as being bad:
Native American students blocking a hilarious play about Andrew Jackson, the guy who famously signed the Indian Removal Act. Can you imagine? Students upset about a play, that does nothing more than make light of the historical tragedy and generations of genocide that their families experienced and that still affect them at every turn today?
Students at Mt. Holyoke College blocking The Vagina Monologues, because it excludes women without vaginas. Imagine! Transgender women objecting to a cultural event that purposefully and thoroughly excludes them from the conversation about being female! How extraordinary! (Actually wait, I misread that; no one blocked or protested it, the student theater group just decided not to do it. This is even MORE extraordinary – imagine, students deciding not to produce a play because it wasn’t inclusive enough of transgender women! WHAT AN ORWELLIAN FUCKING NIGHTMARE.)
Here, this is a good one, I want to make sure I get it right: “UCLA students staged a sit-in to protest microaggressions such as when a professor corrected a student’s decision to spell the word indigenous with an uppercase I — one example of many ‘perceived grammatical choices that in actuality reflect ideologies.’” CAN YOU IMAGINE! The choice of words reflecting ideologies? Who ever heard of such fucking BULLSHIT. Everyone knows words don’t reflect anything but their literal, annotative meaning, as defined by Merriam Q. Webster in 1885, when all American words were fixed in the immutable media of ink and paper.
What the fuck did that kid think, that he could make a perfectly reasonable request that cost no energy or effort on the part of the people around him in order to respect an identity that has been shat on by a culture implicitly and explicitly engineered to keep him under its boot?
[Jonathan Chait sputters in disbelief, dropping his cigarette-holder, his monocle just flies across the room.]
The article is replete with this kind of weird set of one-sided challenges, where we’re meant to deride “p.c. culture” for challenging one of Jonathan Chait’s friend’s conclusions about feminism – “Can you imagine,” he said, his mouth agape, spilling cronut crumbs on his copy of the New York Times, “people challenging an author’s opinion?” but with little to no consideration of whether the book or the play or the potential commencement speaker’s use of force against peaceful protestors constituted the same basic kind of challenge. Or, I don’t know, maybe the p.c. feminazis have figured out a way to weaponize twitter hashtags, or something?
(Little mention is made, too, of the people who HAVE weaponized the internet, engaging in endless campaigns of harassment, insult, and outright death threats…though, those guys appear to be universally the enemies of people who care about “identity politics”, appear to universally deride the “p.c.” culture which objects to their throwing around racist slurs, appear to just want women and black people and Muslims et al to disappear and go away; weird, that of all the fights going on, Jonathan Chait is going to jump into the ring to fight with the people who use hashtags to make sarcastic comments.)
Fucking white people man. I say this as a cis, straight, white male, keep that in mind, understand where I’m coming from when I say that there’s nothing that offends us more than the idea that you might have something that we’re not allowed to stick our fucking fingers in. You’ve got an identity as a woman that you don’t want us explaining to you? POLITICAL CORRECTNESS. You’re trying to navigate living in a culture of white supremacy and you want to define the terms of that navigation yourself? POLITICAL CORRECTNESS. You think the IMF is bullshit, and don’t want the head of the IMF as a cheerleader for your graduating class? POLITICAL CORRECTNESS AAAUAGGGH MY MONOCLE FELL OUT AGAIN OOHHH NOOOO!
Guys, let’s be clear on this. ONE: whatever future we’re going to build, however it’s going to look, it’s going to be one in which we can all be respectful of each other’s identity and history. TWO: We live in a racist, sexist, imperialist culture, and we need to take active steps to change that culture. THREE: That culture is made up of how we talk about things, so if we’re really committed to making the world better, we need to really commit to changing how we talk about things. FOUR: College is a really good place to try that kind of stuff out. I know it’s scary to think of the possibility that all of these kids and their dumb attitudes are actually kinder, better, more humane than YOUR experience was, because that means that you might not have been, historically, as good a person as you thought you were.
Well, tough shit. You haven’t got that many options in this world; one is trying to make it better, kinder, and more humane. The other is to go cry in the corner with Jonathan Chait.