More on Identity Politics

Yesterday an article from New York Magazine popped up in my news feed. It was shared by an acquaintance, a comedian who often had (surprise) witty things to say and interesting things to share I might have missed. I didn’t pick up this month’s physical copy of the magazine as I sometimes do, and judging by this acquaintance’s introductory comments, it had a lot of criticism for a certain sect of what I consider to be hyper-liberal political thought: basically, he made a joke about trigger warnings. This ought to be good, I thought.

The piece, written by Jonathan Chait (an author I’d never heard of before, nor did I bother to look at his byline when I read the piece) can be found here:

However, if you’re somewhat connected to political rhetoric via Facebook (aka: if you’re a person), you probably already know about this piece. It seems to have rankled the usual suspects for reactionary political “news” pieces (Salon, Gawker, et al). Which is fine, if not predictably annoying. What makes me feel like a crazy person is gawker’s response, though.

In seeking to rebut a piece that finds much to be wary of in a small but growing subset of the left (“no platforming”, as briefly discussed in a previous post), Gawker decided that their best bet was to

1)Attempt to discredit Chait’s piece by pointing out that he is a “sad white guy” in the (*removed: subheading* FIRST SENTENCE OF THE ARTICLE. This is in spite of the fact that a healthy chunk of Chait’s piece is devoted to pointing out that liberalism as a whole suffers because of no-platforming, not just people of privilege. The first example he uses is a Muslim, elsewhere he describes a collective of progressive female writers.

2)Dedicate more than 2/3rds of the article to character assassination in a way that blatantly proves Chait’s initial point. Gawker’s response was not to engage Chait’s argument and debunk it in good faith, it was to write a very long screed about how Jonathan Chait “just doesn’t get it” and nobody should listen to him. Basically, Gawker’s rebuttal was that Jonathan Chait is just mad that he is not progressive enough.

Slate published a much more reasoned and intelligent counter, one that more or less argued that Chait’s tone was muddled and inflammatory (I could be convinced on the former and don’t really agree with the latter), and also accused him of cherry picking some of his more damning bits of evidence (I don’t think that Chait’s piece was intended to be a ‘sound the alarm’ type essay, but more of an examination on a growing but still small subset of leftist political thought that he finds abhorrent and views as detrimental to liberalism).

That said, I can appreciate Slate’s piece (authored by J. Bryan Lowder, a writer and editor for Slate’s LGBTQ section “Outward”) because it engages Chait’s argument in good faith and rebuts the argument rather than the author. It’s a prime example of how to actually disagree with somebody in a manner that doesn’t make you look like an oversensitive, thought-policing moron who doesn’t understand the inherent risks associated with trying to establish an objective moral authority around subjects that are eminently debatable. Lowder clarifies and brings levity to many of Chait’s broader points, including this fine paragraph (in which the author recounts his own experience with being faced with the kind of digital outcry that Chait describes):

“Here’s the problem with all this: I am actually not ignorant or unenlightened as to why a genderqueer person might think a special pronoun is desirable. (And indeed, I support that person’s right to ask their family and friends to use their preferred pronoun.) I have read and listened to explanations for this small point of social justice etiquette many times, considered it at length—and still I maintain that it is not an appropriate thing to demand of strangers and publications. On this point, I and those critics will have to disagree, and considered disagreement delivered in good faith does not make me a conservative bigot, nor does it necessitate an apology or “further reading” or silence on my part.” (My emphasis)

This is the heart and soul of both pieces: there is something insidious about a subset (again, a small but growing subset) of people who call themselves liberals finding it appropriate to respond to good-faith intellectual arguments with what amounts to little more than ad hominem attacks and character assassination.

Privilege is real. Privilege-induced myopia is also real. But attacking the character of anybody who doesn’t conform to your ideal of what the world should be is not only real, it’s a frighteningly anti-progressive tactic for supposed liberals to use, particularly when the objects of said attacks are, in point of fact, not just “sad white guys”.

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