I just read Fredrik de Boer’s piece, responding to Jonathon Chait’s New York Magazine article earlier this week in the New York Times and while I find it kind of odd he calls Chait an asshole and then subsequently agrees with much of what he says, I do think de Boer is mostly on point here.
No, this isn’t a screed against ‘political correctness’. It would serve us all to think for a minute when we pontificate on anything we might not personally be experts on.
For example, my last job entailed dealing with people who were much wealthier than I am, and in most cases grew up in much more affluent circumstances that I did. And sometimes, without them realizing that I lived under what’s classified as the poverty line, would wax philosophical about what poor people need to do to stop being poor.
It was silly and ignorant most of the time. ‘They need to save money’. ‘They need to stop spending all their money on booze and fast food’. ‘They need to find better jobs.’ ‘They need to manage their money better’
Most of the time, if I didn’t know them well enough, would say ‘hmm’ without commitment and carry on with the task at hand. If I got to know them well enough where we could talk as friends, I tried to educate them on what it was like to be poor. Save money? What money? If I’m lucky, I break even at the end of the month. Spending money on booze and fast food? Only a small percentage of poor people I know actually did this. The vast majority of us need to keep a roof over our heads. Better jobs? Pretty tough when a better job meant having to buy a car that you can’t afford or get a post-secondary education that will cripple you financially for decades for your better job. Managing money is easier when you grew up having money to learn how to manage. For the most part, these people were trying to be helpful, but I could tell they didn’t really understand what a vicious cycle poverty really is. It wasn’t their fault, and they weren’t bad people. They just didn’t know.
Now, people who just don’t know should probably keep quiet about experiences they know nothing about, even if they think they are helping. That’s what, in essence, being p.c. is. You don’t know person x’s experiences, so maybe you shouldn’t use language that trivializes that person’s experience. I can get behind that.
But by the same token, most of us are intelligent enough to understand context and when something untoward is said in good faith or in bad faith. And I think a sizable portion of the left like to push the general alarm button any time someone says something wrong, regardless of context, regardless if the comment was said out of genuine ignorance or purposed hate. And they push the alarm button so they can show off their social justice street cred to their peers, where every successful call-out is like shouting BINGO!. ‘I found something gross and awful this person said! Aren’t I a good progressive?’
Political correctness can be a good admission that our words and speech matter and addressing people and issues in a genuine, respectful way raises us all up. But political correctness can also become a perverse Easter egg hunt, where liberal social climbers compete to see who can be the most progressive, who can find the most carefully hidden slight and proclaim it out for all to hear and to be the first on the inevitable dogpile. The issues become of limited importance… it’s with how much zeal you browbeat people over said issue that matters. This is why many people can’t take The Left seriously, throw up their hands and say ‘I’m out of here.’ Not because they want to be guilt-free racists and sexists, but having to constantly parse your words for any perceived slight is exhausting and counter-productive.
Most marginalized people I know outside of academia (and a few within it) don’t care how many p.c. points you’ve scored, nor do they care how many call-outs of privileged straight white men you’ve issued. If you asked them, what they want is fair treatment, good jobs, safe neighbourhoods and affordable housing. A clumsy, unintended slight is far down the list.