“take control” = “invoke your privilege”

Some confusing responses to my thoughts on “political correctness.” A remarkable number of people are choosing to frame their response as if I’m saying boohoo, woe is me. But that’s the opposite of what I’m saying. Me, personally? I’m fine. I have been involved in vicious left-wing infighting since I was 17 years old, and I like it. I mean, there’s a reason I’m always in the middle of it. I’m not censored or harassed or bullied. I’m just criticized. But the entire point of the piece is that a lot of young folks are not like me, and we shouldn’t expect them to be as immune to criticism as I am.

But mostly people are asking why I didn’t “take control” (or similar language) of the situations that I described. First, people keep assuming I was teaching when these things went down, which I didn’t say was the case. (It wasn’t.) I think these things happen in individual classes, but they often happen in the interstices where instructors aren’t looking, or they are enforced through the dictates of policy (created by administrators who are more interested in ass-checking than in politics). More often, these things happen within campus activism circles. The bottom line is that I did not have formal authority in these spaces, only the right to speak. (If I did have formal authority and exercised it, by the way, that would  in no way inoculate me against charges of invoking privilege.) So: isn’t “taking control” exactly what the people who defend language policing want me not to do?

“Take control” is loaded language, but even weaker brew has this same problem. If I’m at an activist meeting of some sort or another, and I believe the kind of unfortunate behavior is taking place that I described, how can I intervene without being guilty of invoking privilege in precisely the way people who defend political correctness have inveighed against? You can imagine if I said, in the middle of an activist meeting, that a particular charge of racism or ableism or sexism was unwarranted or being expressed too harshly. The whole point is that there is currently no theoretical or practical shared understanding on the left about when and how to intervene in a situation where you believe that the intensity of political criticism is unfair and not constructive. That’s the whole point, and though I have received a lot of condescending responses from the left, none of them are even close to a set of principles we on the left can deploy when we disagree with a political accusation against ourselves or against others. I see a lot of sneering; I see very little in terms of principles and guidelines.

I hate to invoke the classroom again, but I have had students in the past ask me privately: how do I know when I’m mansplaining? How do I know when I’m tone policing? Well, I believe both of those phenomena are real and bad. I think they happen all the time and it sucks. But as far as what to tell these kids in answer to that question? I have no idea. I have no idea what the consistent, mutually-intelligible definition of mansplaining is. I have no idea what a workable, real-world definition of tone policing would be that I could use to help students know how to avoid it — and how to rebut it if the accusation is used frivolously. If you think that the answer is to say that any accusation of this kind is necessarily true simply by virtue of being voiced, then you don’t exist in the real world, and you don’t much care if this stuff actually works. In fact, if you want these accusations to mean something, if you want them to actually be used to improve the world, you have to have a point of view on what to do when they are used frivolously or dishonestly. Instead, it’s just snark, snark, snark. No constructive ideas for how to teach young people, which is the only vocation I have ever wanted or cared about.

And so the liberal and left criticisms of my piece just reaffirm the annoyance that led to it in the first place: professional writers lecturing from a stance of political purity they can enjoy because none of this comes home to their real lives. If your work spaces consists of a Macbook and your interlocutors consist of digital avatars, I’m sorry: you are not in a position to lecture me. Sorry. You’re not. If you spend all day telling jokes on Twitter, and then lecture me about how I should just stop being a tone policing white man, and then say “time to file another thinkpiece for The Atlantic!”, you have no skin in the game and you have no perspective with which to judge. I told real-world stories so that I could demonstrate that, in fact, the viciousness with which we now police language is not cost-free, and that the problem is not the feelings of me or other grownup writers but the disillusionment of many, many young people who might have become powerful allies if they’d be given the chance to fail and learn for a little while. So: anybody got any actual, no-bullshit constructive ideas for how to build norms of fairness and empathy without being dismissed as someone invoking privilege?

I’ll answer that question for you all: nope. You’ve just got jokes. Just more jokes for Twitter. Ooh, look, the Daily Show‘s about to start.

Update: Sorry, friends, I have seen the light. The key is to just do as Angus Johnson does and assume that none of these problems are problems. I guess I’m just unlucky to not work at CUNY, where apparently every political interaction is frictionless, every student arrives in prepackaged forms of “righteous left-wing warrior” or “horrible bigot to be discarded,” and politics is simply the work of sorting the good from the evil, which is an easy and simple process. Since every word of his blog is devoted to the notion that Angus Johnson has perfect and unerring access to righteousness, I can only conclude that he arrived here on earth from a higher moral plane, destined to bless slobs like me with his profound wisdom. I mean, he hasn’t said a single word about how to actually respond to political issues of social, moral, and emotional complexity, which is what I explicitly have been asking for. But I guess to a higher being, such issues are never complex. They’re always simple. CUNY sounds like a magical place.

Me, personally? I don’t live there. I don’t have unerring moral vision. I don’t know what’s the right thing to say or do in every situation. I’m not possessed of that kind of wisdom. My students aren’t all good or all bad. My world does not unfold itself in a series of perfectly black-and-white moral interactions where heroes and villains sort themselves effortlessly into camps and my duty is to support the former against the latter. My students don’t arrive on campus as perfectly formed intersectional activists,  quoting Judith Butler and Paulo Freire right out of high school. I feel true shame to fail to match the example of Angus Johnson and all of the other lefties on Twitter who announce, over and over again, just how perfect their politics already are.

I don’t live there. And until I do, I will never apologize for struggling, as a political person and as an educator. I will not apologize for asking for help. And if the entire left is more interested on patting each other on the back on Twitter for being such perfectly righteous beings, then so be it. I’ll do it alone.


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