There are all kinds of arguments in the world — right ones, wrong ones, constructive ones, destructive ones, sincere ones, disingenuous ones, funny ones, serious ones. But at this stage in my life as an arguer, none is as consistently, exhaustingly unhelpful as “no one is arguing that.”
This has become an absolute stock response in my comments section in the last couple of years. I will say “X is a bad idea.” And commenters will spring up to say “Straw man! No one is arguing for X!” This is particularly odd because almost always I’ve pointed to a particular argument for X, with a link. I’ll then say, in the comments, actually here’s argument X, coming from this person and this person and this person. Then, the argument immediately changes: “oh, well, sure, that guy argues for X, but hardly anybody argues for X.” Or, even more often, some version of “nobody important argues for X.” The goal posts shift massively and quickly and yet the tone of condescension endures. Well, look: ideas are worth rebutting even if they are not popular, there are many unpopular ideas that we take as perpetually worthy of fighting thanks to their former prevalence in history, and frequently the arguments aren’t actually that unpopular as people claim anyway.
In this recent fracas about Jon Chait’s article on political correctness, versions of this tactic were deployed again and again. I agree heartily with those who say that Chait slides between claims of silencing and claims of bullying, and that he conflates criticism with bullying, and with the principle that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from the consequences of your speech. But a lot of people went further, particularly on Twitter: they claimed that no one calls for actual silencing of speech that falls outside of what we think of as norms of political correctness. As I tried to say, that simply isn’t true, and the pretense that it isn’t does nothing to improve our conversation.
Here’s a perfect example of genuine censorship that arose from what we often call political correctness. Christ Church, a college within Oxford University, banned a pro-life event because a vocal minority of students felt that the event was “threatening.” That is black-letter censorship. (Incidentally, I believe in abortion rights without restriction, but I also think that the pro-choice case can survive debate, precisely because I think it’s the stronger side. Crazy, I know.) I know we on the left are doing this thing where we define the word censorship so narrowly that literally nothing but blackshirts busting down your door qualifies, but by any meaningful definition of the term, a college forcing an event off campus because some members of the student body dislike the message of that event is censorship. If it’s not, then you’ve so diluted the term for rhetorical purpose that it’s become meaningless. So: is that censorship good or bad? That you can debate. “No one advocates censorship on political correctness grounds” is not true and does nothing for anyone.
The more sophisticated version then became “that only happens in academia.” Get off of campus for awhile, nerd! You’re out of touch with the real world. Well, one, college campuses are part of the real world. There are millions of people who spend significant amounts of their time on college campuses. For another, ideas and mores from the academy have a way of spreading into the world of media. Privilege theory and intersectionality started out in academic circles before becoming the presumed vocabulary of media liberals.
But the biggest problem is that this is simply a means of avoidance. Saying “that only happens in college,” even if it were true, just prevents us from actually considering the root issues at hand. Do you want it to remain just on campus? Would you like that kind of language policing to become more prevalent? That’s an issue of stakes, and dismissing it as a straw man denies reality.
Here’s an argument that is straightforwardly, unambiguously censorious that has nothing to do with college. It’s a call for outlawing speech that the author finds unpalatable, and for failing to prosecute those who commit violent crimes against people with unpopular opinions. Now you can support this argument, or you can reject it, but you can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. And if you’re one of those types whose only engagement on the political correctness issue is to say, well of course no one wants censorship, but…, you might take this opportunity to make the first half of that statement your central focus rather than the second.
Me, personally, I think that the piece reflects the problem with the affluent, educated, white caste that does so much to set the national left-wing conversation. Such people cannot imagine the dangers of government-enforced speech codes because they have never had to live in a society without free speech. People who have lived under the fickle dictates of a ruling junta that is in the business of regularly defining proper expression might take a different tack. Here’s a good example of what government-mandated speech codes actually look like in the real world: police harassing an 8-year-old Muslim boy and his father for “glorifying terrorism.” That’s what actual government censorship looks like. It is inflicted on left-wing constituencies, not in their favor, because the state is the tool of power, and the left’s business is the defense of the powerless. Only those who live within the bubble of elite leftism could imagine that the state is suddenly going to become a meaningful champion of anti-racism.
But there I go again! I’m arguing. I’m not pretending like the opinion that I disagree with does not exist. My argument might be good or bad. You might even find it offensive. But it’s an actual argument, which means that it can be examined, critiqued, supported, and in any event understood. It at least has the potential to improve how we talk about this issue, even if it’s only by being subject to later rebuttal. In contrast, I simply have no idea what to do with the pervasive “no one is arguing that!” claim. It’s a dead end, and a cop out, and I really wish the internet would fall out of love with it.
Update: But I am hoisting myself by my own petard! So take that into consideration.