the strange media liberal pretense that media liberals don’t exist

Something weird is going on in this Kashann Kilson piece, and I think understanding it is key to understanding the progressive side of our media class.

Kilson writes what is, in many ways, a paint-by-numbers “Iggy Azalea and Race” column, which has become a cottage industry in liberal circles. (If you’re a young liberal writer and you want to get a piece published in Salon or Alternet or similar, just pitch that same story, and I promise you’ll get a byline and a check for $100. I seriously think there’s a portion of the liberal populace that thinks destroying Iggy Azalea is the most important left-wing task of 2015.) Kilson, to his credit, admits to what most people who write these people ignore: that Azalea has become a hate object for the broad world of cultural progressivism:

“Which is partly why, after she went 0-for-4 on music’s biggest night, hip-hop fans used social media to exclaim their thrill that the industry didn’t get it wrong. Their prayers were answered: variations of “thank God Iggy didn’t win” blew up on Twitter. Still, Iggy maintains 4.1 million followers there, a slew of accolades for her albums, and very public support from some of the biggest names in hip-hopincluding will.i.am, Lupe Fiasco, and T.I., her mentor/producer. She’ll survive.

But the people who don’t like Iggy really don’t like Iggy. At the top of that list is fellow rapper Azealia Banks, whose Twitter beefs with Iggy (and with T.I.) reached such epic proportions that one Banks burnthe moniker Igloo Australiamanaged to find its way into a cringe-worthy People’s Choice Awards presentation. When Iggy flunked a mortifying freestyle performance, the Internet pounced again with a meme dedicated to her failure to rhyme on the spot. It all feeds the narrative that she’s a pre-packaged pretender.”

OK, so far so good. I would hope that, with literally dozens of think pieces floating around out there about Azalea’s appropriation, we could get to the point where we admit that they exist, and more importantly, that the world of professional online writing has a very large and active community of sites and publications that want these pieces: culturally and socially liberal, driven by political outrage, expressed in the vocabulary of cultural studies, and presuming that the truth of progressive social politics is self-evident to all decent people.

But Kilson then goes on to contrast Azalea with Richard Sherman, who is the flip side of liberal media’s Iggy Azalea coin; like Azalea, Sherman’s individual personhood has been wiped away in the rush to render him a symbol. And here Kilson fails to find the honesty that he found with Azalea. Kilson repeats the now well-worn story of how Sherman was called a thug and worse after his infamous post-game “rant” against Michael Crabtree. And, indeed: Sherman was the subject of a ton of absurd vitriol that was racist on its face. But there was an opposite element that Kilson doesn’t mention, and that essentially no one mentions when this story gets told. Sherman simultaneously became a kind of progressive folk hero. He, too, was the subject of countless progressive think pieces, these ones positive, even glowing. I thought Dave Zirin was going to rename his column “I Love Richard Sherman.” Ta-Nehisi Coates literally titled a post “Richard Sherman is Better at Life Than You.” Deadspin rode the Richard Sherman train for months. He was invited to speak about race at Harvard. He was on Chris Hayes’s MSNBC show. It’s hard to think of athletes that have, in recent years, become more prominent away from their sports, or who have had their politics more effectively disseminated.

I’m not saying any of this is undeserved. I’m glad that there was a forceful reaction to the use of terms like “thug” to describe Sherman. But I am saying this occurred. The reaction against demonization of Sherman was at least as powerful as the demonization itself, and in terms of the professional media, was much more powerful. And yet just as many of the writers who pen anti-Iggy pieces don’t bother to mention how common such pieces are, the fact that there is a liberal counterweight to conservative animus about Richard Sherman is never acknowledged. I just don’t understand that. Why are members of the liberal side of the media so dedicated to preserving the illusion that they themselves don’t exist?

It’s entirely unclear to me, reading Kilson’s piece, why he thinks that Sherman suffers more from the negative press he’s gotten than Azalea suffers from the negative press that Kilson acknowledges she’s gotten. He refers to marketability in the piece, but in what meaningful sense is Richard Sherman not marketable? He’s one of the most prized players in the NFL, widely recognized as an All-Pro quality cornerback and a uniquely disruptive force. Some people would suggest that he doesn’t get endorsement money because of his race and his politics. But that’s simply untrue. Sherman makes millions of dollars in endorsement deals. He’s the current Campbell’s soup spokesman, following in the footsteps of many other NFL stars. He endorses Beats. He endorses BodyArmor. He endorses something called neff. Claiming he’s hurting for endorsements simply isn’t credible. And yet that attitude is pervasive. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve discussed Sherman, online or in person, where fellow lefties have complained that he doesn’t get the endorsement money he should. When I put out that this simply isn’t true, the attitude about it is so weird. It’s like they’re disappointed that the thing they don’t want to be true isn’t true. I don’t get it.

So in what sense is Sherman suffering due to his haters in a way that Azalea isn’t? Kilson doesn’t say, and so there’s this weird hole in his piece where his most important argument should be. Once again: I have no doubt that the freakout about Sherman was driven by racism. And, indeed, I think the prominence and success of an athlete who is at least somewhat political is a good thing. So why is there such weird resistance to acknowledging his popularity and financial success? If you think Azalea is guilty of appropriation, shouldn’t you be celebrating the immense amounts of criticism she takes, instead of ignoring it?

This broad dynamic, of media liberals ignoring their own profound influence, is one of the strangest aspects of contemporary journalism and commentary. In every new controversy that roils professional opinion writing, there tends to be this strange duality, where the very people powering a very loud and prominent reaction seem to not understand that the reaction exists. Hayes is a perfect example. On his show and (especially) his Twitter account, he speaks as though his opinions are shouted into a void. But he’s got a nationally-televised show on one of the three big news networks! Before that he wrote for influential magazines. And he’s clearly an opinion driver among a class of people that have enormous influence on our media. I ask with genuine confusion: why the pretense? If the response is that these arguments do little or nothing to actually advance progressive causes, I would agree. But that would suggest that liberal writers and journalists should change how they engage on these topics, rather than ignoring their capacity to drive the conversation.

Last year, Bryan Curtis wrote two of the most interesting pieces I read all year, and yet neither attracted much attention. Here’s the summary case:

“Something pretty interesting has happened to sports opinionating in recent years. You can see it in the torching of Sterling just as you can see it in R*dskinsgate and the fight to end NCAA amateurism and the welcoming of openly gay athletes and the defense of Richard Sherman. A certain opinion — and I’d argue that this is, in nearly every case, an opinion that falls on the lefty side of the political spectrum — is articulated. It surfs Twitter. The opinion builds momentum until it becomes, with a few noisy exceptions, the de facto take of the entire sportswriter intelligentsia (perhaps the wrong word).

That opinion then becomes something like a movement. Pressure is exerted on people and institutions — in this case, NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Sterling’s fellow-owners, even Michael Jordan…. watching the speed with which this happens has been astounding. It’s something like the sports-page equivalent of community organizing.”

I probably would reject most of Curtis’s political positions, I’m guessing. And I have my quibbles with his take. In the second piece, he says that “the sportswriting class had gone from holding a range of political opinions to fusing into a single, united liberal bloc.” I would argue that it has become a socially liberal bloc, not an economically liberal one, and that part of the reason these tendencies have become so prevalent is because they do not threaten the economic elites who own the media. (Indeed: obsessive focus on sports and the entertainment industry suits the needs of capital perfectly.) But whatever my beef with Curtis, I think what he’s described is simply, obviously the case, and I am surprised that nobody else seems to be writing about it. The more that Salon or Deadspin or The New Republic goes without commenting on their own influence in these debates, the less useful they are.

the “geeks are oppressed by high culture” myth hits its apotheosis

So I’ve made the actual argument many many times, and you’ll ding me for linking to some random Tumblr, but this is too perfect. At Pyrrhic Comedy, there is this picture of a bunch of tween types in the Rijksmuseum, checking their cell phones instead of looking at The Night Watch. The big reveal is that they shouldn’t be judged because they are actually using the app for the museum. Which, OK, whatever.  Great. That’s the kind of lame, fortune cookie “wisdom” that the internet ladles out endlessly. Peep the text:

“That’s what irritates me about this particular strain of elitist dickwankery. Explain how exactly it says anything negative about me if I care more about Dragon Age: Inquisition than whatever that painting is. It’s a pretty painting, sure. Of some guys, I guess. They’ve got hats, and the lighting is nice. But I can think of a dozen vistas in DA:I that were just as pretty. What else is that painting supposed to offer me? How is it relevant to me? Who are those dudes? Why should I care?

Elitist intellectuals keep insisting I should care about things like this painting, and sneering at me when I don’t, but why should I?”

This person, who has the mental faculties necessary to operate a computer, is claiming that “elite intellectuals” are constantly pressuring him to appreciate Rembrandt.

Rembrandt!

We’re not even talking about, like, you should  try a black and white movie sometime. We’re talking about Rembrandt. Let me ask you, denizens of the internet: are you finding it difficult, these days, to get away from that constant pressure to appreciate Rembrandt? Do you find yourselves deluged under all of the Rembrandt coverage online? Do you feel left out by the constant in-depth conversations about Rembrandt on Twitter? Are you getting a little tired of all those Rembrandt-based memes and reference humor? Does your daily browsing experience involve constantly having to click away from heavy-handed Rembrandt coverage, frustrated with the endless stream of bloggers and aggregators, taking advantage of the latest Rembrandt-related fads? That Rembrandt clickbait! So incorrigible! I mean, lord knows, video games are currently a purely niche aspect of our culture, one that you barely hear about in journalism and commentary, which totally aren’t economically dominant or critically ascendant. Rembrandt, on the other hand. That’s the gravy train.

Take it from someone in the actual higher education system: there is way, way more video games in academia now than Rembrandt. I like video games fine, I really do. But if I didn’t, I could not function in the contemporary humanities. To the degree that any subject can be hot in the humanities under current labor conditions, video games are as hot as it gets. They’re getting job lines and conferences and special issues of journals. And in the way this dynamic always goes, there’s still this persistent notion that video game people are disrespected. It’s the same old two step: “my preference for geek art and media puts me at the heart of the culture and the economic engine that exists to serve it, but I still don’t feel respected, so therefore I’m oppressed and you have to put up with all of my bad behavior.” And as this gentleman is once again demonstrating, facts simply have no bearing whatsoever on this dynamic. It doesn’t matter how ignored and marginal the “high culture” you deride is, or how ludicrously praised and popular the “low culture” you celebrate is. You always get to posture as the underdog, and to treat being the underdog as a get-out-of-jail-free card for acting like a jerk.

Rembrandt!

what’s really going on with the Beck – Beyonce thing

Or, I mean, what’s going on with how the chatterati are going to write about it.

As I’ve said for a long time, a lot of progressive educated white types have essentially replaced having a politics with having certain cultural attachments and affectations. Really aggressively praising the Wire becomes a stand-in for “I am not racist.” Complaining that Selma was robbed becomes a stand-in for having done the necessary work to understand the history of race in America. Telling anyone who’ll listen that you think all of the creativity and risk are in hip hop now becomes a stand-in for advancing a meaningful political platform that could actually improve the lives of actually-existing black people. White people are so weird about Beyonce because Beyonce has become an all-purpose floating signifier, a vessel on to which bourgie white folks project all of their desires for how other people should see them. These vague associations with arts and media are intended to send a message that, if voiced explicitly, we all know by now to ridicule: some of my best friends are black.

So here we have a seemingly perfect scenario for people to invest celebrity news with political meaning: a highly respected black producer speaking out in a way that’s traditionally viewed as socially impermissible, in favor of a wildly-popular black singer and against an aging white rock star. It aligns with so many of the ways our chattering class loves to argue about race. It’s risk free! It comes pre-analyzed! It’s drawn across very, very obvious lines in the cultural battles we love to fight! But you could be forgiven for asking what it actually means for anyone who’s not already a millionaire.

Now I’ve been dinged in the past for suggesting that these cultural objects don’t have political valence. But I don’t mean to suggest that here. I’m not suggesting that there’s no political meaning to be had in these various artistic affiliations. What I am suggesting is that these attachments cannot possibly substitute for a healthy, functioning racial politics. They are designed to be a way to hide out from exactly the kind of risk and personal investment that are a prerequisite of meaningful political advancement. Precisely because they operate at a remove from policy and philosophy, they carry with them the shield of permanent plausible deniability. At the same time, they perform the necessary function in the most useless kind of politics, which is the social signaling that we have made a part of 21st century elite culture. By design, even if it’s unconscious design, treating your attitudes about celebrity as a substitute for having an explicit philosophy on racial politics gives us the worst of both worlds. And it seems to have become incredibly common these days.

You can already predict how the cycle will go. Someone (white) will write a grumpy piece, attacking Kanye West for not being classy. Someone else (also white) will write a piece insisting that “classy” is a racially coded word, and asking West to comport himself that way is indicative of white privilege and latent racism. And everyone will rush to their already-established positions, ready to once again have the same tired arguments that we’ve seen a thousand times, dutifully laying out predigested lines and canned outrage, barely noticing that there’s no there there. Just as happened to Richard Sherman, who became a champion to liberals precisely to the degree that they erased him from his own story and treated him like an inert symbol, whatever actual human concerns are at the heart of this story will vanish. Only the Takes will remain. Meanwhile, actual racial inequality– the structural conditions that hurt the lives of actual black Americans– is worse now than when I was born.

And on it goes.

Update: For example.

quote for the day

“… as of this writing, neuroscience knows of no plausible mechanism for carrying a large amount of information forward over indefinitely long intervals in a form that makes it accessible to the mechanisms that effect the primitive two-argument functions that are at the heart of computation.

Until the day comes when neuroscientists are able to specify the neurobiological machinery that performs this key function, all talk about how brains compute is premature. It is premature in the same way that talk of how genes govern epigenesis was premature prior to an understanding of what it was about the structure of a gene that enabled it to carry inherited information forward in time, making it both copyable and available to direct the creation of organic structures. Symbolic memory is as central to computation as DNA is to life.”

— C. Randy Gallistel and Adam Philip King, Memory and the Computational Brain

that was fast

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I am predisposed to not agree with Matt Novak’s argument that The Anti-Vaccine Movement Should Be Ridiculed Because Shame Works. I’m a big fan of Novak’s work in general, but I don’t find his argument remotely convincing, and the KKK analogy strikes me as a positively addled. But in recent weeks, our machine has done what it does, and forced the vaccination debate into the mold of gleeful, I-can’t-believe-they-don’t-already-believe-this culture war. That leads me to wonder whether shame “working” is even the point.

You should vaccinate your kids, and I think that if you don’t, they shouldn’t be allowed in public spaces. That strikes me as a public health issue and an education issue. But in 21st century America, we only have one type of issue, and that is culture war. The political demographics of the anti-vaccination movement are complex and contested; I imagine that, if you are Facebook friends with a lot of politicos like me, you have seen several “Who are the anti-vaxxers?” pieces float across your feed. Here’s a recent poll on the question, although I imagine that the way the question is posed makes a big impact on the results. Regardless of the reality, the impressions are hardening with alacrity. Even for a cynic like me, the speed and efficiency with which the flag of culture war has been planted on this issue is stunning, and depressing. From my limited perspective, it appears to have very quickly become yet another issue which we hardy-har-har at each other about, even as we are careful to express our outrage about dead kids.

I don’t mean to just assert away Novak’s argument. Maybe shame does work and will work here. I doubt it. I am always skeptical of arguments that claim that the solution is to do what we would enjoy more anyway. But the broader issue is this tendency to make the arguments for which we have the strongest evidentiary basis the weakest, out of the presumption that the evidence is so strong, we don’t need to share it, only express outrage that it is not self-evident to everyone. It’s a really amazing process, in a sense; the very weight of the evidence itself becomes the justification for a rhetorical stance that precludes the expression of that evidence.

We’re living in a country now where one side’s disbelief at the practices and positions of the other side becomes the emotional justification for grasping those practices and positions even harder. In such an environment, the tactical value in refusing to associate your disagreement with your broad cultural grouping is clear. And yet that association seems to have become an absolute prerequisite for meaningful public engagement. Treating vaccination as an issue which helps define the good and right people in liberal America has risen in exact proportion with the growing public debate about this issue. Seeing as people are more likely to harden their opposition when they see specific issues as indicative of broad cultural and social differences, this is a bad mistake.

I don’t pretend both sides are equally guilty of this form of thinking. Some conservatives seem motivated to embrace liberal stereotypes of them in a way that simply isn’t matched by liberals. Conservatives hate trains, most of the time, because liberals love them; you may find the Prius annoying but it doesn’t exist to annoy you the way rolling coal does. But we know that this keeps happening, that the more individual issues get cast as battles in a larger cultural war, the more likely conservatives are to embrace their opposition ever more intensely. So we should probably work very hard to create space between these issues and the social signals we develop around them. That has nothing to do with being nice, or with failing to engage angrily where appropriate. It has to do with trying hard to maintain a divide between what you think and who you are. Eliminating that divide is precisely how shaming works, and I think it’s a terrible strategic mistake.

personally, I blame Friends

This piece on the annoying internet genre of the “Perfect Response” is worth your time. If anything, Adam Sternbergh’s analysis would work on a bit of a broader level than he says. He’s right that the Perfect Response is a fantasy, and one that reflects a depressing tendency for people to see wit and clarity in opinions they already agree with.  But the broader cultural phenomenon is the way in which we’re now living on Planet Zinger, where everyone seems to feel compelled to never stop launching one-liners at each other, constantly. The Perfect Response is emblematic of a culture that seems to think that the kind of ceaseless reference humor and withering insults that are in every comedy now is something that can exist in real life, rather than something that can only come into being through months of work in a writers room.

Even really funny people aren’t funny that way, and most people aren’t really funny. Most people aren’t even a little funny.

I really think it comes from being saturated in sitcoms, in our youth, where people in implausibly nice apartments endlessly ping pong put downs at each other, filling the silence with exactly as much of interest or meaning as the laugh track. To my horror I’ve come to think that a lot of people see this as what adulthood is, people sitting around apartments trying to roast one another, for no particular reason, a ceaseless contest to prove how funny you are between people who lack the capacity to express unguarded human emotion. I mean, that’s what we saw in the sitcoms, right? And what other vision of adult life, exactly, do we have in this country? What is the healthy vision of adulthood in 21st-century America? Even if people were actually capable of doing this effectively, of constantly telling genuinely funny jokes, rather than endlessly A/B testing their shtick on the internet and quickly mumbling past all the failures… god, what a bleak world, what a nightmare.

read Julia Serano on inclusive activism

Noah Berlatsky Blatarsky carried out an in-depth interview with the trans activist Julia Serano, where she speaks at length about the issues of how to make left-wing activism more inclusive while maintaining rigorous condemnation of insensitivity. I highly recommend it. Serano:

Sometimes, the unwritten codes of conduct in certain activist or progressive spaces may be especially rigorous, and when someone unknowingly transgresses these unwritten codes, they may be fiercely condemned (often with multiple people “piling on” the condemnation). While I understand the rationale behind such condemnations (as they are intended to make the space safe for certain marginalized populations), they can have the effect of driving away people who are new to activism, many of whom are minorities and marginalized themselves.

Another under-acknowledged problem is that inflexible or rigorously-enforced codes of conduct often end up pitting marginalized individuals against one another. For example, in many activist spaces these days, you will likely be reprimanded if you use the word “tranny,” as many younger trans people view this word as a slur that demeans them. But then, what happens to trans people of the previous generation who have long used that term as an identity label? Similarly, some trans activists have claimed that the word “bisexual” reinforces the gender binary (and is therefore oppressive to trans people). But then, what happens to people who identify as bisexual and use that word as a focal point for their activism?

Read the whole thing.

EDUCATION HACK: just send your kids to regular school

Here’s an article in America’s most pedigreed repository of credulous woowoo, Wired, on the techy side of homeschooling. Homeschooling (or as I like to call it, artisanal segregation) is a really natural fit with the norms of Silicon Valley, a community that takes as its central premise that its members are smarter and better than everyone. Might as well start ‘em young. Little song, little dance, little C++, and you’ve got yourself the continuity between bonnet-wearing Anabaptist types and our digital overlords: we don’t need anybody. Meanwhile, back on planet Earth:

“Students who gain access to a home computer between the 5th and 8th grades tend to witness a persistent decline in reading and math scores,” the economists wrote, adding that license to surf the Internet was also linked to lower grades in younger children.

In fact, the students’ academic scores dropped and remained depressed for as long as the researchers kept tabs on them. What’s worse, the weaker students (boys, African-Americans) were more adversely affected than the rest. When their computers arrived, their reading scores fell off a cliff.

Now, before the boo birds come and get me, of course you have the right not to send your kids to public school, or to any school. And, yeah– standardized tests mostly suck, as the super-cool tech parents in the article say. Of course, you could be part of a broad social movement to oppose the rise of ceaseless testing, and point out to our education overlords that we have ample ability to use careful sampling and inferential statistics to have a remarkably accurate picture of how well our students are doing. (We just couldn’t build a massive standardized testing and test prep industry, in that case.) Or, you know, you could teach Arduino to love, or whatever. Your call, Google Glass Explorers.

The tech community, “a group not known for mastering the delicate social mores of adolescence.” Maybe instead of holding your kids out of high school you should get on some Drew Barrymore Never Been Kissed plan and try to sneak back in yourselves, Valley types. I get it, high school can be rough. But there’s this whole world of regular people out here. We’re not so bad, once you stop preening around like you’re too good for the rest of us.

Update: Related.

he-man free speech defenders policing my speech

I’ve gotten all kinds of responses to my recent series on political correctness, but one kind stands out for its seeming attempt to exemplify irony.

I’m on the record as saying that, unlike some, I think that language policing and political correctness do exist, and occasionally, they are unfair and unhelpful to the left-wing cause. Very very occasionally, the pressure they bring to bear can approach censorship, or perhaps just a kind of social  silencing. Much more to my point, I think these behaviors can actually backfire and end up making left-wing progress harder. I wrote all that. You know what else constitutes using social pressure to silence speech you don’t like? Calls for civility. I know, because they’ve been part of what’s been filling my inbox. I’m getting a lot of emails complaining at me about some of the harsh language I used to describe Jon Chait. These emails often include the implied threat of worrying for my career– you’ll never get a job in media/academics if people think you’re uncivil! They probably don’t think of these as threats themselves, which is funny; it’s the way the mob talks about paying “protection” money. “Nice career you have here… wouldn’t want you to ruin it!” Warnings about the dark consequences of speaking out are themselves the means through which real language policing actually occurs.

Hard to  believe the irony. A bunch of people rallying to the banner of free speech shared my post out of the conviction that it helped to defend the principle of free exchange. Some of them take time as they do so to mutter darkly about the potential consequences for my expression. And they do so in a way that acts as if I’m not capable of using my adult self-control to know who and what I’m targeting in a political debate. “People will think you’ll be that harsh in your teaching!” Like I can’t sort out a teenager who I have the express duty to teach and help grow from an established, successful, adult political writer whose job it is to argue about politics. You might say that these people are just criticizing me, not trying to police my language. And you might say the exact same thing about critics of Jon Chait’s.

Civility, in the real world, has one function: to defend the powerful and connected against criticism. I believe in kindness. I believe in empathy. When they are warranted and appropriate, as they are with strangers or those who lack influence and power. But I have never seen civility endorsed, in the way it constantly is against me, in a way that doesn’t seek to preserve the delicate feelings of the already-influential. Yes, I believe that political correctness has some negative consequences, yes. We have to be able to say so when it does. But political correctness is a sometimes-unhelpful way to defend the weak. Civility, at least as it exists in real practice, is an always-unhelpful way to defend the powerful. It’s political correctness in the defense of the connected. And unlike most people who call for political correctness, those who call for civility tend to have teeth. They actually can achieve some of the nefarious personal consequences that are routinely associated with political correctness, precisely because the people who call for civility are the ones with the power.

So: will all the many, many free speech warriors who praised and shared my post rally to my flag now?  I can expect all the people who endorsed what I had to say in defense of freer expression to defend my right to use harsh language in my political expression, right?

Right?

the least helpful way to argue

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.