Power and "Political Correctness"

I’ve been watching the articles about “callout culture” and “political correctness” come rolling out for a while now in frustrated fascination. I suppose it’s fitting that it takes a week in which both Jonathan Chait’s piece deploring “political correctness” and Jeet Heer’s accounting of The New Republic’s record on race were published to move me to write about it.

This isn’t because “Someone is finally speaking about this.” We’ve never stopped. As long as traditionally disenfranchised people have advocated for more power, the ways in which they exercise that power have been fodder for discussion and condemnation.

No, the reason I need to write about this topic this week is that the irony is killing me. Watching Chait argue that people like him are silenced by (in part) the speech of others—particularly women of color—is annoying. Contrasting that argument with the acknowledgement of how thoroughly the institution that protected and promoted Chait’s voice excluded the voices and interests of black people is painful. Seeing the impetus for that acknowledgement reduced to “intense arguments, mostly carried out online” instead of crediting the—often black—intellectuals and activists who made this accounting necessary…well.

So, up front, do the traditionally disenfranchised always use the power they gain wisely and well? Do they use their newfound platforms for nothing but good? Do they always correctly apply the tools of analysis they’re taught? Do they never overreach? Do they never abuse anyone?

You’re laughing with me right now, right?

These questions are absurd. No group, as a group, can say that they always handle power well. The temptations and pitfalls of power are infamous. Heer’s article is a litany of The New Republic’s failures to exercise its own power well.

Institutions with decades of practice and journalists with professional training in the exercise of their power cannot or do not manage any better than that. This makes it ridiculous to point to the missteps of individuals who are new to power as indicative of broad failings of the group to which these people belong. Doing so is a basic exercise in essentialism, the fundamental attribution error occasionally leavened with racism or sexism.

The basic fact of the matter is that we do not instinctively understand how to use power responsibly. This is learned behavior, and a quick look around says that the opportunities for learning one encounters in everyday life range from absent to inadequate. That’s not surprising. Developing skills for using power requires recognizing that you have power, and we’re by and large allergic to admitting we’re powerful, even in a limited sense. (Listening to people in service industries, however, will leave little doubt that we’re aware of our power when we want to use it.)

Did Chait reflect on his own power before associating people engaged in hashtag campaigns and writing petitions—people “meeting speech with more speech”—with “a system of left-wing ideological repression”? Did he consider the fact that these are some of the most-harassed people on Twitter, recipients of threats and racist and sexist degradation? Did he stop to ask whether painting these people as threats to a free society would increase that harassment?

For the record, Chait’s assertions did increase harassment of these people, entirely predictably. The people who harass and threaten frequently excuse their behavior as defending society. When someone agrees with their self-assessment, that behavior will increase.

If Chait thought about this possibility then wrote those words anyway, that is an appalling and reprehensible action on his part. Mostly likely, however, he didn’t take the time to consider his own power in this situation. The consequences were the same to the people harassed. It was still an abuse of his power.

Chait was trained in journalism. He has spent his entire career in positions that should require him to think about his power as a journalist. This is still what he chose to do. An editor backed him up in this.

So the whole issue is hopeless and we should all shut up about it, right?

No. People can do better than Chait did. People do better now.

In fact, if Chait is truly interested in the creation of space for dialogue, rather than just telling society’s effective critics to shut up, he could do worse than to look to the left he’s so concerned about. If we ever manage to build a strong consensus about how to successfully navigate competing power and interests, the solution we adopt will have been developed by the left.

The left has been working on this problem for decades. Anarchists, socialists, unions, pacifists, civil rights groups of all stripes: All have had to deal with the empowerment of people who have different, competing interests. All have had to create coalitions in order to be effective. They have had to develop and—imperfectly, inconsistently—use tools to make sure people are heard and power is shared.

The work is far from done. The evidence of this, however, is not that people come together to use petitions and hashtags. That’s solidarity. The evidence isn’t that people feel the need to clarify where they stand on several positions when they talk about one. That’s a consequence of speaking to a broad audience in a world full of political dogwhistles. The evidence is not that the benefit of the doubt is not universally applied by everyone to everyone else. That’s what you hear when you listen to people who can’t afford the consequences of trusting the wrong people.

The evidence that there is more work to be done in figuring out how to share power is that the people on the left using the tools they and their political ancestors developed think they can do better. These are the people with credibility on this issue. These are the people who have demonstrated an interest in sharing the power they have, even when others don’t share their priorities.

That’s not something Chait has demonstrated. He doesn’t have the credibility to be heard on this issue, and even if he had, his “stop talking” solution demonstrates a lack of serious thought on the topic.

Still, Chait is not the only person looking for a solution to this problem. What do you do if you’re one of those other people?

Start by stepping back and taking that broader look at how people use power. Understand that you’re looking at competing power, not one-sided situations. Learn how to see the exercises of power that have become background in our lives because they’re “traditional” and assumed. Realize you don’t have the right to sign other people up to take risks. Make sure you’re not expecting people to take to power comfortably and naturally the moment they have some.

Then exercise your own power in the situation. If you’re concerned enough about how traditionally disenfranchised people use power to write about it (yes, tweets and comments count too), take some time to study the methods that have been used to make sure everyone gets a chance to talk and be heard. Look at the research on how people are excluded from discussion and how to change that. Read up on consensus-building.

Then put what you’ve learned into action. Not only will you model effective skills and a commitment to sharing your own power, but you will actively empower others. That, more than anything else right now, can change the tone of the discourse. People who are being heard don’t have to raise their voices. The more you do to make sure others are listened to, the less they have to “yell”.

If you’re concerned that you’re promoting undesirable behavior by promoting these voices, find the people or pieces you do want to promote. The tricky part of this is that you still have to represent interests that aren’t yours. If you don’t, the people you’re passing over will continue to do what they need to do to be heard. The point, aside from the basic work of making sure everyone’s interests get a hearing, is to make sure people understand that they can be heard without the vitriol that worries you.

If all that sounds like work, that’s because it is. It’s a lot of work. If it were easy, we’d be beyond this point by now. There’s not much glory in it, either. Still, this, not telling people to fade back into obscurity, is what it’s going to take to change the public dialogue.

I don’t think we’ll see Jonathan Chait doing this anytime soon. I don’t think we’ll see most of the people who write pieces for large audiences about being afraid to speak doing this work. I do think, however, that the people we see putting these strategies into action will come from the left, not the center.

Will you be one of them?

Power and "Political Correctness"

3 thoughts on “Power and "Political Correctness"

  1. 1

    Good article. Seems like some good things to think about with how power works. It does seem to me important to understand about people taking time to learn how to use power they’ve only just gained. Like many things we don’t, as a society, do a good job of teaching.

    I’ve only read a few of the responses to Chait. Seems like a lot of different angles people are coming at it, though, to take apart his (and similar) reasoning and complaints.

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