After pledging to myself that I wouldn’t read Jonathan Chait’s “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say,” my curiosity got the best of me, and I took the (click) bait. The 4,721-word rant is just as bad as everyone says it is, and breaking down the massive flaws in his argument has already been done by writers far better than myself (see: Pareene, Chu, Berman, and a dozen other spot-on rebuttals of Chait’s diatribe), so I’ll spare everyone a re-hashed version of that.
What amazes me, and what led me to start writing this, is the immanent hypocrisy involved in an argument that is essentially broken down to, “Disagreeing with me is suppressing my free speech!” It’s not; it’s just not.
Last year, I wrote what I thought was a fairly mild, incontrovertible opinion about the use of words like “tranny” and “shemale” being used to describe transgender people. My argument was that unless someone says, “Hey, I prefer to be called a ‘tranny,'” then it’s not okay to ascribe that word to that person. That means that I don’t believe it’s cool to refer to transgender people, as a whole, as “trannies,” as a great many trans people don’t use that word to self-identify, and its been wielded as a weapon against them. I shared a personal story related to the fact that a prominent gay icon once said, “No one has ever said the word ‘tranny’ in a derogatory sense.”
“So when I sat in the only open seat on a crowded train in the months after coming out as transgender, when the woman next to me said into her phone, “Some fucking tr*nny just sat next to me” and decided to stand rather than remain next to me — that wasn’t her being derogatory? When a group of college kids called me a “tr*nny faggot” as I waited for a bus, triggering a panic attack that left me home sick from work for two days — that wasn’t them being derogatory?”
I’d hoped that the piece would have inspired some quiet reflection, fostering respect for one another’s humanity. Instead, I got people calling me this word just to prove some point about “not being P.C.”
Someone named Walker Lewis writes:
“Haaay Tranny! The well intentioned piece in the Advocate by Parker Malloy is devisive and wrong. Tranny was a term crafted by drag queens and transwomen to identify their common ground … I appreciate that we use this term of endearment with some shade and sass towards each other, there is no reason to reclaim this word, we can only continue to claim it for ourselves in spite of the haters that steal it from us as a slur. Now let grandma Kate school us all in some tranny history. So says this tranny!”
A cis, white gay man named Kirk Palmer commented (what a wonderful ally, right?):
“Oh you people get over yourselves. The language police need to take a deep breath and not over intellectualize words that don’t need it. If someone is transgendered then they are and that is it. Not saying tranny doesn’t change it. Most of you people are adding meaning where there is none because it allows you to make a point–needless though it may be.
Tranny Tranny Tranny, There I said it. So what. I am gay, a faggot, fudge packer . Not my favorite names either but who cares. Again, get over yourselves and focus on real problems like the persecution of gays in Russia and Africa. Now those are issues.
Another cis, white gay man named Michael J. Curtiss writes:
“Oh, joy: yet another bit of the vernacular falls victim to narrow-minded, tight-assed, this-is-my-word-you-can’t-use-it thuggery in the name of being politically correct. Well done.”
Cis, white gay man Gareth Ernst writes:
“Oh bugger off! ‘Trannie’ has a long and honoured street use history. When i did a safe sex and drug use video here in Sydney for the Gender Centre in the early nineties we all used the word ‘trannie’. The PC queer theory uni educated twats can stick a cucumber up their cloacas. Grrrrr”
You get the point, right? There were more than 400 comments on this article, and none of this even takes into account the dozens of death threats (yes, people resorted to actual death threats because I basically said, “Hey, can you not call me this word? It hurts me.”), the video where a drag queen pretended to murder me, being called a “fringe character” by the aforementioned “gay icon,” the thousands of hateful tweets, or any of the other crap that happened in the wake of that article.
But silly me. How dare I ask someone to not call me a slur? I’m such a P.C. monster hell-bent on bringing an end to free speech. Saying, “Hey, please don’t call me x” is somehow infringing on someone else’s speech, obviously.
Or, at least if you’re Jonathan Chait (or Amanda Palmer, who once praised an article where I was referred to as a “skin transvestite,” and has a song called “Sex Changes,” which is exactly as bad as it sounds), that’s what you seem to think.
This comes just weeks after the awful, tragic Chalie Hebdo attacks, which sparked the latest in avatar activism: Je Suis Charlie! The response to Charlie Hebdo was well-meaning, but ultimately, reached Chait-levels of hypocrisy. “No one should be murdered for something they say or write!” Okay, yeah, I agree with that. “Everyone needs to publish their super racist ‘satirical’ drawings in their own paper otherwise they’re enemies of free speech!” Whoa, wait, what? So, unless someone prints exactly what you want them to, they’re enemies of free speech “Yes!” And you don’t see the hypocrisy here? “No!”
Je Suis Charlie Brown.
I’ve long said that most of the time, “political correctness” is a stand in for “basic human decency.” You can use it in most sentences. For example: “It’s really unfair that you expect me to be politically correct!” and “It’s really unfair that you expect me to be a decent human being!” are basically the same sentence. Ugh! What do you mean my opinion on race isn’t as valid because I’m white? What do you mean my opinion on sexism isn’t as valid because I’m a man? What do you mean my opinion on trans issues isn’t as valid because I’m cis? What do you mean my opinion about gay rights isn’t as valid because I’m straight?
These are the cries of the privileged. In all situations, the answer is simply: because you can’t, and don’t, know what it’s like. There’s no such thing as “reverse racism,” “misandry,” cisphobia,” “heterophobia,” as these are all considered to be the social ideal, built by white supremecy, cisnormativity, the patriarchy, and heteronormativity. The world isn’t a fair place, and simply ignoring the differences (“I don’t see color,” or “aren’t we all just people?”) isn’t a solution to these problems any more than pretending a hole in a boat doesn’t exist will keep it from sinking.
But the Chaits of the world aren’t necessarily interested in seeing these issues addressed. To be straight, white, cis, and male is to have won the race, gender, sexuality lottery. What interest does he have in actually fixing these problems? Surely, it’s better just to sweep them under the rug, decrying anyone who tries to address these systemic forms of inequality as merely “SJWs,” “Tumblr activists,” “Hacktivists,” or whatever term people like Chait are using to belittle those unlike themselves. Surely, it’s better to act as though everything we have in life is simply the result of good ol’ hard work. I mean, what’s the alternative? Acknowledging that there are factors in our success that have nothing to do with work, and instead have to do with the luck of the natal draw?
Who wants that? Ignorance is bliss, right?
Chait alleges that people like himself, Michelle Goldberg, and Hanna Rosin have been the victims of the “P.C. police,” “thought police,” or had their right to free speech infringed upon. Last I checked, however, neither Chait, Goldberg, nor Rosin have been imprisoned for their speech (unlike, say… Chelsea Manning or Barrett Brown). Last I checked, these three writers were still being commissioned to write for well-known, high traffic publications. I mean, Chait’s piece alone has been shared more than 35,000 times online, is the most viewed story on nymag.com, and appears in the current issue of New York Magazine.
If one of your articles has been shared 35,000 times, you are not being silenced. Full stop.
When you say you’re in favor of “free speech,” you’re really just saying that you’re in favor of your own free speech; what you’re saying to others is, “shut up and respect my free speech.”
One final point I wanted to address is Chait’s eye-roll-filled paragraph about “trigger warnings.”
At a growing number of campuses, professors now attach “trigger warnings” to texts that may upset students, and there is a campaign to eradicate “microaggressions,” or small social slights that might cause searing trauma. These newly fashionable terms merely repackage a central tenet of the first p.c. movement: that people should be expected to treat even faintly unpleasant ideas or behaviors as full-scale offenses. Stanford recently canceled a performance of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson after protests by Native American students. UCLA students staged a sit-in to protest microaggressions such as when a professor corrected a student’s decision to spell the word indigenous with an uppercase I — one example of many “perceived grammatical choices that in actuality reflect ideologies.” A theater group at Mount Holyoke College recently announced it would no longer put on The Vagina Monologues in part because the material excludes women without vaginas. These sorts of episodes now hardly even qualify as exceptional.
Trigger warnings aren’t much help in actually overcoming trauma — an analysis by the Institute of Medicine has found that the best approach is controlled exposure to it, and experts say avoidance can reinforce suffering. Indeed, one professor at a prestigious university told me that, just in the last few years, she has noticed a dramatic upsurge in her students’ sensitivity toward even the mildest social or ideological slights; she and her fellow faculty members are terrified of facing accusations of triggering trauma — or, more consequentially, violating her school’s new sexual-harassment policy — merely by carrying out the traditional academic work of intellectual exploration. “This is an environment of fear, believe it or not,” she told me by way of explaining her request for anonymity. It reminds her of the previous outbreak of political correctness — “Every other day I say to my friends, ‘How did we get back to 1991?’ ”
Now, Chait’s assertion that a school decided to cancel an outdated play that reduces women to body parts because of “triggers” is simply false. They cancelled it because it’s, as I said, an outdated play that reduces women to body parts. No “trigger” involved; they’re just not interested in doing the play anymore. But I guess “free speech” means that they should be forced to put on the play, right? Good ol’ mandatory free speech.
When Chait states that “Trigger warnings aren’t much help in actually overcoming trauma,” he inadvertently makes the case for them by citing, “an analysis by the Institute of Medicine has found that the best approach is controlled exposure to it, and experts say avoidance can reinforce suffering.”
That’s what trigger warnings are meant to do. They’re not a way for people to opt out of content, but rather, a way to prepare themselves for what’s to come. Letting students know that a book contains certain types of traumas gives students the opportunity to mentally prepare for it, giving themselves “controlled exposure” to it, which is what the analysis Chait cites suggests.
So, to conclude, I’d like to again state that someone saying, “Hey, that’s offensive to me when you say x,” is not them infringing on your free speech. In fact, it’s them making use of their own. You have every right to say what you want, and others have that same right to say, “What you said was really shitty,” and you really need to ask yourself why it is that you think your right to free speech is more absolute than their right to free speech.
Featured image via Chuck Coker.