At the beginning of January, just a few weeks after the birth of my daughter, I came across an article in The Baffler, a journal I love, called “This Brat’s for You.” Written by William Giraldi, it was about how paternity leave for his second child left him “bushwhacked by this surfeit of free time,” eventually turning him into an alcoholic. Underlying it was a blithe assumption that of course no man is really going to throw himself into childcare, even if his employer is enough of a sucker to grant him the time off: “But let’s be honest: even in self-consciously progressive households, it’s a rare new father who does as much baby work as a new mother.”
The piece infuriated me, in no small part because my husband’s very progressive employer had recently instituted a generous paternity leave policy, and without him at home, I’d have been drowning. I don’t really care that Giraldi’s marriage isn’t similarly egalitarian, but I couldn’t believe that the staunchly pro-labor Baffler would run an essay casually mocking paid family leave, a crucial worker’s rights issue as well as a feminist one. So I posted something on Facebook, where I have a lot of journalist friends, and on a private listserv. Soon many people joined me in condemnation. On social media, I started seeing “This Brat’s for You” referred to as the worst essay of 2015. Mallory Ortberg even published a funny, mordant parody.
As the backlash to piece grew to far exceed the reach of the piece itself, I started to feel a little guilty. After all, in the past I’ve inveighed against Internet pile-ons and public shamings. I thought the Baffler editors might feel besieged and perhaps a bit misunderstood, as if this one stupid squib was eclipsing the very good feminist work that they’ve published in recent issues. Or maybe they had the sour, glum feeling specific to one who feels unfairly punished for saying something politically incorrect but true, a feeling that tends to lead to further entrenchment rather than rethinking.
At the same time, it was a reactionary piece, deserving of at least mild ridicule. People who disagreed with it were right to say so. If the overall response was overwhelming, that’s not the fault of any one person registering his or her opinion.
I thought about this reading Jonathan Chait’s New York essay, “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say,” which argues that ’90s-style political correctness has come roaring back. “Political correctness is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate,” he writes. “Two decades ago, the only communities where the left could exert such hegemonic control lay within academia, which gave it an influence on intellectual life far out of proportion to its numeric size. Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach. And since social media is also now the milieu that hosts most political debate, the new p.c. has attained an influence over mainstream journalism and commentary beyond that of the old.”
Not surprisingly, this argument has not been well received online. “The truth about ‘political correctness’ is that it doesn’t actually exist,” read the headline of Amanda Taub’s takedown at Vox. “So here is sad white man Jonathan Chait’s essay about the difficulty of being a white man in the second age of ‘political correctness,’” wrote Alex Pareene at Gawker. “This has been the broadest reaction I’ve gotten to anything I’ve ever written,” Chait told the Daily Beast.
Unlike some of Chait’s critics, I think there is such a thing as renascent political correctness. (He quotes my own writing on the subject in the piece.) Most writers I know, including quite lefty ones, talk about it a lot in private. But as many others have pointed out, his examples don’t quite work, because he conflates several different things. First, there’s the genuine suppression of speech, as with Omar Mahmood, the University of Michigan student who was fired from his school newspaper, and whose apartment was vandalized, for running afoul of lefty sensitivities. Then there are the annoying rhetorical tropes of online discourse, which can make good-faith argument impossible. (Accusing every man who disagrees with you of “mansplaining” is one of these, even though mansplaining is a real phenomenon.) Finally, there is energetic debate. Telling these last two apart is pretty subjective. I think the response to Giraldi was the third. He probably thinks it was the second.
At one point, Chait describes a torrent of online derision directed at his friend Hanna Rosin under the hashtag #RIPpatriarchy. In Chait’s version, the hashtag is a reaction to her book, The End of Men, which, he writes, “argued that a confluence of social and economic changes left women in a better position going forward than men, who were struggling to adapt to a new postindustrial order.” In fact, the hashtag was spurred by a related Slate piece with the trollish headline, “The Patriarchy is Dead: Feminists, accept it.” The patriarchy not being dead, feminists did not accept it. That’s not stifling political correctness. It’s responding to speech with more speech.
Yet that’s not the end of the story. Sure, Rosin was wrong, and Giraldi wrong-headed. But the sheer volume of the rebukes, the loud public ostracism, probably felt hugely disproportionate. When you’re on the wrong end of one of these things, it can seem like your identity has been hijacked, rendering you a caricature of yourself. “Her response since then has been to avoid committing a provocation, especially on Twitter,” Chait writes of Rosin. He quotes her saying, “The price is too high; you feel like there might be banishment waiting for you.” Part of what Chait is describing as political correctness is the way social media has dramatically raised the psychic cost of voicing unpopular opinions, whether they have merit or not.
To which, I suspect, many on Twitter would reply boo-fucking-hoo. Indeed, the milieu Chait has imperfectly described has developed a whole lexicon to mock those who admit to feeling bruised by it: they have the sadz, they’re butthurt, they’re crying #maletears. For Twitter’s guardians of righteousness, if privileged journalists feel more inhibited about bucking lefty pieties, so much the better. If a certain sort of skeptical, contrarian liberal intellectual style is being endangered, they won’t mourn it.
Such a style, of course, was a hallmark of the old New Republic. Chait doesn’t mention the magazine in his piece, but the essay intersects with laments over TNR’s death. The New Republic had once been a rarified, sequestered place where smart, pedigreed people could play with ideas, secure in the knowledge that most of their audience shared their basic assumptions and granted them the presumption of good faith. The intellectual freedom this offered could be badly used; too often, the magazine mistook common prejudice for unspoken truths. But it, like many small magazines, allowed people to take intellectual risks without worrying that they would be shunned as moral monsters. In part, this was simply because not that many people were reading. Magazines were like subcultures, with their own particular norms, sensibilities and insider argot. They could trust that they were judged by a set of standards they had themselves shaped.
Social media has done away with all that. Nobody gets a presumption of good faith anymore, and we’re all subject to loud, public judgment by people who might not share any of our underlying assumptions about the way the world works or the rules of intellectual debate. In the past, The Baffler might have published something that pissed off feminist readers, but most of those readers would share The Baffler’s broader worldview, and would be less likely to excoriate it. Even if they wanted to publish a response, there wouldn’t be many venues except the publication’s own letters section. Outsiders simply wouldn’t notice.
There is value, of course, in the new regime. The price of bigotry is much higher, the ethical blind spots concealed by clubby consensus are much more easily exposed. But the pressure to conform is also far more intense. The distance between what writers—or, at least, some writers—say to each other and what they say publicly is growing. That’s not oppression, but it is a loss.