Saturday, January 31, 2015

A response to Belle Waring on Jonathan Chait

TL;DR: Jonathan Chait may be a wanker, but the problem he's writing about is real.

Two points regarding Belle Waring's analyses (1, 2) of Jonathan Chait's recent article:

  1. The concerns that he voices are not solely restricted to white males who write for Slate.
  2. The core issue is a real phenomena and is not confined to academia or the comment sections of select blogs.

Getting the first point out of the way quickly, because it's mostly a distraction: Here is Maryam Namazie writing about the same thing. She is neither male, nor white, nor, as far as I have been able to determine, has she ever written for Slate (or other Slate-like publications). Given what I know of her background from reading her work its also hard to conclude that she's hangwringing/concern trolling/arguing in bad faith. So, to the extent that people have been dismissing Chait's argument solely on the basis of his personal history, publisher, or demographic characteristics, that dismissal seems questionable.

On to the second point, which is the important one: You can draw a continuous line through the MacKinnon incident, the one involving Miller-Young, and another one that just happened in my little corner of the Pacific Northwest involving someone's work at a refugee center. In each case you have one party engaging in protected (in the First Amendment sense) speech and another party claiming offense and asserting various prerogatives on the basis of that offense.

Stipulating some preliminaries to prevent the conversation from getting derailed:

  • Everyone has a right to speak.
  • No one is entitled to an audience or a platform.
  • No one is immune from criticism or the consequences of their speech.

That said, the problem lies in the third bullet, specifically determining what constitutes appropriate consequences for any particular speech act. There is no widely-agreed-upon rubric for what constitutes "offensive" speech, even among the eminently-reasonable denizens of the Crooked Timber comments section, much less community consensus regarding appropriate prerogatives for those who are legitimately offended. That this particular issue dates back to at least 1992 (and probably earlier) lends credence to Chait's underlying hypothesis; 23 years on and we're still rehashing the same discussion, with no evident progress having been made in the interim.

This fact suggests to me that the issue of arbitrating claims of offense may be fundamentally unsolvable, even among people who are otherwise genuinely inclined to get along. What this also tells me is that Chait is right; some number of people are deploying claims of offense tactically as a means of preempting discussion. What's cannot be determined, however, is the extent to which this happens, since people can't agree on the basics of what constitutes a legitimately offensive statement.

Let me end with a note on Ms. Waring: She's smart, and she certainly understands theoretical limitations. So either she's being disingenuous in her dismissal of Chait or she has a theoretic framework which solves the problem. If it's the former, shame on her for taking pot-shots at the (regrettably pot-shot-able) Chait, and if it's the latter, I'd welcome the opportunity to educate myself.


In the comments section of her first post Belle wonders "what are the actual bad effects here?":

FFS: what happens when you are impolite? People criticize you and don’t invite you back for dinner. They don’t beat you to death with an axe handle and bury you by the sump pump. Dudes like this whining about PC want something very particular indeed: not just the right to say things others find offensive but the right to say offensive things and then not be criticized for saying them. No. Political discourse is open and free, you may say what you wish, we will mock as we choose, may the best woman win. Really, what are the actual bad effects here? White men worried about people being silenced just because they’re white men–I can’t even with this shit.

Well, in the case of the Seattle incident, we have someone who seems to be doing meritorious work on the part of an under-served minority, and who may be a member of a historically oppressed minority herself, being told to sit down, shut up, and never speak again, possibly because she got caught up in a local power struggle. One plausible outcome is that she'll be less willing to help the community in the future because of the associated hassle, which would almost certainly be a loss. All this because, when the subject is "offense", we lack the analytic apparatus to tell people to GTFO.

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