Jan 30, 2015
As intended, Jonathan Chait's denunciation of the "PC language police" - a trite note of self-victimization he's been sounding for decades - provoked intense reaction: much criticism from liberals and praise from conservatives (with plenty of exceptions both ways). I have all sorts of points I could make about his argument - beginning with how he tellingly focuses on the pseudo-oppression of still-influential people like himself and his journalist-friends while steadfastly ignoring the much more serious ways that people with views Chait dislikes are penalized and repressed - but I'll instead point to commentary from Alex Pareene, Amanda Marcotte and Jessica Valenti as worthwhile responses. In sum, I fundamentally agree with Jill Filipovic's reaction: "There is a good and thoughtful piece to be written about language policing & 'PC' culture online and in academia. That was not it." I instead want to focus on one specific point about the depressingly abundant genre of journalists writing grievances about how they're victimized by online hordes, of which Chait's article is a very representative sample:
When political blogs first emerged as a force in the early post-9/11 era, one of their primary targets was celebrity journalists. A whole slew of famous, multi-millionaire, prize-decorated TV hosts and newspaper reporters and columnists - Tom Friedman, Tim Russert, Maureen Dowd, John Burns, Chris Matthews - were frequently the subject of vocal and vituperative criticisms, read by tens of thousands of people.
It is hard to overstate what a major (and desperately needed) change this was for how journalists like them functioned. Prior to the advent of blogs, establishment journalists were largely immunized even from hearing criticisms. If a life-tenured New York Times columnist wrote something stupid or vapid, or a Sunday TV news host conducted a sycophantic interview with a government official, there was no real mechanism for the average non-journalist citizen to voice critiques. At best, aggrieved readers could write a Letter to the Editor, which few journalists cared about. Establishment journalists spoke only to one another, and careerist concerns combined with an incestuous chumminess ensured that the most influential among them heard little beyond flowery praise.
Blogs, and online political activism generally, changed all of that. Though they tried - hard - these journalists simply could not ignore the endless stream of criticisms directed at them. Everywhere they turned - their email inboxes, the comment sections to their columns, Q-and-A sessions at their public appearances, Google searches of their names, email campaigns to their editors - they were confronted for the first time with aggressive critiques, with evidence that not everyone adored them and some even held them in contempt (Chait's bizarre belief that "PC" culture thrived in the early 1990s and then disappeared until recently is, like his whole grievance, explained by his personal experience: he heard these critiques while a student at the University of Michigan, then was shielded from all of it during most of the years he wrote at The New Republic, and now hears it again due to blogs and social media).
What made the indignity so much worse was that the attacks came from people these journalists regard as nobodies: just average people, non-journalists, sometimes even anonymous ones. What right did they have even to form an opinion, let alone express one?
Read the full article at The Intercept.
© 2023 The Intercept
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