Human Lives as Abstract Thought Experiments

A passage from Jonathan Chait's controversial New York Magazine essay on the creeping threat of "political correctness" in liberal journalist and academic circles solidified thoughts I've been having about privilege and white intellectualism for some time now. These thoughts also apply to lawyers.

If you have a lot of time to kill, you can read Chait's just-shy-of-5000 words essay here. Excellent critical responses are available from Glenn Greenwald and Alex Pareene.

After publishing a hostile internal exchange among women journalists in a private online group (to which Chait was not originally privy to, obviously, but heard about second-hand from a concerned anonymous source), Chait complains that calls for racial and gender inclusiveness in discussions are really just a form of "policing" and interfere with free expression and debate.

He goes on to write:

The p.c. style of politics has one serious, possibly fatal drawback: It is exhausting. Claims of victimhood that are useful within the left-wing subculture may alienate much of America.

It is impossible for reasonable people to deny that many have been and are currently victimized by American government, law, and social forces. Slavery, Jim Crow, the denial of suffrage to women, Native American genocide and isolation, discriminatory marriage laws...the list goes on.

White men like Chait and me haven't been the target of much injustice, however. We've had it pretty good overall. Sure, there is individual hardship and suffering (neither Chait nor I are billionaires or kings), but white men enjoy considerable privileges denied to others. We occupy a social and civic place of deference and power to which other groups such as women and racial minorities can only dream.

As a result, white, educated men like Chait and me tend to view important social questions through an abstract lens. Questions of justice and policy are intellectual exercises in which we can ponder options of various weight and validity from a detached, academic distance.

For example, the question of whether gay people should be allowed to be married is a question that is in some ways purely academic to someone like me. I'm a straight white man married to a straight white woman. The law has always allowed me to marry so I take it for granted. I am not someone who has ever been denied the right to marry because my skin color, my gender, and my orientation have always conformed to the legal and social status quo. I can view the question of gay marriage, therefore, from a detached, intellectual distance. The answer to that question, yes or no, does not directly affect me personally. My marriage remains unaffected by the outcome. My rights are not in question.

But for two men turned away from the county clerk's office and who are denied the right to marry, the question is not abstract or academic at all. It is deeply personal. On some level, their basic personhood - their right to participate fully in our civic culture - has been denied. They have been victimized, and it is impossible for them to view the question of their own humanity in an abstract, intellectual way.

Which takes me back to Chait's dismissal of "claims of victimhood" which are "useful within the left-wing subculture." Chait seems to suggest that such "claims" are something akin to debate tactics. A rhetorical weapon used to score points in an abstract tussle of intellects.

This passage immediately made me think of the familiar cry of racist whites who stalk online newspaper web sites. The mere mention of racial injustice by anyone immediately inspires accusations of "playing the race card," a sinister and unfair trump exploited by black people to shut down otherwise fair debate with good-natured white folks. If you view discussions about social justice as nothing more than an academic exercise or an abstract debate, this makes sense.

But if you don't enjoy such privilege - if the outcome of a "debate" on race is that your son or your father or you are shot in the street by police with impunity, for example - trying to illuminate the racial injustice from which you suffer is not a mere debate tactic or an unfair rhetorical trick. It is literally a matter of life and death. You're not playing a card, you're begging for acknowledgment and justice. You're begging to not be shot dead, unarmed in the street, simply because of who you are.

To Chait and other white men who bemoan the imminent decline of civil free expression, not being able to suggest literally any idea without being immediately criticized for it is a sign of a society gone awry.

Chait used to write for The New Republic, a bastion of center-liberal thought that was at one point considered the most influential magazine in elite D.C. circles. The magazine, though lauded by white male intellectuals for its thoughtfulness, became infamous for the casual and unrepentant racism of its former publisher Martin Peretz. TNR advocated for welfare reform during the presidency of Bill Clinton by exploiting racist and sexist stereotypes, for example.

Recently, after TNR came under new ownership and much of its editorial staff quit in protest, Ta-Nehisi Coates, an African-American author at the Atlantic, took the publication to task for its racist legacy. Among TNR's worst moments was a lengthy "debate" over the validity of Charles Murray's "Bell Curve" hypothesis, which holds that blacks, as a whole, have lower I.Q.s and intelligence than whites due to genetic predispositions.

Former TNR editor Andrew Sullivan took offense to Coates' negative portrayal of his old magazine. You see, Sullivan argued, TNR wasn't racist because it fostered an even debate about the Bell Curve, not a one-sided endorsement of it:

I completely respect those who believed that the right approach was to ignore [the Bell Curve] entirely and treat it as a pariah text; or to publish only definitive, devastating take-downs. But I hope that an issue-long, 28-page debate on the subject can also be seen as a legitimate alternative option, especially if you’re on the liberal part of the left.
It is an axiom of mine that anything can be examined and debated – and that the role of journalism is not to police the culture but to engage in it forthrightly and honestly.

This is an attitude that Jonathan Chait clearly shares. The reason they're so comfortable examining and debating "anything" - including the suggestion that black people are subhuman - is because they're part of a grand "liberal tradition." It's also because they're white men, and somehow the argument that they are genetically subhuman never makes the list of topics to intellectually discuss.

Now the mandatory disclaimer: I, too, think debate should be free and open and confront complicated, controversial topics. That said, I depart from Chait insofar that calls to be mindful of privilege and those victimized by our society and justice system somehow shuts down that debate. If anything, it helps illuminate and educate unvictimized people to the plights of those less fortunate. It is a good thing. It is valuable.

As Greenwald and Pareene explain, much of Chait's frustration is really just a result of no longer feeling untouchable atop the social and intellectual totem pole as a white man with extensive academic and journalistic credentials. But his frustration is also borne from a sense of inconvenience. From being required to take stock of himself and his own biases before making certain arguments or entertaining certain ideas (like the subhuman stature of black intellect).

Too often our government, our legal system, and our halls of academia ignore the voices of the marginalized and oppressed. They all remain, to this day, dominated by white men, most of them wealthy. And make no mistake, there are many marginalized and oppressed people in this great country of ours. Including additional voices in the discussion, or simply calling attention to their mere existence, is not a chill on free expression. If anything, it is a sign that free expression is blossoming because more voices can be heard.

And always bear in mind, what may seem like an innocent, intellectual discussion to you may be a matter of life and death to someone else. For far too long the voice of just one type of person has been heard. That has caused great injustice and the stifling of debate. Including more people at the table, and criticizing the voices of those before not often criticized, is something this country needs more than ever.