I wish the Internet came with a manual. I wish my parents had sat me down as a lad and told me, “John, this is when you should argue in good faith; this is when you should hold your tongue; and this is when you should just troll.” Of course the Internet is the Wild West, and my parents maybe knew how to use AOL when I was growing up, so, when New York Magazine let Jonathan Chait’s 5,000 words of #content slide onto the Internet, I had absolutely no idea what to do.
I confess my first impulse was to troll — or try to, anyway. I’m not a very adept troll. I read with relish Alex Pareene’s Gawker piece, “Punch-Drunk Jonathan Chait Takes on the Entire Internet” (of “here is sad white man Jonathan Chait” fame), posted it approvingly to Facebook, and tried to canoe myself into a couple of Twitter fights on the subject. No one bit. An old professor mentioned that this might be a time for holding my tongue, which was probably good advice.
Before I could turn off the part of my brain that gets annoyed at Internet-thinkpieceoffery, an old blogging friend decided to engage, approvingly posting Fredrick DeBoer’s first long response, “I don’t know what to do, you guys”. DeBoer notes that:
Jon Chait is a jerk who somehow manages to be both condescending and wounded in his piece on political correctness. He gets the basic nature of language policing wrong, and his solutions are wrong, and he’s a centrist Democrat scold who is just as eager to shut people out of the debate as the people he criticizes. That’s true.DeBoer’s piece was exhilarating. It handily sidestepped Chait’s argument while making several good points about the excesses of what Chait would call “p.c. culture”. If I could, I would commission DeBoer to write Chait’s piece for him. I don’t doubt that it would still have inspired vociferous debate — DeBoer is a polarizing figure — but I think the debate would have been less sensational, less personal, and a whole lot more productive. But, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you write the thinkpiece about the other thinkpeice you have, not about the other thinkpiece you want.
Because of that vociferous debate, Chait released a follow-up piece, and let me tell you, he is shocked — shocked! — that people are reading him into his piece. In his new rebuttal, he quotes this tweet by Rebecca Schoenkopf: “[I]t’s a lot easier for you all to roll your eyes and go ‘white man’ than actually discuss whether chilling of disagreeable speech is okay.” I agree. It is easy to say that Chait is a manbaby whose #maletears taste good. (I don’t necessarily disagree that Chait is a manbaby whose #maletears taste good, but that’s another piece altogether). If Chait wants us to take him at his word that his piece — replete with sad ones who are being accused of mansplaining — is not about him, well, I suppose I ought to engage with that. So, let’s engage.