There are many things to be said about Jonathan Chait’s recent article attacking Political Correctness, and Lindsay Beyerstein says most of them, incredibly well. But what I want to talk about is a small, fascinating fact. This is that he has embraced one of the more controversial ideas of 1990s feminism– that speech can silence other speech, and in ways that are so difficult to fight that a free speech advocate should be concerned. Not all of his examples are like this– as Beyerstein rightly notes, a couple of them are examples of vandalism and theft on the part of leftists. But I’m interested in the ones that are.
First, some background. Feminist critics of pornography like Catharine MacKinnon, Rae Langton and Jennifer Hornsby have famously argued that pornography can silence the speech of women. There are lots of ways that this claim can be criticised (and I myself have criticised Langton’s version of it). But one of the most standard sort of criticisms is to insist that women aren’t silenced– that they can and should fight back through speech. It doesn’t make any sense, this line goes, to suppose that speech can silence in the way that they suggest. (Though of course even those making this argument acknowledge that speech in the form of censorship laws can silence.)
Often, the debate between “free speech” proponents and their critics is cast by free speech proponents as a conflict between those who think all speech should be seen as contributing to the free flow of ideas (defenders of free speech) and those who make the misguided claim that some speech silences, and thus works against the ideal of free speech. That’s what Chait at first seemed to be doing in his article. But then he turned his attention to those who “call out” microaggressions, and gave extended examples of how this sort of criticism, especially online, can have a silencing effect. He also discussed the case of a writer who felt silenced by an outpouring of online criticism of her views. In these discussions, he was clearly taking the side of those who felt silenced by speech of others. And he was clearly outraged.
This move of Chait’s is interesting as it means that in his case both sides are in agreement that speech may be silencing in such a pernicious way that one shouldn’t just shrug and say that more speech is the remedy. The disagreement, then is simply over which kinds of speech are of this kind. And a fascinating fact about Chait’s article is that the kind he is critical of is actually the kind that “free speech” advocates usually consider the most untouchable– substantive political criticism.
(I think there’s a huge amount of interesting work to be done, by the way, on ways that “calling out” can silence, and on the issue of when such silencing is problematic and when it isn’t. I don’t have settled views on this. But I’d rather not get into that in comments.)