There is something grimly hilarious about writing a response to “Not Very P.C. Of You,” Jonathan Chait’s recent New York magazine screed on how feminists and people of color are ruining the left wing. The task at hand is to create a substantive take on something that is, by design, not substantive — to “add value” to something that was not created with “value” in mind. There’s also the fact that, by writing about Jonathan Chait, I am effectively doing the bidding of New York itself. New York is not paying any of us, except Jonathan Chait, and yet we still write promo copy for their latest issue. That’s how they win.
Chait’s piece purports to describe the rise of a new “political correctness,” with strong echoes of the first P.C. movement of the 1990s, which is set to invalidate privileged speakers, instigate witch-hunts and screaming matches in the place of reasoned public debate, overthrow traditional liberalism, and institute a chilling effect constraining speech from all who do not follow it to the letter. Which sounds pretty bad!
What he’s actually arguing, though, is that the Internet is now run by a bunch of Marxist feminists (I’d thank him for the shout-out, but I don’t run nearly as much of the Internet as I’d like) who are mostly women of color (well, this is about to get ugly) who are “undemocratic” and basically worse than conservatives (yep, it got ugly) and who also are out to destroy free speech, probably because they hate white men. Or something.
But this is only true insofar as Chait’s piece “argues” anything. Which it doesn’t.
To “argue” implies logic, cohesiveness and some attempt at persuasion. A piece which “argues” operates like a sales pitch for a new idea. Meanwhile, “Not Very P.C. Of You” operates like someone yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. It aims not to convince, but to incite chaos. It is a carefully engineered micro-controversy designed to anger lots of people, “go viral” on the back of their anger, and eventually get covered and linked to by other publications, because the number of people angered by it is high enough to be newsworthy.
It worked. We’re writing about it. Hurrah.
The profound laziness of Chait’s work becomes clear when you attempt to engage. As many feminist writers pointed out, it’s essentially a confusing, confused mish-mash of every article a woman has written about Internet conflict and rage cycles in the past five years, served with a hefty dose of blatant racism and white male tears that invalidates the very ideas it’s stealing.
If you agree with parts of it and hate other parts, that’s not because Chait is presenting a complex idea, or even because he’s incoherent: It’s because he’s copping his points from about a half-dozen other essays, and those essays actually don’t agree with each other.
Which bit do you like? The bit about social-media conflict and its potential chilling effects on speech, taken from a 2014 Michelle Goldberg piece in The Nation? The bit about rage cycles as clickbait, which you can find in a January 2014 piece by Katherine Cross? Are you interested in the idea of the outrage cycle as a mechanism that can be exploited by abusive people, which you can find in a 2011 piece by Flavia Dzodan, or this 2011 piece by me, or the aforementioned Cross piece? Or did you really just want to hone in on Chait’s dislike of trigger warnings in the academy, which is from this 2012 piece by Roxane Gay and/or one of its follow-ups, a round-table about trigger warnings in the academy, which we conducted right here at In These Times?
Similarly, looking for any original reporting in Chait’s essay is like looking for a swimming pool in the Sahara. His “quotes” tend to be lifted directly from other writers’ work — Samhita Mukhopadhyay’s quote originates from the Goldberg piece he’s ripping off; Freddie deBoer’s quote originates from an essay he wrote on Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish — or else from anonymous sources. Those sources may be anonymous because they fear the wrath of Twitter, but a far more likely alternative proposes itself when you hit Chait’s lengthy section on all those commie broads online not properly appreciating Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men: Rosin is, he admits, a personal friend.
Maybe Chait is giving voice to a vast underground community of feminism’s terror-struck victims — or maybe he’s just interviewing his social circle in an attempt to give the illusion of consensus. I know which one I’d lay money on, if I were the betting type.
It’s not just that Chait is no ace reporter. In fact, he seems to be unfamiliar with basic rules of the profession, like not publishing private material unless it is of urgent public interest. The biggest “scoop” in the article consists from a few out-of-context quotes stolen from Anna Fitzpatrick’s Facebook group Binders Full of Women, which is not only a locked, members-only group — Chait claims he got the quotes because they were leaked to him by a former member; once again, that member is anonymous, meaning we can’t trace her relationship with Chait or her motivation for providing the quote — but which explicitly states that its material is not to be used to beef up anyone’s journalistic resume. “No thinkpieces” is one of Binders’ first, and only, formal rules.
Needless to say, it seems like Fitzpatrick was not contacted for the piece, which paints the community she founded as an out-of-control, all-caps cesspool of constant brawls and iron-fisted censorship; indeed, “a kind of mental prison” — a pretty sweeping declaration to make, from a guy who’s never actually been there. But as newsworthiness goes, a couple of women shouting at each other on an Internet message board ain’t exactly the Snowden leaks.
Leaving aside the question of whether Binders is the Alcatraz of the Internet, there are at least a dozen similar fights about language and intersectionality on Tumblr every day; couldn’t he have quoted one of those? The answer, of course, is “no,” because that would have required research. Which Chait didn’t really do.
No new ideas; no new research; no new facts; no substance whatsoever. No reason, in fact, that Chait’s piece should have been deemed publishable. Yet it was, and pieces with all the same problems are published every day. So let’s step back for a moment, and examine what went so drastically wrong with media that Chait’s piece is not only publishable but business as usual for otherwise respectable publications. To defeat the Chait, you must know the Chait. Look, then, into the inferno that forged him.
In her fantastic book The People’s Platform, Astra Taylor dissects the vast economy of unpaid labor that fuels social media. The interesting thing about platforms like Facebook and Twitter is that they are really entertainment companies, with a large news division: They control an increasingly large majority of what you watch, read, listen to, and learn about the world. But they are successful precisely because they have divested themselves of the most burdensome costs of traditional media: They have no responsibility to locate, screen or pay the artists and journalists whose work they distribute.
Instead, social media companies make you do all that work; they trust you to provide an endless chain of interesting links and promotional copy for free. Your “likes” are calculated reward mechanisms, the little bits of validation that create a compulsion to “share” (that is, do unpaid writing, marketing and editorial work) and thereby keep the site relevant and engaging. Meanwhile, the relative “importance” of all this content is not determined by expert judgment, or even by humans: It’s compiled algorithmically, via Trending Topics and the like. The story with the most links is the story that the site officially promotes. So Facebook is, effectively, the single most widely read newspaper in the world — and it has no editors, no fact-checkers, no staff writers, no reporting budget, no political stance and no obligation to pay or provide benefits to any of the millions of people who work there.
It sounds grim. And it is grim, for some reasons we’ll discuss later: Unpaid labor is never a good development. Yet undeniably great and historic things have also come from this.
The use of algorithms-as-editors is precisely what allows young, marginalized and radical voices to circumvent media bias and make themselves heard. The power of a trending topic like #BlackLivesMatter or Mikki Kendall’s #solidarityisforwhitewomen is that, once enough people were using the hashtag, you couldn’t silence it; it was a front-page story created by popular vote. It worked not just because of its message but because the very fact that you heard that message meant it already had massive support.
This radically democratizing effect has enabled the rapid growth of the “SJ” (social justice) Internet, one of the biggest populist, left-wing movements in recent history — a thriving community of writers dedicated to anti-racist, pro-queer, feminist politics that are frequently far too radical for mainstream media.
In former days, these voices would have been blackballed, quietly prevented from publishing their work by an editorial freeze-out. Now, you can’t suppress their press coverage, because they’re the ones producing it. They don’t need to get into your paper or your media outlet, because they already run Twitter and Tumblr, two of the most powerful international media outlets in existence. You can’t ignore the members of this movement, you can’t shut them up or out, and there are more of them every day.
These are the very people Chait spends thousands of words insulting in New York. Ultimately, Chait’s isn’t a piece about campuses or communities or even feminism; it’s a piece about the SJ Internet. And that’s because it is, in the most perverse way imaginable, a piece written for the SJ Internet. The editors even address us in the dek: “Can a white male liberal critique the country’s current political-correctness craze (which, by the way, hurts liberals most)? We’re sure you’ll let us know.”
“You” being feminists and anti-racist activists online, the primary intended audience for — and highly effective, largely uncompensated marketing team behind — Chait’s piece. “Letting us know” being the enraged, contemptuous or defensive Tweets you are expected to write about it, each of which serves as a viral advertisement for the piece itself. The magazine is literally requesting that you do unpaid marketing work for New York, right at the top of its piece, but it’s disguising that naked begging as contempt and mockery, because that will anger you and therefore make you more likely to respond.
You see, the old media are well aware that Facebook and Twitter stand to make them irrelevant, or even put them out of business entirely. They are also very clear on the fact that the SJ Internet is one of the biggest and most reliable traffic-generation forces out there; that a simple hashtag or three-sentence Tumblr post from the right communities can get vastly more eyeballs than even the most laboriously constructed and socially necessary piece of shoe-leather reporting. Jonathan Chait needs feminist outrage more than feminist outrage needs him. But rather than, say, actually hiring writers who came up in those communities and can write things that are widely shared therein, publications like New York Magazine are trying to game the system.
Pandering is nothing new, and publications and brands do it all the time: Cover Girl ads now come with feminist hashtags. Plenty of sites now trade in a sort of substance-free “feminisn’t” designed to catch the SJ traffic wave. (My favorite recent example comes from the otherwise pretty great humor site Cracked.com: “4 Ways The Disney Princesses Invented Modern Feminism.” You might think, because Cracked is a humor site, that the listicle will mock the idea that Disney — rather than Mary Wollstonecraft, Simone de Beauvoir, or any of the thousands of passionate female activists who finally won women’s right to vote in 1920 — could have “invented” feminism. Take a look: It does not.) But Chait’s piece, and others like it, are far worse than mere pandering.
Chait recently bemoaned the fact that his former journalistic home the New Republic was bought by a former Facebook exec who wanted to turn it into “another Buzzfeed,” a site where articles are intentionally optimized for social-media traffic. But here’s the thing: Chait’s piece works exactly like a Buzzfeed article. Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti claims that “the best ideas don’t always win;” they don’t, so Chait’s article contains no ideas whatsoever. Instead, Peretti mandates that all Buzzfeed pieces have a “strong social imperative” to increase social-media sharing. In Chait’s case, the social imperative works something like this: If Chait steals my work, then calls me an idiot, I have an exceptionally strong “social imperative” to tell him to shove his opinion right back up the hole it came from. I hate-Tweet the URL to his piece, and bam! Traffic on his piece goes through the roof.
Chait styles himself as the defender of old-school progressive journalism, but the fact is, his magnum opus is one of the most cynical, lazy pieces of #content you’ll read all year. It goes beyond mere pandering, to open exploitation: It punches you in the face, then earns money every time you punch back. It relies, for traffic and relevance, on the very conversation — the very people — it insults. So there you are, shouting on social media about a publication that claims to be fundamentally above you, and that will never, ever hire or pay you, but which is more than okay with using you as an unpaid labor force to shore up its own profit.
Chait’s piece isn’t a piece; it’s a machine built to generate thinkpieces, and every Tweet is a viral ad. It worked. I wrote about it. But hopefully (and oh, the vain hope of a writer who wishes to actually accomplish something with content in 2015), I’ve also done something to illuminate the mix of cynicism and greed that fuels this machine, and others like it. So that when the next one comes down the line — and it will — we’ll all be a little bit more equipped to resist.