If You Tweet This, Jonathan Chait Wins

Chait styles himself as the defender of old-school liberalism, but the fact is, “Not Very P.C. Of You” is one of the most cynical, lazy pieces of #content you’ll read all year.

Sady Doyle January 29, 2015

(Spencer E. Holtaway / Flickr)

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. 

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.

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.

Sady Doyle is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. She is the author of Train­wreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beat­down. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter at @sadydoyle.
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