Jan 29, 2015 · 4 minutes

The Internet rabble of journalists, academics, and other negligibly productive members of society with nothing better to do than read and argue on the Web (myself included) has been all hopped up over the last 24 hours about "political correctness."

It began when New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait wrote that political correctness -- and the self-censorship that occurs when people are scared of bringing the wrath of the social media outrage machine upon their heads -- is hurting political discourse, particularly on the American Left. Many commentators pointed out the hypocrisy of the article which, despite being an argument against policing speech, was itself an example of what Chait was complaining about. Talking Points Memo's Amanda Marcotte wrote:

Most of the piece is little more than demands that liberals silence certain forms of discourse that make Chait uncomfortable. For a piece that mocks the use of 'trigger warnings' to alert people about disturbing content, it sure seems Chait has no problem trying to silence anyone who says something that might hurt his feelings.
Gawker's Alex Pareene makes an equally salient point: that women and minority groups are forced to abide far more "speech policing" than un-PC white males like Chait and Bill Maher. Before you jump on Pareene for bringing Chait's race and gender into the discussion, Chait himself drew first blood, teasing the article by asking, "Can a white, liberal man critique a culture of political correctness?"

Here's Pareene:

Just this month, Duke University announced that it would not allow a weekly Muslim call to prayer to happen at the campus chapel, following criticism and threats from Christians and evangelical leaders. This is what speech policing in America actually looks like: Like regular policing, it's wielded primarily by people in power against marginalized groups and anti-mainstream opinions.
Chait's post is indeed terrible. But that doesn't mean he is entirely wrong that the P.C. movement is problematic -- he simply cites the wrong reasons. The issue isn't that ultra-liberal thought police have stopped guys like Chait from speaking their mind. It obviously hasn't. It's that when every lapse in political correctness, big or small, is painted with the same brush and treated like a crime against humanity, it threatens to minimize the very worst bits of racist, sexist, and other hateful rhetoric.

As Slate's exhaustive "Year of Outrage" retrospective proved, not all controversies are created equal, and not all dumb tweets are equally dumb. And yet, the P.C. movement, amplified by social media mobbery, demands that anything that may offend anybody, whether through poor taste or poor wording, receive a good public shaming, regardless of degree of severity.

In late 2013, IAC's PR boss Justine Sacco posted a ridiculously ill-advised and desperately unfunny tweet upon taking a trip to Africa: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"

Sacco was fired after Sam Biddle -- who now feels remorse for doing so -- reposted the tweet to Valleywag, igniting an immense conflagration of anger on social media. I don't blame IAC for firing her; even though Sacco claims she was being "ironic," to display such recklessness on Twitter is undoubtedly a liability for a PR rep of a large, publicly traded media organization. But based on the reaction on social media, you would think Sacco was a card-carrying member of a white supremacy group.

Again, I entirely understand why many were offended. I was offended. Even if Sacco intended to highlight the absurdity of how Americans think about the AIDS epidemic in Africa, the tweet was shamelessly insensitive. But within the canon of terrible things said on social media, Sacco's tweet should barely move the needle. What about the daily barrage of rape threats, veiled or otherwise, lobbed at feminists by Gamergate idiots? Or what about the countless photos of African Americans which have been reused whenever there's a racially-charged demonstration like the ones in Ferguson, photoshopped to suggest that the protesters are more violent or irresponsible than they really are?

But the Internet is only capable of so much outrage, and the P.C. movement has a tendency to conflate every slight made against minorities, women, and yes, even white straight males, as equally terrible. When everyone's offended by everything it's exhausting, leaving no remaining outrage to direct at people who actually deserve it. Furthermore, attacking someone on the grounds of political correctness is a great way to shut down a conversation immediately, even if the speaker simply used the wrong words.

That said, the anti-P.C. movement that Chait trumpets can be just as bad, and is often used as a cover when someone says something truly racist and stupid. But even then, maybe we should concentrate less on what a person says and more on coming up with solutions to the inequality problems in America (and around the globe); issues like why women still get paid less than men, why rape victims are regularly treated with more suspicion than their accused rapists, and why poor people of all races are systematically fucked over by the justice system.

But as the armchair activism of social media continually proves, people would prefer to argue about the tiniest bullshit than to face the truly big problems, which can't be fixed by merely launching a hashtag Twitter campaign of public shaming.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]