IRS records will note that as a child I was the founder of two clubs, the first of which was an acronym of friends’ first names and the second of which was called the Junior Killers, later changed to Junior Spies after an intervention from an agitated Mrs. Purple. Half the point of these secret societies, of course, was devising a secret code. Like most young boys we reveled in this stuff, aided by monthly suggestions from the “Codemaster” section of Boys’ Life magazine. And woe to the member who suggested the shopworn “One means A, two means B” trick.
I bring this up because Jonathan Chait recently wrote a piece for New York magazine that suggests academic liberals have taken up my childhood diversion—and their codes are far more impenetrable than anything I ever invented.
Chait’s article is a rare example of a liberal critiquing the left’s obsession with political correctness. It documents all the usual examples of PC censorship, which at this point are beyond parody. (Did you know the Vagina Monologues was recently canceled at Mount Holyoke College because it discriminates against women who don’t have vaginas?)
But the most striking part of the piece is the jargon. Chait is constantly interjecting to translate acronyms and bits of gibberish into plain English. Take this sentence from a poster on a Facebook group called Binders Full of Women Writers: “Binders is pretty diverse, but if you’re not seeing many WOC/non-binary POC in your discussion, it’s quite possible that there are problematic assumptions being stated without being challenged.” WOC apparently means “women of color,” POC is “people of color,” and “non-binary” means transsexual, or transgendered, or floating in the ether somewhere between male and female.
Then there’s this: “Because when POC speak on these conversations with snark and upset, we get Tone Argumented at, and I don’t really want to deal with the potential harm to me and mine.” Chait doesn’t provide an annotation for Tone Argumented, but the capital letters suggest it’s the sort of inherently outrageous term usually employed by direct mail writers (the Federal Government has a new Executive Order!).
Liberal academics speak like this because they’re obsessed with identity politics. They see society as organized into groups and are determined to refer to those groups without sounding offensive. And since the threshold for offense has been lowered to the level of a limbo bar at a drunken house party, the English language must be rinsed and sterilized accordingly. Hence “non-binary POC,” which sounds like something I forgot during a high school chemistry quiz.
Left alone, society will defang some of our language naturally. It’s perfectly understandable that gays would want a term less clinical than “homosexual” or blacks less historically abused than “colored,” so we’ve semi-retired those words. There are plenty of gray areas and awkward moments here. Benedict Cumberbatch was recently attacked for an otherwise harmless lament about “colored actors.” Well-meaning Boston grandfathers haven’t quite let go of “queer.” Nigel Farage saying he enjoys fags is politically unspeakable on both sides of the Atlantic for entirely different reasons. But all these prohibitions exist to maintain a societal baseline of respect. We don’t scream swear words at funerals and we don’t use dated epithets.
The problem is that the left has stretched this prohibitive umbrella to the point of absurdity. Chait explores this with the popularization of the non-word “mansplaining.” Coined in 2008 to describe men who condescend to women, it’s since been expanded to include “whitesplaining” and “straightsplaining,” and defined down to mean any time an Anglo male answers the door. As Chait writes, “mansplaining” is now “an all-purpose term of abuse that can be used to discredit any argument by any man.”
This isn’t about fighting sexism. It’s about dismissing arguments you don’t like by invoking the sex of the arguer—something that comes hazardously close to sexism itself. It’s fueled by the culture of the Internet, where the easiest way to win a debate is with an ad hominem attack or a bucketful of snark. And yet, as Chait documents, it’s the professionals who are doing this—alleged writers and self-described poets.
This process is supposed to weed out offensive epithets, but not all offensive epithets are created equal. Thus after the Binders Full of Women Writers discussion predictably degenerated into a grievance-mongering farce, one of the posters demanded in all-caps that her fellow writers stop mocking her and instead “SPEND TIME SHUTTING DOWN AND SHITTING ON RACIST DOUCHE CANOE BEHAVIOUR.”
That’s a curious way to put it. “Douche canoe” is a term that’s recently become popular in the blogosphere. I don’t know what it means, but I think it’s when one blogger declares war on another blogger by floating a boat into his camp filled with hygiene products. Anyways, after screaming about douche canoes and committing what could be considered a microaggression against Christians (“JESUS F–K, LIKE SERIOUSLY F–K”), she then offers “HUGS TO ALL THE WOC DURING THIS THREAD.” We wouldn’t want to distress them with f–king inflammatory language, would we?
Here is the great irony of political correctness. The past fifty years have seen the unshackling of our language from many taboos. George Carlin’s seven words you can’t say on TV are now uttered routinely on HBO and certain late-night hosts subsist almost solely by inserting the F-word into otherwise unfunny sentences. And yet while we’re free to be scatological, we’re simultaneously persecuted for identity politics infractions. We’re expected to be both brasher and terrified of brashness. It’s weirdly paradoxical.
It also bears no relation to normal speech. Forget about the humor of defying political correctness as practiced by shows like South Park; most people just want to speak clearly. Today’s leftist jargon consists, as George Orwell once described political speech, “largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness.” Ten years after George Lakoff tried to teach liberals how to talk like the common man, they’re retreating back into their secret societies and passing notes with words like “cisgendered,” which my Microsoft Word document still underlines in censorious red. In trying not to offend protected minorities, they’ve abandoned the plainspoken majority.
At least when my friends and I came up with codes, we were trying to exclude others—which, come to think of it, was a pretty severe microaggression. What a fleet of douche canoes we must have been.