In today’s New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait has published a tone-deaf article against liberal efforts to call people out for saying or writing offensive things. Chait uses every empty, meaningless phrase it takes to write such an article: “political correctness,” “language police,” “censorship,” and “thought-criminal.” Of course he discusses Charlie Hebdo because you have to talk about Charlie Hebdo and surrendering to terrorists if you want to talk about “political correctness” these days.
After learning from discussions with many people holding views similar to Chait, I have had some success in distilling the problems of offensive speech to simpler terms. I call it the “don’t be an asshole” rule. It lacks nuance, I admit.
The applications of “don’t be an asshole” are many. Here are just a few:
Don’t yell “fuck” in the middle of a wedding ceremony or funeral.
Don’t fart in someone’s face.
Don’t post your ex-girlfriend’s nude pictures online.
Don’t name your sports team an offensive ethnic slur.
Don’t call women “sluts” even if you believe in your heart-of-hearts that you also call promiscuous men “sluts.”
Don’t use ethnic, religious, homophobic, racial, sexist slurs.
Recognize that you might be racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise bigoted and not know it.
And if someone calls you are a racist, sexist, bigot, etc., the “don’t be an asshole” rule even has a course of action to take:
Step one: Apologize.
Step two (optional): Thank the person for letting you know (assuming you don’t want to be an asshole in the future).
Step three: Don’t be an asshole again.
It’s really not that hard. If you follow these basic, limited steps, you don’t have to worry about the “politically correct” “thought police” “censoring” your thoughts and letting the terrorists win.
For an exhibit of what to do when you say something offensive, see Benedict Cumberbatch yesterday. Cumberbatch recently used the outdated phrase “colored people” in an interview. For Brits like Cumberbatch, the phrase doesn’t carry, from my understanding, the same baggage that it does in the states. Did Cumberbatch, thus, fight back and say that listeners had it all wrong because they didn’t understand his intent and/or cultural background? No. Did the “thought police” do horrible, horrible things to him? No. This is what Cumberbatch said after being called out for his language: “I’m devastated to have caused offense by using this outmoded terminology. I offer my sincere apologies. I make no excuse for my being an idiot and know the damage is done.” That’s it. Problem solved. Benedict Cumberbatch is not an asshole. Jonathan Chait, don’t be an asshole.