Jonathan Chait, Don’t be an Asshole

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.
Listen charitably.

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 Cumberbatch recently used the outdated phrase “colored people” in an interview.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.

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26 Responses

  1. Mike Stern says:

    Let me try to simplify further: “don’t do or say things that Corey Yung finds offensive.” Have I nailed it?

  2. Brett Bellmore says:

    “And if someone calls you are a racist, sexist, bigot, etc., …

    Step one: Apologize.”

    Usually step one for me is, explain that “racist” isn’t a content free insult, it actually has a meaning, and then go over why, regardless of whether whatever prompted them to yell “racist” at me bothered them, it didn’t fit with that meaning. Like, Islam isn’t a race, it isn’t racist to insist that people be treated without regard to their race, and so on.

    If they feel like apologizing for wrongly calling me a racist, I’ll be magnanimous, and accept the apology.

    But I think Mike may have nailed it. Sometimes being tone deaf is a virtue. In this case it certainly is.

    • Corey Yung says:

      Hi Brett,

      That approach seems to be problematic to me. If you know you would offend someone (eg by shouting “fuck” at their wedding), why would you want to do it? Simply because you have the “right” to do it doesn’t mean you should. Everything doesn’t need to be turned into a political battlefield.

      • Brett Bellmore says:

        Really, doesn’t it depend on whether it’s reasonable for the person to be offended, or they’re just choosing to take offense because that empowers them to demand you stop saying something they disagree with?

        You let people censor any expression that “offends” them, you’ll get people being “offended” at anything they don’t want said. Tyranny of the thin skinned.

      • Michael says:

        If by “apologize” you mean merely expressing regret that the person was offended and telling them it was not your intent to offend them, then I’d say that is indeed the polite thing to do. But I’d also say that this “non-apology apology” is all that politeness requires. Being open to the possibility that one has inadvertently said something offensive does not require uncritically conceding that anyone who claims offense does so reasonably, or even in good faith.

        • Corey Yung says:

          But why presume bad faith? Would you presume bad faith if the offensive incident didn’t involve a politically-charged subject like race, gender, or orientation? With Owen’s comment below, there were clear signs of bad faith. Otherwise, though, it strikes me as better for our society if we give sincere apologies out of respect and humility.

          • Owen says:

            >With Owen’s comment below, there were clear signs of bad faith.

            Out of curiosity, what were the signs of bad faith in my comment? I genuinely called you a racist, sexist bigot, and this is clearly a politically charged subject. Why didn’t you assume good faith on my part?

  3. Owen says:

    Corey Yung, you are a racist, a sexist, and a bigot.

    I’m patiently awaiting your apology and (optional) letter of thanks. Please do so in the comments so that everyone can see that you practice what you preach.

    • Corey Yung says:

      Hi Owen,

      If I actually believed you were calling me those things because I had said something offensive to you, I would apologize. One indicator that you were actually doing that would be to actually point to something I had said which was offensive. But we both know that isn’t what you are doing.

      But I have both apologized and thanked people (although not in written form) when they have told me that I have been an asshole. I’m glad they told me – I have no desire to be an asshole. I guessed I’m confused why anyone would. Same goes for being a racist, sexist, homophobe, etc. I’m happy to thank someone for helping me be a better person.

      • Owen says:

        Thank you for responding, Mr. Yung.

        >If I actually believed you were calling me those things because I had said something offensive to you, I would apologize.

        Ah, so your test that you so helpfully illustrated above is missing a step? From my reading, it doesn’t actually include any step for believing that you have offended me. So should we make that Step 0, maybe?

        Step 0: Believe that you have offended someone.
        Step 1: Apologize.
        Etc.

        That seems a bit more workable. But then we have to acknowledge that some people have differing opinions on what is offensive and therefore may have difficulty believing someone else is offended.

        > One indicator that you were actually doing that would be to actually point to something I had said which was offensive.

        Okay, so is this another step? One has to point to something that you said that was offensive, got it. So, let’s go back and edit your step-by-step chart again:

        Step 0: Believe that you have offended someone.
        Step 0.5: Ask them to point out something that has offended them.
        Step 1: Apologize.
        Etc.

        Is that a better version of your “don’t be an asshole rule?” Because, if it is, it really makes me wonder what the point and purpose of this post was. What is sounds like now is that you think people should apologize if they believe they’ve offended someone and are shown some sort of corroborating evidence. But I guess that’s less pithy than the formula in your post.

        To be clear, I was offended that you used the term “tone-deaf” in describing Mr. Chait’s article. You must know that there are many individuals in the world who are not blessed with fully functional hearing like we are. Some of them have real difficulty hearing certain tones. But you’ve used this handicap as an attack against Mr. Chait, thereby slighting all of the differently hearing-abled in the world. That is why I am offended.

        Do you believe me now? Will you apologize? Or is there yet another step in your formula that you forgot to mention?

  4. Corey Yung says:

    Hi Mike,

    That seems like a strained reading of my post (you might try reading it more charitably). I’m not saying that everyone should follow my desires or wishes in what they say. I’m saying there is a pretty low bar (don’t be an asshole) which most people want to meet and would cure a lot of the problems associated with offensive speech (without discussing political correctness at all).

    • Brett Bellmore says:

      But you’re also demonstrating that Chait is right, by taking it as a given that anybody who gets called a “racist” or so forth actually did something to justify the charge, and owes an apology.

      And that’s hardly the case. Charges of “racism” are routinely deployed today to shut down any line of argumentation the left doesn’t like. It’s an effort to make expressing disagreement with the left essentially impossible.

      Well, it’s been over-used to the point where we don’t care anymore, charges of “racism” have lost their sting. My first impulse on being called a racist isn’t to apologize, it’s to roll my eyes.

    • Curmudgeonly Ex-Clerk says:

      Construing others remarks with charity is a real virtue. But I don’t think a charitable reading could rescue your post. The central problem is that you have laid down a rule—don’t be an asshole—without articulating a coherent definition of assholehood. It’s this Potter Stewart—I know it when I see it—approach that prompted Mike Stern’s remark. Sure, there are paradigm instances that most reasonable people would recognize as being an asshole. But there are plenty that are not, particularly when assholery is quasi-defined to include racist and sexist behavior, which are themselves the subject of intense debate.

      The rule cannot be that politeness or decency requires an apology in instances in which most reasonable people would not take offense. I can think of instances in which I would apologize without reference to the reasonableness of the offended party, but such acquiescence is not invariably warranted or desirable. If one always rewards idiosyncratic or opportunistic sensitivity in this fashion, you’ll get more of it. A willingness to apologize—in the sense of admitting that you committed a wrong, however inadvertently, and seeking forgiveness—also is a real virtue. But it does not seem particularly virtuous to require apologies without reference to whether an actual wrong was committed.

      • Corey Yung says:

        I don’t think you need a complete definition or theory of “asshole” to adopt the rule (fallacy of the heap). My post was intended to connect “asshole” moves that everyone would agree on (“fuck” at a funeral) with those that have been warped into something else in battles over political correctness (“Redskins” or revenge porn). People may certainly quibble with me over whether those are truly “asshole,” moves, but why not err on the side of caution? The bogeyman of political correctness hardly seems worth regularly being offensive, in my opinion.

        • Curmudgeonly Ex-Clerk says:

          I agree that an exhaustive definition is not necessary. But we do need a concept that is sufficiently robust to determine whether our very general rule—don’t be an asshole—might be applicable in a given set of circumstances. Otherwise, the rule is too indeterminate to serve as a practical guide to our everyday behavior (or as an effective critique of Chait’s position on political correctness).

          As you say in your post, the rule has “many” applications, but you supply “just a few” examples. In analogous cases, we’ll know what to do. But I don’t think the rule provides much guidance beyond the few instances, unless you truly mean that an apology should be forthcoming whenever offense is expressed by anyone. I gather this is not the case; your response to Owen’s tongue-in-cheek comment suggests that there are limits to the rule, albeit unstated ones.

          For example, is the rule applicable in the following instance? Yesterday, the Army tweeted a link to an article about the equipment of special operations soldiers. The tweet was entitled “Chinks in special ops’ digital and physical armor pose challenges, experts say.” This led to accusations that the Army had used a racial slur and demands for an apology. The Army since has deleted the tweet, but apparently has not apologized—so far. See Katherine Timpf, Army Deletes Tweet About ‘Chinks In Armor’ After People Cry Racism, National Review Online (Jan. 30, 2015). Is this subject to the rule or not? Why or why not?

          I think your attempt to tie uncontroversial misbehavior—swearing at a funeral—with more controversial claims of misbehavior—“Redskins” as a team moniker—makes definitional clarity all the more necessary. Your rejoinder is that the “[t]he bogeyman of political correctness hardly seems worth regularly being offensive.” But in more controversial instances—like the Redskins example or the Army tweet example—whether the conduct at issue is (or should be regarded as being) genuinely offensive is part and parcel of the underlying dispute.

          In response to some of the other comments, you indicate that you are trying to reframe the issue in a more general sense, rather than address every instance or argument. But I do not think your approach promises to be constructive as a more general reframing either. Take the Army tweet example. As you may have surmised, I think the Army owes no one an apology. But we certainly could debate the subject in a polite, civil fashion. If the starting point of our discussion, however, is that I am being an “asshole” or ill-mannered lout, that’s not likely to be a fruitful exchange. Reframing the issue of political correctness solely as a matter of one side’s lack of courtesy or good manners personalizes disputes in a way that is unhelpful.

          • Owen says:

            >I agree that an exhaustive definition is not necessary. But we do need a concept that is sufficiently robust to determine whether our very general rule—don’t be an asshole—might be applicable in a given set of circumstances.

            In addition to your wonderfully well thought out comment, I just want to chime in and point out that we may also need to include a general statement of whether and in what circumstances being an “asshole” under said definition would be appropriate. There are excuses and justifications for all kinds of criminal conduct – surely society excuses its members acting like an “asshole” in some circumstances. Society may even marginally benefit in some instances. Maybe there should be a balancing test of some kind.

  5. Oceanus says:

    IF I were an over-sensitive person I might take some umbrage at Mr. Yung’s womanish remarks. However, I find that people of is sensibilities are very easily baited, and I sometimes amuse myself by dropping some word of phrase, like “fairy” or “person of color” etc. that will elicit an indignant response. Almost invariably, I then get called a racist ,sexist ,homophobe, etc. I do this notwithstanding that I am none of the above. And why? Because there is something perverse in me that loves to see the PC hornets (speech police, etc.) fly up. AND FLY UP THEY ALWAYS DO!!! .Mr. Yung is one of those individuals who like to see people crawl, especially people who don’t give two figs for his Sesame Street sensibilities. APOLOGIZE, he say in the imperative . He is a proponent of what I have come to call PINK FASCISM, the force-engine of the effete and neurasthenic. (Whoops, I almost said “the fairies!”)

  6. Mike Stern says:

    Corey- if you were simply trying to say that people should try to avoid giving unnecessary offense to others, I would have no problem with that. That is simply good manners. But it certainly sounded like you were picking out things that YOU find offensive (like the name of my football team) and demanding that others not speak of those things. Perhaps that seems like a distinction without a difference to you. But it’s not.

    • Corey Yung says:

      I didn’t want to shy away from issues that people angrily disagree about (“Redskins” and revenge porn being two specific examples from my post). My goal was to ask those who believe political correctness is a threat to American culture to look at those same subjects from a different angle – as you put it, good manners.

  7. AYY says:

    Prof Yung, This is not one of your better posts. I don’t understand why you felt the need to write it. You haven’t engaged Chait’s arguments. Many of the things you advocate are not really problems for the blog’s readership. You don’t explain what the problem is with slut shaming. Your example of Cumberbatch suggests that you were a little weak this time on that “is” and “ought” thingy. And why imply that Chait is an a–hole?

    But where you really missed the point is on the apology thing. Your recommendation brarnds you as an SJW’ and a “blue piller..” As other commenters have said or implied, calling someone a racist, sexist, etc. is usually an attempt to end the discussion. Your beliefs don’t have to meet with someone else’s approval. If someone calls you a racist or sexist or whatever, an appropriate response is to roll your eyes and say “oh so one of those” or you just say “lame”.

    • Corey Yung says:

      My post wasn’t intended to engage the entirety of Chait’s arguments (there are hundreds of other people already doing that). I just wanted to point to potential common ground between those who are worried about political correctness and those targeting offensive speech. I think Chait’s fundamental premise along with a couple of his specific arguments are misdirected.

      I would disagree that “usually” calling someone a “racist, sexist, etc.” is an attempt to end discussion. But your experience may vary. Regardless, I don’t hide that issues of diversity, gender, race are very important to me. But rather than simply post why I think Chait is wrong, I sought to reframe the discussion a bit. I don’t expect miraculous change based upon my rhetorical move – I just want to encourage some people to look at the issue a bit differently.

      • Owen says:

        >I don’t expect miraculous change based upon my rhetorical move – I just want to encourage some people to look at the issue a bit differently.

        And the way to do that is to imply that they are an asshole if they don’t follow your instructions? That could be just a smidgen offensive, don’t you think?

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