“Twitter got into a rage over Patricia Arquette’s Comments in the Oscar Press Room,” is how Buzzfeed described the ensuing online outcry. “It is definitely not time for ‘all the gay people’ and ‘all the people of color’ to set aside their own battle for equality in order to fight for straight, white women now,” thundered Amanda Marcotte in a piece for Slate titled, “Patricia Arquette’s Feminism: Only for White Women.” A blogger for Fusion.net accused the actress of “feminist whitesplaining.” Arquette stepped in it. By seemingly prioritizing the struggles of one historically disadvantaged group (women) over those of others (blacks, Latinos, gays, etc.), Arquette ran afoul of the rules of the identity-politics game foisted upon our political discourse by the self-appointed, Twitter-enabled arbiters of the “national conversation.”
Arquette may have been unfamiliar with a recent essay in New York magazine by Jonathan Chait, an important salvo from the mainstream liberal camp in this ever-evolving intellectual battle. Sparked by a series of controversies related to alleged sexual assaults on college campuses, debates over depictions of the prophet Muhammad, and a widespread “attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate,” Chait assailed what he described as a rising intolerance on the left.
Chait was praised for his truth-telling bravery in some quarters. But like Susan Sontag’s belated realization—in 1982—that “communism is fascism with a human face,” Chait was merely giving voice to what any moderately sentient American had realized a long time ago: that various voices on the left use hot-button words and the mob effects of social media to avoid the niceties—and the risks—of actual debate, by making it appear as if opponents have, by using the wrong word, or, in Arquette’s case, failing to recite a politically approved formula in the exact right order (“the real issue for working single women is taxes not wage equity!”), condemned themselves to a pit of hellfire, a spectacle bound to frighten any sensible person without 100,000 angry Twitter followers into remaining silent. Indeed, though Chait was pilloried by many progressives for his piece, in reality his essay was simply a long exploration of a point made a few weeks earlier in the same magazine by Chris Rock, who declared political correctness to be “back stronger than ever” in an interview with Frank Rich. (Interestingly, when Rock said it, no one in the political correctness squad reacted.)Interestingly, but not surprisingly.