One of the first widespread uses of the telegraph, when it emerged in and then transformed the 19th century, was a mundane one: the sharing of local weather information. Corn speculators in England began sending terse messages to each other, things like Derby, very dull; York, fine; Leeds, fine; Nottingham, no rain but dull and cold. These were the first weather reports, afforded by our newfound ability to spread information, across long distances, instantly. And they were, in their brief starts and stops, revolutionary. In his wonderful book The Information, James Gleick describes the unintended epistemic effects of those little weather updates: “The telegraph,” he writes, “enabled people to think of weather as a widespread and interconnected affair, rather than an assortment of local surprises.” It allowed us, for the first time, to conceive of weather as a system: patterned, understandable, predictable.
It’s easy to forget, gravitational forces being what they are, that we are living in the midst of a similar revolution. Now, though, the impressionistic reports being sent—fine, dull, very dull—are of ourselves, and the systems being revealed are human ones. It’s cliché to talk about the Internet’s capacity to democratize culture and give voice to the voiceless and nullify the vagaries of geographical distance; such sweeping niceties, though, are convenient euphemisms for the effects of life lived in, as it were, interesting times. We have marched through most of our history, as a default, mostly mysterious to each other, closed off by walls not just of distance, but of flesh and bone. We have been tragically, and also conveniently, limited in our understanding of what it’s like—what it feels like, intimately and mundanely—to be somebody else. This has been a source of anxiety and agony and poetry and pretty much every song ever written by Taylor Swift; it has also defined our social contracts. We have been locked, together, in a bond of broken silences, wandering and wondering and forced to trust in the tenuous connection between what we say and what we think.
And now we have Facebook and Twitter and Wordpress and Tumblr and all those other platforms that take our daily doings and transform them into media. Our newest communications technologies are also, by default, technologies of exposure. We are, tweet by tweet and post by post, becoming slightly less invisible to each other—and revealing ourselves, through the Internet’s alchemy, not just as individual collections of experiences and identities, but also as human systems. By sharing who we are, intimately and mundanely, we are making ourselves visible and readable to each other in ways we have never been before. We are participating in a voluntary anthropology of unprecedented scope and scale. We are opening our minds to each other, saying, directly and publicly: “This is what it’s like to be me.”
Which is, of course, awesome. It’s democratizing and liberating and transformative and insert whatever other sweeping nicety you prefer here. But it is also a matter of predictable anxiety. For one thing, this particular technological shift, like so many that have come before, threatens the people who used to hold positions of authority. (Those storied gatekeepers!) The bigger thing, though, is that this sudden exposure of otherness—all that literal mind-reading, happening on a mass scale—has led to a kind of cognitive chaos. All these experiences and perspectives and opinions and I thinks and yeah buts and how could yous, buzzing and humming and screaming and insisting. All these you can’t say thats and check your privileges. All this indignation. All this outrage.
The aggregate political value of this discourse, even when that value is diluted with the familiar trappings of the grievance economy, is so obvious that it’s barely worth mentioning. What could be more democratic than this messy jumble of opinions and perspectives? Who doesn’t benefit from the checking of privilege? What could be more salutary to a culture than its members' ability to understand each other not just as others, but as other people?
Taken together, though—as a kind of psychic weather system, spread across the Internet—this proliferation of perspectives is also, for the average human brain, dizzying. It’s constant. It’s mildly assaultive. A few years ago, the popular thing was to fret about “information overload,” the fear that the ancillary effect of the Internet’s promiscuous approach to facts would be, ultimately, to paralyze us. Those fears, for the most part, now seem quaint. But their anxieties are now taking a social form, leaving us to contend with questions that will be uncomfortable to pretty much any person who isn’t a sociopath: What happens, actually, when we are laid bare to each other as we’ve never been before? What happens when we are flooded with all this information about the intimate experiences of others? How are we, brain by brain, supposed to deal with this sudden exposure of subjectivities?
One thing that happens—and it is a terrible thing, but also a recognizably human thing—is that we try to reclaim our sense of cognitive quietude by any means we can. And one common way of doing that is by telling everyone, pretty much reflexively, to shut up. Mike Huckabee says something smarmy; he is told to shut up. Bill Belichick has some explanation as to how all those footballs got deflated; he is told to shut up. Sarah Palin, Rihanna, Charlie Hebdo, Benedict Cumberbatch, Barack Obama—all are told to shut up. Which is terrible and corrosive for all the obvious reasons.
Another common response, though, is a (slightly) subtler one—and, you could argue, a more pernicious one. Instead of simply telling someone to shut up, we question the premise of his or her right to speak in the first place. Not in a First Amendment-y way, but in a literal way (Americans tend to enjoy forgetting that “speech” is pretty much inextricable from “Speech”). We dismiss opinions we deem beyond the pale as “trolling.” We litigate conversations in terms of privilege and the lack of it. We accuse guys in particular of “mansplaining.” We accuse white guys in particular of acting “douchey.” We offer trigger warnings. We soften controversial thoughts through hashtags that are bluntly ironized (#expressyourunpopularopinion).
Jonathan Chait, combining several small epithets into a big one, calls this phenomenon—the policing of language as a proxy, essentially, for the policing of thought—“p.c. culture.” As he writes in New York magazine, “large segments of American culture have convulsed into censoriousness.” In its so far brief life on the Internet, this argument has been met with predictable levels of scorn and appreciation. Some have pointed out the irony of a privileged white man—writing from the privileged platform of a national magazine—seeming to complain about being silenced; others have expressed relief that someone, finally, is putting the culture that gave rise to the term “Oppression Olympics” in its proper place.
Few would argue that, as principle, the reflexive silencing of opinions, on the web or anywhere else, is any good for anybody. (On a one-off basis: sure. On a society-wide one, though, not so much.) And few would argue, while we’re at it, against the value of discourse that recognizes, in some way, the structural realities that shape our lives and perspectives.
For Chait, though, what’s at stake in all this norm-happy rhetoric is American liberalism itself. Political correctness, he writes, “is not a rigorous commitment to social equality so much as a system of left-wing ideological repression. Not only is it not a form of liberalism; it is antithetical to liberalism.”
Here’s a more optimistic—and I also think more realistic—view: We might also think of “p.c. culture” as “empathy culture.” The culture Chait describes, to the extent it can be called a culture at all, doesn’t impede progress. To the contrary, it helps progress along. It is a way of adjusting—fitfully, awkwardly—to an environment, political and otherwise, that gives so many of us newfound exposure to each other.
Some of the mechanics of this adjustment may be overcorrections: We—and the whole point is that there is a "we" at stake here—can care too much, it’s true, about identity as a function of authority. We can be too quick to dismiss otherwise valid arguments as coming from places of privilege. We can be too sensitive. We can be too reliant on categories—white, black, cis, trans—that focus on what we are rather than who. Categories in general can be terrible, brutish things.
But categories, expressed as language, can also be, in their way, expressions of empathy. They are proxies for curiosity, which is itself a proxy for sympathy. Offering a trigger warning on a Facebook post, or frowning at the use of an outdated adjective, or stepping aside so that someone with a more relevant experience can speak: These are cultural shibboleths. They are awkward, maybe, and they can be done to excess—but they are also made, generally, in good faith. And that is, when it comes to liberalism as everything else, not a small thing. They are gestures that say, basically, “we’re trying”: to see things from each other’s viewpoint. To respect each other's experience. And to understand, if not agree with, each other.