Central to the work of New City Commons is the conviction that moral communities are, at bottom, linguistic communities. They are certainly more than that, but never less. Though often overlooked, the articulacy required to accurately discern and name phenomena in the world is a form of cultural power—and, for this reason, deserves sustained attention.
One of the deep ironies of our current moment is the way in which the obvious coarsening of public speech travels alongside what Jonathan Chait sees as the return of political correctness. Chait makes the case in our first piece, “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say.”
Since it was published in New York Magazine in January of 2015, this piece has done precisely what it was intended to do: generate an ongoing debate about the limits and nature of speech acts in our current moment. While some have dismissed Chait as insensitive, and others have suggested his thought should be extended further, many have noticed that his intuitions regarding a shift in cultural norms seem plausible.
Much of this commentary has focused on shifting norms on university campuses. In March, Judith Shulevitz published “In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas” in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times. Reading that piece alongside “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me,”—published recently on Vox.com by a university professor under the pseudonym Edward Schlosser—confirms aspects of Chait’s insights by demonstrating how those insights impact higher education.
The value of these pieces is twofold. First, they serve to chronicle a cultural mood surrounding shifting speech norms. Second, they attest to the power of language to define a social order. To claim that moral communities are linguistic communities is also to say that we should not be surprised when the question of who holds the power to differentiate the utterable from the unutterable becomes contested or volatile.