Some Thoughts On Political Correctness

Recently, I watched a Munk debate on the motion, “Be it resolved, what you call political correctness, I call progress…”. On the pro-side, Michael Dyson and Michelle Goldberg argued for the necessary protection of targeted groups, who have been mistreated on the basis of identity, particularly in the case of African Americans. On the con-side, Stephen Fry and Jordan Peterson pointed out the indemnifying effects this cultural swing has had on free speech, thought, and the Enlightenment. The con-side won by 70% but the issue, which I had once seen as frustratingly stupid and obvious, was actually complicated for me.

As it stands, I still think PC culture is annoying and potentially dangerous in certain cases. Beforehand however, I had never really considered the pro-based arguments one might employ. I would like to discuss some thoughts on that part first. For while it may seem the “PC Police” conglomerate are out to make sure we never speak our mind, there is an inherent need in society to check those who would vilify certain groups with hate speech or false propaganda. Terrible things can occur as a result of blatant bigotry, like the Holocaust. Plus, on a subconscious level, images can be drawn of racial, religious, and cultural groups that become highly influential.

Certain conservative commentators spring to mind in this thread, like Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh. It’s fair to have an opinion; even one that diametrically opposes yours. Is it fair to exert that however, when you sprinkle misinformation throughout your diatribes and have a expansive market for your voice? Here’s where things become foggy. Hate speech should be discouraged, challenged, and forcefully opposed, yes. To oppress and shut it down however only ever serves to create a greater furor. It emboldens the ridiculous too.

For example, Katie Hopkins. You ever heard of this banshee? She believes you can judge kids’s characters on their given names, and other such things. She came to prominence in some season of The Apprentice and has somehow managed to leach off public outrage in the UK since for her wild assertions. When she spoke at Brunel University in 2015, students organised a “silent protest” by walking out. Theirs was a view based on the idea of opposing controversial views and terrible guest speakers. Why even give these people a platform to speak? While I can wholeheartedly agree that was a dumb miscalculation on the university’s part, it only served to highlight the weakness of what some might call the “Regressive Left.” There’s a great deal more satisfaction to be gained in taking one’s controversial views down on the debate platform than there is in ignoring them. So when Hopkins later asserted that the students were “close minded”, she actually had some ground on which to stand. As Professor Richard Dawkins has argued, if you can’t have honest debate and face new ideas in a university setting, where can you? If those ideas are awful, take them down.

Of course, this kind of treatment hasn’t just been reserved for D-list celebrities. Walkouts and protests have been arranged for scholars, politicians, authors, and comedians as well. One of the most depressing examples was in 2014, when former Secretary of Condoleeza Rice pulled out of giving a speech at Rutgers University, over protests surrounding the Bush Administration’s involvement in Iraq. I’m not going to argue it was a worthy war or that she was an excellent Secretary of State but she is an important political and historical figure and such figures, should be heard, regardless of your opinion. Again, it’s much more satisfying to challenge these people in person. It also demonstrates that you can articulate in an intellectual manner just why these people are wrong.

To return to the pro-side of the aforementioned debate, I’d like to refer to Michael Dyson’s argument, which he based on the idea of White Privilege. I believe it is a harsh reality and it is fair, in a sense, to assert that White people have more to lose in a politically correct society than others do, who lack that societal advantage. Perhaps, it is agonizing for some groups to hear their very real concerns and fears being brushed of with assertions of overt-sensitivity. After all, White people, like me, have not had to deal with everyday racism or bigotry. Ours is an entirely different experience. It’s beyond our sphere of comprehension, for the most part.

Political correctness and racism/bigotry may correlate but that does not necessarily mean it is an adequate or sensible means of curing society’s ills. It’s actually a rather lazy means by which to tackle those doing the damage because a) again, when you try to silence them you only really embolden them and their base and b) it pushes us on the path to a different kind of oppression- an Orwellian kind in which group think (and to a degree, thoughtspeak) replace the freedom of individual expression and wide margin needed for intellectual debate. The reality is people say the wrong thing sometimes or express opinions indelicately. That is no means for justifying racism or sexism or homophobia (pay heed Trump supporters) but rather, a reminder that we learn best when we expose ourselves to all sorts of ideas and debate them openly. In the end, good ideas are good and bad ideas are bad, irrespective of identity.