Friday, May 25, 2018

Munk Debate On Political Correctness

Immersed, as I have been, in the political correctness / free speech dichotomy, I looked forward to the recent Munk Debate with Michelle Goldberg and Michael Eric Dyson on one side, and Jordan Peterson and Stephen Fry on the other. The debate was supposed to be about whether or not political correctness is a form of progress, which I take to mean, Does socially ostracizing or legislating certain language and behaviours benefit society in the future? Unfortunately, it went largely off the rails. Munk Debates aren't always as illuminating as they could be, despite the excellent moderator. I've written about a few of them: on the environment, on men, and on religion. They tend to fail in two ways: if any one person diverts from the central question or if all of them are too kind and not nearly critical enough of their opponent's arguments. One of the best questions a moderator ever asked, that I've copied in my classroom, was "Which of your opponent's arguments is most convincing?". I think in this recent debate, it would be impossible to answer because so few points were clearly argued.


I'll try to frame the ideas presented as charitably as possible, but this is merely what I heard being said. Here's the upshot of the response to the actual question in a flowchart:

On the con side, Fry lamented throughout that nobody was actually debating the original claim. He was left alone with his defence of the opposing side, and he so wanted a playmate in the game! His position was that there's no evidence that monitoring and limiting language has any benefit. His evidence to the contrary wasn't clearly explained, however, but it was implied ("look around") that he's using the fact that we still have sexism and racism everywhere as an indication of political correctness's failings.

I would counter that there is evidence of a benefit. That the fact that, back in the early 80s,  I had teachers that used racial slurs openly in class and that now that's an offence that could lead to termination, does in fact affect our culture in a positive way. Going to school with teachers who were openly sexist and racist has a marked affect on students, and it's a very positive thing that HR Departments have taken these issues seriously. And then, in the mid-80s, working at a corporation where we all just rolled our eyes at ongoing sexual harassment, I once came to work at 21 in a tailored dress, and my boss demanded that I stand up and do a spin so everyone in the department could see how "there's not an ounce of fat on this one!" It wasn't until 1991, when Anita Hill decoded her experiences that we began to learn how to speak out and demand that some behaviours be legislated. Absolutely the political correctness movement has been progressive. Yes, of course, if we look around racism and sexism still exist. But in many small and large ways, it's better than it was. And that progress was, at least in part, due to the stifling of some language and behaviours.

Fry suggests that it's an old rationalist idea that limiting languages changes thinking, and it lacks any empirical evidence. But now we know about neural pathways and cue exposure with response prevention (CERP). When we stop ourselves from a behaviour repeatedly, our desire to act in that manner decreases. If we continue a behaviour, it increases. That seems like plain common sense, but studies are discussing neural pathways in the brain. I picture it like trudging through deep snow in the winter. The more you do it, the more the path is formed and easy to travel, so you can do it without any effort. If we allow ourselves to make derogatory statements, the more we do it, the easier it gets, and the more acceptable it begins to feel. The corollary of course, is the more we actively stop ourselves from the behaviour, the more the pathways close up and we stop desiring to behave in bigoted ways. Changing how we talk and act consistently does change the way we think.

Fry thinks we should take to the streets to really make a change. I love a good march, but I rarely feel like anything's being accomplished from them. But Fry also argues that advances in culture were primarily a result of basic human decency. I agree that one thing that has had a marked affect is just being shown that non-dominant groups are pretty normal and maybe should be treated as well as dominant groups. I often credit that one episode of Ellen, when a much-loved character, we by default considered heterosexual, suddenly came out as gay, as being the turning point in the movement. Suddenly somebody everyone liked was in a group that made many people uncomfortable at best. That changed things for sure. Decades earlier, Mr. Rogers was a trendsetter in a similar vein:

Pop culture can help to teach us decency, but it can also work against those teachings. If human decency is the fulcrum that determines if we progress socially, then wouldn't it be advisable to put some barriers on the views that are most detrimental to decency? Will we improve our prospects of greater kindness with children (and the rest of us) immersed in "free speech" or surrounded by people curbing their more colourful vitriol?

The moderator asked a good question to Fry: "Why won't we look back at the PC movement in the same way as the civil rights movement?" He didn't answer it directly, but I think the movements are markedly different because the issues are different. What we're dealing with today, in many ways, is slipperier. Instead of refusing to tolerate segregation and staying seated on the bus, it's a matter of refusing to tolerate a word or tone and calling it out. It might seem petty, but it's all part and parcel of the fight, yes fight, to diminish the hold that racism and sexism still have in our culture. Fry suggests fighting instead of limiting words and behaviours, but can't it be both? Isn't is always?

We have to shut down the pejorative use of "fag" and "gay" in the classroom, AND we have to march and petition for LGBTQ+ rights and freedoms and ensure adequate inclusion in the charter and human rights codes. We have to complain about sexual harassing acts in the workplace, AND we have to fight for policy changes to ensure equal pay for work of equal value.

On the pro side, Goldberg argued that complaining about PC culture is a means to dismiss concerns that might affect the dominant group's comfort. She said, as I've argued before, "The dominant group is still really free to speak their mind." They've all been publicly chastised by Twitter mobs, yet they're all able to continue to speak. It's really a question of freedom or security (aka freedom from): "One group thinks their feelings should be accommodated. They feel uniquely that their feelings of being censored need to take primacy over groups feeling threatened." We tend to lean towards freedom in our culture, but there are times a little security can go a long way.

Dyson asked, "Of the things in the past that were once acceptable and now are not, what would you want to bring back?" We're so used to never saying the N-word that we don't even say it when talking about not saying it! Once upon a time, the offensiveness of the term was explained, and restraint requested, and it stuck because it does help society progress when citizens aren't chipped away moment by moment by people insisting that their right to use derogatory language is more important the that right to be free from verbal barbs thrown in your direction. Goldberg reminds us we've been here before. People react when their power is being challenged. We can't call Indigenous Peoples "Indians" anymore, and we've had to add people of colour to our curriculum. It's hard because it's new, and some of the ways we've tried to change have stuck, and some haven't. "We might look back at gender neutral pronouns and wonder that it was ever an issue."

It's really a matter of scale. We know from Gordon Allport that antilocution is the first step towards hate crimes and genocide, and we've seen that play out in real life, and it still happens within some groups and communities in the U.S. and Canada. The more we think is acceptable to say, the more we think is acceptable to do. I'm reminded of a story in one of Chris Hedges books: A man was in a crowd shortly before WWII, and a couple Nazi youth started harassing an elderly Jewish man with a long beard. They sat him on a barrel and cut his beard with hedge clippers in an exaggerated way, and the audience in the marketplace laughed, and the man watching it all knew this was the beginning of the end for them.

But what's the net harm caused by refraining to say bigoted words? How far can it go?


Fry says, "There's a general feeling that we can't speak our minds. . . . There is a real fear to speak honestly about statements publicly. . . . I've never experienced that before. . . . The mistake of the left is to underestimate the right. I fear that PC is a weapon they value. The more we tell the world what words and attitudes are acceptable, all of this opens the door to ban bad actors."

Addressing the last claim first, it's a slippery slope to suggest that getting HR to stop a coworker from referring to a female boss as "babe" will lead to a full-on 1984, Big Brother level of censorship. We do, however, have to be awake enough and always thinking and questioning to make sure our rights aren't stripped away beyond a call for basic decency. I think we're up to the task. But what makes that claim a slippery slope, and the opposing one not? It's all in how the steps from one stage to the next are clearly linked to one another. Can we just use the words we associate with hatred without ever acting on them? Most of us can, but some people are testing the waters when they say things, preparing to take it further. It's the hateful citizens we have to worry about in this direction. Can we ask people to stop using them without adding to the list of words and phrases until we can no longer openly criticize Trump? It's a controlling government we are wary of down this path, and I'm banking on that we have enough people paying attention that we'd revolt at the inclusion of useful criticisms. (ETA - I believe this is the weak link in my argument, and I might address it another day.)

Goldberg addressed a different part of Fry's fear: "Men with a history of predatory behaviour were losing jobs. It created a cultural earthquake, an anxiety that it will go too far. Due process is important. When you look at who's actually lost their jobs, it's not people in general, but people who took their dicks out at work. . . . It's not the case that men everywhere can't talk anymore. . . . Who is silencing you? You're scared, but it's a feeling that is an intangible result."

BUT, I also think there is something to the fear that political correctness is currently going too far. My vision in my head of what it means had the brakes on a while back. This is a timely and important debate not to figure out if it's useful as a concept, but to determine where it should end. So, for me, it is the case that political correctness definitely can be progressive, but the more pressing issues for us today, then, are around who gets to determine what's acceptable or unacceptable, a tolerable level of scrutiny of behaviours, the consequences, and what that 'due process' looks like?

We run the risk of shutting down everything from a warm touch to playful flirting. Can we hug a colleague without it being legislated how close we stand? Can a teacher physically console a weeping student without threat of losing their livelihood? We're cautioned not to, but sometimes it's a sign of character to throw caution to the wind. And can I make a joke without getting arrested? Peterson, with typical hyperbole, formerly shared his concern that "all manifestations of male sexuality are going to be brought under legal control" (here), and he claimed it an injustice to have to use gender neutral pronouns at a student's request, much like I might ask to be referred to as Ms. instead of Miss and actually expect people to comply. But we don't have to raise potential extremes to be concerned. Teachers worry about losing their careers for one unthinking, unintended glance or comment. There definitely has to be a transparent process that allows people to feel secure in their positions knowing that they'll be exonerated once their intentions come to light, yet also catch the rare few with malevolent intent, the ones that have many complaints against them, for instance. One mistake is a mistake, but four or five might be an intended misuse of their power.

One of Fry's concerns is that the "ability to play gracefully with ideas is disappearing from our culture. . . . I don't think we should underestimate the feeling in the culture that the liberals are . . . undiverse in their call for diversity. You can be diverse but not diverse in your opinions, in your language, in your behaviour." I completely agree that we need to be able to continue to raise difficult issues in open discussions. I think that can still happen, and we have to be very watchful that touchy debates and discussions aren't shut down, but, as always, it must be done with care and respect for all those present.


Fry says, "The reason for Trump's success isn't the triumph of the right but the catastrophic failure of left. Fuck PC, resist and fight. Fight through democracy, not through universities and language."

Dyson argues, "The reality is that people don't have access to a means to affect democracy. . . . We need to engage in tough criticism in a way that speaks to the needs and interests of those whose voices are not amplified." There is little possibility for the least powerful to have any effect on democracy any more. Chomsky and Reich agree with the assessment that the left is in a mess. Both major parties are neo-liberal in nature. The left should be the party that addresses the basic nature of inequities, but we can see how well that works here with Justin at the helm.

A Harvard professor, Dani Rodrik, agrees:
"Had political parties, particularly of the center left, pursued a bolder agenda, perhaps the rise of right-wing, nativist political movements might have been averted. In principle, greater inequality produces a demand for more redistribution. Democratic politicians should respond by imposing higher taxes on the wealthy and spending the proceeds on the less well off. This intuition is formalized in a well-known paper in political economy by Allan Meltzer and Scott Richard: the wider the income gap between the median and average voter, the higher the taxes and the greater the redistribution. Yet in practice, democracies have moved in the opposite direction. . . . Part of the reason for this, at least in the US, is that the Democratic Party’s embrace of identity politics (highlighting inclusiveness along lines of gender, race, and sexual orientation) and other socially liberal causes came at the expense of the bread-and-butter issues of incomes and jobs."
I think they didn't necessarily come at the expense of, but, perhaps as a distraction to: I'll give you gender neutral bathrooms, but I'm keeping the Koch cash and pushing my pipeline through your wilderness. Rodrik continues,
"The French economist Thomas Piketty has recently documented an interesting transformation in the social base of left-wing parties. Until the late 1960s, the poor generally voted for parties of the left, while the wealthy voted for the right. Since then, left-wing parties have been increasingly captured by the well-educated elite, whom Piketty calls the “Brahmin Left,” to distinguish them from the “Merchant” class whose members still vote for right-wing parties. Piketty argues that this bifurcation of the elite has insulated the political system from redistributive demands. The Brahmin Left is not friendly to redistribution, because it believes in meritocracy – a world in which effort gets rewarded and low incomes are more likely to be the result of insufficient effort than poor luck."
I think, for the states, the biggest problem wasn't that Clinton lost to Trump, but that Sanders lost to Clinton. Sanders's policies were actually of the left, and that's so very rare. Now we'll see what happens in Ontario.

Possibly the brightest point in the debate came with Fry's closing:
"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. It's very important for us, who are privileged . . . to take ourselves a little more lightly, not to be too earnest, too pompous, too serious, and not to be too certain. It's a time for really engaging in emotionally fulfilling, passionate, and positive doubt." 
Some of the participants, more than one, had difficulty really hearing one another and addressing their very real fears in order to come to find the common ground. I'll get to the wayward path of the rest of the debate tomorrow.


Ben Garrido said...

This is excellent. Thank you very much for posting.

I did have one question kind of floating around in the background. Do you feel that moral progress is a) possible and b) happening?

Saint Ron said...

I was disappointed with the debate. I think the racists among us are those who have the need to always insert race into the conversation. Thus, Mr. Dyson fits my mold.
Mr.Fry thought it necessary to inform us he is a homosexual. I didn't need to know that. However he did try to stick to the topic of PC.
The woman Goldberg began well but divert d to the stereotypical and got into talking about feeling. Distracting for sure and seemed incapable of discussing PC, the assigned topic.

Mr. Peterson pressed to stay on topic at the least.

Marie Snyder said...

@ Ben - I think we're always progressing then slipping in various ways. We have some freedoms now that we've never seen before but at the same time police are openly shooting unarmed citizens without being thrown in jail. I feel like we're in state of perpetual liminality, hanging out in at the threshold between harmony and disaster.

Marie Snyder said...

@ Saint Ron - That's a curious definition of racist. I can't imagine an in-depth conversation about political correctness that doesn't discuss racism and sexism. I think Fry mentioned his sexuality (a well-known fact) to make it clear he's not entirely a part of the dominant culture. On feelings - Goldberg raised the notion of feelings because both Peterson and Fry started discussing how hurt and/or afraid they are at the current and potential climate. Goldberg and Dyson then tried to weigh that against the hurt and fear experienced by many in non-dominant sub-cultures.

Brendan said...

I wish you had been in this debate - you make some very interesting points. Your point about there being valid evidence for positive outcomes of PC approaches is important. This restructures the debate from "is PC good or bad?", which is facile, to "when is PC a force for good and/or bad and how does this sit on the balance of probabilities?" Or even "What are the limits that, when crossed, move PC from good to bad?" These are much better questions to develop the debate towards, given the audience that watches debates.

However, and to be fair to Fry, I believe that his earlier context suggests that he was referring to evidence that it works as intended, i.e. as a tool to promote societal change _without_ unintended consequences. As both Fry and Goldberg pointed out, one unintended consequence was Trump's election, which was partly due to an anti-PC reaction. Goldberg defined this reaction as a vague feeling of being silenced, perhaps trivializing its social impact, while Fry suggested it was a culture of fear, which equally may be overblowing it's impact. It is unlikely that we will really know which viewpoint is closer to the truth.

I do wonder if the objection to political correctness is not simply a reaction to a "vague fear" of a loss of empowerment (Goldberg), or to a real culture of fear (Fry), however much truth or partial truth is found in both statements. I would categorize the reaction as a result of resentment. And resentment isn't a vague feeling, it is a rather strong one. While it can be addressed and neutralized, resentment is an emotion that motivates action, even actions of desperation. Also I think this reaction to political correctness is a reaction to a perceived attempt to force upon people the acceptance of a certain political viewpoint, by both social pressure and, increasingly and perhaps due to the failure of social pressure to change the attitudes and beliefs, by legislation. By implication from forced nature of this, and sometimes by limited interactions with these views by overly forceful individuals, the views are often perceived as a hostile viewpoint which necessarily have to be opposed. And these "hostile" viewpoints are symbolized by various words, words that sometimes have come to mean somewhat different ideas to the objecting group than they do to the imposing group.

Brendan said...

Your points about the slippery slope are very interesting - and perhaps the issue that underpins both sides of this divide in different ways. It is a difficult question to prise apart because too big a jump (e.g. assuming any limits on hate speech will inevitably lead to 1984 governmental oppression) is the slippery slope fallacy, but recognising emergent patterns is part of how we think, and some can see such patterns clearer than others. At what point in this debate do we acknowledge that we have stepped off terra firma and are potentially at a tipping point? Is it when legislation is enacted that compels the use of particular words? Is it when the definitions underlying said legislation also defines the act of silence as harassment? Is it when this legislation criminalizes such non-use of certain language, including opening paths to jail? Is it when this same legislation delegates the definitions of key terms to a political or governmental policy body that can change the definitions without clear public scrutiny? I am targeting questions around legislation because, while such social changes are usually initially fought in the realm of culture, they take an exponential step when legislation is applied to entire communities. They are also the specific objections that Peterson testified before the Senate hearing committee about the implications of Bill C16 (you can watch this testimony on YouTube). I am sure that if this same legislation compelled women to use the term "my lord" to men, and criminalized those that refused, that you would be equally concerned that society had stepped past a tipping point and was headed down a slippery slope. At that point you'd be glad there were people like Peterson who were part of the "enough people paying attention that (would) revolt", in an appropriate way, before such legislation was enacted.

Disclaimer before someone misquotes what I said above: I am not advocating the use of the term " my lord" in this situation. I am trying to find a term that the blogger would find absurd, so she can see the issue in a similar manner as others see her perspective. I am sure that Ms Snyder would see this as an reasonable attempt to explain the issue in good faith to her. As a counterpoint, I know of people who see the insistence of the use of the term Ms to be equally absurd, and so a neutral person will see a certain arbitrary nature to the whole debate. Additionally, some people see the term Ms as offensive - an attempt at make them accept a political viewpoint that they don't agree with. Should we ban this term because those people find it offensive? Is a word being offensive to some group enough of a measure of it's detriment to society that we should ban them? If so, which groups? And why do those groups warrant such privilege. I ask these questions as prompts to explore rather than points of view that I hold - my personal view is that the answers, if they exist, are complex.

Unknown said...

I assumed it was going to be a battle of the wits, however, 2 of them showed up unarmed. I did enjoy Dyson smearing himself with tar, and when he broke out the feathers, it became a classic.

Anonymous said...

This was an incredibly painful debate to watch, and I legitimately wanted to hear a Pro side so that that I could at least gain a better understanding and appreciation of a view point that is juxtapose to my own. I gained no insight from the Pro speakers at all. It appears that Fry was right in that PC was not really addressed at all. I was hoping to gain some insightful thought. Peterson did seem a little perturbed at one point, and I think much was due what I interpreted as Dyson attempting to implicate Peterson was some all encompassing bigot (before he insulted him). Not only that, but Dyson becomes more hostile throughout and refuses to stay on point, even when the moderator attempts to clarify a question for him. He results to incoherent sentences, character and racial attacks to avoid any substantive dialog. Proof of his inability to actually discuss a topic in depths was when asked "when does the left go to far?" Dyson responds by asking "when does the right go to far?" Even after Peterson gives examples rightfully asks why he must provide proof, Dyson then inquires about the relationship between IQ and genetics. At this point, (as evident by the long sigh and dead drop) I believe Peterson knew he could not have a successful dialog with Dyson.
Even after being called out on insulting someone and how wrong it is, Dyson doubles down and then when confronted about it again, he knows he messed up but is to prideful to admit it. Instead he rambles about how others felt by racial slurs and prejudice in the past and possibly present. This is equivalent to saying "yea I murdered someone, but imagine how all of those victims of the John Wayne Gacy felt like?"

Marie Snyder said...

@Brendan, The idea that bill C-16 legislate compelled speech is a misunderstanding (or, possibly, an intentional misreading). You can read more here and here, and a similar bill was targeted in the same way in California. A better analogy to "my lord," as I suggested is asking people to refer to me as 'Ms' instead of 'Miss." These changes often provoke an uproar that later dies down. As suggested in the debate, social changes are attempted, and some stick and others don't. I imagine in twenty years we'll have one term for non-binary pronouns, but I could be wrong. It's a wait and see kind of thing. But suggesting it's sexist to insist on identifying me by my marital status is not going to end with anyone in prison. But it does lead to a discussion. And the tide has turned on that one to the point that we've all pretty much accepted the term. The difference with the 'my lord' example is that 1. it implies deference and 2. it's not requested to avoid a term that puts the person in a box they reject.

Jason Arsenault said...

One of the problems for the Americans in the debate was that they were not looking at the issue from the same place as everyone else.
Goldberg and Dyson were looking through at the issue through an American lens, but Fry is British, Jordan is a Canadian and the audience was Canadian. Both countries have had very different ways of perceiving and dealing with issues than the US.

As an example, in the US with its One-Drop rule, Dyson is without a doubt black. However, in the UK and Canada he would often be regarded as bi-racial, possibly of more European than African descent judging by his appearance. In Nazi Germany he would have been regarded as a mischling, polluted by "auxiliary" blood but saved by his European blood. In 70's South Africa he would have been a "Coloured", a term for East Indians and mixed race people, not a black. These categories aren't better, but they show the cultural difference between how race is perceived.
But Dyson tried to implicate Peterson was a racist using arguments that only have validity with the American One-Drop rule. He couldn't seem to understand that how his identity was perceived isn't universal.

Goldberg too failed to understand that she was dealing with foreign debaters and a foreign audience. She kept invoking Trump's election, as if the Canadian audience, Peterson and Fry had had some sort of responsibility for it. She seemed to be laboring under the misconception that Canadian and British concerns about PC culture in their countries don't impact American voting patterns.

Marie Snyder said...

That's a good point, Jason. I hadn't considered it through that perspective.