Semi-annually, the Aurea Foundation holds debates on pertinent topics. On 05/18/2018, these Munk debates focused on political correctness . Professor Michael Dyson (of Georgetown University) and columnist Michelle Goldberg (of the New York Times) argued for political correctness. Professor Jordan Peterson (the The University of Toronto) and actor Stephen Fry argued against political correctness. Here is my evaluation of each participant.
Michelle Goldberg – She was the far better of the two participants arguing for political correctness. She directly addressed the questions issued by Peterson and Fry. She also made the excellent point that what used to be “politically incorrect” we now consider racist speech. However, she failed to address several pertinent points made by Peterson and Fry.
During the debate, Peterson challenged her to define when someone is too far left (defined, for example, as the thoughts that led to the massive deaths under Stalin’s communist regime and have led to mass starvation in Venezuela). Goldberg responded by saying one is too far left when they commit “violence or censorship.” This is a hypocritical stance since she was arguing for political correctness, which is a censorship. Moreover, Jordan Peterson had his employment threatened, and threats of fine and (should the fine not be satisfied) imprisonment by the Canadian government for refusing to speak politically correctly; this could easily be considered violence, furthering the hypocrisy of Goldberg’s stance. Unfortunately, neither Peterson nor Fry noted this hypocrisy during the debate.
Fry challenged his opponents with the thought that the new hyper-focus on political correctness has stifled thought. In response, Goldberg stated that women and minorities have felt this way for generations. This, of course, doesn’t address Fry’s point (two wrong acts don’t make a right). Goldberg never addressed the lack of freedom associated with political correctness.
Finally, during her closing statement, Goldberg resorted to misquoting a previous interview by Jordan Peterson during her conclusion in order to make the point that Peterson is sexist. (She stated that Jordan Peterson said that women shouldn’t wear makeup to work; Jordan Peterson said that wearing makeup and high heels is a subtly provocative act, and society should question where the line should be drawn for provocations in the workplace. )
It was most surprising to see a New York Times journalist, whose entire profession is based on the freedom of speech, argue for political correctness.
Michael Dyson – Dyson was charming and funny; his speech is rhythmic. However, Dyson failed at the debate. Most of his speeches (although rhythmic) were non-sensical.
During Peterson’s opening of the debate, he detailed problems with “identity politics.” He restated a thesis that he’s made publicly several times through the past years: when members of the public identify primarily with a group, see the hierarchy of success as purely the result of tyranny, and use the power of the group to attain additional power then our society will have resorted to tribalism. Dyson listed several examples of racist acts towards blacks in the United States, and stated that he desperately wanted to be treated like an individual rather than having assumptions made of his character based on his race. Peterson addressed this point in two ways: 1) he stated (as he has done in the past) that a political group specifying a hierarchy based on race is “too far right”, and 2) the proper role of the left is to speak for the disenfranchised (in situations like those that Dyson listed). However, Peterson did not issue his points directly in response to Dyson’s claims and (I think) it was difficult to make the connection.
Extremely contrary to his appealing qualities, Dyson exhibited a terrible racism throughout the debate. Twice, he called Peterson a “mean white man”. He told Peterson that his success was due (in part) to his race. Peterson asked Dyson to precisely define (in percentage) what amount of his success was due to his race and what should be done about. He asked Dyson whether there should be a tax specific for white people; Dyson responded with, “You talking great shit right now” .
Moreover, Dyson hypocritically made several assumptions of Peterson during the debate specifically because of Peterson’s race. In one instance, he suggested that Peterson visit a native reservation and visit a “black Baptist church” (assuming Peterson had not done so). Peterson informed Dyson that he was a honorary member of a native family. He then ordered Dyson, “You don’t know anything about me; stop presuming that you do.” Dyson kept presuming.
Dyson’s main point, which he drummed throughout the debate, was that the slavery of the United States continues to oppress black Americans. “What might this have to do with political correctness?”, you ask. I have no idea. As Peterson said at the end of the debate, “We were here to debate political correctness, sir, and we’ve done a damn poor job of it.”
During the only point in the debate when Dyson addressed political correctness, he lauded the many examples where he proudly acted contrarily to political correctness. Fry’s response, most convincingly, was “You should be sitting over here!”
Jordan Peterson – In his opening remarks, Peterson defined political correctness as a narrative where people associate their identity with a group, assumes that western society of is a power struggle of different groups, and the role of an individual is to support their group as it strives for increased power. From this viewpoint, Peterson claims that there is no freedom of speech since an individual cannot exhibit a point of view different from their group’s. These contentions were never addressed by Goldberg or Dyson; they refused to admit the role these thoughts played in previous catastrophic regimes.
Unfortunately, Peterson did not meet his usual abilities for clarity of thought and focus. He successfully exposed Dyson’s racism. And he succeeded in having Goldberg limit the actions of the left (albeit minimally). But he didn’t successfully illuminate the hypocrisy in Golderberg’s position. And his response to Dyson’s claims of racism (implying that they are perpetrated by the political right) was not thorough or immediate. He reacted to Dyson emotionally and was duped by Dyson’s red herrings, which permitted Dyson to shy away from answering his questions.
Peterson’s closing remarks were quintessentially Peterson and they summarized his arguments eloquently.
Stephen Fry – Fry vigilantly remained focused on the topic throughout the debate. When asked by the moderator, during a session regarding the #MeToo movement, what people would think when they looked back on this debate, Fry responded, “I think they’ll look back and wonder why we didn’t debate political correctness.”
In his opening statements, Fry notified the audience that he wasn’t sure of his stance on political correctness. He said that he thought it was bad, but he wasn’t sure, and he looked forward to learning the point of view of the other participants. Several times throughout the debate, he asked the participants what made them think political correctness works. He didn’t get a response to that question (at least, not one that I was satisfied with).
In an impassioned plea during the debate, Fry stated, “Fuck political correctness. Resist. Fight. If you have a point of view, fight it in the proper manner, using democracy as it should be; not channels of education, not language. Political correctness … simply doesn’t work.”
Goldberg stated that many things that Fry and Peterson define as political correctness, she called progress. Fry specifically pointed out to her that she was supposed to be arguing for political correctness, and he hadn’t heard what she considered political correctness. Goldberg’s inability to define political correctness in a coherent way in response to Fry and her quick change of the subject made Fry’s point, almost better than anything he said.
Fry was an exceptional advocate for free speech.
My opinion – The freedom of speech is vital. Political correctness is merely a euphemism for censorship. Its proponents profess kindness (such as Goldberg in this debate), but kindness cannot be compelled by law. There are many instances where political correctness was hurtful to society. Galileo was prevented from publishing his result that the sun was the center of the universe. The Alien and Sedition Acts criminalized speaking against the government. In Soviet Russia, its citizens were judged based on how well the vocally supported the communist regime in public forums; speaking out against communism would leave one without their income. In A Call for Unity, eight caucasian clergymen asked Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to stop demonstrating and “find proper channels” for his messages. In the 1990s, the United States forced its gay soldiers to suppress their sexual desires with a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. The Dixie Chicks were ridiculed for publicly opposing the Iraq War. In Cuba today, you will be jailed for criticizing the government. All of these injustices were (and are) committed in the name of kindness, safety, propriety, and patriotism. All of them were wrong.
Our freedoms are all derived from a freedom of speech, and criminalizing political correctness is a thinly veiled attempt of one group to impose their will one the whole. It’s thought control, and it should be opposed vigorously. I’m grateful to Peterson and Fry for doing just that.