Conservatives think progressives worry too much about “political correctness” – words and attitudes that include, protect and above all don’t offend. Progressives respond that ‘what you call political correctness, I call progress,’ which is the resolution of Friday’s Munk debate at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall.
Speaking for the resolution: sociologist, author and broadcaster Michael Eric Dyson and New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg. Speaking against it: author and actor Stephen Fry and author and psychologist Jordan Peterson. To preview the debate, John Ibbitson spoke with Ms. Goldberg and Simona Chiose spoke with Mr. Peterson.
The interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Do you think the term “political correctness” can be cast in a positive light?
The term “political correctness” is pejorative, although often the things that people insult as “political correctness” are seen in retrospect as progress. If you look at the things that were considered out-of-control politically correct in the nineties – things like not being able to refer to your female adult colleagues as “girls,” or calling black people in America African-Americans, or, and this is a little bit earlier, using Ms. if women didn’t identify as Miss or Mrs., or referring to people as “gay” instead of “homosexual” – these things that maybe at the time kind of stuck in people’s craw and felt awkward and strange and made them resentful now seem perfectly ordinary and, to most people, obvious signs of progress. And there were excesses then, and they fell by the wayside, and there are excesses now that are falling by the wayside, but I think the broader drive to make language more sensitive and inclusive is basically a positive one.
Q: What is the relationship between political correctness and free speech?
One of the things that’s frustrating about the way this debate tends to unfold is that, on the one hand, you do have genuine violations of free speech. You have “no-platforming” [denying, through policy or protest, a person or group the right to speak], you have people facing career consequences in academia for having unpopular views (although I think it’s important to note that you have people punished for their radical views just as often on the left as on the right). But I think people conflate efforts to restrict people’s free speech with very strident criticism. If people freak out and criticize you and even gang up on you online, I understand that can be really intimidating, but it’s not a violation of your free speech. That is just an unfortunate fact of life online.
Q: If so-called political correctness is actually progress, how do you define progress and how do we advance it?
Jordan Peterson talks about “the evil trinity of equity, diversity and inclusivity.” I actually think that equity, diversity and inclusivity are pretty good ways of describing what I see as progress. We’ve made an enormous amount of progress, though on some fronts more than others. It’s also obvious that if you live in the United States, where every single day brings news of either unjustified police shootings or people calling the police on black people because they’re trying to do something subversive like walk into their apartment or use the bathroom in a Starbucks, that there is a lot of progress left to be made.
Q: Are there any justifiable limits to free speech, beyond libel and commercial use and such?
Legally, it’s hard for me to think of any justifiable limits. The one place where maybe I diverge from the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] is that I think there should be a great deal more restriction on money and politics, which is often in the United States framed as a free-speech issue. But aside from that, legally, I’m a free-speech purist. But there is difference between what is legal what should be socially acceptable.
Q: Who should be held responsible for the harms that people experience from speech, and how should they be held accountable?
I imagine the answer is different in different particular cases. I certainly think that what happens online, particularly on Twitter, the people who should be held responsible are the people who created the algorithm and have refused to address people’s complaints about being harassed and threatened in ways that if they were made in other venues would be obviously illegal.
Q: What is the greater duty for a university: to protect its students from harmful speech, or to protect free speech and freedom on inquiry?
I do think it’s the job of the university to provide a forum for open debate. I also think it’s very important that people be exposed to views they find abhorrent so that they learn to formulate arguments against them, rather than reacting to them with this kind of stunned anxiety. But at the same time what often happens is that small incidents at universities are magnified to exaggerate the idea of a free-speech crisis or of ridiculous student snowflakes. On the one hand, I cringe at the idea of trigger warnings, but I also understand that the more people my age resist them, the more entrenched some students are going to become about that particular language.
Q: Should universities be compelled to protect their students from harmful speech?
I don’t think they should be compelled to protect their students, but I also think they should be respectful and make reasonable accommodations.
Q: Are you hopeful that reasonable people will be able to reach a consensus on this issue, or must we polarize over freedom of speech versus protection from harm forever?
I think that reasonable people will be able to reach a consensus when they feel less threatened. One of things that’s going on, at least in the United States, is that there is this terrifying phenomenon of things that you didn’t use to be able to say in public in the course of ordinary debate [that you can now say]. There’s been such a shattering of taboos that undergird pluralistic liberal democracy in the United States that I’m sympathetic to people’s frantic efforts to shore them up. And that makes people extremely anxious and it’s hard to be open-minded and relaxed about opposing views in an atmosphere like that. But my hope is that we won’t be in this atmosphere forever, and that eventually there will be a sort of reasonable consensus, which might mean that people have to start getting used to pronouns that stick in their throat, but that also leaves room for engagement.
Q: What does political correctness mean to you?
It means viewing the world through a collective lens where markers of group identity are the paramount reality, and the world is seen as a battleground between identity groups – a zero-sum game battleground between identity groups. I don’t regard the identitarian collectivists of the right as less reprehensible than the compassionate collectivists of the left.
Q: What is the relationship between political correctness and free speech?
If you start with the fundamental world view that I just laid out, you don’t tend to think of speech as free speech. You tend to think of all speech as motivated by the attempts by one group or another to attain relative power. The idea of free speech is not sensible within that framework, because you don’t see speech as the act of free individuals, you see speech as a power play of people representing their group.
Q: How do you define progress and how do we advance it?
Progress in large part would be the end of unnecessary suffering, that’s got to be the first metric: fewer people in abject misery, fewer people who are arbitrarily trapped, especially for arbitrary or tyrannical reasons. A huge part of that is freedom, including freedom of expression – as it has become more commonplace around the world, there’s been an equivalent increase in the standard of living and a decrease in abject misery.
Political correctness is posing a danger of re-emerged tribalism and threatening the progress that has been made so miraculously over the last 120 years, that seems to be accelerating around the world.
Q: That’s a somewhat instrumental justification of free speech.
It is reasonable if you equate free speech with thinking, which is eminently defendable, and you associate thinking with a higher probability of success in the world, and we can define success at least in part as the amelioration of abject misery, then free speech ameliorates abject misery and that’s a statement I would be willing to stand by ... not least because you get to criticize tyrants.
Q: Are there any justifiable limits on free speech?
I’m not an advocate of hate speech laws, I think they do more harm than good. Not because there is no such thing as hate speech, but because the definition of hate is sufficiently [vague] so that the people who end up defining it are the last people you would ever want to have that power. So I think the danger of attempting to define and regulate hate speech far outweighs the danger of the speech itself, partly because if you let hateful people speak, they tend to reveal themselves for who they are, and that tends to disenchant people with them. If you suppress them you make them into heroic martyrs. That is not a wise move, strategically.
Q: Who is responsible for attending to the harms that people experience from speech?
It’s either a civil law or legal matter. If you are libeled, you have legal recourse and if you don’t have criminal, you have civil. We’ve struck a balance between freedom of expression and the necessity for responsible expression as far as I’m concerned.
We are discussing free speech as if it’s one right among many, and it’s not, it’s a paramount right by a large margin. You interfere with that at extreme peril. You say it may harm people. Harm by whose definition? Who makes the rules and how do you compare that with the harm done by restricting free speech?
Q: What if the hate speech is in a closed online forum without anyone to counter it, and it only encourages prejudice?
Defining prejudice is a very difficult thing. That debate has emerged in Canada around so-called Islamophobia. It’s not easy at all to draw a line between justifiable and even laudable criticism of extremist, fundamentalist viewpoints of one religion or another – it doesn’t really matter which religion – and hate directed towards a particular subset of the population. That’s a very slippery border. Attempts to wade in there with legislation like Bill 103 – which I know is only a motion – do nothing to clarify the situation and everything, as far as I’m concerned, to make it worse.
Q: If you believe speech is the paramount right, should universities be compelled to protect it?
I will say the devil is in the details. There is a danger with that compulsion, because you end up where political regulation of university content becomes acceptable. I could say, ‘Would it not be wonderful if the legislative types enforced the requirements for free speech on Canadian universities?’ but then it sets a precedent where politicians regulate universities, and that is not necessarily the kind of precedent you want to establish. So I would say strong, reasonable encouragement is the preferable alternative.
Q: It is important that we continue to have this discussion? Can we outsource it to the robots?
Well, peace is the consequence of continual negotiation because the landscape around us changes all the time, and we have to continue the political discussion to maintain our equilibrium. There is no outsourcing. I think there is some utility – once you master a political domain – in transforming it into an algorithm that a bureaucracy can handle, a competent bureaucracy. Not everything always has to be up for debate. But the emerging problems of life have to be negotiated or conflict arises, so we better keep talking.