Munk Debate on Political Correctness

by Glenn on June 25, 2018

I discussed a thread on a volleyball message board that turned into an unresolved argument about what is and is not racist language and what constitutes basic respect for others vs. what is political correctness.I think it all began with a simple question of whether or not the Japanese Women’s National Volleyball team is good, at least potentially. Eventually, the President’s name was mentioned and the argument became thoroughly politicized.

It wasn’t a sophisticated discussion and nothing much was resolved. But even in sophisticated discussions, things don’t always work out well.

Recently, I watched the Munk Debate on Political Correctness: “Be it resolved, what you call political correctness, I call progress …”

For the resolution were Michael Eric Dyson and Michelle Goldberg. Against the resolution were Stephen Fry and Jordan Peterson.

This was a sophisticated discussion, but it, too, had some heated and unpleasant moments.

The two-hour debate is well worth the time watching (through their website, linked above, or on YouTube, below) to, at the very least, understand where things go awry when talking about progress/political correctness.

I think I understand the opposition’s point of view. Stephen Fry, who for me was the highlight of the debate, is a self-proclaimed contrarian. In his pre-debate interview he said he stands against “sanctimony, piety, self-righteousness, resentment, anger, orthodoxy, accusation, denunciation, shaming.” A “soft lefty,” he stands against these things whether they come from the right or, as they do on this issue, from the left. He wants to “achieve the golden aim of making a more tolerant society,” but he doesn’t want it to happen by, for example, prescribing language or tearing down statues. His simple argument is that it doesn’t work and fuels the anger of the right. He wants to see a day when people relate to each other in respectful ways, but insists that “saying what is and is not correct to say … delays the day.”

This issue of speech is what I think brought Jordan Peterson onto a larger stage and, as a result, this stage. He is a psychotherapist and a college professor at the University of Toronto. But when Canada wanted to compel certain forms of speech for people who don’t identify as either male or female, he spoke up rather forcibly, decrying the agenda of “the radical left,” which he maintains has “dominated” the humanities and the social sciences in the universities. He does think you need a left. The left speaks for the people who aren’t making it in the culture. It’s a voice of empathy. But his grave concern is two-fold: that the left “can go too far,” and that their aims are “ill-defined.” He thinks “the conflation of empathy and ideology” is dangerous and doesn’t like how “everything transforms into a polarized political argument.”

It’s unfortunate that the weakest debater was for the motion. My current sympathies were with Dr. Peterson and Mr. Fry and I was interested in hearing the argument for the things that they are against. Unfortunately, Michelle Goldberg, a writer, including columnist at the New York Times, stood against the opposition, but not necessarily for the motion. She doesn’t like, in particular, some of the things that Jordan Peterson has said. But that’s not the same thing as advocating for progress. In the end, it seemed like she was against people who are against “political correctness,” where the word is used pejoratively.

The other problem with Ms. Goldberg was that she has too many tics in her speaking style. She has adopted the contemporary habit of often ending sentences with “Right?” Once in a while it’s appropriate to check in to see if you are connecting with your audience, but too often makes you sound needy. Add to that a generous supply of “um”, “you know?”, “kind of”, “sort of”, and it all becomes exhausting. (I note that the transcript of the debate removes all this chaff from her spoken language. She is much better on the printed page.) She also may be the most imprecise speaker, though I haven’t done any fact-checking. At several points in the debate she said she was quoting Dr. Peterson and he interjected, “That’s not what I said.” I’ve listened to a number of interviews with Dr. Peterson and I think he really tries to be precise in his speech because he worries about being misquoted. My initial reaction is to believe him.

Michael Eric Dyson, therefore, was the only person really advocating for the motion. In his pre-debate interview he said the idea of political correctness was created by the left as an ideal but was taken by the right to mean “everything I’m mad about that I can’t be bigoted about anymore.” His essential point is that there are people who have benefited from privilege. They tend to be white and male. It’s time for them to share. Dr. Dyson is a professor of sociology at Georgetown University. Interesting, in the debate he will say exactly the opposite of what Dr. Peterson did regarding the radical left in the universities:

“The radical left is a metaphor, a symbol, an articulation. They don’t exist, their numbers are too small. I’m on college campuses, I don’t see much of them coming.”

Dr. Dyson is also a minister and has an obvious gift for public speaking. There’s a line that he used in both the pre-debate interview and in the debate. He points out Thomas Jefferson’s essential inconsistency in that he advocated for human freedom and had slaves. And when it came to Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s “loins trumped his logic.” It’s a clever line that got an audience reaction, but what is he saying? Yes, Jefferson was not consistent, but it was his ideals not his failings that were appealed to by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement. You can complain about Jefferson, but didn’t Jefferson identify the very principle that ended slavery and introduced Civil Rights? My main complaint, then, about Dr. Dyson during the debate is that he sounds good, but what is he saying? This is a point that Mr. Fry would make in his closing statement, referring to a

“classic, if I can call it that, huckstering, snake-oil pulpit talk. It’s a mode of discourse, a rhetorical style that I find endlessly refreshing and vivifying, but I’m not sure that we actually focused on the point in question.”

Ms. Goldberg was the first speaker. It was just four paragraphs in that she suggested Dr. Peterson was insane and brought Donald Trump into the debate:

“In the New York Times today, Mr. Peterson says: ‘The people who hold that our culture is an oppressive patriarchy, they don’t want to admit that the current hierarchy might be predicated on competence.’ That’s not particularly insane to me, because I’m an American and our President is Donald Trump, but it’s an assumption that I think underlies a worldview in which any challenges to the current hierarchy are written off as political correctness.”

This, though, is where the debate hinges. Those for progress or political correctness (not intended as a pejorative, here) maintain that there is a power structure, a pyramid or hierarchy, that leaves minorities at the bottom. They merely want the power and wealth to be shared.

The questions that the other side are wrestling with are:

1. How true is this? and

2. What do we do about it?

And the problems begin with asking that first question. On one side, people want to think about to what extent they have benefited from privilege. On the other side, people want to say that it’s axiomatic. If you’re even asking the question, you’re clueless. And we get stuck as we did in this debated. In one of the more heated moments of the debate, Dr. Peterson will engage with Dr. Dyson.

Dr. Peterson:

“Let’s assume for a moment that I’ve benefitted from my white privilege, okay? So let’s assume that.”

Dr. Dyson:

“That’s a good assumption; that’s a good assumption.”

Dr. Peterson:

“Yeah, well, that’s what you would say. So let’s get precise about this, okay?”

Dr. Dyson:

“Hmm, was that very individual of you?”

Dr. Peterson:

“Let’s get precise about this, okay?”

Dr. Dyson:

“Mm-hmm, let’s get precise.”

Dr. Peterson:

“To what degree is my present level of attainment or achievement a consequence of my white privilege? And I don’t mean ‘sort of.’ Do you mean 5 percent? Do you mean 15 percent? Do you mean 25 percent? Do you mean 75 percent? And what do you propose I do about it?

“How about a tax? How about a tax that’s specialized for me so that I can account for my damn privilege, so that I can stop hearing about it?”

The exchange continues and is worth watching because Dr. Peterson goes on to ask the question of when does the left go too far. At the same time, it feels to me as an observer that there is a bit of mocking in the way Dr. Dyson engages.

We never will get answers. This is where the conversation will break down. Dr. Dyson calls Dr. Peterson “a mean, mad, white man.” Dr. Peterson eventually responds,

“And with regard to my privilege or lack thereof, I’m not making the case that I haven’t had advantages in my life, and disadvantages in my life, like most people. You don’t know anything about my background or where I came from, but it doesn’t matter to you, because fundamentally I’m a ‘mean white man.’

“That’s a hell of a thing to say in a debate.”

Dr. Dyson contends,

“Let me just say that the “mean white man” comment was not predicated upon my historical excavation of your past; it’s based upon the evident vitriol with which you speak, and the denial of a sense of equanimity among combatants in an argument.”

I can say, having watched a fair amount of Dr. Peterson, is that he does communicate with a fair amount of intensity. And I do think it is just that—intensity, not anger—that you see when he communicates.

The point he wants to make is not that hierarchies don’t exist. There are people in power who have exercised power unjustly (Harvey Weinstein gets prominent mention in the debate). And there are people who are not participants in the hierarchy or speaking on behalf of those who are not or have been injured. The question remains, What do they want? And I do think it’s fair to ask How far is too far? Ms. Goldberg says violence and censorship are too far. But what about state-mandated speech? Dr. Peterson does recognize that inequalities are a problem. His argument is that correcting those inequalities can present a cure worse than the problem.

The finest moment of the night I thought belonged to Mr. Fry. In his closing statement he said this:

“It’s a strange paradox, that the liberals are illiberal in their demand for liberality. They are exclusive in their demand for inclusivity. They are homogenous in their demand for heterogeneity. They are somehow un-diverse in their call for diversity — you can be diverse, but not diverse in your opinions and in your language and in your behaviour. And that’s a terrible pity. So, I would say that I’m sorry that it got a bit heated in places, because I was hoping it wouldn’t. I was hoping it would be a shining example of how people of all different kinds of political outlooks can speak with humour and wit and a lightness of touch. As G. K. Chesterton said, ‘Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.'”

After the debate, Dr. Peterson said this about Mr. Fry:

“[I]t was a pleasure sharing the stage with him. I’ve rarely heard anyone ever deliver their convictions with such a remarkable sense of passion and wit and forbearance and erudition — it was really something.”