Written by Christian O’Brien
In a debate meant to unpack the purpose of political correctness, few questions were answered and many more were raised. Political correctness is an idea that’s used to mean many things, not all of which are shared by everyone who hears the phrase. Undoubtedly, the era of Donald Trump suggests there’s a growing discontent with its restriction that’s led to a revolt that even crosses partisan boundaries. Increasingly, thinkers as divergent on every issue as Ben Shapiro and Sarah Haider are bound by a shared aim: the rejection of politically correct thought.
To the defenders of political correctness, who are almost entirely on the left, it’s synonymous with “common decency.” Anyone who takes issue with the idea is presumed to be annoyed that they don’t get make gay jokes or worse to advance ideas that marginalize already underprivileged groups through unsavory conversations like the ones surrounding the data on IQ or crime. But this is exactly what joins those across the spectrum such as Harris, Shapiro, Rogan and the rest in what is called the “Intellectual Dark Web.” This loose grouping of public figures argue that political correctness is not an innocent attempt to crack down on harmful language, but a movement motivated by the silencing of legitimate thought and scientific inquiry under the guise of human decency.
To treat this expanding ulcer of a societal problem, a Munk debate was arranged between Jordan Peterson and British comedian Stephen Fry on one side, arguing that political correctness is a dangerous encroachment on free speech. On the other side was Professor of Sociology Mark Dyson, and NYT journo Michelle Goldberg. These pro-political correctness debate partners argue that it is a necessary mechanism of progress. Dyson’s summary reads, “You’re telling me I’m being sensitive, and students looking for safe spaces that they’re being hypersensitive. If you’re white, this country is one giant safe space.” From the outset, this line tells you where the debate would go, and it unfolded in that predictable way. It was never going to be about the limits of speech restriction because political correctness is viewed by its defenders as a necessary protection for the oppressed. To the annoyance of Peterson’s debate partner, Stephen Fry, and many others, that was where the conversation repeatedly fell into. The debaters reach an impasse, where neither side is able to arrive at a shared definition of what the phrase even means.
Apparently Munk made the mistake of casting a white man as a critic of political correctness, as Dyson chooses to bring up the biggest staple of politically correct rhetoric; the blinding nature of white privilege. Because Peterson isn’t able to alter his genes on the fly and blackface is forbidden for good reason, there isn’t much he can do about his whiteness. Beyond granting Mike Dyson that everything he argues is correct, he presses Dyson on what he can to do dispense with his privilege. All Dyson could do is accuse him of being a “mean, mad, white man.” Naturally, this derails any possibility of having a constructive conversation on the issue. It doesn’t even have to be said what the crowd’s reception would have been to the reverse: if Peterson brought up a stereotype of the angry black man. Rightly, in the reversed scenario, anything he said further at that point would have fallen on deaf ears. It becomes obvious that you aren’t viewing your debate partner as an equal, but instead an avatar for their race — perhaps the most arbitrary characteristic of all.
As the conversation quickly veered into the political — with the pro-correctness team repeatedly and relentlessly bringing up one racial injustice after another, Fry becomes increasingly exasperated. He’s confused as to how controlling thought through ideological words like “heteronormative” and “cisgendered” narrows any gap of inequality whatsoever. The reason those questions aren’t answered headlong is obvious, because they don’t. They’re meant to assuage bruised egos, and exclude privileged groups from conversation. That partially answers why Dyson thinks Peterson’s race is relevant in any way to the discussion, but not entirely. When he challenges Peterson to go to visit a native tribe, he learns that the Doctor has extensive connections to one. When that didn’t work, he simply shifts the goalpost by challenging him to go to a black methodist Church.
Beyond the open question of what it is Peterson is meant to learn from this, there’s the patronizing assumption that Peterson is ignorant of whatever it is he’s meant to learn through that experience. Dyson says it would be good to have that “conversation”, but he never tells us what that conversation is, and specifically what ignorance is going to be illuminated by a black methodist Church. Isn’t that the point of the debate in the first place? With each time Peterson’s identity is used as a weapon to delegitimize his points, it becomes clearer that there isn’t anything he can do to gain equal traction in the conversation, because Dyson has already drawn his conclusions. Any “debate” with him is the equivalent of a kangaroo court with the entire white race put on trial.
Ultimately, we have to call this sort of behavior what it is, and what it would be called when applied to any other group; and that is racism. Dyson’s comment was definitionally and unequivocally racist, and indeed a hell of a thing to say in a debate. Mocking or dismissing an idea simply because the originator is white, black, or whichever color is at worst racist and at best prejudiced, and the laughter Dyson’s comment drew is a reflection of how acceptable it is to direct racial anger toward one race in particular. Far too often linguistic territory is granted to the left’s more racist elements in the form of the euphemism “identity politics.” While in broad terms that may be what it is, it’s nowhere near as precise as it should be, and provides abject racists like Dyson with undeserved cover.
Even within the dynamics of “political correctness”, the hierarchy of victimhood gives some groups the right to “punch up” toward others without retribution. Dyson’s race protects him from the same retribution somebody at the lowest rung of the victim hierarchy would face, such as a white, heterosexual man. Dyson’s racial comment was matched by his arguably homophobic joke, where he tells Fry to sit on his lap. Clearly, Fry didn’t take offense to his comment, nor should he have, but according to the very ideas Dyson defends that could easily be taken offensively. If it were, he’d be forced to censor himself. In a real life scenario, where the subject of his joke weren’t so good humored, Dyson could conceivably be found as a defendant in the court of public opinion — or before a human rights committee. Even without such a joke being directed to an offended individual, his cherished idea of group rights means you don’t even get to offend them in the abstract. All transgressions are equal, even without a complainant in sight.
Which begs and did beg the question of what the limits are for the left, and that question is only answered with the superficial scenarios of “violence” and “censorship.” But clearly, censorship comes in many shapes and sizes, and it misses the point of the entire debate: what constitutes censorship? What are the limits of speech the defenders of political correctness propose, and are they applied equally? So long as those questions remain unanswered, rights, reputations, and actual progress will continue to be pushed back in the name of unimpeachable virtue. But those questions can’t be answered unless we question what their motives are, which can neatly be summarized as the pursuit of equity — or equality of outcomes. The cited need of political correctness as a means to level outcomes is what Peterson considers its most murderous element: equity is an unattainable ideal, and this has been proven beyond dispute by failures such as the Soviet and Maoist systems to produce that outcome.
In the way that Ms. Goldberg and her ideological cohorts don’t think themselves capable of violence toward the cherished aim of equal outcomes, neither did many of those who acted according to the whims of regimes aiming to reach racial or economic equity. By gathering around the pyre of group rights, it’s not a very long march to see any act as one of self-preservation. Especially when that rule is applied to law, force is the only recourse.