Forum for Debate

SCT’s Forum for Debate provides protagonists on either side of an issue or public debate  –  including think tanks, commentators, academics and campaigners – with an opportunity to set out their well-considered, rational arguments and then allow a limited number of exchanges between them. Rather than then hosting an open forum or blog, the debates are designed to encourage visitors, guided by links provided by the British Library, to seek out further information about the issues and engage in face-to-face debate themselves. The  debates could also provide material around which Speakers’ Corner Committees can organise their own local events.

The latest in the series appears below. Previous debates can be found in the archive.


Political Correctness – Opening Eyes or Closing Minds?

‘Political correctness’ gets a bad press. But is it as ‘mad’ as its critics claim? Is a certain amount of political correctness a necessary corrective to the way the language we use preserves the status quo? Has political correctness not often challenged us to think again about how we stereotype or stigmatise some groups and has it not helped empower previously marginalised groups?

Or in seeking to control the language of debate by labelling certain words and concepts ‘offensive’ and inadmissible, does it stifle genuinely free thinking and expression? If we want open and productive debate, do we not also need robust, free and potentially offensive speech?

Are there different kinds or levels of political correctness? If a line can be drawn, where should it be?

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Claire Fox

Academy of Ideas

Claire Fox is the director of the Academy of Ideas, which she established to create a public space where ideas can be contested without constraint.

She convenes the yearly Battle of Ideas festival and initiated the Debating Matters Competition for sixth-formers. She also co-founded the Academy’s residential summer school, The Academy, with the aim to demonstrate ‘university as it should be’.

Claire is a panelist on BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze and presenter of FoxNewsFriday on Love Sport Radio. She is also a columnist for the Times Educational Supplement and Municipal Journal and author of a recent book on free speech, I Find That Offensive (Biteback, 2016).

Claire is a fellow of Wellington College and is involved at a board level in the international debate network, Time To Talk.

Robert Sharp

English PEN

Robert Sharp is Communications Manager at English PEN, the founding centre of a global literary network which works to defend and promote freedom of expression and to remove barriers to literature.

He joined English PEN in 2009 from the Social Market Foundation, a Westminster think tank.

Robert was previously director of Fifty Nine Productions and worked on box-office favourites War Horse and Black Watch as well as for the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House.

Robert maintains an eponymous blog, where he write on free speech, technology, multiculturalism... political correctness.

He also writes science fiction: his debut novella The Good Shabti was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Prize 2014.

Proposition

PC stifles debate but doesn't change the world

The phrase “PC gone mad” can undoubtedly be a lazy formulation, used by those of us worried about an increasingly censorious climate, a cry of rage at some latest madness. You know the scenario, those snowflake, PC students who banned Mexican sombreros for being racist or that hapless council living up to every Daily Mail-style caricature by replacing Christmas with Winterval.

But concern about political correctness is more than a cliché. More seriously it embodies the very real problem of how contemporary society has normalised the policing of language and thought in a way that is stifling open debate.

PC culture must take some responsibility for making increasing numbers of people feel they must walk on eggshells when speaking, for fear of causing offence. In a recent YouGov poll, 48% of those surveyed felt that there are “many important issues these days where people are not allowed to say what they think”; (35% disagreed). Myriad words, phrases and attitudes are declared verboten. “You Can’t Say That” we’re told indignantly.

Last September, campaigners angrily complained that Poundland’s naming of its chocolate-covered sweets ‘Nutters’, was a "real step backwards" in reducing mental health stigma. They posited the fashionable PC argument that certain words stereotype maginalised groups. Or maybe we are just creating new stereotypes? PC advocates seem to imagine that without their self-righteous efforts at policing what we say, we’d all be grunting at each other using grossly racist and sexist insults, foul-mouthed ‘Deplorables’, with scant regard for the vulnerable or oppressed.

However, by implying that santising language is at the heart of political change, I fear we reduce the fight for equality to mere words, a superficial distraction from having a meaningful impact on society. Banning sweets called Nutters will do little to secure increased funding for psychiatric services. Meanwhile, the notion that “previously marginalised groups are empowered” because we use nicer words, reduces fighting political oppression to linguistic etiquette. Too easy, I’m afraid.

Is radicalism well served by keyboard activists scouring social media in order to name and shame culprits who break PC language codes? Call someone “girl” or “dear” and watch for hyperventilating shouts of misogyny. Dare misgender a trans teen, mis-use the word gay, indulge in banter deemed offensive by progressive gatekeepers, and shrieks of outrage are guaranteed, along with demands for public repentance. For those readers cocking their nose at such alleged backward attitudes – who cares if such rednecks are called out - consider the witch hunt against those ‘bad’ feminists opposed to the new Gender Recognition Act, who are branded as transphobic TERFs (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists).

Of late we have seen everyone from Mary Beard to Margaret Atwood, from Linda Bellos to Germaine Greer – all modern heroines of the fight against prejudice - themselves labelled as prejudiced for ‘misspeaking’. This is not PC facilitating a more civilised debate; it is the use of demonising labels such as Islamophobic, homophobic and so on, to silence anyone who fails to follow a prescribed script.

Even complaining that PC undermines free expression can get you dubbed a chauvinist. Guardian columnist Owen Jones writes of “bigots who clothe themselves in the garb of free speech” who “just want the right to hate without challenge”. Fellow scribbler Nesrine Malik complains about “useful liberals…who flog PC culture as a singularly eminent threat to the freedom of expression”, and in doing so provide “a loophole” for “trolls, racists and ethnic cleansing advocates”.

Is PC’s contribution to censorship exaggerated, a bad faith “loophole”? Consider the case of Markus Meechan – known on YouTube as Count Dankula – who has been found guilty in a Scottish law court for making a comedic, if tasteless, viral online video in which he trains his girlfriend’s pug to give a Nazi salute in response to the phrase ‘gas the Jews’. Now that words regardless of context are criminalised and prankster jokes can land you in prison, surely it’s time to admit that PC is no laughing matter.

Proposition

A voice for the marginalised which makes us think again

It's very difficult to defend something when you don’t believe it exists. Apparently, the ideology of ‘political correctness’ is everywhere, and yet it's adherents are somehow elusive. No political party manifesto pledges to promote political correctness, and no think-tanks seek to advance its tenets. There are no brigadiers or foot-soldiers in the mythological ‘PC Brigade’.

Far more numerous, are those who claim to be proudly politically incorrect, a label they wear with sincerity and pride. Those people see political correctness everywhere, and heroically battle against its encroachment onto their right to free speech.

My suspicion is that political correctness only really exists in the minds of these opponents. There, it can mean whatever one wants it to mean. The lack of a proper definition allows reactionary naysayers to use it for anything and everything they dislike. In this manner, health and safety legislation, human rights protections, or just films with strong heroines can be labelled ‘political correctness’ and opposed.

That said, I think ‘political correctness’ is most commonly understood as a kind of outrage. Someone says or does something unpleasant, and others voice their displeasure. The internet (social media in particular) has made this type of outcry much easier, and there is a cosy consensus that this has made our politics more infantile.

But I believe there are good reasons for free speech defenders to support this kind of collective expression.

The first reason to approve politically correct outrage is that it is a spectacularly bad form of censorship! Any such furore usually sends more people to the original article or video, to see what was said.

Moreover, the most celebrated politically incorrect public figures do not seem to be troubled by the PC tendency: Jeremy Clarkson has two national newspaper columns and a £4.5m-per-episode TV series; Nigel Farage had been an MEP for two decades, and has a show on LBC. Donald Trump is President of the United States.

These men have made a career proving that the unsayable is, in fact, completely sayable. They provoke politically correct sound and fury. But the outrage signifies nothing. Their free speech is secure.

The second reason is that outrage can be good and useful. Outrage is the id of free speech and it is at the root of some of the best art. It is also a virtue in political activism.

We need people in our society who relentlessly call out prejudice when they see it. Show me a politician who is not motivated by outrage at what they perceive to be wrong with the country and I’ll show you a politician who is motivated by a desire for power and personal enrichment.

The taking of offence is useful because it should prompt the target of one’s ire to reconsider their position. When you are told you have given offence, the proper response — particularly if you did so unwittingly, and particularly if you are a public figure — is to attempt to understand the other person’s point of view. After all, you might be mistaken.

To smear something as ‘political correctness’ is to short-circuit this dialogue. To dismiss the outrage (which usually comes from a marginalised group) is to claim that you know better. It is an act of delegitimisation, a sly rhetorical tool deployed by those who represent vested interests against those who have only their voice. It is entirely against the spirit of free speech.

Public criticism and condemnation is a manifestation of free speech. Through pressure groups and social media, the hoi polloi are last being able to talk back to the people whose words and deeds affect their lives.

‘Politically correct’ storms happen when ordinary people realise that we matter. If businesses or politicians let slip, by word or by deed, that they do not share our values, then we are entitled to let them know about it. And if they don't listen, we’ll take our custom and our votes elsewhere.

Response

If there’s “a sly rhetorical tool” at play, it’s Robert’s dismissal of those worried about PC’s influence as “reactionary naysayers”. Wheel out Clarkson, Farage and Trump. Yep, it’s all a whine by privileged white men. True, the ‘PC Brigade’ may be mythological but a broader mood of censorious public-shaming of anyone who expresses the ‘wrong’ views is far too real.

I agree that PC is rarely openly espoused today. However, its baleful influence can be seen vividly in the rise of “taking of offence” culture, which Robert defends as “useful” to “prompt the target of one’s ire to reconsider their position”.

But when you hear that ubiquitous phrase ‘I find that offensive’, you aren’t being invited to reconsider; you’re being told to shut up, or else!

Those who butchered the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists used the ‘offence’ defence to justify their ire. Should our “proper response” be to “reconsider”, to “understand the other person’s point of view” or to fight for the right to be offensive?

How is ‘offensive’ defined, and who decides? If we accept this subjective category, we should nod through banning Salman Rushdie’s novel because one identity group declares it offensive.

Should we endorse the legal fight in one American school district to remove Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird from the curriculum because “when you force students to read a book that contains this racial slur, you create a hostile and offensive learning environment for African-American students”?

Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451, warned, “there is more than one way to burn a book, and the world is full of people running about with lit matches".

I fear PC offence-mongering is the new metaphorical book-burning. And complacent “nothing to see here” arguments underestimate, to use Robert’s formulation, how smearing opinions/films/novels as ‘offensive’ precisely short-circuits dialogue, the ultimate act of match-lighting “delegitimisation”.

Response

I have written elsewhere that subjective phrases like ‘grossly offensive’ should be removed from the communications laws. So I cannot support the conviction of Markus Meechan. Unpleasant though the joke may have been, it is perilous for the courts to convict on a possible subtext of the video.

Moreover, if this is political correctness, then I must concede to Claire that it is a serious problem.

However, I think the Count Dankula case is instructive because it is an outlier that is very different to the other cases Claire cites. When someone misgenders a teen or uses patronising language, the outrage is not coupled with any state sanction. It is this kind of counter-speech (and this alone) that I seek to defend, where there is no obligation on the speaker to heed the critics. If they think the complaints are unfair then no-one can force them to self-censor.

At the risk of slipping into self-parody, I think some of the words Claire uses should be scrutinised! First, the suggestion that political correctness ‘sanitises’ language. That is neither the aim nor the effect. Politically correct arguments over language do not remove or redefine words in our discourse. Rather, they draw attention to layers of meaning of which we might otherwise be unaware. This additional context might cause embarrassment or disrupt our thinking…which in turn might feel like censorship. But this additional information surely deepens our knowledge, and thus enhances our freedom of expression. Serious thinkers like Atwood, Beard, Bellos and Greer should revel in this complexity, not rail against it.

Another word that I tried to avoid in my earlier paragraphs is ‘offence’. In my opinion, recent politically correct disputes have become more sophisticated: They are no longer about whether the words offend, but whether they cause harm.

When words stand accused of violating Mill’s ‘harm principle’, free speech advocates must take this seriously. But too often, instead of refuting that charge, they fail to engage with it at all, and instead pummel the ‘offence’ straw-man. Free speech defenders should not use ‘political correctness’ as an excuse to punt on these tough questions.

Conclusion

It’s naïve, even disingenuous, to suggest that when “outrage is not coupled with any state sanction” there is “no obligation on the speaker to heed the critics…no-one can force them to self-censor”.  Yes they can. You don’t need the law or jackboots to weaponise outrage. Mob outrage, especially amplified on social media, can publicly shame, trash reputations, threaten livelihoods. The intent is to chill speech not to make it nuanced.

Robert alleges that “politically correct arguments over language… might feel like censorship” but are OK because “additional information surely deepens our knowledge”.  If it feels like censorship, maybe that’s because it effectively is.

A recent LGA report An Inclusive Service declared: “notwithstanding the need for personal freedom, everyone needs to know…that they will be excluded if they demonstrate words or actions that do not confirm to the desired culture of the future. There is no room for maintaining the status quo”. Is this a legitimate attempt to draw “attention to layers of meaning of which we might otherwise be unaware”? Sounds more like a chilling threat to me.

And remember scientist Sir Tim Hunt? An outraged twitchunt over a misfired joke meant he was: falsely labelled misogynistic; drummed out of academic posts; disinvited from major conferences: “I’m finished,” he said in an interview, “I had hoped to do a lot more to help promote science…but I cannot see how than can happen. I have become toxic”.

It’s precisely such non-state toxification of words and people that mutes open discussion.

Robert uses the example of misgendering. He may consider this insensitive, but should it be a disciplinary offence as it was for Joshua Sutcliffe, now suspended from teaching Maths?

What about the code of conduct I was sent before a speaking engagement: “It is very important to note that any attempts to undermine pronoun introductions will not be tolerated.

Meanwhile, the University of Hull cautions students that “failure to use gender-sensitive language will impact your mark”.  Penalties for mis-speaking are scarily real.

One thing we agree on: “recent politically correct disputes” are indeed less about “words that offend” and more about “whether they cause harm”.  But Mill’s ‘harm principle’ is being bastardised by the increasingly elastic and therapeutic use of the term harm.

Today, bans are justified on the basis of psychological harm, because certain language/ideas allegedly cause trauma, trigger anxiety.  But as Professor Nick Haslam explains in his Concept Creep: Psychology's Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology: “an ever-increasing sensitivity to harm… pathologis[es] everyday experience and encourag[es] a sense of virtuous but impotent victimhood”.

How tragic if free speech advocates act as uncritical apologists for such trends, when the urgent task should be to expose them for the enemies of liberty that they are.

Conclusion

I’m glad that Claire agrees that politically correct debates involve a ‘short circuiting’ of political dialogue. We just seem to disagree over precisely which side in this culture war is engaging in delegitimisation!

Perhaps we are both right? Perhaps it is both sides which engage in this rhetorical trickery?

In that case, I am very willing to concede that an outcry from the Social Justice Warriors (to use a pejorative term) might feel like censorship to those on the receiving end.

But in the same breath I would also point out that accusations of ‘political correctness’ can have the same chilling effect on the other side of the debate. Too often, politically correct spats seem to be a race to see who can be first to reach the unassailable moral high-ground. Who is most offended? Whose speech is most chilled? Whose feelings matter more?

I think the sting of the ‘political correctness’ accusation is that political outrage is unsophisticated and immature. Students are usually the butt of this complaint: the idea that young people are too naïve to conduct political discourse properly is an accusation that sticks easily. But when political correctness is conflated with identity politics, entire minority groups are effectively branded as ‘immature’ too, even though the offence they express is well-reasoned.

My central quarrel with many of my fellow Free Speech defenders is about the refusal to countenance that some outrage might be an appropriate part of political discourse. Instead, any example of offence-taking is deemed out-of-bounds.

Claire mentions the Charlie Hebdo atrocity and the Satanic Verses fatwa. These are clearly indefensible—giving offence should never bring a threat to life.

But these examples are surely different to (say) a bunch of people on Twitter critiquing Professor Mary Beard for racist language (something that happened in February). If ‘political correctness’ encompasses both Islamic extremism and academic call-outs, then I repeat my original point that it has become a meaningless term.

Crucially, the invoking of ‘offence’ does not always end up with the pious impassé I describe above.

The Mary Beard controversy is a case in point. When faced with criticism, Professor Beard posted a longer reflection on the outrage she had unwittingly provoked. She began an exchange with fellow Cambridge academic, Dr Priyamvada Gopal, who had posted some of the more cutting criticism. I have no idea whether Professor Beard and Dr Gopal have met for cake yet, but this approach is to be applauded either way. Only after the expression and acknowledgement of offence can good faith dialogue begin.

By avoiding an easy retreat into complaints about political correctness, we open up the possibility that we might persuade… or be persuaded. This is the essence and the spirit of free speech.

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