A brief politically correct essay on politically incorrect views
When I was a small boy, the terms “politically correct” and its negative “politically incorrect” did not exist. Indeed, insults were frequently a part of everyday conversation, and were typically treated either as humour in questionable taste or as casting aspersions on the insulter, not on the insultee. And it would never have occurred to anyone that any civil or criminal penalty would attach to making an insult.
Over time, our reaction to and treatment of insults has changed. If a person has been “offended” by a derogatory remark, then even if the remark is not directed at the individual but at a group to which the individual belongs or claims to support, formal complaints can be and are made to suitable authorities, and a formal remedy sought. The list of “suitable authorities” has expanded accordingly. We have commissions of various sorts, human rights tribunals, academic review panels, etc.
Have humans become increasingly sensitive over the years? Was the average skin thickness a half-century ago twice what it is today? Or has society changed in some fundamental ways?
I attribute the principal causes of the foregoing changes to be fourfold. First, everyday living has become less secure, less safe than it was 50 years ago. Then, we had no need for pre-boarding inspection prior to entering a departing aircraft. Then, our children could walk a mile to school without a companion. Then, many folks did not bother to lock the doors of their houses, at least during daylight hours. Then, there was almost universal respect for women as individuals, and chivalry dictated that men should be protective of all womenfolk.
Second, many people today support a “cause” to which they are emotionally attached, and events relating to “causes” are given a significant amount of media attention. Accordingly, anyone who receives an insult that can be associated with a cause, or who feels offended by disparagement of that cause, may duly report it to the media, and expect a media response both favourable to the “victim” and to the victim’s cause, and also injurious to the insulter. So it pays people with a cause to inflate the offence and the emotional injury caused thereby, since to do so can stimulate media attention and advance the cause. The ready availability of the digital social media exacerbates the problem.
Third, consequent upon the general decline in religious belief, affiliation and observance, there are fewer guidelines and supports for ethical conduct than there were a half-century ago. Moral conduct was governed by the Holy Book then; no reliable and generally used substitute has evolved. Secular humanism may have its appeal to the intellectual atheists and doubters, but it largely misses everyday folks.
Fourth, we as a society have become increasingly sensitive to the plight of various minority groups and also to other groups, not necessarily minorities, against whom there has been a history of negative discrimination. In the last half-century, after a series of protests and demonstrations, we have seen an end to black segregation in the U.S., the rise of a forceful feminist movement, an increased sensitivity to the unsatisfactory treatment of aboriginals, increased attention to the rights of those with minority sexual preferences, etc. Those social changes have been accompanied by an increased individual sensitivity and reaction on the part of members of such groups to disparagement of themselves or of the group.
I am a believer in education as a remedy for many social ills. With suitable education, we may expect an appropriate decline in offence and insult. I do not favour legal remedies for interpersonal problems that can usually be and should be resolved as between the individuals involved. Parliament and the courts “have no place in the bedrooms of the nation”. Adultery is not per se a legal wrong of any sort, although it may be emotionally damaging and may figure in a divorce case. If a remark that I have made has offended you, then if I care at all for your continuing friendship and regard, I should apologize and mean it, and make a serious attempt to avoid repeating the offence or a similar offence. If I am a chronic offender of many people, my neighbours will eventually set me straight.
What we don’t need is human-rights tribunals to hear complaints about insults at high institutional cost and high expense to the target of the complaint, while the complainer may make a complaint without merit, without the need to retain a lawyer, and at zero cost other than time spent, even if the complaint is unjustified. For this reason, and because human-rights tribunals tend to overreact to insults, such tribunals have drawn the fire of observant journalists; see e.g. Muslims versus Maclean's demeans tribunal's standing in the Vancouver Sun, 04 June, 2008; Margaret Wente, and A bad night at Zesty's and other tales of the rights tribunal, Globe and Mail, 01 April 2010.
One of the battlefields for resolving issues of the foregoing sort is the university. We traditionalists think of universities as places of open discussion and opportunity to learn the other side of many different issues. But increasingly, we find that there are pressures operative at the student level, at the faculty level, at the administrative level, to prevent some views from being expressed, and to express outrage at slights against identifiable groups. An inappropriate remark these days by a faculty member may mean the end of the member’s career. You probably are familiar with the recent story about Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers, who in the course of analyzing reasons for which the number of women in senior science positions remains low, said that what is required for top positions “is a level of commitment that a much higher fraction of married men have been historically prepared to make than of married women” and other remarks that many women thought demeaning of their sex. If you want about two weeks’ worth of bedside reading on this event and its aftermath, take a look at http://wiseli.engr.wisc.edu/archives/summers.php. And perhaps you are familiar with the story of Sir Tim Hunt’s brief standup-comic remarks about women in science, which provoked a huge outcry prompting Sir Tim to report “I have been hung out to dry”. If you are not, see, e.g. http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jun/13/tim-hunt-hung-out-to-dry-interview-mary-collins.
Last year, in the face of pressure, Brandeis University withdrew an invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a campaigner for women’s rights and a noted critic of Islam, to receive an honorary degree:
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/09/us/brandeis-cancels-plan-to-give-honorary-degree-to-ayaan-hirsi-ali-a-critic-of-islam.html?_r=0. She has received death threats as she has travelled around America. She fared better at Yale than at Brandeis. Yale President Peter Salovey delivered his freshman address on free expression. He quoted extensively from a document whose language he called “clear and unambiguous” in its defence of free speech, and he made the case for why “unfettered expression is so essential on a university campus.” http://spectator.org/articles/60427/we-invited-ayaan-hirsi-ali-yale%E2%80%94and-outrage-ensued. Shortly afterward, despite persistent opposition from Yale’s Muslim students, Hirsi Ali was able to speak at Yale:
But elsewhere, there have appeared more disruptive students than Yale furnished to try to stop Ms Hirsi Ali from honouring her invitation. Not infrequently, students mount picket lines to prevent unwanted guests from speaking. They shout and disrupt if somehow an unwanted guest reaches the podium and dares to speak. By way of example, see
In seeking the rescinding of an invitation to comedian Bill Maher to speak at a University of California commencement, the lead objector to his appearance said “It’s not an issue of freedom of speech, it’s a matter of campus climate. The First Amendment gives him the right to speak his mind, but it doesn’t give him the right to speak at such an elevated platform as the commencement. That’s a privilege his racist and bigoted remarks don’t give him. Students at California State Polytechnic University shouted down a group of Israeli soldiers who were invited to speak on their campus by Hillel:
We in Canada have not been immune to such student protests. For example, at Concordia University, riots in response to a Jewish student group’s invitation to Bibi Netanyahu to speak on campus prevented his appearance. Outside the lecture hall, hundreds of students surrounded the building’s exterior, shattering its glass windows and chanting “down, down Israel.” Inside the lecture hall, dozens of pro-Palestinian students – led by a major backer of the anti-Israel Concordia Student Union – blocked the escalator, preventing students and guests from reaching the lecture hall. Concordia Security failed to respond adequately and was ultimately forced to cancel the event. More at http://tjctv.com/movies/confrontation-at-concordia/.
Some protesting students contend that they fear for their safety because of the possibility that an unwanted guest speaker will incite hatred against them. This question is discussed at length in this week’s Economist; the discussion is viewable at http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21654157-student-safety-has-become-real-threat-free-speech-campus-trigger-unhappy. The Economist editors conclude “At root this is a fight about power, with feelings wielded as weapons. Students should beware of winning too many victories. A perfectly safe university would not be worth attending.”