Misappropriation of political correctness really is a degenerate driver of liberal-left policy, and if we don’t find honest ways to debate it openly it will continue to fester. There is a serious Catch-22 in here.
Yesterday’s social media conversations were dominated by three related topics.
- A secret series of eugenics conferences held annually at UCL.
- Toby Young’s appointment / de-appointment to UK ministerial post.
- Some selected remarks by Steven Pinker on PCness around racist / sexist topics in academe.
The secret UCL eugenics series suffice to say for now, the range of papers, presenters and topics is incendiary without careful interpretation wherever the individuals lie on the spectrum from actively eugenicist to free-thinking intellectual. Knowing this, the organisers attempted to operate in secrecy, which can only compound the impression that there was something to actively hide, rather than simply provide a “safe space” for tricky intellectual debate from which misrepresented misunderstandings might escape. (Lies and misunderstandings get halfway round the world before the truth gets its boots on.)
Young I have zero reason to defend. Apparently he actively participated in the UCL Eugenics event(s) but also has a long record of careless and provocatively bigotted public remarks on a whole range of race, gender and sexuality freedom issues. So much so that whatever he actively believes, he is unfit for any public office on grounds of not caring.
Pinker I have had plenty of reason to be critical of in the past. Mainly on his naive basis of bringing science and statistics to his main field of psychology. Specifically he’s sometimes out of his depth, but more generally he’s part of the scientism infecting many areas of would-be-science that fail to appreciate their limitations – limitations to the validity of their own interpretations as well as inherent limitations in reality. (I’m all for making any field as scientifically rational as it can be, but that also involves understanding where rational values lie beyond science as well as the science.) Also, although he writes well, Pinker has an awkward gauche manner when talking with attempted humour (I should talk) and his intent is easily misunderstood. I think he knows this, but is nevertheless sincere intellectually even when, in my opinion, misguided scientistically. (Seems Pinker also attended one of the UCL events too? Need to check.)
Anyway, I find myself defending the criticisms of Pinker’s recent remarks as neither bigotted nor even careless. Does he have a history of making unguarded non-PC comment in public media? I don’t know but Petra thinks so. Maybe he has been careless. All I can say is that the Spiked Magazine Panel – “Is Political Correctness Why Trump Won?” was an excellent debate. All four speakers, the moderator and the audience. Apart from Brendan O’Neill maybe being provocative for effect at times – a Brexiteer with history, and promotional interest in Spiked – I’d say all including O’Neill and Pinker took care to stick to the topic honestly and intellectually. Ironically and knowingly, Spiked refer to it as part of their “unsafe space” series. Pinker even uses the mock trigger warning at one point that what he’s about to say is “gonna sound ragingly controversial”.
Well trigger it did. Many people people I admire leapt on the “bigotted remarks from Pinker” bandwagon yesterday on the strength of statements selected out of the full context. It’s not a thin edge of a wedge to talk about such topics, merely to talk about them carelessly. Careless talk cost lives.
It would be a pity if people didn’t watch that whole debate. It was excellent and it was organised openly with care. Basic use-mention distinction in philosophy. If we can’t talk “about” controversial views, even listen to people “using” them in a controlled debate, all hope is lost.
(I for one will be following-up all the speaker’s contributions. “Most rejection of free-speech is psychological not ideological”. “PC as blasphemy for a secular individualistic age”. “Therapeutic justice”. “Caring and civility of human contact”. “PC gets in the way of having-it-out”. “PC as a proxy battle for economic ideologies”. Fascinating resource, the closing remarks alone.)
Post Note: Particularly worrying about those people I admire is how many made sarcastic Auschwitz gas-chambers “jokes” conflating both the Young and Pinker cases too as their main and final responses. I won’t share links. I know these people do care, but it is careless to leave such memes hanging as lasting misrepresentative impressions in the ether. Memes have lives of their own.
Post Note: This is an excellent piece on the scientistic PC-ness problem relating to mirsepresentations of Sam Harris, but also written after the Pinker misrepresentation story.
Post Note: And even Jerry Coyne leapt to Pinker’s defence (and I have zero time for Coyne’s opinions! I see him as part of the bigotted scientism problem, not the solution.)
[Post Note: And oh boy, PZ Myers weighing in, just as intellectually dishonestly, on the other side:
Hat tip to @JosephRatliff.]
[Post Note: And Baroness Warsi in defence of Young (@toadmeister)
I have no specific reason to doubt Young’s intellectual and ideological sense, as I say, the problem is the emotional carelessness in his history of inappropriate overtly bigotted public remarks, beyond any intellectual context. Not the stuff of public office.
And as Jeremy notes re Warsi statement – it really is marginal – a grey area – where intellectual freedom becomes bigotry:
Part of the reason discussion spaces need to be “safe” so that subtleties can be addressed before careless communication. PC is about caring, not censorship.]
Exactly. It doesn’t say don’t mention the difference, it says take care – respect and empathy – when discussing it.]