Wednesday, 29 March 2017

IQ2 2017 - Political Correctness Has Failed Itself

The first debate in the IQ2 series was entertaining and thought provoking. Upon entering, we were asked to vote on whether we were For the statement that political correctness (PC) has failed, Against or Undecided. I chose Undecided. While I was leaning towards being Against the statement, (I believe PC hasn't failed and we still need it, now more than ever), I wanted to hear both sides of the argument and make a better choice at the end.

31% were Undecided at the start, 22% were Against and the remaining 47% were For. This means that at the beginning of the debate, most people felt that political correctness was failing, but many weren't sure and perhaps, like myself, hoped it wasn't and wanted to hear an informed discussion that confirmed its necessity or obsoleteness.

There were two speakers on each team who took turns presenting their arguments. At the end, we were asked to vote again and while the votes were tallied, the floor was opened to questions or statements from the audience. I'll disclose the result at the end.

Here are the speakers:

Image via: The Ethics Centre website

Simon Longstaff hosted the debate and immediately summarised the crux of the argument. Is there a conservative backlash against political correctness or is it a failed movement in itself?

Chris Kenny was the first speaker. He suggested that political correctness was a way in which our thoughts are controlled and shaped. He described this as some sort of dystopian or Orwellian nightmare whereby we are brainwashed into thinking a certain way to police our thoughts and words. You know, like how advertising, education, popular culture, television, movies etc. are dominated by a mostly white, male, hetero/cisgender ideal and shape our identities. He remarked that the Left of the political discourse aims to promote a Utopian ideal. So far, Chris was convincing me to vote for the other team. Perhaps PC works to undo the stereotypes and negative representations that all those other bias mediums communicate in order to condition us, and perhaps PC is a way in which we can achieve a balance. Chris suggested that PC as a tool to achieve this balance had gone too far and in its extremity has instead caused the mainstream to resist. PC has become a buzz word whereby its original intent and meaning has been distorted and has thus failed, becoming a "springboard to all it despises". I can see how anything in its extreme can do that. How over policing language can water down the intention, making it seem absurd and how "political posturing" and "virtue signalling" can become antithetical to common sense. But did that mean that we could or should do away with it all together? Chris' main argument was that political correctness had become alarmist and so prevalent that it was now irrelevant and counter productive. He gave examples of how people and governments can opt for preventative responses to serious events and ideas instead of making a commitment to practical action. Some of the examples he gave were the way in which the Lindt Cafe siege was handled. He suggested that in an effort to protect the feelings of Muslim Australians, police and the public responded in a hypersensitive manner (with hashtags such as #illridewithyou), effectively abandoning the actual victims of the crime. He also mentioned the way in which environmental science is often exaggerated, causing excessive preventative expenditure that doesn't address scientific reality, like responding to droughts by increasing expenditure into ventures like desalination, that were then prevented from going ahead due to flooding. 

Mikey Robbins spoke next for the Negative side, arguing that political correctness was not only succeeding, but was necessary and desirable. He asked if PC was such a failure, then why is it still so prominent in our media? Why do we discuss it so often? Surely if it was failing it would have disappeared, like Trotskyism? If there is such a prevalent need to decry political correctness, doesn't that prove that it's working? It provokes debate and shifts apathy. Mikey talked about how the phrase political correctness originally came about. He said it was a tongue-in-cheek description given to the Left, by and to themselves, to make fun of the way in which language was modified in a changing world to reflect contemporary values and agreed upon phrases and labels that respect marginalised groups in particular. Mikey said he was an advocate and regular participant in exercising free speech, even if it caused offense sometimes, but that didn't mean that PC was unnecessary or failing. He was suggesting that the context and intention of our words can make all the difference. For example, being critical of someone's actions is different to criticising their condition. Saying someone is behaving unjustly is not the same as suggesting the colour of their skin is inferior. PC is simply the term we use to describe something that has always existed; a discourse around what is socially acceptable and known and how we progress these ideas with sensitivity, respect and inclusivity. 

Jacinta Price was the next speaker for the Affirmative and claimed that political correctness distracts us from the real issues, preventing real solutions, particularly for Aboriginal people. She talked about the way her people spoke to one another and while in the mainstream, it can be considered politically incorrect, like referring to herself as a blackfulla, it was a cultural way of communicating that wasn't hurting anyone. Again, like Mikey, she was alluding to the idea that context and intention are very important when we consider how we use language and when it is appropriate to call it out as not being PC. She gave the example of how her mother, a respected Aboriginal Elder who participated extensively in elevating the status and well-being of her people, was denied the right to speak at a prominent Queensland university. Apparently she had been on the SBS program Insight and had said to a young person that she didn't think she looked like a blackfulla, inadvertently suggesting she was too white. People were offended and accused her of being politically incorrect and as a result she was denied the platform to speak publicly, effectively silencing her. Jacinta argued that her mother didn't have any ill intent, it was just the way she spoke. She didn't mean to cause offense and wasn't being "racist", it was benign language and its criticism deflected from the real issues that her mother wanted to address. It got me thinking about context again. Surely, most people in that room understood that Jacinta's mother wasn't being abusive and had ownership over that language as a cultural way of communicating. However, flagging those words as politically incorrect, don't necessarily condemn her or her ideas, they simply point out that better words can be chosen in another context. It prevents giving license to people who would use those words to denigrate or abuse people by suggesting the darkness of your skin determines how Aboriginal you are. I think they should have let her speak at the university, but I'm glad the discussion about her words happened. Of course she isn't racist, but it's necessary to talk about how her words can impact on others and what the consequences may be. Jacinta, like Mikey, talked about the place that humour and offense has in delivering often heavy and serious messages and how if we police our language too closely, we risk silencing vital voices. She suggested that in denying fundamental truths because we are afraid to speak about them and saying the wrong thing, we further enforce incorrect stereotypes. So do we say whatever we want to get our facts straight, or do we say what we want in a way that allows us to examine the facts sensitively? Jacinta mentioned the Bill Leak fiasco and how his cartoon about Aboriginal fathers was perhaps taken out of context and blown out of proportion. She said many Aboriginal fathers who did not identify with the derogatory portrayal, still understood its meaning and that the fact is those fathers do actually exist. She noted that nobody suggested that the cartoon was portraying all Aboriginal men as policemen, as the policeman in the picture was indeed Aboriginal. Both Chris and Jacinta suggested that Bill Leak was being unfairly targeted for his controversial cartoons and it was an example of PC being used in its extreme. She didn't talk about the unequal platform that white journalists and cartoonists have in society generally, compared to Aboriginal fathers who are still experiencing the effects of colonisation, poverty, unemployment and attempted genocide. Jacinta also talked about how Aboriginal women in remote areas are being threatened by their own people, with violence, if they dare to break traditional lore. She said nobody wants to talk about it out of fear of being politically incorrect. It seems that in order to be PC, people refuse to acknowledge that black on black violence has taken more lives that white on black violence and this is hypocritical in the face of the #blacklivesmatter campaign. Again, I thought about the context of privilege and discrimination in which violence happens generally. Shouldn't we be asking why and in what circumstances black people are dying compared to white people? Jacinta stated that she believes that racism and political correctness were two sides of the same coin. That's when she lost me.

Tasneem Chopra was the final speaker and argued for the Negative. Her concerns centred around the notion that when the conversation is dominated by a certain group of people and when those whose lives the issues impact are excluded from the debate, PC is a way in which we address imbalances of entitlement, privilege and representation. Political correctness provides boundaries. It defines the checks and balances that keeps the discourse honest and ensures a level playing field. When there is a lack of representation and when marginalised groups are spoken about instead of being allowed to speak, bigotry and misinformation becomes casualised and eventually becomes acceptable and mainstream; sometimes those who hold those bigoted beliefs can even become POTUS or PM (who in the case of Tony Abbott, a white, male, conservative, suddenly and inexplicably to many, declared himself Minister for Women and Minister for Indigenous Affairs). Tasneem pointed out that PC helps us to identify the issues that divide us and eliminates the Us vs Them mentality that often causes bigotry to escalate, as it is currently, despite the influence and prevalence of political correctness. PC is a siren of the non acceptance of hatred and it helps us to ensure respectful discourse. 

The debate was then handed over to the audience. A few people brought up some excellent points. One man argued that PC is a form of self-censorship that occurs when we have freedom of information. It is a way in which we can police our own thoughts as opposed to censorship being imposed on us by the state. Another person talked about stereotyping and how accurate stereotypes are a way in which we make sense of the world around us. It is when stereotypes become inaccurate assumptions that can cause harm, that PC can help us to keep these inaccuracies in check. Another woman reminded us of when words like kaffir, nigger, wog, faggot and other derogatory terms were an acceptable part of the lexicon and how those insults have been eliminated due to political correctness. It made me wonder if political correctness has gone too far, or if in fact it has forced the scum to the surface. When people get defensive about being PC, are they just showing their true colours, indulging in their cognitive dissonance and refusing to admit that they are out of line and learning from it? Is it PC that is stifling debate or privileged people using it to deflect from the real issues? Which is the argument that is twisted around to minimise political correctness. As Mikey said, surely political correctness has done more good than harm. That quote kept coming to my mind. "When you're used to privilege, equality feels like oppression". I'd made my decision. I voted Against the statement and went with my initial thoughts. Political correctness hasn't failed. It's working, it's agitating and it's changing the way we see the world, for the better.

The final vote was counted and the results spoke for themselves. It was one of the biggest swings seen in IQ debate history.

Undecided - 13%
For - 18%
Against - 69%