Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Telling People What to Think, PC, ... or, is this really thought police?

Among the various criticisms of PC and SJW is that they try to police thought and, the story goes, this is (a) offensive to basic conceptions of individualism, (b)not needed because what bad has thinking ever done anyone, (c) arrogant, and (d) just plane dumb because it cannot really be done. One cannot, so this saying goes, legislate morality. Worse, it stifles the free speech and thought needed for progress and democracy.

This is a tall indictment and I would like to take the time to engage it. I won't get to it all today so I'll come back to this issue over the next several blogs. I want to be clear: my point is not to argue against it, to provide some sort of point by point refutation. It is to engage this issue from the point of view of modern post-secondary education. In making my case (or, cases), I want to do my best to depoliticize this discussion because, in my view, it has become too politicized.  The critique of PC and SJW by the new right is an interesting cultural development but my aim is not to engage their thinking. It is, instead, to take a number of the points that come out of this discourse as a starting point and construct an argument that, I think, is important to higher education and, I will argue, human development. In short, I am not arguing for thought police but I do want to suggest that effective education engages what people are thinking and forces them to reconsider and potentially change their minds. If we ditch this idea, or try to catch up any effort to alter how people think, in one blanket "big no no" umbrella we are missing the reasons why we teach, campaign, and talk to other people (or, one of the reasons) in the first place.

Let me begin with that point. Suggesting to someone else that they change the way they are thinking is nothing new and its nothing radical. Most of us do it all the time. A few nights ago my son spent ten minutes trying -- effectively as it turned out -- to convince that a particular basketball team is better than another one. There is nothing horrendously wrong in this. In fact, he was acting on his beliefs. The issue at hand is inconsequential but the point is of value.

Imagine a different scenario. I am raising money for the local hospital and I call on you to donate. You say no. I might -- most charities have rules against pestering people to donate -- then try to convince you that this is a good thing to do. Or, you might have decided to stop seeing a particular series of movies. I've seen the latest instalment and think it is good. I talk to you about it and say "you really should go see it."

In all of these instances, I am not trying to police your thoughts. I'm trying to suggest that you can and should see things a bit differently and, with more information, you might make a different decision. Or, if you look at the matter from a different angle, your mind will change. I suspect, in fact, that most of us do this or something like this all the time. It might not be every day but it is likely every week: should we make bread pudding for Easter? Is it time to get a new chair? Is there anyway your aunt could visit in August instead of July?  These are, in fact, so far from thought police that we have a different name for them: discussions.  I might call them engagements, whereby someone challenges your thinking or asks you to reconsider a point you have decided. And, to the best of my knowledge, no one thinks this is wrong. No one gets upset and accuses you or I or the neighbour raising money for the United Way of being in league with thought police.

I'd go further: I'd guess -- I cannot say for sure but I'd guess -- that the better we know people, the more of these types of discussions we have with them. We have more opportunities to have them, for sure, but we also have a higher level of mutual trust and caring. I, frankly, make more suggestions to people and institutions with whom I have positive relationships that people or institutions I don't know, don't trust, or don't care about it. I'd guess you do things in pretty much the same way.

One needs to be careful about this and one cannot go to far or make a blanket statement but I actually feel an obligation to point out to family, friends, loved ones, mistakes if I am pretty convinced that they are about to make a mistake. Back when I was a student my friend and I used to have parties and we took people's keys when they arrived.  Want to come to our party, the price of admission is surrendering your car keys.  When you go to leave, someone who is sober will determine whether you get your keys back or we call a cab. Was that thought police? I don't think the fact that I see things a different way gives me license to control someone's life but I do think that friendship imposes of burden on me. If I ignore my friends when they are in trouble ... how good a friend am I? Am I a good friend if I let another friend drive home if they are intoxicated?

If this logic is sound, and the burden of my argument is that it is, then how much more true must it ring for important issues. If I am willing to talk to someone about movies or basketball teams, should I then, shift ground, and completely ignore significant issues? If I am willing to point out the merits of Star Trek to a friend or neighbour or family members, should I then neglect the significance of a healthy environment or a good public health care system or a safe educational environment? Said differently, on those big issues, on this issues that fundamentally affect a person's life (in a way that watching a movie or selecting a snack do not), should I sit there in silence?

If you answered yes, well, that is an interesting position because, of course, that is the point of political campaigns. One of the great ironies about those who reject PC as thought police is that they are doing exactly the same thing they shoot down PC for, just in reverse. If the politically correct are trying to convince you and I of something, those who oppose them are also trying to. The PC people are trying to convince me that they are right; the anti-PC people are trying to convince me that they are wrong. If PC is thought police ... surely those who are trying to do exactly the same thing -- convince me of something -- must also be involved in the same enterprise. That is why they argue with them: they are trying to change minds. After all, if one really believed that every person should be left to their own and any engagement with another were "thought police," the only sensible thing to do is remain silent on all issues. The fact that the anti-PC people don't illustrates two things: (1) that they are trying to change your mind (or, my mind or someone's mind) because otherwise they would not make the argument or post the video or tweet the tweet, etc. There is absolutely no point in making a video or tweeting or writing a blog or engaging in a debate other than trying to affect how people think. (2) They must feel that there is nothing wrong with what they are doing because, otherwise, they are simply acting like hypocrites and that -- hypocrisy -- would undercut their own argument.

To recap: I am not trying to refute any particular political perspective. I am, instead, trying to establish that people discuss things and part of discussions is that we try to get other people to change their minds. There is nothing nefarious in this. It depends on what you do with it. Most of the time, it is a product of the normal operation of life, our caring for others, our commitment to positive relationship and, in the university, our commitment to education.  We might not be telling someone what to think. I don't think we are. But we are trying to say: can I ask if you've considered other alternatives? Not only is this not thought police, it might, in fact, be an element of simple common humanity.

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