Thursday, March 29, 2018

Democracy is PC? Seriously?

In my last post, I tried to argue that there was nothing nefarious in asking questions, suggesting alternatives, and engaging in a conversation with others, even when the aim of that discussion was to change someone's mind. Everyone does it and calling it PC and dismissing it, is really missing the point, particularly since the anti-PC crowd has itself been pretty vocal in trying to convince people that there are things wrong with feminism, gay and lesbian equality, and other like matters. I argued that they either need to concede the point -- that there is nothing wrong with discussion -- or accept their own hypocrisy, which is, then, reason to disregard everything they say. Would you listen to a rank hypocrite? How would you know that they actually believed what they were saying and weren't just stringing you on for some other reason?

Let's take this argument one step further and move it into the realm of politics. Politics is about many things. It can be about power, common visions of the nation or the future, ways to run the economy or respond to problems, like unemployment or the environment. But, one of the things it is about is getting people to change their minds. Getting people to change their minds is so far from being "thought police" as to be the opposite: it is a precondition of democracy. If people did not change their minds ... we would never have a competitive party system or a competitive election. One person would just stay in office until they died or left of their own accord to be replaced by another person who stayed in until they died or left of their own accord. Since no one's mind ever changed, there would, in fact, be no reason for voting.

Said differently, trying to get people to change their minds might or might not be PC, but one thing we can say for sure: it is democratic. In fact, it  is a precondition of democracy. Thus, every political party behaves pretty much like a PC activist: they try to convince you to alter what you were going to do. They try to get you to see their issues as the most important issues, to trust them as opposed to someone, to vote for them, to donate to them, to like their posts on Facebook or retweet their tweets. To criticize PC for asking people to think again about X or Y, then, is not simply to criticize a particular perspective you dislike, it is to criticize the foundation of democracy.

At this point, someone might argue: PC is about limiting *my* expression and *I* want to say things a certain way and anyone who tries to limit what *I* can say is limiting my freedom.

In some existential way this might be true. But, I would argue, we are actually talking about a very limited conception of freedom.  For instance, PC does not actually try to change the way you or I or anyone else thinks. Let us accept one of the critiques of it: you can't police people's thoughts. Or, rather, let us accept it for now because saying that no one ever changes them mind is the equivalent of saying that education is completely useless and no one ever learns anything, so I want to come back to this. For now, however,  and for the sake of argument, let's accept this critique.

What PC says is not that you cannot think X or Y. It says that there are some things that should not be expressed. We will get into why this might be the case in a future blog. Instead, think about freedom. Freedom of expression is vitally important but is measuring our freedom by our ability to, say, insult someone else really a worthwhile measure of freedom? Even when we accept the idea that expression is important, and I do, one should ask what else do we need to think about in terms of freedom.

This is one of those big question and people who say "expression is most important" are trying to create a hierarchy of values.  Again, I am not disagreeing with the anti-PC crowd by trying to engage their arguments because, frankly, I find them limited. In my job as an educator, challenging limited conceptions of something is what we do. It is a process of learning and I'll get back to that as well.

The point I want to make here is that approaching freedom in this way is approaching it through what strikes me as its lowest common denominator.  I am interested in suggesting to you that we can and should have a more robust definition of freedom. After all, the ability to call someone names is either (a) irrelevant if the anti-PC people are right in their claim that calling people names does nothing bad or (b) is relevant, in which case we need to assess it.

Obviously one cannot have it both ways. The right to call someone a name as part of an argument for freedom of expression, however, actually does try to have it both ways. It tries to argue that calling someone a racist epitaph or saying something homophobic or anti-Semitic, etc., is irrelevant because it hurts no one and then tries to argue that limiting someone's ability to insult others will cause democracy to collapse because it is thought police. If it is irrelevant -- why do it? Why spend your days and night defending something that is irrelevant. I don't and I know few people who do. If it is relevant ... well ... OK, fair enough, we can look at it. But, you can't say it is both irrelevant (harms n one, concerns are overblown) and vital (to expression and self-identification) and these very relevant.

If it is relevant, it can only be relevant in relation to other things. Food is, for instance, more relevant if you don't have it. Anti-PC arguments, then, start to have a problem that is twofold: (1) they try to argue that expression both is vitally important and irrelevant since it does nothing and (2) they ask us to accept a very limited definition of freedom (the ability to call others names) in place of more robust conceptions of freedom that advance society and sustain democracy.

What might these be? What might a more robust definition of freedom include. I can think of several things: the ability to change governments, alter public policy, enjoy a safe environment, learn, meet people with whom you share bonds of loyalty and friendship, worship, work meaningfully, and I am sure there are a bunch of others. Said differently, if you had the right (which you might) to call someone racist names but lived in utter squalor with no chance for your kids to go to school, no friends to whom you could really turn, and a job that just taxed you while you lived next to a dump ... how much would that freedom of expression (in that you can indeed insult someone of a different colour, say) really mean?

This is the point I am trying to make: I don't doubt the importance of freedom of expression but in reducing it to the ability to insult others -- to call a Jew a "Kike" or a use the N word -- have we really built a robust and meaningful definition of freedom? Have we really actually established the basis upon which it could be built. (I'd argue no ... but that, too, is a story for another day.)  In this way, anti-PC provides a very limited perspective on life. It is not that the PC argument is right. I can -- and has -- had its own problems. It is that the anti side is looking for meaning and importance and significance in the wrong place.

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Plagiarism, or I did not know I was cheating ....

I began teaching at university over two decades ago and in that time one (well, more than one but this is the one about which I am blogging ...