Thursday 28 February 2013


I picked up a copy of Juan Williams' book Muzzled at the library this week.  It's an interesting look at the benefits of political correctness vs free speech.  He points out how both concepts can be abused.  Political correctness can be used to attack the person rather than the ideas.  Free speech can be used to justify hate-filled words.

When I was in university, one of my professors said something which stuck with me.  We were complaining to him about having to read a particular book (we whined about our reading list a lot) because the concepts in it were against everything we believed in.  (I'm not certain, but I believe it was Augustine's Confessions.)

He told us that it was critical to read things and expose ourselves to ideas we disagreed with.  Because that was the best way to figure out what we truly believed rather than being caught in complacent familiarity.

I've taken his advice very much to heart.  I've found myself in many debates where the other side was making a reasoned, consistent and persuasive argument and I still felt deep in my gut that they were wrong.  It forced me to really think and go deep in myself to discover why I felt it was wrong.

Practicing this skill has definitely made me a more critical thinker.  When I fire up the ol' noggin, I'm very good at finding the hidden flaws in most arguments.  (It's embarassing to admit, but if I'm not paying attention, I'll find myself agreeing with the stupidest things and have to mentally smack myself in the head later.)

That advice is the reason I'm a passionate believer in free speech.  I think there is some logic behind the reasoning that our language does have inherent biases which reinforce the status quo.  I also believe that there are certain words and terms which have so much weight of hatred that they cannot be used.  But I think the concept of politically correct speech doesn't solve these issues.  Someone who hates black people can infuse African-American with all the venom of previous epithets.  The hate just gets transferred to a new phrase which gets banned, begetting a new phrase and they cycle beginning all over again.

I believe that the only way to truly change society's inherent biases is with devoted effort over time.  We can come a long way in a single generation but we can't make it all disappear.  This was driven home to me when I watched the movie Changeling with Angelina Jolie, set in the 30s.  A police officer in the movie dismisses her to her face as being too emotional to make a good decision.  I shook my head and said it could never happen but my grandmother quietly commented that she remembered such direct insults.

I've never had someone say that to my face.  There have been times it was implied or when I suspect someone was thinking it.  But society no longer accepts it being said.  That is progress because eventually people stop picking up on the silent stuff.  It becomes a soundless whisper in history.

But it didn't happen because someone decided it was taboo to say it.  It happened because more and more women set examples of competent behaviour in public and refused to accept a bigoted view of reality.  Eventually, the evidence overwhelmed the petty hatred. 

If ideas are driven underground, they cannot be fought.  So bring them out into the light of day where we can prove them to be so many shadows in the closet of our consciousness.

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