Political Correctness Needn’t Be The Pejorative Slur It Has Become

Peter Singer, the moral philosopher and effective altruist, took part in a Reddit ‘Ask me anything’ session a couple of months ago. He was asked why, if giving almost  all of our money away meant less suffering, should we not do that (rather than the 10% of income that he suggests). This was his response:

“Look, in theory, we [effective altruists] ought to all be wearing sackcloth, except that that would ensure that there were very few of us. We want more people to join us, and doing absolutely everything that, in theory, we ought to do, is not the best way to achieve that.”

Mr Singer’s point was: making your movement unattractive to others is counter-productive, because in the long run, you need people to join you, and people don’t want to join something they view as unattractive. In short, it’s difficult to attract people to join a club, if it’s not the ‘cool club’. The movement for political correctness (PC) can learn a lot from that maxim. The way in which the PC movement has hounded those who have made honest transgressions from social norms, has made them appear as unattractive as it possible to be.

If the ends of the PC movement are to prevent vulnerable people, such as the mentally ill or minorities, from suffering abuse, then it is indeed a noble one. However, what began as an empathetic and worthy cause, has descended into a rapacious and unforgiving mob. The approach that many in the movement take, to immediately call for the sacking of anyone guilty an ill-judged comment, has turned many off. Rightly or wrongly, the PC movement is now perceived by  a majority otherwise of otherwise empathetic people, to be a front for an illiberal political movement, hell bent on restricting free speech.

The recent case of Tim Hunt a nobel prize winning scientists, who after making some ill-judged jokes about female scientists, was forced to resign from three roles, is a pertinent one. After a twitterstorm of incensed people called for his sacking, Mr Hunt resigned, not over a malicious piece of bullying, but over an ill-judged comment that he apologised for profusely. The fact that Tim Hunt’s comments were out of order, is not in question; that the PC movement’s response was disproportionate,  is equally putative. It seems odd that a group so aware of the fragility of the human mind to the denigration of others, is not also aware of the imperfection of the human mind when judging what is and isn’t appropriate. Mary Beard, the respected classics scholar put it plainly when she said: “I would like to smack his bottom… and give him a piece of my mind… but I wouldn’t drum him out of the academic town.”

The effect of the Tim Hunt saga, and a great many others, is that people who would be sympathetic to the aims of the PC movement, are completely turned off by it. To seek such a grave revenge, is ultimately counter-productive to the cause of political correctness, which can only succeed if the majority of people choose to moderate their own language in order to not demean others. This sort of hounding only alienates those who ought to be being recruited, and much worse, entrenches them in an anti-PC shell. It is notable that in many journals, newspapers and blogs, being deliberately offensive, the worst extension of political incorrectness, is being seen as a brave, anti-establishment thing to do.

In a world where we are brought up with the conception that to err is human, that the PC movement appears as if it refuses to forgive, is asinine.

It is understandable that when someone like Tim Hunt  makes a joke in poor taste, that many, myself included, become riled. I’m well aware that people like Tim Hunt are simply unable to empathise with people who may feel offended by certain slants or slurs, because, as a white, wealthy, upper-middle class man, he benefits from having the full pack of social power structure cards, stacked firmly in his favour. But, if you can hang onto that indignation for a second, and draft a proportionate response – a public apology maybe – rather than immediately calling for the maximum permissible punishment in every case, the PC movement would appear less reflexively punitive, and its name would stop being the pejorative title it has become. The movement would gain far more adherents, and the base insulting of vulnerable people would recede faster. You could even send the new recruits a welcome pack: welcome to the cool club, we’re nice here.

Follow the author Christian Barrow on twitter here: https://twitter.com/christianbarr0w

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