Tuesday 25 October 2016

PC brigade is now the biggest threat to free and open debate

Published 12/08/2016 | 02:30

Illustrated by Ken Lee
Illustrated by Ken Lee

Our new Health Minister, Simon Harris, gave a speech this week at the Parnell Summer School in which he attacked those who attack political correctness.

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He said: "Whenever you hear the question 'Has political correctness gone too far?' be afraid. Be very afraid. Because, underpinning that ostensibly reasonable question runs a sewer of squalid assumptions, like that it's OK to use filthy terms to describe women, black people, Travelling people, disabled people or - at its simplest - politically opposed people."

If this is all political correctness aims at, then we need not worry too much about it. In reality, however, political correctness has become the leading threat to free speech and open debate today.

Let's provide him with some examples of this. Take what is happening in a growing number of universities for a start. There we see the growth of 'safe spaces', 'no-platforming' of speakers, 'trigger warnings' and accusations of 'micro-aggressions'.

All of these are designed to 'protect' students from hearing opinions they find offensive or 'oppressive'. All offending opinions are excluded from 'safe spaces'. Speakers with 'oppressive' views are denied speaking platforms. 'Trigger warnings' are provided by lecturers to students as they introduce a subject the students might find offensive. 'Micro-aggressions' are remarks you and I might think are benign but someone else finds insulting, for example, the opinion that the human race consists of two genders only, male and female. (What about the 'gender-fluid'?)

Recently, leading feminist Germaine Greer was subjected to a 'no-platforming' campaign.

She was accused of being 'trans-phobic' because she does not believe a person with a penis can call himself a woman and be recognised as such simply based on his say-so.

Two journalists, Brendan O'Neill and Tim Stanley, were to speak on opposing sides of the abortion debate at Oxford University. They were 'no-platformed' because the very title of the debate, namely that "This house believes Britain's abortion culture hurts us all" was deemed to be "anti-choice" in and of itself. The event was cancelled.

Not so long ago, Mr O'Neill took part in a debate at Trinity College Dublin about the "right to offend". He is in favour of that right. Mr O'Neill has taken part in debates of this sort in numerous universities. He said the audience at Trinity was the most hostile he has ever encountered.

Is Mr Harris even aware of these incidents? There are many more like them. Taken together, they mean that our universities, which are supposed to promote the free and open exchange of ideas, are increasingly dedicated to shutting down that vital exchange.

Here in Ireland, we have had journalists investigated for so-called hate crimes, including Brenda Power. In an article, Power was very strongly critical of aspects of Traveller culture.

Does Mr Harris think it is acceptable to investigate journalists for so-called 'hate crimes'?

In Britain, a journalist was investigated recently by the British Transport Police following a minor scuffle he was involved in on a train. The other person involved in the incident accused him of "homophobic" abuse and assault even though the subject of homosexuality never arose in the incident, something attested to by a number of eye-witnesses.

Nonetheless, the British Transport Police pursued the case relentlessly. In the end the journalist, Kevin O'Sullivan, was cleared. But the case showed how easy it has become to press a charge of 'hate' against someone. As it is, the legal fight cost O'Sullivan £15,000 (€17,400).

Political correctness seeks to suppress any viewpoint it believes 'oppresses' a minority. If you are against open-door immigration, you are a 'racist'. If you oppose gay marriage, you are a 'homophobe'. If you believe someone with a penis is necessarily a man, you are a 'transphobe'. If you oppose abortion, you wish to 'oppress' women.

If you supported Brexit, you probably hate everyone who is not ethnically British. If you express nervousness about the size and scope of immigration from Muslim countries, you are an 'Islamophobe'.

Furthermore, if you are accused of any of these things, then you deserve to be expelled from polite society, 'no-platformed' at universities and, if need be, charged with a 'hate' offence, your life reduced to a smoking wreck.

It doesn't occur to those who espouse political correctness that opposition to it can be motivated out of concern for other goods, in the case of abortion, the right to life, in the case of open immigration, for social cohesiveness, in the case of gay marriage, concern for the rights of children.

To the extent that political correctness aims to prevent genuine racism, genuine misogyny and so on, we can all support it.

But when it tries to shut down debate about the right-to-life, the nature of marriage, immigration etc, it becomes an extremely serious threat to free and open debate and therefore to free and open societies. Paradoxically, it turns into an instrument of oppression in the name of fighting 'oppression'.

The next time Mr Harris addresses the issue of political correctness, he ought to consider some of the above examples and offer a more informed view on the subject, one that is more attentive to the facts and is not simply a lazy exercise in 'virtue-signalling'.

Irish Independent

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