On Political Correctness
Updated: Dec 10, 2019
I am unfortunately among those people that cannot read or use a phone while in a car; it always makes me sick. Thus driving around the U.S. has giving me a lot of extra time, which I have decided to put to good use. I daydreamed a bit, of course, chatted to my dad about the size of cars around here, but most of the time, I did one thing: listen to podcasts.
Podcasts were not an activity I immediately latched on. When travelling, I would usually listen to music or pull out a book. My partner, however, has been listening to a lot of them, and for as long as I can remember. He tried several times to make me join him, but I struggled to keep my attention up. It was difficult for me to focus long enough on the conversation. As soon as my thoughts would drift away, even for a few seconds, I would miss too much information and be confused.
It was not a relaxing activity. I blamed it on the language. English is not my first language and I believed it made all the difference. Those that have learned a second or third language can attest to this. It requires a lot of focus to have a perfect comprehension, which can be tiresome. Understanding a foreign language is definitely not as effortless as with your mother tongue. Despite the fact that I have been speaking English for years now, I sometimes notice my comprehension is not as good as it could be, particularly when I’m tired. In these instances, it is easier to watch a movie with English subtitles, if only to have a written support when my ears let me down. Thus listening to a podcast was a new challenge in itself, because I did not have any written support when my attention was drifting away.
As with everything though, practice makes perfect. The more effort I put into listening to conversations, the easier it became. At my current level, it has become difficult to see any real progress in mastering the English language. I felt my English has been stagnating for the last couple of years, neither bad nor perfect. I envied my native English-speaking friends when hearing myself makes small mistakes here and there. Listening to podcasts in English has however definitely improved my comprehension and vocabulary, and I couldn’t recommend it enough to people that wish to improve their language skills.
Obviously, that's just my personal experience with podcasts, and probably not the reason why they have become so popular worldwide. Podcasts are first and foremost a great and effortless way to learn. They are an amazing communication tool that allows the conservationists to discuss in length any kind of topic. Furthermore, what makes it so attractive, is the un-edited, un-filtered format of the discussion. Gone are the five-minute clips, the one-page summaries.
More importantly, gone are the journalistic and media biases. If you have been paying a little bit of attention in recent times, you will at least know that the quality of mainstream media is not improving, on the contrary. Podcasts, on the other hand, are a refreshing medium to listen to the news and more.
One podcast that was introduced to me and that I have loved ever since is the Joe Rogan Experience. There’s a lot I could say about this particular podcast, but truth is, all the credits should go to my partner, and I think he should be the one talking about it. I hope I can get him to do a small post about it later on. In the meantime, I would like to talk about one of the conversations I listened to this week. One guest in particular caught my eye: Jordan Peterson.
For those that may not know him – I’m thinking in particular in Belgium, because he is quite notorious in North America – Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. He came to the spotlight about two years ago when he released a three-part lecture video series, in which he stated he would not use the preferred gender pronouns of students and faculty members if it was imposed on him by his university.
Preferred gender pronouns might be an unfamiliar term to some – it was to me. This concept concerns the individual’s right to be referred to by their preferred gender – male or female – pronoun. Although anyone could ask to be referred to as a man or a woman, this concept is particularly relevant to transgender people. Some might be born male, but decide that they identify as female, and thus wish to be referred to as a ‘she’. That'd become their preferred gender pronoun. It's the right to be referred to by the pronoun you identify with, regardless of your biological sex. Nowadays, it is considered that there are not only two genders. Some academics have argued that there could actually be as many as seventy-eight genders… and seventy-eight matching pronouns. Now you might understand a bit more the issue. It is not as much to refer to a transgender woman as ‘she’ instead of ‘he’, but rather to know which pronoun you are supposed to be using in the first place.
Now I hope you understand the sensitive issue with Professor Jordan Peterson’s statement. He stated he was against a university policy that would force him to use preferred gender pronouns of students and faculty members. At the same time, Peterson opposed the Canadian government’s Bill C-16, which suggested to add gender identity or expression as a prohibited ground of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act. This bill would have made not using those preferred gender pronouns illegal and therefore punishable by law. Peterson argued that the bill could bring to justice individuals that have used the wrong preferred pronoun, even if it is unintentional.
In today’s society, racism, homophobia and discrimination have become serious offenses. Society holds accountable individuals that do not respect or discriminate other individuals based on their gender, ethnicity, race, religion and sexual orientation. I personally believe it is right for the State to also hold accountable those individuals, and to prosecute them if needed. Peterson argues otherwise. He says that the involvement of the State, in this particular instance through the Bill C-16, could potentially harm free speech, which would go against another fundamental human right in our societies.
Our opinions diverge, but it does not mean I do not find his claim interesting. It does not mean I can’t listen to what he has to say. On the contrary, I found listening to him quite fascinating. It helped me forge my own opinion, see its weaknesses and try to come up with valid counter points.
However, that has not been the reaction of everyone, and it is why I am bringing up Peterson’s case. Quickly, academics, students and LGBT activists took a personal offense in his statements. Protests erupted at the University of Toronto, some of them violent. He was quickly accused of homophobia and anti-liberalism. Media coverage followed suit, not only in Canada but on the international scene as well. His name soon became associated with the alt-right movement. A vendetta to discredit him was born. He needed to be taken down. His ideas needed to be shut down. A university student that wished to present Peterson's ideas in another State was censored by her professors and her university.
Peterson did not back down. He explained again and again that his objection to the bill was not based on homophobia but on potential free speech implications. He argued that making the use of a preferred pronoun a criminal offense was impeding on the right of an individual to speak freely. The debate was everywhere. Some people were defending him, others were labelling him a monster. The number of interviews exploded, fuelling further the fire. Who was right? Who was wrong? In the end, it almost seemed not to matter anymore.
What a pity.
There are, according to me, many questions that are worth asking and that do not require to discredit someone else. What I think this debate brings up is the following: where does free speech stop and where does hate speech start? I think many people know how difficult it can be to draw this line. In Belgium, racist slur is punishable by law. Homophobic slur too. But how do you define those? When do you consider a comment as a constructive discussion, or, on the contrary, as racist? When is it the right of someone to speak free, and when is it the right of someone else not to be offended?
I do not have the answers. I don’t. I think it depends on the individual, on the situation, on the intentions behind the exchange. However, there is one instance for which I wish society would be more lenient, and it is academia. Research is important. Questioning our values and views is crucial to be able to move forward as a society, to become a better world. Asking questions should never be wrong. Stirring the debate, challenging pre-conceived ideas should never be wrong. We should, as individuals, welcome the opposition, and to be willing to listen to what the other camp has to say.
This has been a massive revelation to me recently, and one that I wish I would see in others too. Try and be open to opposing views. Listen and come up with counter arguments. Do not try to silence, do not try to make them go away. Welcome the challenge and improve your own opinion because of it.
Unfortunately, in today’s society, it does not seem that listening to the other camp is the norm. I’m sure there are loads of reasons for it. It must be, partly, because of the ways we're getting news nowadays. Mainstream media has become very one-sided, to say the least. All. the. freaking. time. It doesn’t mean that I necessarily disagree with their views. But how can people form their own opinions if they only hear one side of the story? The coverage of Donald Trump's presidency is the perfect example. I cannot stand the guy. I think he’s dumb, dangerous and should never have been elected president. That does not mean that I should always think, regardless of evidence, that everything the man does is bad or wrong. I mean, even him can get lucky. Haha. I don’t think he should be president, but it doesn’t mean I wish him to be dead. It doesn’t mean I wish him to fail so bad that a whole country’s economy would collapse, which, let’s face it, would hurt the most vulnerable people.
This is the point of this post today. It is not to support the claims of Jordan Peterson, although I think he is an incredibly smart individual. It is not to support Donald Trump either. It is to call out people on the danger of always being surrounded by people that share the same opinion as you, and dismiss what anyone else could bring to the table. You don’t do yourself a service by ignoring the other camp. On the contrary, you just allow yourself to become bias and irrelevant.