Is Political Correctness a Thing?

This controversial term is one I don't like using, because I don't think I ever feel the need for it. When things are cliched it's always good to try and avoid those terms. It forces you to think through a concept instead of just repeating it. Politically correct is one of those concepts.

A midget walks into a bar.

Your reaction to that sentence might give us a starting point. The way I see it political correctness is an attempt to avoid or censor things that others may find offensive. Neil Gaiman thinks it is "treating people with respect", but I disagree. His mistake is to think that avoiding offense is necessarily respect. Sometimes offending someone is a deep sign of respect. 

That doesn't mean we should fool ourselves. Most people employing the term are assholes. They use the term to try and justify being assholes. In their eyes they are fearless truth talkers that are being attacked by the PC brigade. For the most part, I can't blame people for wanting to vilify someone who is being an asshole. What I am concerned about is that we should be drawing a line. Please watch this video if you haven't and join me after the break.

I don't like this video. I think it's insulting and mean. I think that the person who made this is an asshole. What I don't think is that people should be losing their jobs because they are assholes, which is exactly what happened to this the person who made this video. Beyond vilification, if we create stronger measures against people who offend us, we encourage a society that self censors. In that environment, it becomes hard for people to say what they want because they fear losing their jobs or maybe even worse. 

Two things are vitally important here. First, we should aim for a society where it's okay to be wrong about things. I have been wrong about many things, and it took me years to get to where I am now. Some of those things were very offensive. I was definitely homophobic for a long time. If I had felt a risk of expressing myself and losing my job, I would have never found out I was wrong, because if you self censor you never get to argue your incorrect positions and lose. You are always just living under what feels like an oppressive environment where you can't speak your mind. 

Secondly, sometimes everyone else is wrong and the lone nut or asshole is right. Of course we can be pretty sure they are not and if you are that person you should really reflect on your position to see if you are actually right, but if we use this mechanism and accidentally censor someone who is right, we run the risk of being wrong and unable to realise it, because those who know what is right are afraid to speak up. If the video above was criticizing Kim Jong Un in an alternate reality where the North Korea ruled the world and the woman in the video lost her job, how would it be different to what we are doing now? What is freedom of expression really worth when it carries a significant risk with it?

Maybe if someone says something stupid, hateful or offensive we shouldn't be calling for their jobs to be taken away from them, we should be talking to them and convincing them otherwise. After all, people are often assholes because they have some skewed perspective of something. When someone acts out, wouldn't it be better to take the opportunity to engage with them and change their minds than to call for their metaphorical heads?

The question that remains is whether it is a good principle to attempt not to offend people. I think the answer to that is a little more complicated. I think we should offend people. We should offend people for the right reasons in the right situations. I think we should balance our offensiveness with understanding, compassion and level headed dialogue. I think this is the best way to get there to be less assholes in the world. Having people fired or removed from a medium is the wrong way, because it disincentivizes openness. Maybe we should be willing to get hurt sometimes to hear the truth, and maybe we should be willing to get hurt sometimes so we can help those that have hurt us or others to not do it again. I just don't think that people deserve to lose everything just because they are wrong about something.

Ego & Humility: Setting Aside The Ego

When I came across the problem of my ego attaching itself to ideas, I was worried. I knew it was happening. I could feel the anger welling up inside me when an idea contradicted one of my beliefs, and I was disappointed at myself. It seems like a strange sort of inner struggle, and it was. It was the beginning of the way I used to solve the problem. It's what I like to call ego detachment.

I hope it doesn't sound like a bunch of woo woo to you, but I can understand if it does. It makes perfect sense to me, which is perhaps not enough, but I will try to explain.

The first idea that came to my mind was that in order to be more objective and less reactionary to other ideas, I need to detach ideas from my ego. This meant that any particular belief I had needed to be separated from my ego. I am going to suggest a toy example for illustration. Please keep in mind that it doesn't reflect my positions of beliefs and never has. With that disclaimer in mind, consider a belief in free schooling.

I believe that free schooling is a social good and should be implemented. Subtly, my mind creates a connection between me being good and a belief in free schooling. If someone shows me facts that are contrary to free schools being good, let's say a study demonstrates that low fee schools fare objectively better, I don't immediately respond to the facts, but rather to a challenge to the internal proposition of my ego narrative that "my belief in free schooling means that I am a good person". The challenge to the idea suggests that I am not a good person, because kids will be worse off if my idea was implemented. Oddly, my noble goal of making children's lives better now becomes secondary to protecting my belief, which forms part of my ego. Exhausting isn't it?

It turns our there is a simple solution, and it involves reattaching your ego to the thing that actually matters. If your ego narrative does not involve a proposition such as "my belief in free schooling means I am a good person "but rather one such as "I am a good person because I care about better lives for children" there will be no cognitive dissonance when the challenge arrives. But this needs to be done consciously, because if you are like me, and I'd hazard a guess that you are, your mind crafts many ego narratives implicitly and without your knowledge.

This solution involves self reflection, and that's hard. You need to reflect on why what someone says might make you angry. Your mind will give you quick solutions like "that person just hates me" or "that person is just a contrarian for the sake of it" or "that person wants children to suffer". These are all easy answers your mind will offer to , but that you must reject. You need to fight against the stability and coherence that your mind automatically seeks. This is emotionally painful, especially when you are not used to thinking about it. It actually helped me to comfort myself. To tell myself that even if I was wrong, this didn't make me bad, and that changing my mind when I am wrong would be more rewarding in the long term.

Ego attachment makes it harder to lose an argument and easier to win one, because in order to win an argument you really only need to convince yourself that your self narrative, which you already believe, is right. To lose an argument you have to take yourself apart in a horrific act of psychological self surgery. This is the pain we avoid when we "win" arguments online, but look like a total doofus to other people observing our crushing defeat. Even though I am consciously aware that losing to someone who is right means I have a better new perspective on the world, sometimes I still feel the pangs of my ego narrative being damaged, and I hold feelings of anger toward that person.

Our minds even construct preemptive strikes to defend our egos. We believe that people that hold a certain kind of position are opposed to good. They are evil. This makes us use the best defense for our egos: attack! The notion of detaching beliefs from your ego is not an easy one. It means that we need another way to define ourselves, because we can no longer use beliefs to craft a healthy self image, due to the inherent vulnerability of beliefs to contrary evidence. I hope to address that in a later post, but for now I want to bring accross the idea of evaluating ideas as part of your identity, and finding ways to detach those ideas from your identity, so that your thoughts will no longer sabotage truth in order to protect your beliefs about yourself.