Mandelbrot set image very small
Serious writing for
serious readers
Follow @Mohammed_Amin
Join my
email list

Search this site

Custom Search
Mohammed Amin's website
Serious writing
for serious readers
Tap here for MENU

Political correctness harms us by stifling political debate

It leads to bad decisions because some issues are prohibited from being discussed.


13 November 2016

To me, it is self-evident that we should not set out to upset others with our words. For example, if a friend suffers a serious injury making it likely that he will never walk again, regularly reminding him of that would be hurtful, and I would not behave that way.

However this desire not to deliberately upset people has gradually developed into the concept of "political correctness."

The US source Merriam-Webster dictionary offers both a "simple definition" and a "full definition" of "political correctness":

While the "simple definition" looks innocuous, the "full definition" already starts to look problematical. How does one decide what "could offend political sensibilities"? Who is to be the judge?

My website makes it easy for complete strangers to contact me. In late September, via my website I received an email from the President of the Durham Union Society. Like Oxford and Cambridge, Durham has a formal debating society.

The President explained that he had been looking at my writings supporting freedom of speech. Accordingly he wanted to ask if I would speak in a debate on 28 October on behalf of the motion "This House Believes That Political Correctness Has Stifled Political Debate." I readily agreed.

The debate took place, with the speakers and organisers in black tie, as scheduled. The speakers were:

For the motion Against the motion
Myself Professor Mark Learmonth - Professor of Organisation Studies, and Deputy Dean (Research) in the Durham Business School.
Simon Richards - Chief Executive of The Freedom Association Dr Mark McCormack - Co-Director of the Centre for Sex, Gender and Sexualities, and Full Fellow of the International Academy of Sex Researchers.
Timothy Kirkhope - Baron Kirkhope of Harrogate Laura Tidd - President of the Durham University Feminist Society and Secretary of the Students with Disabilities Association.

Durham University debates are decided by acclamation. However if the cheering for both sides sounds similar, than a vote is taken. In this case, our team were clear winners by acclamation.

My speech was given from a prepared text, so I have published it below. It explains why I regard political correctness as harmful to society.

Why political correctness harms all of us

I want to begin by considering the purpose of political debate. Then I will give some particularly egregious examples where political correctness has stifled political debate.

So, what is the purpose of political debate? Tonight, it gets me a free dinner and the chance to see Durham University! However, in general, political debate has a more serious purpose.

As a society, we make better collective decisions if ideas are debated and challenged, so that bad ideas can be refuted and good ideas identified for taking forward. In essence, the purpose of political debate is to enable all of us, collectively, to make better decisions.

This goal cannot be achieved if some issues are regarded as beyond the pale, incapable of being discussed, indeed prohibited from being discussed. The inevitable result is bad decisions.

Sometimes these bad decisions arise because certain options and alternatives which might actually prove to be quite good if investigated are never allowed to be discussed.

Sometimes we do not even have a bad decision. We have no decision at all. Some issues are regarded as so sensitive that they must never be discussed. However, refusing to consider a decision does not stop bad outcomes happening. Instead, refusal to decide makes bad outcomes almost inevitable.

Let me move on to some concrete examples.

In my 20s, even though at that time I supported the Labour Party, one of my political heroes was Sir Keith Joseph. Here was a man who genuinely cared about ideas.

I want to take you back to 19 October 1974. The Labour Party under Harold Wilson had just won a very small absolute majority in Parliament. After losing two general elections, Ted Heath was obviously busted as Conservative party leader.

I was not the only person in the country who thought that Sir Keith Joseph was the replacement leader the Conservatives needed.

Then he made a speech.

It was a serious speech about social policy, the family, the responsibility of parents, the dangers of socialism etc. You can find the full text on the website of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation.

Let me read you just a short extract.

“The balance of our population, our human stock is threatened. A recent article in Poverty, published by the Child Poverty Action Group, showed that a high and rising proportion of children are being born to mothers least fitted to bring children into the world and bring them up.

They are born to mothers who were first pregnant in adolescence in social classes 4 and 5. Many of these girls are unmarried, many are deserted or divorced or soon will be. Some are of low intelligence, most of low educational attainment.

They are unlikely to be able to give children the stable emotional background, the consistent combination of love and firmness which are more important than riches. They are producing problem children, the future unmarried mothers, delinquents, denizens of our borstals, sub-normal educational establishments, prisons, hostels for drifters.

Yet these mothers, the under-twenties in many cases, single parents, from classes 4 and 5, are now producing a third of all births. A high proportion of these births are a tragedy for the mother, the child and for us.”

Sir Keith was making some serious points. He went on to propose increasing the availability of birth control. You may agree or disagree whether in 1974 he was right or wrong.

What happened next was not a discussion about the merits or otherwise of his analysis, or his proposed solutions. Instead, there was a massive outcry along the lines of “How dare he say these things?” The outcry was so great that it instantly finished Sir Keith’s chances of becoming party leader.

Of course, every cloud has a silver lining. Sir Keith crashing and burning left the field wide open for Margaret Thatcher, and the rest is history.

My second example is more recent.

There is a real diversity issue at the top end of the science and engineering profession. In particular, women are nothing like 50% of the holders of tenured positions in science and engineering at the top universities and research institutions.

On 14 January 2005, the President of Harvard University, Larry Summers gave a speech to share his thinking about this problem. His speech discussed three possible reasons for the disparity, which might apply together or might apply independently.

I want to focus on just one of those three possible reasons. Larry Summers asked a serious question: Are women actually 50% of the pool of people with the innate capabilities of achieving these top science and engineering positions?

Let me summarise his argument, rather than quoting his words, because its quicker.

He cited some research that, if you look at the top 5% of 17 year olds, there were two males for each female. Even if the mean ability is the same, that means the variability for men is higher. More dumb men, but also more bright men.

Larry Summers estimated a 20% difference in the standard deviation, the measure of dispersion. He also estimated that to be a physicist at a top 25 university, you need to be about 4 standard deviations above the mean. In other words, you need to be roughly in the top 1 in 10,000.

If the standard deviation for men is 20% more than the standard deviation for women, then in the pool of people which is 4 standard deviations above the mean, there will be 5 men for every woman.

Larry Summers was not saying that this was the entire explanation. He was not even saying that this explanation had any validity. He was asking questions which would then require carrying out scientific research to validate.

Sadly, the predictable outcome occurred. There was a howl of anguish across America. Not just from women but also from many politically correct men. Larry Summers was hounded out of the Presidency of Harvard.

Obviously, the scientific question of whether the distribution pattern of mathematical and scientific ability is identical for men and women is beyond the pale. It is a question which must not be asked.

As a society, we prefer ignorance to knowledge, and we would rather make our decisions based on gut feel rather than undertake research that makes us feel uncomfortable.

To close, my belief is very simple. There should be no questions which cannot be asked. What we do with the answers is then up to us.

If you find that on average, people of white British ethnicity are more intelligent than brown skinned people from the Punjab in Pakistan, that would be an interesting scientific finding.

It does not mean that you then are compelled to use that knowledge to discriminate against brown skinned people from the Punjab like me.

However, to allow political correctness to limit the finding of knowledge or the debating of ideas is to make our society more ignorant and to make more bad decisions than we would otherwise.

I rest my case.


The Disqus comments facility below allows you to comment on this page. Please respect others when commenting.
You can login using any of your Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or Disqus identities.
Even if you are not registered on any of these, you can still post a comment.

comments powered by Disqus


Follow @Mohammed_Amin

Tap for top of page