Political Correctness, Objectively Speaking

Objective. Impartial. Neutral. Unbiased. Unprejudiced. Open-minded. These are fascinating concepts, but are we humans able to apply this level of thinking towards complex social issues?

Suppose we gathered five or six of the world’s most dispassionate and objectively-minded thinkers in a room. “We brought you all here to do an intellectual analysis of political correctness,” we explain to the group. “Apart from any preconceived assumptions about the merits or faults of political correctness, we need you to determine: has political correctness gone too far?

The think tank gets to work: they start by developing concrete terms of reference. “Let’s define political correctness as language and policies that do not offend or disadvantage any particular group in society,” one suggests.

“But who has the power to determine what is offensive?” asks another. “Can anyone claim that something is offensive? If everyone can legitimately cry foul at any time, will society not become little more than a cacophony of special interests?”

“Isn’t this the idea behind freedom of expression in the first place?” asks a group member. “Isn’t the point that anyone can cry foul at any time?”

“What do we mean by ‘disadvantage,’ anyway?” another interjects. “We must explicitly define what constitutes a ‘group’ that should be able to claim exemption from offense or insult by others.”

“If we go down that road,” another interrupts, “political correctness is simply going to be synonymous with ‘a progressive orthodoxy‘ on particular social issues — like ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or ecology.”

Yet another voice is raised: “Political correctness is a belief structure and political orientation that emerges in aggregate when specific personal values and personality traits are found in combination.

Discourse about political correctness seems inherently divisive. (Perhaps this observation is the one and only ‘objective statement’ I will dare to make about it!) I suspect that a room full of the most calculating minds in the world would soon find themselves sharp disagreement. Is an ‘objective analysis’ of political correctness — an unbiased statement about its merits or faults — even possible?

No matter how we frame the issue of political correctness, it invariably leads to the fundamental and ‘ultimate’ questions of society: what is the personal responsibility of the individual to the community? should everyone be treated the same or should recompense be made for the inequities of the past? who determines the operational and normative definition of justice? These questions do not have ‘objective’ answers. These are profound and timeless human dilemmas. We learn, develop, and evolve our beliefs and convictions about these questions over a lifetime.

We have given our imaginary panel of objectively minded experts an impossible task. None of them can analyze the quality of political correctness as a specimen in a petri dish. They must all drag their personal histories into the discussion.

To imagine that you are looking at political correctness as a neutral observer is to be blind to your own values.

(I am convening an Oxford-style debate about political correctness on Monday, October 17. Please come to the live event or join the discussion from anywhere at #WHDpc. Also, check out this video I recently wrote and produced: it is a point/counter-point ‘minidebate’ about political correctness that, I hope, highlights the profoundly personal nature of the issue.)


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An Income for Everyone?

The idea has many names, but the proposal is fundamentally straightforward: guarantee that every citizen receives an adequate income to live on.

Yes, the idea is simple, but in terms of practical implementation, the proposal is suffused with questions: Should it be a universal grant, or only received when an individual’s salary dips below a defined threshold? Should it be administered through existing social security systems, the tax system, or a new branch altogether? Should it be administered provincially? Should it be funded by a more progressive tax strategy, or could it be supported in part by redirecting (predicted) savings recouped from healthcare, decommissioning anti-poverty reduction programs, and from reductions in bureaucratic overhead?

There are a lot of questions, but one thing is clear: the idea of a basic income has a lot of political currency right now. A lot. Jean-Yves Duclos, the federal Minister of Families, Children and Social Development is an outspoken supporter. The federal government is actively studying it. Senators and Members of Parliament are calling for it. The Ontario provincial government is planning a pilot project. Cities are becoming advocates and jockeying for ‘pilot project’ positions. There is talk of it in Quebec too. Citizen-driven campaigns are growing.

The #basicincome hashtag seems to just keep rumbling along, and gaining momentum as it goes.

This seems to be something of a global phenomenon. There are stirrings in U.K. Labour Party. New Zealand is considering. France is researching it. Finland is testing it. Namibia has a strategy. Switzerland will hold a referendum in June. Just sign up for a daily Google Alerts update for ‘basic income’.

Indeed, much has been written about basic income already in 2016. This post is quite late to the game.

Here is the ‘problem’ with basic income: the more I speculate about its hypothetical advantages and disadvantages, the more questions I have… Would granting a basic income pay for itself by easing the strain of poverty on the public purse? Or is the idea of funding such a policy nothing more than a pipe dream in Canada? Does a basic income guarantee risk entrenching systemic individualism, leading to a catastrophic decline in funding for other social safety nets? Would a basic income disincentivize the labour force… or enable thousands of people to escape the ‘poverty trap’ of the current system? Could a basic income stave off economic collapse in the face of increased automation and rapidly advancing technologies like artificial intelligence? Would a basic income drive inflation up or down? What are the impacts of receiving a basic income on people struggling with serious drug addictions? Or does a basic income substantially mitigate the likelihood of developing an addiction in the first place? What are the impacts of this kind of systemic intervention that we can not even hypothesize or imagine in the present?

It is challenging to be helplessly intrigued by a timely and pertinent proposition, while yet being simultaneously and acutely aware of one’s own ignorance.

At least, this is the sense I have about basic income: I am incredibly intrigued and incredibly ignorant.

I am compelled to learn more…

And never do I learn more than when I hear people who are smarter and more articulate than me argue with one another.

This was the impetus for an idea: hosting a formal, academic debate about basic income.

I pitched the idea to my public library, and they were wholeheartedly supportive and encouraging of the vision. I began writing some sponsorship proposals and inviting experts in social policy, law, and economics to participate in a debate. The motion: ‘Be it resolved that every Canadian should receive a basic income guarantee.’ The next thing you know … some of the nation’s most respected thinkers on the topic — Mike Moffatt, James Mulvale, Chandra Pasma, and Margot Young — are traveling here from across the country to participate in an Oxford-style debate about basic income.

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For more information about the debate, check out wolfhalldebates.com

Along the way, some new connections and collaborations were realized, and this debate has become ‘Part 1’ of a two-part mini series. The following day, the London Poverty Research Centre presents the ‘second part’ of the exploration: an evening of conversation with Evelyn Forget and Senator Art Eggleton.

I’m looking forward to learning more at these two events on April 18th and 19th. If you are a local reader, please do help spread the word.

In preparation for the debate, I am continuing my research. And part of my reason for writing this post is to ask for your help and input… If you could present a question about basic income to this panel of debaters, what would you ask?

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