A politically incorrect debate about political correctness

Does 'political correctness' actively impede free speech, open debate and the exchange of ideas? Or does it create a more just society by confronting the dominant power relationships and social norms that exclude marginalized groups? In a Munk Debate, bestselling author Michael Eric Dyson and journalist and commentator Michelle Goldberg argue that political correctness promotes diverse societies and social progress, while renaissance man Stephen Fry and controversial psychologist Jordan Peterson contend that it throttles free thought and divides society.
From left to right: Michael Eric Dyson, Michelle Goldberg, Stephen Fry and Jordan Peterson. (The Munk Debates)

Does 'political correctness' impede free speech, and blockade the exchange of ideas? Or does it create a better society by confronting the power imbalances that keep marginalized groups marginalized?  In this Munk Debate, bestselling author Michael Eric Dyson and journalist and commentator Michelle Goldberg argue that political correctness promotes diverse societies and social progress. On the opposing side: renaissance man Stephen Fry and controversial psychologist Jordan Peterson, who contend that "PC" throttles free thought and divides society. 

Be it resolved, what you call political correctness, I call progress…

That was the official wording of the resolution tabled at the Munk Debate at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto. And those few dots at the end of the word "progress" are significant, because they imply a dynamic that's open-ended. Progress can mean exactly what you want it to mean, and so can "political correctness".

A columnist, a psychologist, a scholar, and an actor went into a theatre and debated political correctness. Or at least they talked about it from very different directions — never quite agreeing exactly what 'it' was or just how it was affecting society. Four other people would have had a completely different and equally compelling discussion. Which shows both the slipperiness of the terminology, and its importance. If democracy needs free exchange and understanding of other ideas, and some people are worried that certain terms or ways of thought have been arbitrarily declared off-limits for discussion, while others say using appropriate language merely reflects a long-overdue new reality, then where is our common ground?     

The Debaters:

Arguing for the resolution

What they called political correctness was the fact that they had to have this urbane black president who they felt talked down to them, which is really what they meant. I don't see a way around that because that is progress. – Michelle Goldberg

Political correctness becomes an issue, and what I mean by that is people who used to have power, who still have power but think they don't, who get challenged on just a little bit of what they have, and don't want to share toys in the sandlot of life, so it becomes a kind of exaggerated grievance. – Michael Eric Dyson

Michael Eric Dyson and Michelle Goldberg. (The Munk Debates)

Michelle Goldberg is a columnist for The New York Times, a journalist and bestselling author who writes about identity, culture and politics. She is a frequent political commentator on MSNBC and her writing has been featured in The New Yorker, Newsweek, The Nation, the New Republic and The Guardian. As a foreign correspondent, she has reported from India, Iraq, Egypt, Uganda, Nicaragua, Argentina and more. Her books include Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, and The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World.

Michael Eric Dyson is a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, host of The Michael Eric Dyson Show on NPR, contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, contributing editor for the New Republic and ESPN's website The Undefeated. He has written more than a dozen books, including Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America and April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Death and how It Changed America. His forthcoming book, What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation about Race in America, is due to be published later this year.

Arguing against the resolution:

The collectivist narrative I regard as politically correct is a strange pastiche of post-modernism and neo-Marxism and its fundamental claim is that no: you're not essentially an individual. You're essentially a member of a group. Jordan Peterson

Why I came to this debate, I was interested in…. the suppression of language and thought, the closing down, the rationalist idea that seems beguiling, that if you limit people's language you may somehow teach them a different way of thinking, something that would have delighted the inventors of George Orwell's "Newspeak". – Stephen Fry

Jordan Peterson and Stephen Fry. (The Munk Debates)

Jordan Peterson is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, a clinical psychologist and author of 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. He has worked as a dishwasher, bartender, beekeeper, plywood mill labourer and railway line worker, among others. He has also consulted for the UN Secretary General's High Level Panel on Sustainable Development, advised senior partners of major law firms, lectured extensively and helped clinical clients manage conditions including depression, anxiety and schizophrenia.  Peterson's online lectures have been viewed more than 35 million times on YouTube.

Stephen Fry is an English actor, screenwriter, author, playwright, journalist, poet and film director. He studied English literature at the University of Cambridge, where he became involved with the Footlights, a theatre club that has spawned many of Britain's most prominent comic actors, and met his long-time collaborator and friend, Hugh Laurie. Fry has also written and presented several documentary series, including the Emmy Award-winning Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive and Stephen Fry: Out There, a two-part documentary about the lives of lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender people around the world. His most recent book is Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold.

**This episode was edited for broadcast by IDEAS producer Dave Redel.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?