Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson and British actor and activist Stephen Fry take on American blogger Michelle Goldberg and American political commentator and academic Michael Eric Dyson in a fiery debate on political correctness in modern society. The following is the transcript of Stephen Fry’s speech.
Now, in agreeing to er, participate in this debate and stand on this side of the argument I’m fully aware that many people, who choose incorrectly in my view to see this issue in terms of Left and Right – devalued and exploded terms as I think they are – will believe that I am betraying myself in such causes and values that I’ve espoused over the years. I’ve been given a huge grief already simply because I’m standing here next to Professor Peterson, which is the very reason that I am standing here in the first place. I’m standing next to someone With whom I have you know Differences shall we say? In terms of politics and all kinds of other things Precisely because I think all this has got to stop. This rage, resentment, hostility intolerance above all this erm, “with us or against us” certainty. A Grand canyon has opened up in our world the fissure – the crack grows wider every day. Neither on each side can hear a word that the other shrieks and nor do they want to. While these armies and propagandists in the culture wars clash down below in the enormous space between the two sides, the people of the world tried to get on with their lives alternately baffled, bored and betrayed by the horrible noises and explosions that echo all around. I think it’s time for this toxic, binary, zero-sum madness to stop before we destroy ourselves.
I’d better nail my colors to the mast before I get any further than this it’s only polite to give you a sense of where I come from. I … All my adult life I have been what you might call a lefty – a soft lefty – a liberal of the most hand ringing, Milksop, milquetoast variety. Not a burning “man the barricades” socialist, not even really a progressive worth the name. I’ve been on marches, but I’ve never quite dared wave placards or banners. Erm… Am I a loathed member of that band, an SJW, a “Social justice warrior” I don’t think highly of social injustice I have to say, but I character myself mostly as a social justice worrier. My intellectual heroes growing up were Bertrand Russell and G.E.Moore – liberal thinkers, people like that – writers like E.M. Forster. I believed and I think I still do believe in the sanctity of human relations, of the primacy of the heart and friendship and love and common interest. These are more personal interior beliefs than they are political exterior convictions. More a humanistic version of a religious impulse I suppose. I trust in humanity, I believe in humanity I think I do despite all that has happened in the 40 years of my adulthood. I am soft and I can easily be swept away by harder hearts and harder intellects. I’m sometimes surprised to be described as an “activist”, but over time I have energetically involved myself with what you might call causes. I grew up knowing that I was gay – well, in fact from the very first, I knew I was gay – I remember when I was born, looking up and saying “that’s the last time I’m going up one of those!” (laughter) I’m, I’m Jewish. I’m Jewish. So I have a natural obvious horror of racism Naturally, I want racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, bullying, bigotry– intolerance of all human kinds to end. That’s surely a given amongst all of us. The question is how such a golden aim is to be achieved. My ultimate objection to political correctness is not that it combines so much of what I have spent a lifetime loathing and opposing, preaching us (with great respect) Piety, self-righteousness, heresy hunting, denunciation, shaming, assertion without evidence, accusation, inquisition, censoring – that’s not why I’m incurring the wrath of my fellow liberals by standing on this side of the house. My real objection is that I don’t think political correctness works. I want to achieve… I want to get to the golden Hill, but I don’t think that’s the way to get there. I believe one of the greatest human failings is to prefer to be right than to be effective. (audience member) hear, hear (Applause)
And political correctness is always obsessed with how right it is without thinking of how effective it it might be. I wouldn’t class myself as a classical libertarian, but I do relish transgression and I deeply and instinctively distrust conformity and orthodoxy. Progress is not achieved by preachers and guardians of morality but to paraphrase Yevgeny Zamyatin “…by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and skeptics.” I may be wrong. I hope to learn this evening. I really do think I may be wrong, but I am prepared to entertain the possibility that political correctness will bring us more tolerance and a better world. But I’m not sure and I would like this quotation from my hero Bertrand Russell to hover over the evening “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision. Let doubt prevail.”
I don’t believe that the advances in my culture that have allowed me to marry, as I have now been for three years to someone of my gender, I don’t believe they are a result of political correctness and maybe political correctness is actually just some sort of live trout that the harder we squeeze it, the further it goes away and and you will be saying “I’m not talking about this” … You’re talking about social justice with which I agree with. Whether you want to call it identity politics or the history of your people, the history of my people – my people were slaves as well. Both the British were slaves of Romans and the Jews were slaves of the Egyptians all human beings have been slaves at some point and we all in that sense share that knowledge, of how important it is to speak up. But Russell Means, who was a friend of mine toward the end, who founded the American Indian Movement He said “Oh for Gods sake! Call me an Indian or a Lakota Sioux or Russell. I don’t care what you call me. It’s how we treated that matters.” And so I’m really addressing a more popular idea also actually in Barrow, Alaska an Iñupiat said “call me an Eskimo – it’s obviously easier for you because you keep mispronouncing Iñupiat.” You know words do matter,
I’ll just end with a quick story. Gay rights came about in England because we slowly and persistently knocked on the door of people in power. We didn’t shout. We didn’t scream. People like Ian McKellen eventually got to see the Prime Minister. And when the Queen signed in the Royal assent, she has to, for the bill allowing equality of marriage. She said “Good Lord, you know, I couldn’t imagine this in 1953. Really is extra ordinary, isn’t it? Just wonderful!” and handed it over. Now it’s a nice story and I hope it’s true, but it’s nothing to do with political correctness. It’s to do with human decency. It’s that simple.