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“You’re a Mean, Mad White man!” An Analysis of the Dyson v Peterson Munk debate on "Political Correctness"

June 12, 2018

May 18th, 2018, Munk Debates hosted a debate on the topic of political correctness (even though that term was not clearly defined in any real way for the audience) The debaters were: Michelle Goldberg, Stephen Fry, Michael Eric Dyson and Jordan Peterson. The resolution debated was: “Be it resolved, what you call political correctness, I call progress…” At the beginning 36% agreed with the statement, 64% disagreed to the initial statement. Supposedly, 87% of the audience stated that they were willing to change their position based on the debate. While I enjoyed what each of these intellectuals brought to the venue, this quickly became an intellectual sparring match between Dr. Dyson and Dr. Peterson.

 

I would posit, that the resolution being debated was problematic, as stated, it was not clearly defined. The fact is, there is a range on what people would assert is “political correctness.” There is the version of political corrections that can be considered extreme “hypersensitive political corrections” that encompasses ideas such as: “safe spaces” for minority students on university campuses, the idea of “micro-aggressions” lurking around every corner or the accusations of cultural appropriation if a white woman wears a Black hairstyle, etc. However; the term politically correct has been used as a substitution buzz word since the late 1980s and 90s by some in the White / Male dominant culture of the United States that complained about anything that made it deal with minorities on their own terms as opposed to the definitions assigned to them by the dominant culture.

 

An example of that was when some Whites objected to some Blacks wanting to be called African American as opposed to Black. Some Whites felt it was too much as this was “an inconvenience” for them. Asserting that saying African American was using too many syllables when saying “Black” was shorter. Or even accusing Blacks of the “hyphenation of America” where instead of simply being Americans, Blacks sought separation from America by calling themselves African American. Some in the dominant White / Male culture made the ridiculous suggestion that African Americans were seeking to be separate from “America” by defining themselves as such. What should be obvious is the ridiculousness of that suggesting that African Americans were trying to separate themselves from America as the clear historical, cultural and sociopolitical reality was that up until the Civil Rights acts of the 1960s that dominant White culture fought to keep African Americans separate from mainstream society. This exemplifies a significant part of the issue that came to ahead with Dyson and Peterson. But before we get to that critical exchange, we need to look at the foundational arguments that brought us to that point in the debate.

 

Michelle Goldberg gave the opening statement. She attempted to define the underlying problem of political correctness by asserting that the problem lay within the prominence of social media, however; that would be a tool not an ideology. It can be asserted that it is a problem that people can engage in forwarding various ideologies on social media without the scrutiny of vetted sources, however, that issue is how tools are being used not the tools themselves. She directly criticized Dr. Peterson’s past statements as basically saying that he, and by mutual implication his followers believe that “any challenges to the current political hierarchy are written off as political correctness.”[1] Asserting that Peterson in some cases simply doesn’t like the fact that minorities and women have a voice that challenges the sociopolitical order. Goldberg then glosses over what have become problems within political correctness, such as hypersensitivity amongst some individuals within minority groups that can make some conversations difficult to have regarding problems that these groups may face. An example of this would be if a male engages in a conversation about sexual assault and suggest methods for women to avoid being targeted as victims, such as not consuming large volumes of alcohol around strange people in strange environments the man is often said to be “blaming the victim.” However: its should also be stated that the Right engages in this type of hypersensitivity as well; an example on the Right would be in them superimposing veterans and the flag as somehow being what is protested by kneeling athletes when the issue expressed is a protest to bring attention to the issue of disproportionate lethal force against African Americans by police. This is a specific type of hypersensitivity of faux patriotism, utilizing veterans as a misdirection point from the actual point the athletes are trying to make.

 

Dr. Peterson used his opening statement to forward the notion that it is the individual identity that is the highest thought in Enlightenment ideas, and that this is an essential that we must strive to uphold (in other words, we need to be individuals not sub groups, which is a problem within political correctness as far as he is concerned.) The statement is problematic as it is clearly contradictory. For Peterson to trumpet the successes of Western Society, which was clearly a group effort, is disingenuous at best. and in part of that group effort the identities of Whiteness and Blackness were created. This is something that Peterson seems to at least have a blind spot to. Whiteness and Blackness are the foundation of the definition of race in American society. Race is one of the most, if not the most divisive sociopolitical realities in American society. The foundation of this division is not just racism in a general sense but predicated on the idea of White Supremacy. These societal norms and cultural standards became hard coded in American society (yes, even in Canada), and even when the legalized discrimination and oppression of Blacks in the United States was addressed during the Civil Rights movement, the societal norms and cultural standards continue to affect both Black and White Americans in negative ways. I am not sure if Peterson simply has not apprehended this reality or if he is willfully ignoring it. In either case, he forwards the “individual” in favor of abandoning group identity and politics and uses this as a foundational point regarding his opposition to political correctness. He continues in his opening to discuss his fears of speech being limited therefore not allowing for honest dialogue, which I would agree is a problem related to the hypersensitivity that I outlined that Goldberg glossed over in her opening. Peterson’s critique lands squarely on the modern academic environment which he posits has gone too far by trying to quiet speech that the left doesn’t agree with. That would have made for a great discussion, but unfortunately, we will see the debate never made it that far.

 

Dr. Dyson’s opening statement directly challenged Peterson by surmising Peterson’s opening as: “The abortive fantasy just presented is remarkable for both its clarity and yet the muddiness of the context from which it has emerged. What’s interesting to me is that when we look at the radical left, I’m saying ‘where they at? I want to join them.’ They ain’t running nothing. I am from a country where a man stands up every day to tweet the moral mendacity of his viciousness into a nation he has turned into a psychic commode.”[2] It would have been great if this question was fleshed out during the debate. Dyson makes the point that the right is in power, as we know in the United States and in the United Kingdom, however Dyson and Goldberg both ignored the fact that, while not in “political” power in the US, there are certainly radicals on the left. More to the point regarding political correctness, the reality of the radical left taking political correctness to the extreme of hypersensitivity is ignored. Dyson does make a statement that sums up the opposition to political correctness that we have seen come from some White males in saying: “I ain’t seen no bigger snowflakes that White males.”[3] And then talks about the idea of White supremacy and frames the issue very well. Showing that the primary attack against political correctness comes from White supremacy.

 

Stephen Fry uses his opening to proclaim even though his is on the con side of the debate that he is in fact a liberal. He implies that the terms left and right have been skewed in the modern political debate and that political correctness shouldn’t be viewed as just a “left” issue, though in practicality it generally is. He wants the rage at the “with us or against us certainty” mentality to end, contextualizing that the right and the left are in extremes that do not hear each other, Stating that: “I think its time for the this toxic, binary, zero sum madness to stop, before we destroy ourselves.”[4] Indeed many of us would agree with that sentiment, the dichotomy between left and right is often forced to proclaiming that one must be one or the other; people religiously clinging to their political identities with the fervor of religious dogma. Fry goes on to describing himself as gay and Jewish to make clear that he is against homophobia and racism, however; he follows up and states that: “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.”[5] Stating “that’s surely a given amongst all of us” either betrays a naivety that would contradict the years he has spent on earth as a gay Jewish man, or a willful ignorance of the reality that the intolerance he wants to end is not a given with “all of us.” He seems to be against the limitations of language that are being forwarded by the left and implies a problem with hypersensitivity, however, as the debate goes on no one really gets to that. The debate goes on, following what would be expected speaking points by each speaker, but at about the halfway point, the kid gloves come off and the Peterson v Dyson match is on.

 

Peterson gets to his primary issue of speech, as he himself has been the center of controversy regarding his opposition to referring to trans people by the pronouns that they choose for themselves, specifically; being compelled by law to do so. A reasonable position, and one worthy of debate. However; as in his opening he moves to the idea of individual identify above group identity, a point that Dyson challenges him on. An exchange begins between Fry and Dyson mid-way through the debate ensues, which ultimately segues into a Dyson / Peterson slugfest.

 

Dyson begins to explain the fact that African Americans, as an example of a group, were grouped together against their will for the purposes of chattel slavery in America. Fry, surprisingly for all his talk of being a liberal, fall back to the American conservative reactionary talking point that every group has been slaves, willfully ignoring the distinction of chattel slavery in the Americas and Europe of Black Africans. Dyson does make the distinction for Fry, which seems to make Fry uncomfortable, as he is called on his casual dismissal of the institution of trans-Atlantic slavery. Dyson posits that it is unfair and somewhat ridiculous to expect after one group, whites, hold another group, Blacks in slavery for 300 years (followed by 100 years or so of legalized discrimination and second-class citizenship for Blacks) which gave Whites (collectively) systemic and institutional advantages above Blacks; for the Whites to expect the Blacks to be able to then operate solely as individuals on any type of even playing field.

 

Peterson then tries to insert “who is this you that you are referring to?” Preparing to argue that he nor other modern Whites owned slaves, a weak way to ignore the systemic and institutional realities that are consequences of Whiteness and Blackness, but Dyson is having none of that as he states that he and Goldberg agree that people want to be viewed as individuals, I would add that Dr. King’s message at the March on Washington laid that out as he stated that he wanted a day when Black people were judged by the content of our character as opposed to our skin color. It would be clear to anyone with any type of basic understanding of United States history and society that this is something that all minority groups seek; however, as Dyson explains further, specifically regarding the issue of Black people in the United States, we simply have not been allowed that. He gives the example of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African American child killed by police while welding a toy gun as an example of how Blacks are not looked at as individuals but as “Blacks.” The fact is, it can be reasonably understood that a 12-year-old blond haired blue eyed White girl holding a toy gun would have been dealt with very differently than Tamir Rice. And this goes to reality as Black Americans being defined by the group identity of “Blackness” first and foremost by the dominant culture of the United States, that dominant group being those who identify with Whiteness. Dyson sums this up as White privilege, Peterson immediately takes exception to the idea of White privilege (a right-wing position that is popular in the United States that Peterson has debated doesn’t exist) and says to Dyson (quite smug and condescending):

 

“Let’s get precise, to what degree is my present level of attainment or achievement a consequence of my white privilege? And I don’t mean “Sort of”, do you mean 5%, do you mean 15%, do you mean 25%, do you mean 75%? And what do you propose I do about it? How about a tax, that’s like specialized for me so I can account for my damn privilege? So I can stop hearing about it”[6]

 

Before Dyson can directly respond, Goldberg brings it back to Fry, after her statements, the moderator, Rudyard Griffiths brings this back to Dyson: “So Mike, I want to come to you on Jordan’s point, about how does he in a sense get an equal voice in this debate back, if it is implied that his participation brings with it this baggage of White privilege that doesn’t allow him to see clearly the issues that are being brought forth.”[7] Dyson addresses not only Peterson but the moderators contextualization of Peterson’s statement as such: “Well that is to be complicit in the very problem itself, terminologically, you are beginning at a point that is already (counter?)productive and controversial, your saying ‘how can he get HIS equality back?” Who you talking about, Jordan Peterson? Trending #1 on Twitter? Jordan Peterson, international best seller?”[8]

 

The moderator did exemplify part of the problem of White privilege and that this problem seemed to share with the audience. The reality that many Whites in the US and greater American / European society (again, including Canada) do not understand or acknowledge is that there is a bias that they have in discussing matters of race, specifically Blackness and Whiteness as they are ignorant, sometimes willfully ignorant, of what being a part of Whiteness really means. Many Whites would like to be looked at as individuals while not acknowledging the benefits that they have being part of Whiteness in American / Western society. Peterson’s earlier statement regarding percentages of White privilege exemplify this reality as well. Peterson wants his success and failures to be taken at face value of him as an individual, and acts oblivious to societal, cultural and historical advantages afforded to him because of his group identity in Whiteness. This leads us to the “mean, mad, White man” comment.

 

After addressing the moderator, Dyson goes at Peterson directly and ask: “Why the rage bruh? You’re doing well, but you are a MEAN MAD WHITE MAN and you are going to get US (Minorities) right.”[9] Dyson goes on to use the terminology of the Right, as many on the radical right take any issue that minorities bring up regarding inequality as “whining” and any criticism of the radical right direction of politics in the US and Europe as “snow-flaking” and directs that terminology back, not simply at Peterson but the Right in general who uses these terms. Dyson accuses them of whining and snow-flaking and the point hits home. Peterson appears to take the statement personally, which in my opinion was not genuine. Though specifically speaking to Peterson at that moment, the statement was clearly broad using Peterson as an example for the moment. And since he was implying that there was no “White Privilege” per se (and has directly stated that in the past) it was warranted. Further to how Peterson tried to imply that White Privilege didn’t exist and in asking Dyson for percentages basically to quantify White Privilege, Dyson responded:

 

“What I am saying to you, Empirically and precisely, when you asked the question about “White Privilege” The fact that you (Peterson) asked it in the way that you did: dismissive, pseudo-scientific, non-empirical and without justification, A. the truth is White Privilege doesn’t act according to quantifiable segments…”[10]

 

From my observation, Dyson had pulled Peterson’s card, perhaps he was personally offended; however, as an academic and a public intellectual I would have expected him to push forward past the “offense” and to the subject matter at hand, specifically the point of White Privilege. I was expecting Peterson to defend his assertion / implication that White Privilege did not exist or the spring board at the least to forward his narrative that we all have our pluses and minuses, but we need to be individuals not groups; but that didn’t happen. He, in fact, played the victim. He claimed his feelings were not hurt but his body language and lack of going back to the place where Dyson clearly dominated him symbolized that he either was playing the victim to not complete the argument regarding White Privilege, or that he was simple offended and hurt and could not move forward emotionally. The moderator, Fry and the audience seemed to be looking for Dyson to back down when accused of ad hominem attacks, but Dyson used this opportunity to hammer the point home.

 

“I don’t think Jordan Peterson is suffering from anything, except an exaggerated sense of entitlement, and resentment and his own privilege is invisible to him and it manifests with lethal intensity and ferocity right on stage”[11]

 

Dyson encapsulated the contrast of the dichotomy between White Privilege and Political Correctness. Or more specifically the implicit link between the two. Two realities come clear from that critical exchange. 1. That the Right needs to accept that White Privilege exist and when not acknowledged, creates a bias / confirmation bubble that inhibits actual discussion about many of the sociopolitical and cultural problems regarding systemic and institutional White supremacy; and 2. that Political Correctness in the form of hypersensitivity muddies the field of discussion of the same.  Ironically, the hypersensitivity in this exchange was reflected in Peterson’s responses past that “Mean Mad White Man” moment, and to a lesser extent Fry’s response. I won’t waste time with Fry’s response as it was an actual passive aggressive ad hominem attack on Dyson. Suffice to say, he didn’t add anything meaningful to the discussion after the exchange between Dyson and Peterson.

 

The debate ended with: 30% pro and 70% con, with the 6% gain the con side won the debate. Which indicates to me that at the least that 6% were more caught up with the supposed ad hominem attack on Peterson as opposed to what that exchange revealed. However, the discussion is far from over, and I would posit that Dyson did much for the greater discussion regarding these issues that more than mitigates the loss of the debate. Meaning that he may have lost that battle to the home team, but he really defined the game.

 

[1] Michael Eric Dyson “Political Correctness Be it resolved, what you call political correctness, I call progress….” Monk Debates, 13:19 min mark, May 18, 2018 accessed May 25, 2018, https://www.munkdebates.com/The-Debates/Political-Correctness

 

[2] Dyson  24:00 – 26:00 min marks

 

[3] Dyson 29:00 min mark

 

[4] Stephen Fry “Political Correctness Be it resolved, what you call political correctness, I call progress….” Monk Debates, 32:00 min mark, May 18, 2018 accessed May 25, 2018, https://www.munkdebates.com/The-Debates/Political-Correctness

 

[5] Fry, 34:00 min mark

 

[6] Jordan Peterson “Political Correctness Be it resolved, what you call political correctness, I call progress….” Monk Debates, 1:07 min – 1:12 min marks, May 18, 2018 accessed May 25, 2018, https://www.munkdebates.com/The-Debates/Political-Correctness

 

[7] Griffiths, 1:08 min mark

 

[8] Dyson,  1:09 min mark

 

[9] Dyson 1:09 min mark

 

[10] Dyson, 1:07 min – 1:12 min

 

[11] Dyson, 1:07 min – 1:12 min

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