I am generally opposed to political correctness which seeks to mandate what others must believe and eliminate discussion on topics. I lack the arrogance to be positive that I have found the ‘truth’ on most things. As I look backward I see that the ‘truth’ has evolved on many, many topics. If it has evolved, that evolution has probably not ended. The evolution, however, can continue most efficiently only when the topics are not off limits but instead can be regularly probed with reasoned debate and with the consideration of more information and experiences about the topic. And there is almost always more data to be had about any important topic. Furthermore, telling others what to believe is not a way to convince them. As John Morley, the British statesman, has been quoted as saying, “You have not converted a man because you have silenced him.”

A few comments can be placed out of bounds because they cannot advance a topic’s consideration. Racial and ethnic slurs or dismissive labeling of someone else’s position as racist, for example, do not further a reasoned discussion and should be prevented.

The classroom observer wanted my friend to dictate the right outcome to any discussion on the legality or morality of torture, but is it so clear that torture is always so far out of bounds that it should not be discussed? See if you can come with examples where you say, “Maybe, maybe.” But if you can imagine situations where torture might be appropriately used, could you find a way to limit torture to just those circumstances or will torture inevitably spread if any use of it is allowed? If it would spread, does that mean all torture should be forbidden? Can’t there be—shouldn’t there be—debates on this topic? Are your answers affected by the fact that at least the issue of what constitutes torture has led to important debates in Israel and even to legal decisions by that country’s Supreme Court? Shouldn’t there be debates elsewhere on the topic?

The classroom observer tried to cinch her conclusion about how my friend should have handled the torture discussion by citing comments about women scientists. She was presumably referring to the comments by Larry Summers, who was president of Harvard when he made the comments. Summers was addressing the issue of the underrepresentation of women in the sciences on the faculties of elite universities. He addressed the topic precisely because this was one that many thought should be discussed. He offered tentative hypotheses as to why there was this underrepresentation of women on the faculties. In his comments, however, he never said that women did not have the ability to be outstanding scientists. He did say that the elite universities were trying to hire in the very top echelons of these professions—the one in five thousand—and at those levels, women were underrepresented. Summers then gave a number of reasons for this low representation and suggested that those possible reasons interplayed with each other.

Summers did not give his ideas as authoritative, irrebuttable pronouncements. He was not trying to cut off debate. Instead, he ended his speech with suggestions for the collection of data that could aid further understanding of the situation. In other words, he was trying to find a way to further the discussion.

Go look at his comments. You can find them online. There is a lot to discuss in them. If you care about women in science—and I put myself in this category since the spouse is a woman and was a scientist—Summers’ speech is provoking on many levels. Mischaracterizing his comments as saying that women don’t have the innate ability to be high-level scientists and suggesting that such a statement is “out of bounds” cuts off discussion and is therefore political correctness at is worst. If we cut off discussion of the topic and do not seek more information about it, as political correctness would have us do, we will not get closer to the “truth.”

For me, as I have said, political correctness is the attempt to arbitrarily end discussions about topics that are discussable or could be advanced with more data and research. Others who are oppose political correctness, however, use that term in other ways. (To be continued.)


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