Read the following statements, and try to keep track of your initial thoughts as you read them:
- There are many unemployed people that don’t want to work
- The science behind human caused climate change is shakier than some people believe
- Gay men are less likely to end up as parents than straight couples
- A teenager in a store is more likely to be a shoplifter than is an older person
- Not all people are capable of achieving the same outcomes in life
Most people will feel outraged by these statements, and claim that they’re wrong, and must not be repeated.
A smaller number of people will claim that they are totally true, and it is crucial that they be shouted, to battle the forces of political correctness.
I’ve got friends in both these camps, and I understand and even respect where they are coming from. But I try to avoid either approach.
These are all statements that I’m pretty sure are technically and factually true, but have a strong tendency to lead to some unhelpful and undesirable conclusions. In the case of climate change, belief that the science is shaky can lead to not taking important and appropriate action. In some of the other cases, belief in the statement is self-perpetuating, or hurtful and unfair on many individuals.
Logically, when a fact appears to imply a bad outcome, it doesn’t suddenly become untrue. I am a lot more receptive to the argument that when stating a fact leads to a bad outcome, it shouldn’t be stated. But, there is generally another option – we can work to clarify the logic, working to prevent the bad outcome.
By reminding people of the value in respecting the vast number of teenagers that don’t shoplift, or the many great gay parents (and their families) that are hurt by stereotypes. By working to fight attitudes that limit people’s potential. By showing how being more open-minded than limited facts might suggest, we will create a better world.
I realise that many of these sorts of unhelpful statements don’t need to be made, so I don’t tend to make them. And I make a point of not engaging with internet trolls. But faced with someone I respect that makes them these kinds of remarks, I will try not to shame them into silence (a sense of persecution never helps). Instead, I try to engage with them respectfully, listening to what they have to say, but helping them see the other side of the story, and the harm that their statement can unintentionally cause.