Sunday, January 15, 2017

On Gender Pronouns and Peterson's Case

This is a difficult thing for me to figure out, and I'm not sure I'm quite firm on anything yet, but I've been completely fascinated by the discussions around Jordan Peterson, the University of Toronto prof who refuses to use individually-determined gender pronouns, so I'll try to narrow down what I actually think based on some of his YouTube videos, his interview with Joe Rogan, and various articles. I wrote before about some points I disagree with, but here I'll also look at where his argument has some merit. He's got some solid ideas in the mix.

First of all, the fact that I'm wary of discussing this at all, means that Peterson is on to something. He might not be entirely right about what he's doing and how, but it's always a concern when people don't feel free to counter current views. Before I knew his name, this felt like an issue that wasn't allowed to be debated, and those are always the meatiest places to explore. Why can't we question it? What's going on there? I teach philosophy and social science courses, and I get into all sorts of discussions that push boundaries: is incest necessarily immoral, or why don't we all use performance-enhancing drugs, or what if we sterilize couples right after they have one child to decrease population? Yet people questioning their gender is untouchable as a debatable topic so far. It's to the point that teens who feel strongly that they're in the wrong body are allowed significant surgery even though women in their 30s can't get their tubes tied because they can't possibly know their own minds. That's really interesting to me.

For the record, I use all manner of pronouns in class. On my seating plans, I note how each person would like to be addressed. I'll call students by whatever name they prefer; I don't want there to be any reason a student feels uncomfortable to come to class. As one student said when considering what it would be like to be in Peterson's class:
Realistically, I would be too intimidated to say anything and I would drop the course or try to find an alternative. In a theoretical world where I feel like I have the courage and agency to do anything I want, I would try to have a conversation with him and say ‘Look, this is a really important aspect of who I am and it will impact the way I interact with you and your class. I would really appreciate if you used my pronouns or my name.
I'm not sure it's wise for teachers to act in ways that provoke students to avoid learning from them. And Peterson's online lectures and podcasts are engaging. I like listening to him for the most part because he's often very precise in his use of language. He seems to always have the exact right word at hand. But there's much more to this issue.

He refers to Social Justice Warriors as a troubled group, concerned that they are aggressively dividing the world: people who support them are seen as saviours out to protect them, and people who disagree are seen as hostile or predatory. I might fit the label Social Justice Warrior myself, but I agree with his concern with equating disagreement with hostility rather than allowing disagreement to provoke curious engagement. He explains that we like to keep things simple and decide who are the good guys and bad guys so quickly that only one side is allowed to be right and then any useful discussion is lost. That's a valid concern. There are nuances to any arguments that shouldn't be discounted with the whole.


Peterson's clear that he doesn't object to a transitioning student requesting the opposite pronoun from what's indicated on their birth certificate. That's not his issue at all. He objects to the litany of recently created pronouns that demand individual attention.

He clarifies also that he has no issue with people using the terms, but he objects to being required, by law, to use them. He's referring to using 'they' as a singular pronoun or using 'ze' or a wide variety of other options. His analogy is that if someone refer to themselves as 'ze', it's like someone dating someone of the same sex, which is fine. But as soon as they demand that others refer to them as 'ze', then it's like them demanding that you double date with them, which is an infringement of your rights.  It's another level of involvement when, instead of just letting others be who they are, people are being asked to change their own behaviours in order to show respect for choices. They can't just be passively respectful or neutral; they have to be involved. It's not freeing speech; it compels speech.

Apparently some have equated Peterson's refusal to use new pronouns with a refusal to stop using racial slurs. He calls that claim intellectually dishonest, and I agree. A racial slur has its start as a pejorative term that was openly used during the oppression of a class of people, and most have been weened from our public vernacular. But words like 'he' and 'she' don't, in themselves, carry the weight of a painful social history. They're not problematic generally, but only very specifically. I understand the problem that can arise if we start giving credence to banning any words that are individually offensive. Students might end up with a list of words that can't be said in the classroom when they're present, perhaps with 'moist' near the top.

But he also makes some weak arguments here. He thinks language shouldn't be altered at all. But it's clear to me that language is alive and ever-changing. This is just a more abrupt change than the typical gradual shifts in usage.

I think this change is similar to the change that happened when 'Ms.' was first discussed in the New York Times back in 1901:
"Every one has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman. To call a maiden Mrs. is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss. Yet it is not always easy to know the facts.” How to avoid this potential social faux pas? The writer suggested “a more comprehensive term which does homage to the sex without expressing any views as to their domestic situation,” namely, Ms. With this “simple” and “easy to write” title, a tactfully ambiguous compromise between Miss and Mrs., “the person concerned can translate it properly according to circumstances."
I started using Ms. on my first day supply teaching an unruly bunch ninety years after it was first considered. I wrote my name on the board, "Miss Snyder," and an anonymous voice in the crowd of 17-year-olds said, "Oh good - she's not married. No sloppy seconds." Without missing a beat, I erased Miss and exchanged it for "Ms." and never looked back. Sometimes it's preferable for marital status to go unnoticed. It took a bit for people to get used to using the term. As it became more common, some women got angry if someone assumed their marital status, but we have to acknowledge that, if we're in the minority, then we'll have to explain it and help others understand the need for this new term. We might have to patiently explain it over and over. It's unfortunate, but I don't think that, in itself, is worth a fight. Getting it added to forms as a viable option was the big turn. It doesn't help anything to be impatiently irritable with the few catching up to it all.

Peterson argues that it's just a tiny fraction of people affected by this pronoun issue, however I disagree that the number matters. The quantity of people affected shouldn't matter if it's the right thing to do. He makes a slippery slope argument that if we accept a few new words, then there could be an infinite number of words to accept with an infinite number of gradations of identity as LGBTQ becomes absurdly long and complicated. But we can still accept a few new words. It's unlikely that the movement will want a multitude of terms, and it's certainly not necessarily the case that creating a few words will lead to creating a multitude.

But he's right that having a variety of individually determined terms won't work. We need one choice for anyone that prefers a neutral pronoun. And, like Ms., it can be used when we're in that awkward position of ignorance of someone's gender. Like Peterson, I've been finding using 'they' as a singular pronoun awkward. It occasionally is used in a plural way already, but try to intentionally use it when telling a story. It muddles up the grammar to the point that comprehension can be affected. So I'd vote for 'ze' for s/he and complementary linguistic variations for him/her and his/her. But we do have to make a choice as a country - or, even better, as a world. And rather than being required to use the new term by law in conversation, we can, like we did with the addition of Ms., allow social practices to guide the shift.


The new legislation is Peterson's primary concern. The bill passed in the House, but it still has to go through a final reading in the Senate. All parties in the House of Commons gave at least some support to the bill. At the link are the current changes that C-16 will provoke if it passes. It was debated at the second reading in the Senate on December 1st where Senator Jaffer gave an impassioned plea to pass the bill.
"The bill amends the Canadian Human Rights Act to add gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination. 
The enactment also amends the Criminal Code to extend the protection against hate propaganda set out in that Act to any section of the public that is distinguished by gender identity or expression and to clearly set out that evidence that an offence was motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on gender identity or expression constitutes an aggravating circumstance that a court must take into consideration when it imposes a sentence.... 
Rupert Raj, a psychiatrist at the Sherbourne Health Centre, further describes the discrimination transgender people face. He states that 85 to 90 per cent of trans people are homeless, unemployed or underemployed. Despite this, some shelters will not even accept them until they have sex assignment surgery. Bill C-16's purpose is to provide transgender Canadians with the dignity they deserve."
She referred to many specific cases of young children hoping for a better life. Then a Conservative Senator, Don Plett, argued that the transgendered are arguing for two distinct genders when, he insists, there aren't just two. These are interesting times:
The transgender community that believes there are only two genders, their issue is they want to be the other gender. Yet, 70- plus genders will be included in this bill. This bill compels speech. It doesn't just work against freedom of speech. It actually compels certain speech.
This is the important part of Peterson's concern: the compelled language that's part of the legislation that requires he use whatever created pronoun a student determines is best for them.

Brenda Cossman argues that there isn't any compelled language as part of the act because refusing to use a new pronoun can't be seen as promoting a hate crime or advocating genocide under the Criminal Code. It's merely to stop discrimination of employment, housing, health care, etc. But in a later interview about the Human Rights Code, she clarifies that he could be doing something illegal but not criminal, so he wouldn't go to jail. "He could be ordered to pay money, he could be ordered to correct the behaviour, he could be ordered to go to training, etc."

Under the Code, he'd be responsible for "accepting requests for accommodation in good faith." There will be no questioning any serious request for accommodation. And tied to this is a definition of harassment that's a little slippery: “engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome." If he, or anyone, used words that a student found unwelcome, like using the wrong pronoun, it sounds like it could very well count as harassment.

So, it seems like he sometimes makes it into a bigger deal than it is - there will be no hunger strikes in jail - but it's also not nothing. He's been served a couple letters from the university already. However he likely did his entire protest a disservice by being imprecise and grandiose when the facts, clearly explained, could be enough to sway people. It could enter a realm of the ridiculous given the kind of accommodations we're beginning to grant in schools (like scribes for the literacy tests). If little Johnny prefers to be called "John the Shiniest in all the Land," and I insist on plain old "John," then could this be grounds for harassment if he feels the lack of title is vexatious? This part of the code isn't new - it's not part of C-16, but it certainly takes on a bit of a different flavour now that using the wrong pronoun can be considered harassment. And I think this is where Peterson should be given an audience willing to hear him out.

Rosie DiManno further justified Peterson's concerns:
Just last week, the commission issued a statement clarifying its position: Refusing to refer to a person by their self-identified pronouns could constitute gender-based harassment; refusing to refer to a transgendered person by their chosen personal pronoun, matching their gender self-identity, will likely be considered discrimination when it takes place in an arena covered by the Code, including employment, housing and services such as education.... 
An individual who defies the jackbooting of vocabulary fascists, who won’t comply with preferred pronouns — and to be clear, Peterson does not stand accused of doing this yet; he’s merely declared he will not do so — can find himself, herself, themselves, stripped of a job, fined, have assets seized and wages garnisheed, or be forcibly trotted off to some kind of language gulag where they can be retrained as per the ideological gospels.
People attacking his claims need to take a closer look at what this law suggests and any further implications.


Peterson explains that what someone finds upsetting can't be the sole criteria used to determine if an action is objectionable. I agree that our young charges are becoming increasingly thin-skinned and anxiety-prone. If we continue down this road, we could have far too many good people charged and fined or at risk for job loss because they're sarcastic, oppositional, or just plain forgetful. And students suffer from over-protection. To reduce the effects of a trigger, according to CBT methods, we need to be exposed to it over and over in a safe environment, not be allowed to avoid it completely and forever. I believe the rise of trigger warnings actually fosters the development of anxiety.

He discusses Mill in a cursory way, mainly in relation to Marx, but I'd expect him to be all over On Liberty. That essay completely supports his position that harm and offence are two categorically different things that must be treated as such.

He takes a page from Freud's Civilization and its Discontents when he describes the development of socialized people: The very process of learning to live with others necessarily builds but also destroys some of our individuality. We can't have norms without some marginalization. He illustrates this with children playing games: if most want to play hide and seek, and a few want to play tag, then the tag players will be marginalized this time. We can't just be individuals refusing to acclimatize to social norms because we want to be true to ourselves because then society won't work productively. It's unfortunate, but we do have to give in a big to the ideas of the crowd.

He continues (paraphrased):
To be less afraid, we can't make the world safer, but we can break fear into bits to make it easier to confront the fear. It doesn't reduce anxiety, but it makes people braver and better able to cope. Universities should arm students with arguments, engage them in intellectual combat - it's better than real combat. University is a place to be confronted by horrible ideas - history is a bloodbath. Stay home to be safe.

But then he goes on to blame the rise of trigger warnings in the 1990s on women studies outright. I think it fits more with the general extremism born from a desire for simple solutions. We don't want to talk about the complexity of experiences, and we don't want to deal with anything uncomfortable. But we must.

ON BEING INTERESTING: Obsessions with the Self

Here's where the discussion gets a little uncomfortable. Peterson suggests our concerns are creating a generation more prone to narcissism in which, "only the oppressed class can speak for themselves; it gives them privilege because of their marginalization," and I have some similar concerns. Yes, each generation lambastes the previous one all to bits, but that doesn't prove this isn't actually a problem.

With respect to the growing number of non-binary and transgendered students, I sometimes wonder if we're fostering a set of behaviours that wouldn't happen at nearly the rate otherwise. Were there that many students quietly suffering a decade ago, or is this, just maybe, a bit of a trend?

I've seen many different ways students demand greater attention than others. If I have a student that has an accommodation that allows for double the time on tests, and I allow everyone as much time as they need, then that accommodated student will sometimes get upset. It doesn't matter that many students don't have the time or money necessary to be formally tested. And it doesn't matter that the student with documentation is getting their accommodations met. It becomes very clear that that's not the point. They don't want to ensure that they're needs are met as much as that they have more than everyone else. They want something extra. Teenagers often really need to feel special, and we seem to be provoking that desire rather than quelling it.

To what extent are some cases of gender identity a matter of being interesting? Currently in some places, it's highly rewarded. People are given extra thought whenever a pronoun is needed, and, in some parts, they're automatically part of a group that's very welcoming and supportive. About twenty years ago I had a student who said, off the cuff in class one day, "I wish I were a lesbian. They're such a tight circle, and I'm not allowed in." Clearly it's not the case everywhere, but where there is a highly supportive environment, is it possible that it fosters 'wannabe' behaviours from people who desire to be at once unique yet also part of a strong community? Are we normalizing a behaviour that wouldn't be growing as quickly otherwise?

Mark Lilla, Columbia prof, thinks the problem is an obsession with identity.
Diversity as a social goal and aim of social reform is an excellent thing. But identity politics today isn’t about group belonging; it’s about personal identity. From the ’70s into the ’90s, there was a shift in focus from group identity to the self as the intersection of different kinds of identities. Identity became more narcissistic and less connected to larger political themes. For many students, their political interest and engagement end at the border of how they’ve defined themselves. It’s extraordinary how much time and thinking they devote to exactly what they are as the subtotal of other identities.
And people are railing against this claim. But a recent study found a dramatic rise of "Fame" to be most the common value on display in shows geared to tweens. And these ideas are not dissimilar from what Charles Taylor has noticed as a shift in the philosophies of our times beginning at the enlightenment. And Hannah Arendt wrote about it at length as a reaction to what's favoured by elites starting at the turn of the century:
Deprived of political rights, the individual, to whom public and official life manifests itself in the guise of necessity, acquires a new and increased interest in his private life and his personal fate.... What the mob wanted was access to history even at the price of destruction.... The mob, and not the elite, was charmed by the "radiant power of fame" and accepted enthusiastically the genius idolatry of the late bourgeois world. In this the mob of the twentieth century followed faithfully the pattern of earlier parvenus who also had discovered the fact that bourgeois society would rather open its doors to the fascinating "abnormal," the genius, the homosexual, or the Jew, than to simple merit.... The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it....The belief that everything is possible seems to have proved only that everything can be destroyed.  
Of course we should accept people dressing as they like and inhabiting all aspects of gender they find comfortable, but to what extent are people altering their forms as, sub-consciously perhaps, a means to become interesting. There's a whole generation of teens and children who are guinea pigs to a new mentality that we should heed their perspective about their own pre-pubescent bodies at any cost. Like earlier studies on cosmetic surgery, sex change operations don't always decrease body dysmorphia. It's complicated. But it won't get any better if we're too politically correct to question the parameters of this burgeoning ideology. I'm not a typical anti-PC type because much of the movement towards correct behaviour is really a matter of being polite and respecting one another. But it shouldn't be so severe that it prevents people from asking some difficult questions.

Here's something possibly even more controversial to say aloud. It's a bit off-topic in general, but it fits with the identity obsession: There's a rise of the number of students with anxiety, OCD, depression, etc. I'm not saying they're faking illness to be special, or that it's all mind over matter, but that somehow a society that nurtures illness might end up getting more of it. It alters people's constitution to be open to illness of any kind. When I was university and I'd get sick at the end of each term, it was like my body knew it could. Or there was that time when a partner's horrible flu made him unable to get out of bed, but somehow, when I succumbed, I was able to still make lunches and get the little one to daycare. My brain knew at some level that staying in bed wasn't an option. This isn't an uncommon mom/dad scenario that likely precipitated the stereotype of men being babies when they're sick. It's because they can be. Similarly, if we offer the idea that a child is anxious, and they learn they can decrease those feelings by avoiding a trigger completely simply by referring to their anxiety ("I can't do presentations, and I need double time on tests because of anxiety."), then that behaviour has potential to increase in frequency. Now some tests are written over days, and everyone gets gum and treats. It's not necessarily a bad thing to help kids relax for a test, but this wave of concern for each special snowflake is making it harder for them to learn how to work hard, to handle insults, to tolerate difficulty, to pull themselves together in public places, and to push themselves to the end. It might be similar for gender dysphoria.

The line between something being impossible, painful, or abusive and something being difficult, taxing, or uncomfortable has been blurred beyond recognition. I believe a focus on the self is at the heart of all of these trends. "How do I feel? How should I be accommodated? What's going on inside of me?" has become an overarching concern replacing, "What's my place in society? How can I help or add something useful to the world? What's going on beyond me?"

ETA: After seeing this document, I'm not so comfortable openly agreeing with some of Peterson's views, but that's just the point. We should approach everyone's arguments critically, looking for the bits we supports and parts we reject and developing arguments to support our conclusions. Writing him off altogether isn't the solution. Thinking about each claim he makes is the only way we can work our way through this mess.

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