Canada, Bill C-16, Jordan Peterson, the Transgendered, and the PC Culture
Read Bill C-16 here:
Jordan Peterson, PhD, a respected psychologist, philosopher and professor at the University of Toronto, has taken up bill c-16 as the latest target in his crusade against political correctness; he sees it as a slippery slope toward a tyranny of the left, which, in this case, attempts to equalize all persons by instituting what is essentially thought control. The prototypical historical tyrannies of the left were instituted in The Soviet Union and China, where the upper classes and intellectuals were killed or banished to equalize society. This is not the end towards which Peterson's slippery slope seems to be intended. His focus on these atrocities in his research has created tyranny-colored glasses. One of his precepts is that one should catch a potential tyranny in its infancy and squash it like a bug. One should not sit idly by while a build-up of tyrannical arms is taking place. Speak out, at any cost, for the protection of one's society is worth any temporary personal discomfort one may feel by rocking the boat. The trick is determining which child is born of ideology, and which born of a proper conceptualization of civil rights.
Peterson has picked the wrong battle this time. Bill C-16, adding gender identity and transgendered people to the list of protected minorities may lead to discussion of what constitutes hate speech, but this is not the time to deny a population these protections and rights to avoid a conversation which may lead to the censoring of certain objects of speech or determining the proper pronoun to use. With regard to the transgendered, if it is obvious that the individual is “playing the game” (his phrase) of social and gender roles properly, it should not be difficult to determine which pronoun to use. If a person looks like a female, call her “she.” Really no need to think about it. If they present as female, how hard is it to realize that that is the proper pronoun? Peterson agrees with this assumption, up to a point. And that point would seem to be the grey area that tends to infuse the space between the gender antipodes.
Video: Selflessness or Martyrdom?
As a 50-year old, 20-year post-op transsexual, I am offended (indeed, offense can be taken without insisting on a raid by the PC police) that Peterson felt it necessary to caption his discussion with Theryn Meyer as taking place with a "reasonable" transgendered person (though perhaps this was her own appellation). This implies that most are unreasonable (though many do get caught in a teenage stage of looks, stereotypes and silliness; it is more often the case that we become deep thinkers owing to the conflicts within our minds and with society). It also implies that she is reasonable because she agrees with him. How reasonable is it for a member of an historically harassed and oppressed (even targeted for murder) minority to say she is "free market" when it comes to speech, where any and all epithets are welcome? She apparently doesn't mind being bullied, or perhaps she doesn't get bullied because she is pretty and passes seamlessly in society. She may be a reasonable person, and perhaps even intellectual, but holding dialectical opinions does not necessarily imply rationality and speaking out against your own interests, or those of your group (in some circumstances, this is the philosopher's necessity - I have done it on many occasions myself, because it was right to do so - in this case, there is no upside to it). This isn't always a sign of deep philosophical thought, either; it may be an interior-driven martyrdom with no rational philosophical or societal implication. I do applaud Theryn, though, and appreciate her input on this topic.
Congenital Social Minorities/Congenital Discrimination
Many a person will go to great lengths, and expend a tortuous amount of psychic energy to determine if a person is indeed the gender of the sex they were born into. I understand this requisite delineation as part of the necessary psychosocial construct based on gender identity. It is important to make this distinction in order to get on in the world. Indeed, gender is not only a social construct, but is also the result of billions of years of biological evolution. So, it is indeed basic, and I can see the argument for not wanting to upset the fundament of this most basic of biopsychosocial pillars. But, as it is so fundamental, and deeply entrenched, I fail to see how the .003% of the population making up the transsexual community and further 1-2% of non-binary gender could possibly pose a threat to social stability and order. Be that as it may...
When we finally observed the full civil rights of black people, we did not cry foul when we were asked to rid our lexicon of racial epithets. The similarity is this: most transgendered persons are born with a brain structure at odds with their biological sex. We have agreed as a society to not discriminate against persons based on the circumstances of their birth. Simply because the difference is not usually visually apparent (until behaviour makes it so), this should have no bearing on the discernment of one's status. For instance, we have long legislated against the discrimination of persons who are deemed mentally “abnormal”/disabled/ ”differently-abled” when they are otherwise not a physical threat to individuals or society. This is also a comparatively non-visual/non-obvious difference in identity.
Is the basis of a distinction one in which the changes to brain structure in the transgendered occur most often during gestation as opposed to being hereditary or a mutation of DNA? Note that, similarly, a high proportion of the handicapped become so not by genetic alterations, but by environmental factors after conception and even moreso after birth. Should these persons also be discriminated against? We have determined that they should not be, and concluded this is right and just.
Professor Peterson likes to conflate the word “discrimination” such that it includes the two main definitions in one instance. The different meanings of the word need to be kept separate, otherwise we are just playing semantic games. We discriminate all throughout every day amongst the myriad of things we encounter; this is a necessity in order to keep coherent and sane. But, to discriminate against a person for qualities not of their choosing, but of their birth, has been deemed unacceptable. It is also not clear at what point we begin to discriminate against a person who has freely chosen a certain aspect of identity, such as religion – so choice is not always the definitive criterion.
The question for professor Peterson then becomes “is being transgendered a choice?” He has intimated that he believes it is. He shows some discomfort and a loss for words, showing he has not studied the transgendered in depth. His is thus a superficial and uninformed argument. The truth of the matter is that the only choice the transgendered face at some point in their lives is that between presenting to the world as the gender with which they identify, or commit suicide, as the psychic conflict has become unbearable. This is a false choice, and a choice not free of coercion, as death is the ultimate in coercive agency. The death of a human being for the sake of a perceived social stability is no longer a recognized option in a liberal, humanist society. I needn't prove this here, as it has been made obvious many times over the last 300 years and been accepted as our social and individual truth.
Then, Peterson suggests, the person must “play the game” properly. This would mean that transgendered persons who fail to “pass” adequately, or fail to even try, are breaking the social rules. It makes people uncomfortable. Shall a person die because people are made uncomfortable by her presence? Discomfort will not bring down society. Indeed, it is those little irritations that bring forth growth in an individual and a society. It must also be recalled that denying the rights of a minority has in many instances resulted in the downfall of a society.
What's in a Pronoun?
Peterson abhors all kinds of 'political correctness." PC will lead to tyranny, he claims. (One should not hold it against him that he is a middle-aged, middle-class white male). His colleagues have faced many annoyances over PC confusion, and some feel their ability to teach is detrimentally affected. This is because they have not thought it through properly and formulated a tactic for dealing with the conundrum when it arises. These are problems of a personal sort and not problems to do with political correctness itself. The fears in this case come with using the wrong pronoun. One province is already taking up this issue, and that is a real problem, as accidents will happen, and legislation will have to be very careful not to allow litigation in a tight formulation, as misapprehensions of gender will certainly occur. Intent must be provided for - malignancy and contempt must be present for it to be a hate crime. Our governments tend to have little common sense, but we, as their constituents, can insist on it.
It must be borne in mind that deep societal structures should rarely be tampered with and then only by taking great care. Universal genderless pronouns should not be the goal. Gender is too important a distinction. And using a genderless pronoun specifically for the cases of the transgendered is just as stigmatizing and hurtful. I say, just try your best, and only if you are not sure at all, resort to the genderless until you are corrected by the person in question. Truly, it is rarely the case that one cannot tell the difference.
Should the trangendered be included in civil rights legislation?
Annoyance or Proto-tyranny?
As western society is not comparable to the left-handed tyrannies presented by Stalinism and Maoism, and as we are not totalitarian states as such, I think it is a false deduction to assume or predict that continuing to allow a certain amount of “political correctness” will inevitably result in censorship of the type that leads to tyranny. Yes, it is annoying for many people to have to consider some aspects of language in certain quarters at certain times. But, I believe this is a healthy thing, bringing language into a more self-conscious realm, especially since our culture and society are based so thoroughly on language and that society is mainly composed of otherwise unconscious beings.
Little tweaks in social mores here and there will always be necessary, in any event, and to deny a minority their rights simply to obviate some future discomfort over pronouns and such is not only absurd, it is morally contemptible. And when those at the top of a social hierarchy not only condone, but engage in, discriminatory language, we are on dangerous ground (witness the atrocities already resulting from the behavior and language of Donald Trump, now president-elect of the USA). My view is that failing to confront hate speech or bullying, the slippery slope we will face is the one toward fascistic scapegoating. We all know where that leads.
I do agree with professor Peterson on one point: I find it silly that non-discrimination should entail forbidding gender-based groups such as men's clubs, or pushing for women to be front-line military combatants, etc. There are real differences in gender and sex, and one should not believe these are so insignificant as to render the point moot. The trick is to discover when and where to make distinctions and when to leave it alone. We are human beings and not chimpanzees after all. We have the ability to change our thoughts and behavior; we mustn't give in to a behaviour simply because it is ritually atavistic and difficult to exorcise.
I find that pragmatism is a healthier route than idealism of any sort, though it is nice to have a Platonic ideal floating around in the zeitgeist. It is no sin to aim for it. Broad brushes should also be avoided, as they blur lines and paint a distorted picture of reality. We simply need to keep talking, not curtail conversation by shouting “tyranny” in a crowded social theatre. I am happy to think of these discussions as an indication of how far we have indeed come as a society, culture, and civilization. We are not finished with the more basic conversations of life in many parts of the world, but here, for the vast majority, we are quite fortunate to be quibbling over pronouns.