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A Response to Jordan Peterson

An interview with University of Toronto Psychology professor Jordan Peterson has been circulating around social media for a few days now. In the interview, Peterson says a number of disturbing things, using his position as an academic to cloak his claims in the authority of expertise. Mostly for my own satisfaction, I want to address the points Peterson made in this interview because many of his claims are not only fallacious but also hypocritical.

The interviewer, Carol Off, begins by asking “why have you said you don’t recognize another person’s right to determine what pronouns you use to address them?” Peterson replies:

That’s right. I don’t recognize that. I don’t recognize another person’s right to decide what words I’m going to use, especially when the words they want me to use, first of all, are non-standard elements of the English language and they are constructs of a small coterie of ideologically motivated people. They might have a point but I’m not going to say their words for them.

The first thing to notice here is Peterson’s use of the singular “they” in a statement complaining about the non-standard usage of “they” in the singular: “I don’t recognize another person’s right…especially when the words they want me to use…” This is a pretty clear demonstration that the singular “they” not only makes sense when used but is also commonplace.

The second point of hypocrisy in this statement is that Peterson is using the ideology of prescriptivism to argue against the use of ideology in shaping language use.

Peterson continues:

I’m not claiming that a person is free to use any words, in any context. But what I’m saying is that I’m not willing to mouth words that I think have been created for ideological purposes.

This is an untenable position. Arguably any word can be created or repurposed for ideological purposes, but Peterson leaves unexamined how one decides if a word has been “created” for ideological purposes. Is he the arbitrator of that? Are prescriptivist grammarians? Are any ideologically-created words off limits, or only those Peterson doesn’t like?

Peterson then moves on to argue that what he’s really upset about is a change to the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Canadian Criminal Code proposed by Bill C-16. His concern is “that it’s loosely written enough that the kinds of things that I’m talking about [concerning making it illegal to use the wrong pronouns for a person] could be transformed into hate speech almost immediately.” Full disclosure, I am not a Canadian, nor a lawyer, so I have no expertise or nuanced understanding of the Canadian legal system. However, when I look at Bill C-16, all I see are protections that already exist for race, ethnicity, skin color, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, and disability being extended to transgender and non-binary people. Most of the changes to the laws are simply the insertion of the phrase “gender identity or expression” into the text of the Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code. There is nothing in this bill about pronouns. If Peterson thinks the Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code are “too loosely written,” that’s a different complaint than the slippery-slope argument he’s making about gender and pronouns.

Next, Peterson makes a series of claims that, frankly, anyone who has studied gender in an academic setting would recognize as full of problems. Here’s the question and answer:

CO: You have said that you don’t believe that there is enough evidence that non-binary gender identities even exist?

JP: No. I didn’t say that actually. If I’m going to be accused of saying things I have to be accused of exactly what I said. There’s not enough evidence to make the case that gender identity and biological sexuality are independently varying constructs. In fact, all the evidence suggests that they’re not independently varying constructs. I can tell you that transgender people make the same argument. They make the argument that a man can be born in a woman’s body and that’s actually an argument that specifies a biological linkage between gender identity and biological sex. I’m also not objecting to transgender people. I’m objecting to poorly written legislation and the foisting of ideological motivated legislation on a population that’s not ready for it.

Let’s take these claims one-by-one.

1) “There’s not enough evidence to make the case that gender identity and biological sexuality are independently varying constructs. In fact, all the evidence suggests that they’re not independently varying constructs.” I don’t know of anyone in academic gender studies who would make this argument today. I am sure there are people who make this argument around the internet, but at least in scholarly studies of sex/gender and sexuality, this is a straw man. Without Peterson pointing to specific scholarly literature he’s trying to refute with this statement, it’s hard to tell who exactly he is trying to argue against.

2) “[Transgender people] make the argument that a man can be born in a woman’s body and that’s actually an argument that specifies a biological linkage between gender identity and biological sex.” This “born-in-the-wrong-body” narrative is, of course, invoked by some transgender people to try to explain their experiences; however, this narrative has been criticized from a number of perspectives within the scholarly literature. Historically, the analytical disaggregation of gender identity, sexuality, and (biological) sex was a political move first promoted by feminists in the mid-20th century in an effort to free themselves from the sociocultural assumptions that domesticity was an inevitable result of biology (see Gayle Rubin’s sex-gender system). This distinct analytical separation has, unfortunately, become quite embedded in popular discourse; however, among gender studies scholars there is no recognition of a clean break between the social and the biological (see Donna Haraway’s work from the 1970s and 1980s if you think this is a new development).

3) “I’m also not objecting to transgender people. I’m objecting to poorly written legislation and the foisting of ideological motivated legislation on a population that’s not ready for it.” Ah, the old “you’re going too fast” argument against civil rights. Aren’t we so lucky to have Peterson, the arbiter of language ideology and population preparedness for social change, to tell us when we will be ready for codified respect and protection of transgender and non-binary people?

And the interviewer makes this point, though less sarcastically than I have:

CO: Well, transgender people are ready for it and they have been feeling a great deal of discrimination and that’s why they were seeking this type of redress in the law. Do you appreciate that?

JP: I don’t believe that the redress that they’re seeking in the law is going to actually improve their status materially. I think, in fact, it will have the opposite effect. I believe that the principles on which the legislation is predicated are sufficiently incoherent and vague to cause endless legal trouble in a matter that will not benefit transgender people.

How would Peterson know what the effect of extending rights and protections to transgender people will be? Is he psychic? It’s almost as if Peterson has not read the bill at all, which again literally only inserts the words “gender identity and gender expression” into the already-existing protections in the Canadian Human Rights Act. If that Act is “incoherent and vague,” and would cause “endless legal trouble,” why has that not apparently been an issue up to this point?

Further on in the interview, Peterson is asked about the legal definition of gender in Ontario:

CO: In Ontario, the law states that gender is a “person’s sense of being a woman, a man, both, or neither, or anywhere along the gender spectrum.”

JP: Yes. That particularly statement I regard as logically incoherent to the point of dangerousness. I think that the reason it’s been rushed into law is that people haven’t been paying attention. The mere fact that I don’t want to use pronouns that some else [sic] has decided I should use doesn’t mean that I don’t believe that transgender people exist. It also doesn’t make me a bigot. Regardless of how hard people try to push me into that corner — I’m not a bigot.

Peterson here does not even attempt to support his claim that that definition of gender is “logically incoherent to the point of dangerousness.” It seems a perfectly legitimate definition of gender to me, particularly for a legal context where it only needs to be defined to a practical rather than theoretical extent. Peterson does not even try to convincingly argue in favor of a strict gender binary. Further, the idea that such a thing has been “rushed into law” and that “people haven’t been paying attention” would be laughable if it weren’t so disconnected from reality, where trans and queer people have been having these discussions and pushing for protections for decades.

Peterson then argues in the interview that trans people suffering from discrimination due to lack of legal recognition does not mean it’s correct to extend such protections. When asked whether or not he sees value in accommodating trans people, he says, “it depends on the nature of the accommodation and at what price? I don’t believe that it’s reasonable for our society to undermine the entire concept of binary gender in order to hypothetically accommodate a tiny minority of people.”

This is something he says after just saying that he is not a bigot. He is making the argument that accommodations for minorities should be predicated on (1) the size of that minority’s population, (2) that such accommodations don’t “cost too much” for people in the majority, and (3) if that minority fits within normative cultural beliefs. According to Google, a bigot is “a person who is intolerant toward those holding different opinions.” I don’t know how much more plain bigotry can get than a person arguing that a minority group does not deserve rights and protections because they’re not normative.

As far as the argument that not using a person’s preferred pronouns could become a criminal offense, again I’m not that familiar with the Canadian legal system, but a quick read over the Canadian Human Rights Act’s outline of prohibited discrimination only covers denial of goods, services, facilities, or accommodations (here referring to the legal definition of business accommodation not accommodating one’s preference for pronoun usage), real estate discrimination, employment discrimination, and wage discrimination. The Criminal Code, which Peterson seems to be most concerned about, makes “hate propaganda” a criminal offense, and the things included in this section are advocating genocide, and publicly inciting or willfully promoting hatred, which has protections for good faith expressions of opinion based on religious belief or the person believes their statements are the subject of public interest. The other section of the Criminal Code that Bill C-16 amends is about sentencing guidelines which adds “gender identity and gender expression” to the list of protections already in the Code, and thus is not directly related to his slippery slope argument about it becoming illegal to refuse to use someone’s preferred gender pronouns.

At the end of the interview, Peterson said something that made this anthropologist shake my head at the ignorance and hypocrisy. Here’s the final exchange:

CO: Isn’t it also the role of a society to make people feel included and to have inclusiveness?

JP: No. It’s not the role of society to make people feel included. That’s not the role of society. The role of society is to maintain a modicum of peace between people. It’s not the role of society to make people feel comfortable. I think society is changing in many ways. I can tell you one thing that I’m very terrified of, and you can think about this. I think that the continual careless pushing of people by left wing radicals is dangerously waking up the right wing. So you can consider this a prophecy from me if you want. Inside the collective is a beast and the beast uses its fists. If you wake up the beast then violence emerges. I’m afraid that this continual pushing by radical left wingers is going to wake up the beast.

There’s a lot to unpack here. First, for him to say “it’s not the role of society to make people feel included” demonstrates to me that this psychologist has absolutely zero understanding of social theory. The notion that one of the roles society plays is making people feel included, feel like part of a group, goes back at least to Emile Durkheim’s notion of social solidarity and has been argued by countless sociologists and anthropologists since Durkheim’s writings at the turn of the 20th century. That being said, society does not just serve one role, and in fact the idea that society functions for a particular reason (which changed depending on the theorist) is an outdated school of theory known as structural functionalism. One problem with this view is the inability to account for variation in social structures across time and space. The argument that the role of society is to “maintain a modicum of peace between people” is highly debatable on any number of other grounds, which I won’t go into at length here because this post is already long enough. Needless to say, Peterson’s claim that the role of society is peace maintenance does not bear out in the sociological and anthropological literature.

His final Lovecraftian appeal to fear is premised on perhaps the most hypocritical stance of any he takes in this interview. His argument boils down to this: “the political correctness of the radical left is dangerous because it will result in a dangerous right wing response.” Yet, his solution to this political correctness is … political correctness. Essentially, Peterson argues that it’s politically incorrect for those of us on the left to advocate for the rights and protections of trans and non-binary people, and thus seeks to make it politically incorrect to engage in such advocacy.

So there you have it. A bigot who hides behind the authority of academia, espousing views that are unsupported both by his own words and in the literature he clearly has never even dipped a toe into. Peterson, if you’re going to make these kinds of arguments, the least you can do is familiarize yourself with the actual current state of scholarship. Until then, how about you keep your bigotry to yourself.

Will

Will

Will is the admin of Queereka, part of the Skepchick network. They are a cultural/medical anthropologist who works at the intersections of sex/gender, sexuality, health, and education. Their other interests include politics, science studies, popular culture, and public perceptions and understandings of anthropology. Follow them on Twitter at @anthrowill and Facebook at facebook.com/anthrowill.

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8 Comments

  1. October 5, 2016 at 12:51 am —

    Ugh. So bad! All the points that you made are awesome, of course. In particular, both Peterson and the interviewer are speaking as if it is going to be illegal to express his form of bigotry, which it probably won’t be. Also, whether or not he thinks that a POV should be legally allowed is distinct from whether or not he should adopt it. E.g. I believe that the alt-right should be *legally* allowed to express their views, but I’d never promote white supremacist views myself, nor do I think that the First Amendment in the US protects the right of professors to call their students or colleagues by racial slurs. Being rude and/or demeaning people who have done nothing wrong is a bad idea, whether or not you are legally allowed to do it.

    And the view of gender here is obviously ridiculous too. The logic here seems to be that biological sex is a well-defined binary (false), that physical appearance, gender, and biological sex correlate near-perfectly in the vast majority of people (false), and that it’s not worth a negligible effort to be nice to the exceptions (what is wrong with people?).

    Also, so many problems with the logistics. Does Peterson assume that pronouns never change in any language? When he encounters a non-binary person, does he subjectively decide which pronouns to use (as he does with his colleague Peet), or just refuse to use pronouns, or does he take the bigotry to the max by using “it”? If Peterson is so in favor of freedom of expression, is he OK with students calling him “they”? Or “she”?

    Sorry, I just have so many rants on this, since it’s the first I’ve heard of it.

    • October 5, 2016 at 12:58 am —

      No apology necessary! Rant away! That’s the main reason I wrote this, I was so appalled and annoyed with everything he said that little comments here and there on FB weren’t satisfying and I felt the need to put it all together in one place.

    • October 5, 2016 at 4:51 pm —

      I listened to this interview, and he was really fired up. He is concerned that he will be forced to use specific pronouns professionally or else potentially face fines.

      I’m not an expert on Canadian law either, but I do live in Ontario. What he is specifically concerned about is that this legislation will allow someone to take a case to the human rights tribunal. He seems to be alluding to the idea that this could happen when a boss/teacher/business owner does not use a proper pronoun when addressing a person who is transgendered. There is no current precedence for this right now so I have no idea whether this would be successful or not.

      I think it’s more likely that other issues would be taken to the tribunal first. Things such as improper washroom accommodation or denial of some type of service.

      The human rights tribunal is controversial here and has resulted in businesses being fined large sums of money. People in Canada talk about the right to free speech, but to my knowledge we don’t actually have that right enshrined in any legislation; as such, our hate speech laws are much more in depth that what I know of in the USA. For example, you could be fined or jailed for publishing white supremacist material here, although it would likely have to be pretty extreme. You can also be fined for refusing a person service based on race or religion.

      I’m not defending him. I completely disagree with him. I’m just trying to explain the Canadian angle a bit.

  2. October 6, 2016 at 7:32 pm —

    Will,

    I know Peterson’s work well and he’s absolutely not a bigot. You may disagree with him, but please respect how deep his integrity is. (And kudos for your generally civil response.)

    His fundamental concern is that this legislation will hurt people. That’s what he wants to prevent.

    So a counter argument must be that it will not hurt people, or at least, on balance, do less harm than good.

    In fact I suppose the weakness in his argument is that he does not spell out clearly enough his concerns about harm and while he makes other interesting/debatable points they in fact are secondary.

    If you wonder about possible harms, the most common case is individuals being persecuted for unintended potentially offensive comments. Someone makes a presentation with a flip chart, and the next thing they know they are hauled up by HR for potentially offending Filipinos–and that could eventually lead to them losing their job.

    The bigger harm is that too stringent righteousness by one element of society can spark a backlash of even more stringent righteousness from the other side. Political correctness is not the cause of Donald Trump’s popularity but it is a contributing factor. In Canada this legislation will be a boon to the right wing parties.

    Finally anyone familiar with China’s Cultural Revolution, as Peterson certainly is, will have a visceral terror at anything hinting of wide ranging ideologies that can make the average person guilty of anything at any time.

    So any argument against Peterson must be that his fears of people being persecuted; right wing backlash, and the rise of extremist ideologies is overblown.

    • October 6, 2016 at 11:10 pm —

      Hi there skeptik,

      I know Peterson’s work well and he’s absolutely not a bigot. You may disagree with him, but please respect how deep his integrity is. (And kudos for your generally civil response.)

      The quality and integrity of his academic work is irrelevant to the topic of discussion. He could very well do amazing work with the deepest of integrity, that does not mean he can’t have a blind spot that makes him bigoted.

      His fundamental concern is that this legislation will hurt people. That’s what he wants to prevent.

      If that was his main concern, he did an absolutely terrible job expressing it. That seems like a totally different argument than what he said in the interview. To make the argument you’re ascribing to him here, there’s no need for all the other stuff about trans people and gender pronouns or gender theory.

      So a counter argument must be that it will not hurt people, or at least, on balance, do less harm than good.

      A counterargument to the argument you just made on his behalf. I can’t possibly have made the counterargument you want in response to the interview because, as I said, that did not come across as his main concern at all. It seemed like a byproduct of his issues with gender pronouns and “political correctness.”

      In fact I suppose the weakness in his argument is that he does not spell out clearly enough his concerns about harm and while he makes other interesting/debatable points they in fact are secondary.

      Well, that’s a weakness if he actually was trying to argue what you say he is trying to argue. But his argument as presented in the interview had a ton of weaknesses beyond just that.

      If you wonder about possible harms, the most common case is individuals being persecuted for unintended potentially offensive comments. Someone makes a presentation with a flip chart, and the next thing they know they are hauled up by HR for potentially offending Filipinos–and that could eventually lead to them losing their job.

      Isn’t the burden on him, then, to prove that such things are so common that the current law is harmful? Making that argument actually requires absolutely zero discussion of trans people or gender pronouns, he could simply argue it’s making a bad law that’s easily abused worse.

      The bigger harm is that too stringent righteousness by one element of society can spark a backlash of even more stringent righteousness from the other side.

      That is an assertion that is being made without any evidence. You have to begin by explaining how you decide what “too stringent” means and justify why you think there’s only two sides. You make this argument as if there is a clean division of sides and each one is homogeneous.

      Political correctness is not the cause of Donald Trump’s popularity but it is a contributing factor. In Canada this legislation will be a boon to the right wing parties.

      “Political correctness” is a bullshit discourse that’s been around for decades. It’s been bullshit the whole time. It’s rearing its ugly head again recently to try to quash the progress that’s been made by social justice movements.

      Finally anyone familiar with China’s Cultural Revolution, as Peterson certainly is, will have a visceral terror at anything hinting of wide ranging ideologies that can make the average person guilty of anything at any time.

      I’m sorry, I have no idea what this has to do with the present case. Are you saying that Canada is on the verge of Maoism because there are laws against hate propaganda? Sounds just a tad alarmist to me. Not to mention that there is a paradoxical hypocrisy grounding any argument against “political correctness,” which is how do you propose to get rid of it because whatever that proposal is becomes the new “political correctness.” Societies have rules, and those rules change over time. If there is disagreement about how those rules should change in Canadian society, there are mechanisms in place to deal with that. In the meantime, it does not require someone to make unfounded claims about gender theory, social theory, or language usage.

      So any argument against Peterson must be that his fears of people being persecuted; right wing backlash, and the rise of extremist ideologies is overblown.

      His arguments sound like right wing arguments to me. I find it so bizarre that he thinks he’s making left wing arguments when he’s parroting this exact kinds of discourse coming from the ring wing. The burden is on him to demonstrate that such extremism has occurred or is occurring now, and he needs to make a really freaking compelling case for why society would be better without protections in place for minorities.

  3. October 23, 2016 at 7:31 pm —

    A few innocent questions here.

    1) Can ‘they’ still be used in the plural, or should it from now on only be used in the singular for those who prefer it?

    2) Aren’t you being a prescriptivist here, arguing in what way ‘they’ should be used, and scolding him for not using it the way you think it should?

    3) What’s wrong with prescriptivism. If you want to be a writer you learn about good grammar, good sentence structures, what works well in the context of writing. That’s more than merely dryly cataloging ‘in what way people write’, but goes beyond that to ‘these are good ways to write’ ‘this works and this doesn’t’ Look up any style guide on various subjects.

    • October 23, 2016 at 8:33 pm —

      Okay, I’ll bite, though I’m a bit skeptical that these questions are actually “innocent.”

      1) Of course “they” can still be used in the plural. Why would this all of the sudden be disallowed? Your question is kind of nonsensical and smacks of alarmism.

      2) No, I am not being prescriptivist. Prescriptivism is a specific linguistic bent that values “proper” language usage over language as it is actually used. Prescriptivism is a thoroughly ideological stance to take, which makes his arguments about how he just wants to resist ideology hypocritical. I really could not give less of a shit if this douchebag refuses to use “they” in the singular in his own vocabulary. I care about him incorrectly identifying the “proper” usage of “they” to hide his bigotry behind. If someone asks me to use a particular pronoun in reference to them, I do it, because I’m not an asshole and honestly it’s no skin off my back. If someone’s only reason for not using someone’s preferred pronouns is “it’s not good grammar,” they’re not only an asshole but they are also oblivious to the fact that grammar rules are arbitrary.

      3) Obviously “what’s wrong with prescriptivism” depends on context. For example, I engage in writing in an academic register when I want journals to publish my work. There’s nothing necessarily “wrong” with academic standards in writing. But I do not turn around and tell you that your register in your comment is incorrect and you should be using an academic register with zero usage of informality. Prescriptivism is politically loaded, and it tends to be those with more social power who insist that their ways of talking and writing are proper, correct, and sometimes (as is the case with this guy) more moral. You cannot separate prescriptivism from its political contexts, so abstracting it to make it sound like it’s simply synonymous with standardization is myopic. The fact that there are multiple style guides “on various subjects” is evidence that style is arbitrary, because if there was one proper way to use language, there would be no need for multiple style guides. By the way, many linguists challenge the social authority of style guides .

      Also, if you think descriptivist approaches to language are dry, you should find some better sociolinguistics to read.

      • October 24, 2016 at 6:20 am —

        Thank you. These were simple the questions I were left with after reading your article and I didn’t mean anything beyond getting them answered.

        Thank you.

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