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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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21 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.

  4. December 21, 2016 at 4:03 am —

    Hi,

    Some important points of rebuttal here.

    First of all, as Peterson pointed out, refusing to using special pronouns has already landed him in trouble with the legal team of his university sending him warnings. Isn’t that proof that a Canadian person has an obligation to use gendered pronouns?

    Secondly, you are quick to point out that he has never dipped his toe into academic literature. I’d like to point out a growing difference between the social sciences and biology. The consensus among biologists is that gender is a biological fact, just like sexuality. Social scientists seem to disagree. But you can’t disagree just based on a theory. You have to have the evidence to back it up.

    In Norway, much has been done to accord equal opportunities to men and women in terms of education and hiring, etc. But it’s there that the number of women in care-giving professions like nursing are very high and the number of men in engineering are very high. Why would this be if there are no biological differences between men and women?

    This is just a colloquial example. Here’s a study (one among many):
    https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/07/160715114739.htm

    The point that Peterson is trying to make over here is that there has to be some evidence for the claim that there is something other than the binary form of gender exists. Most transgenders that I read about seem to be people who want to transition into being either males or females. I’m not saying they should, but that’s what they seem to want. So this is consistent with the science that gender is biological.

    If a third gender does exist, then present the evidence for it!

    What I don’t understand is why social scientists are so vehemently opposed to the idea that gender is biological and binary when all the evidence points to it. Science doesn’t treat anything as an immutable fact, but social scientists sure seem to treat gender as definitely non-biological. How is that a fair, evidence-based approach?

    Please also watch Norwegian comedian Harald Eia’s documentary Brainwash that deals with the difference in the way social scientists and biologists deal with gender.

    • December 21, 2016 at 11:02 am —

      Hello,

      First of all, as Peterson pointed out, refusing to using special pronouns has already landed him in trouble with the legal team of his university sending him warnings. Isn’t that proof that a Canadian person has an obligation to use gendered pronouns?

      No. If his claims are true, it might be evidence that one Canadian professor who works for a state institution has been told to follow Canadian policies regarding respecting students. He is, after all, an employee of a public institution. Would you or he be complaining if the university reprimanded him for calling someone a faggot? See, he does actually accept people telling him what language he can use, at least in his role as a professor at a public institution. He just doesn’t recognize it as such when he agrees with it (assuming he agrees that he shouldn’t call students or his colleagues faggots. Maybe he does, in which case, he’s definitely a bigot).

      Secondly, you are quick to point out that he has never dipped his toe into academic literature. I’d like to point out a growing difference between the social sciences and biology.

      You must realize you have come in and started lecturing someone who spends their life immersed in this academic literature about what it all says, right? What is your background in this academic literature?

      The consensus among biologists is that gender is a biological fact, just like sexuality.

      First, citation needed. Please don’t lecture me about the need to provide evidence for claims and then provide no evidence for claims.

      Second, perhaps we can take a look at the claim you’re making. What constitutes a “consensus”? How do biologists arrive at this such a place, through what methods? What is a “biological fact”? Facts are constructed through inquiry, they don’t exist naturally. What do you mean by “biological fact”? How are they defining gender or sexuality (this point has itself been the subject of a sustained critique by Rebecca Jordan-Young in her book Brain Storm).

      See, you make this claim, as if it’s self-evident and requires no theorization, but in fact words are slippery and you have to convince me that (a) biologists are all using these words in exactly the same ways that have been (b) operationalized and (c) measured through methods that are sound and unbiased.

      Social scientists seem to disagree.

      Disagree with what? So far you’ve made a vague and, at least to this scholar, incoherent claim.

      But you can’t disagree just based on a theory. You have to have the evidence to back it up.

      First, I don’t know what you mean by “just based on a theory”? Have I done that? Have you read other stuff I’ve written on this site, like this? If not, you might want to go do so and maybe reconsider accusing me of not providing evidence. I can give you lots of evidence for lots of things, but first you have to make a coherent claim.

      In Norway, much has been done to accord equal opportunities to men and women in terms of education and hiring, etc. But it’s there that the number of women in care-giving professions like nursing are very high and the number of men in engineering are very high. Why would this be if there are no biological differences between men and women?

      Legal equality does not mean there are no sociocultural influences shaping gender. Do you think that once the state declares gender equality that suddenly hundreds of years of historical influences just evaporate? If you’re going to claim that more women go into nursing than men because of biology and not culture, that’s a claim **you** need to back up with evidence.

      Like, first of all, what kinds of nurses are we talking about? Nurses in general? Or specific nursing specializations? Second, what does “very high” mean? Did changing laws make that number change at all? How does that number compare to other countries? Third, if nursing has only been around for a couple hundred years as a profession, how could it be biological? Are you making essentialist claims about caregiving? That women are naturally caregivers and men are not? If so, citation needed. Preferably not from evo psych. Give me a good cross-cultural study of caregiving that theorizes and operationalizes its claims.

      This is just a colloquial example. Here’s a study (one among many):
      https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/07/160715114739.htm

      That link betrays your claims. Here, look at the things I emphasize: “The research suggests the possibility that boys and girls follow different developmental trajectories with respect to selection of gender-typed toys and that there is both a biological and a developmental-environmental components to the sex differences seen in object preferences.”

      “Suggests the possibility” is a tentative claim, not a “biological fact” claim. And the authors are claiming that such developmental trajectories (not a biological fact, but a plastic trait) are both biological and environmental. This is in line with what most people who study gender in the natural and social sciences think.

      The point that Peterson is trying to make over here is that there has to be some evidence for the claim that there is something other than the binary form of gender exists. Most transgenders that I read about seem to be people who want to transition into being either males or females. I’m not saying they should, but that’s what they seem to want. So this is consistent with the science that gender is biological.

      Is that the point he is trying to make, or the point you are trying to make but are projecting onto him?

      Let’s consider for a second: ‘transgender’ is a historically recent and culturally specific category (see <a href="https://www.amazon.com/Imagining-Transgender-Ethnography-David-Valentine/dp/0822338696"Valentine 2007). Across time and in other cultures, there have certainly been gender variant people, but the ability to biologically transition has only been around for around 100 years (and those medical techniques and technologies only really began developing into their modern state around the mid-20th century). The fact that there are such technologies is evidence of sociocultural influence on sex/gender—without them, such transitioning wouldn’t exist and you couldn’t make the claim that “most transgenders seem to want to be binary.” And even if I conceded your point that most trans people want to be binary, that’s not evidence for essentialism. It could just as easily be explained as wanting to fit into normative social roles.

      Personally, I think that sex/gender are biocultural, and that it’s impossible to tease apart how much is biological and which is cultural. Mostly because I think a strict separation between “nature” and “culture” in humans is untenable.

      If a third gender does exist, then present the evidence for it!

      There is an entire body of literature on this topic. You’re going to have to be a lot more specific. What do you mean by “gender”? Because it seems to be something different from what I mean by “gender.”

      What I don’t understand is why social scientists are so vehemently opposed to the idea that gender is biological and binary when all the evidence points to it. Science doesn’t treat anything as an immutable fact, but social scientists sure seem to treat gender as definitely non-biological. How is that a fair, evidence-based approach?

      I’m sorry, all the evidence points to essentialism and binarism in gender? No, this is factually incorrect. Go read Anne Fausto-Sterling (a biologist), if you want a place to start.

      You are contradicting yourself in this claim, too. You make an essentialist claim in the form of an immutable fact—“gender is a biological fact and it is binary”—and then you say science doesn’t make such claims. Which is it?

      Social scientists focus on the social aspects of human life. That’s why it’s called social science. That does not mean social scientists are a monolith that think biology is irrelevant. In fact, even in the humanities, someone like Judith Butler, who people like to dismiss as a postmodernist kook, recognizes the place of the material body in gender systems. It’s just that we push back against essentialism and demand rigor in scientific claims.

      Please also watch Norwegian comedian Harald Eia’s documentary Brainwash that deals with the difference in the way social scientists and biologists deal with gender.

      Are you really telling me to watch a documentary by a comedian as evidence for the state of the scientific literature in which I am immersed? Why would I give that person more credence than my own knowledge about the literature that I’ve spent years studying?

      • December 21, 2016 at 2:26 pm —

        Okay. I just want to have a conversation. And I’m not an academic. I’m just a mass media student. You can think of me as a future reporter on issues like these, even though I’m not one yet.

        And the reason you must try to engage with me, instead of labelling me as “lecturing”, is that I’m precisely the sort of person who gets affected by the policy who has no background in academic research and who *will* go and listen to someone who feels like they want to talk to me. Try having some empathy and not other me by labelling me.

        Let’s not dismiss it as simply one Canadian professor’s case. And you’re saying that calling someone a faggot and not calling someone they would be an equal situation? *That’s* why he’s facing action? If that’s the case, then someone outside of university could also face action, right? Because it would constitute as discrimination if you didn’t use they. Wouldn’t it?

        Please try not to nitpick on grammar and English. It’s not my first language. In hard sciences like , I can say something like “The fact is that matter has both wave and particle nature”. That is the current consensus among the scientific community. Maybe in a few years string theory will really advance and we will understand that this is not an immutable fact after all. So that’s what I mean by “fact” and consensus.

        The way I understand science is that someone does a study, they find something. You don’t them believe just on the basis of that. You have someone do another study. And then another. And then another. And then if 8 or 9 out of 10 studies point to one direction, then that direction is accepted as consensus. There usually is one dissenting study in a typical 10. When those dissenting studies grow to 10 on 20, then we have a divide. Then we can’t have a consensus any more.

        Social scientists such as yourself seem to give far less weight to the theory that biology has a big role to play in the way we think of our gender. What I understood is that you think environment and socialisation has a bigger role to play than biology. Am I wrong in assuming this? If so, please let me know.

        I’ll read what you have suggested at the end of your article that you’d linked.

        And if you want links, I’ll send them to you. But yeah, it would be a lot simpler to watch the comedian’s documentary because he goes and interviews scientists. So you don’t have to give credence to the comedian (because apparently he’s just a comedian), you can choose whether or not the scientists he’s talking to have any credibility.

        Also, I’ve watched a lot of Peterson’s videos. He did discuss gender in them a fair bit, and I was paraphrasing from one of them. I’m not projecting onto him, I’m sure.

        And yes, I am talking about care-giving professions like nursing and medicine (doctors, I mean). Yes, the profession has been around only recently, but it’s their nature that makes them care-giving. Why do you say I shouldn’t cite sources from evolutionary psychologists? Is there any reason you don’t find them credible?

        Also, in developing countries, the trend was that there were more women in supposedly male-dominated professions as compared to Norway. The logic was that women in developing countries think more about economics than about “what do I really want to do”, as opposed to Norway where your basics (like healthcare, education, etc) are taken care of by the state, so you’re free to follow your natural inclination. You don’t have to think, “Hey, I should pick the profession where my economic prospects are the most secure”. It’s there in the comedian’s video.

        I’m from India, and just yesterday, there was an article in the paper about how more women are taking up male-dominated professions like masonry, and becoming electricians. All the stories were about how they saw that they could get a government job through taking these professions (because government has affirmative-action policies) and so their economic future would be secure.

        I want you to watch the video, because that’s what’s accessible to people like me. By that I mean, people who aren’t academics. People who become dizzy at the prospect of reading an academic paper. Biology’s relationship to gender is accessible to people like me who are not academics because the evidence was presented in a very approachable way.

        I am a person who can and will read academic papers. But the average Joe or Jane won’t. And I’m begging you to engage with them.

        For years, I used to be a person who believed that socialisation had a bigger role to play in gender than biology. That’s what they taught me in my sociology classes in college!

        I changed my mind after watching the documentary.

        I’m going to read Anne Fausto-Sterling, for a start as you suggested. You’re an expert on your subject, I respect that. That’s why I want to engage with you. If you want to keep the conversation going, you can. If you think it’s not worth your time, that’s fine too. Let me know.

        • December 21, 2016 at 2:58 pm —

          Okay. I just want to have a conversation. And I’m not an academic. I’m just a mass media student. You can think of me as a future reporter on issues like these, even though I’m not one yet.

          That’s fair, but you have to acknowledge that you came into this thread and started telling me what the literature says and what an entire scientific discipline claims to be true is. If you’re not an academic, and you’re not actually familiar with the literature, how can you make such a claim?

          And the reason you must try to engage with me, instead of labelling me as “lecturing”, is that I’m precisely the sort of person who gets affected by the policy who has no background in academic research and who *will* go and listen to someone who feels like they want to talk to me. Try having some empathy and not other me by labelling me.

          I’m happy to talk to you, and if I didn’t want to talk, I wouldn’t have approved your comment and replied to it. You did not come across as inquiring for more information and trying to learn, you came across as trying to correct me for criticizing a scholar who is a bigot and doesn’t know the scientific literature but talks like he does.

          Let’s not dismiss it as simply one Canadian professor’s case. And you’re saying that calling someone a faggot and not calling someone they would be an equal situation? *That’s* why he’s facing action? If that’s the case, then someone outside of university could also face action, right? Because it would constitute as discrimination if you didn’t use they. Wouldn’t it?

          I didn’t say it’s an equal situation, I used it as an example to demonstrate that even though he says he rejects the idea that someone should tell him what language is appropriate or not in his role as a public employee, he is nonetheless told what language is appropriate and not. He just takes issue with this particular instance of it and makes it sound like it’s oppressive to him. So I ask what I asked to point out the absurdity of the idea that he should have complete freedom to say whatever he wants without repercussion.

          Please try not to nitpick on grammar and English. It’s not my first language.

          I’m not nitpicking your grammar or English skills at all. I actually think your English is quite excellent. I’m talking about semantics, the meanings of the words you’re using. The point is that words have multiple meanings, and words that may seem to have self-evident meanings are often much more nuanced and complex than first glance. This is the case with “fact.” Science isn’t just a thing that happens, it is undergirded by certain philosophies and theories.

          In hard sciences like , I can say something like “The fact is that matter has both wave and particle nature”. That is the current consensus among the scientific community. Maybe in a few years string theory will really advance and we will understand that this is not an immutable fact after all. So that’s what I mean by “fact” and consensus.

          But you yourself have demonstrated the social construction of “fact.” It is not something that just exists, but rather a fact is something created by scientists, the closest representation of reality that language and science can establish. But facts change. This explanation you give here, to me, comes across as a different use of “fact” than claiming that gender is a “biological fact.” Calling something a “biological fact” necessarily narrows it to exclude the sociocultural aspects, and makes it sound immutable. Why would you insist so hard on the claim that gender is a “biological fact” if you’re not trying to essentialize it?

          The way I understand science is that someone does a study, they find something. You don’t them believe just on the basis of that. You have someone do another study. And then another. And then another. And then if 8 or 9 out of 10 studies point to one direction, then that direction is accepted as consensus. There usually is one dissenting study in a typical 10. When those dissenting studies grow to 10 on 20, then we have a divide. Then we can’t have a consensus any more.

          Well, that’s one way science can work. But this is a pretty simplistic description of science as a practice. It also doesn’t answer my question as to how you think something gets established as “consensus” and whether you have any evidence to back up your claim that “there is consensus among biologists that gender is a biological fact.” Who are these biologists? I know quite a few biologists, and like me they see gender as a complex mixture of biology, culture, and environment.

          Social scientists such as yourself seem to give far less weight to the theory that biology has a big role to play in the way we think of our gender. What I understood is that you think environment and socialisation has a bigger role to play than biology. Am I wrong in assuming this? If so, please let me know.

          What is “a big role”? The problem I have is not the idea that biology plays a role in gender. The problem I have is with non-specific claims like “a big role.” Why is it important to establish whether biology or environment play a “bigger role”? I don’t think of it that way, I think biology and environment are co-productive and both contribute to the development of sex/gender and sexuality. I don’t think it is possible or even interesting to try to decide whether culture or biology is a “bigger” influence.

          I’ll read what you have suggested at the end of your article that you’d linked.

          And if you want links, I’ll send them to you. But yeah, it would be a lot simpler to watch the comedian’s documentary because he goes and interviews scientists. So you don’t have to give credence to the comedian (because apparently he’s just a comedian), you can choose whether or not the scientists he’s talking to have any credibility.

          I have been in this literature for years, I don’t need to watch a documentary to know what the controversies, disagreements, or agreements are. I have a pretty good grasp of it.

          And yes, I am talking about care-giving professions like nursing and medicine (doctors, I mean). Yes, the profession has been around only recently, but it’s their nature that makes them care-giving. Why do you say I shouldn’t cite sources from evolutionary psychologists? Is there any reason you don’t find them credible?

          So doctors are also a care-giving profession, dominated by men at least in the United States, but yet somehow women are biologically pre-disposed to caregiving professions because there’s more nurses. This makes no sense. You’re sneaking in sociocultural beliefs about gender roles and professions into your claims about biology. What gets defined as a “care-giving profession”? Why and on what grounds?

          You need to present evidence for your claim that women are nurses because of biology.

          I don’t like evolutionary psychology because it’s a bullshit paradigm that is based on bullshit premises. There’s plenty of stuff to read on the topic.

          Also, in developing countries, the trend was that there were more women in supposedly male-dominated professions as compared to Norway. The logic was that women in developing countries think more about economics than about “what do I really want to do”, as opposed to Norway where your basics (like healthcare, education, etc) are taken care of by the state, so you’re free to follow your natural inclination. You don’t have to think, “Hey, I should pick the profession where my economic prospects are the most secure”. It’s there in the comedian’s video.

          I’m not going to watch the documentary, mostly because I don’t have interest in finding it and have other things going on that I’d rather do than that. But needless to say just based on your description I immediately wonder how a “developing country” is defined in that explanation, how the data on gender norms and social roles in such places was collected, and how they link them to biology. If there are more women in a profession in some places than others, doesn’t that sort of disrupt your narrative about certain jobs being biologically programmed?

          I’m from India, and just yesterday, there was an article in the paper about how more women are taking up male-dominated professions like masonry, and becoming electricians. All the stories were about how they saw that they could get a government job through taking these professions (because government has affirmative-action policies) and so their economic future would be secure.

          Okay? How does this prove that gender is biological? If anything, it is evidence of gender as a social role.

          I want you to watch the video, because that’s what’s accessible to people like me. By that I mean, people who aren’t academics. People who become dizzy at the prospect of reading an academic paper. Biology’s relationship to gender is accessible to people like me who are not academics because the evidence was presented in a very approachable way.

          Like I said, I’ve written a lot on this site to try to make the social sciences more accessible. I do think that as a whole the social sciences need to do a much better job at talking to the public. However, “natural” and “biological” explanations for things fit people’s preconceived notions much more easily. Without a solid background training in liberal arts, it is easier for people to wrap their heads around the idea that there’s just two genders and they’re determined by chromosomes—that’s an easy explanation!—than it is that shit is really complicated and nuanced and messy and we don’t really actually have really great answers to these kinds of questions.

          I am a person who can and will read academic papers. But the average Joe or Jane won’t. And I’m begging you to engage with them.

          I have been for years on this very site.

          For years, I used to be a person who believed that socialisation had a bigger role to play in gender than biology. That’s what they taught me in my sociology classes in college!

          I changed my mind after watching the documentary.

          Seriously, I’m not going to watch it, at least any time soon. My challenge to you is to stop and think critically about why that documentary convinced you of such. Take the time to really examine the language used in it and the claims made. Have you examined the methods scientists used? Have you read responses to those scientists’ work, or do you take their claims at face value? Why? Are you letting their authority as “hard sciences” people do some work in convincing you that their evidence is sound?

          I’m going to read Anne Fausto-Sterling, for a start as you suggested. You’re an expert on your subject, I respect that. That’s why I want to engage with you. If you want to keep the conversation going, you can. If you think it’s not worth your time, that’s fine too. Let me know.

          I don’t mind the conversation at all. If you have something that would take less of my time than watching a documentary that you’d like me to look at, I will.

          • December 22, 2016 at 2:20 am

            How do you do the quote thing from previous replies? I still don’t know that.

            I did some reading about third genders, and I agree that that’s not the point that I have issue with. It’s the idea that you can choose your gender. Discrimination based on gender and sexuality is already illegal. So it was already illegal to discriminate against a transgender person or a queer person or a gay person. What has been added is “gender identity and gender expression”. Doesn’t this essentially mean that I get to choose what you call me? If tomorrow, I say that I identify as a man, you’ll have to respect that, right? And if a man says that he identifies as a woman, you’ll have to respect that too, right? How would something like this affect a policy like reservation for women? I’m from India, and we already have reservation for women in the local government levels (it’s called panchayat). How do you decide who’s a woman? I’m putting it up to you, because I’m genuinely confused. What would you do in a case like this? Doesn’t there have to be some objective – or even if not objective – some commonly agreed standard on what constitutes a woman and what constitutes a man and even what constitutes a transgender?

          • December 22, 2016 at 10:05 am

            To quote stuff, use the <blockquote> tag. At least it used to work that way, I have been replying from the dashboard.

            Can you point to any examples of people going around genuinely changing their gender identity or expression all willy nilly just to move into different spaces? Not people who cross-dress to sneak in or something, but people who actually really identify as a different gender just for the sake of access to some space. I have never heard of such a thing.

            Let’s say for a moment that you are correct, that gender is completely biologically determined. What determines it, exactly? Maybe we need to go back to the beginning and you should define what you mean by the word “gender.” I’m not sure we are talking about the same thing. What, in your view, are the “commonly agreed standards” of what constitutes a woman?

          • December 28, 2016 at 3:21 am

            In India, we’ve had casteism for millennia. It was after we got independence in 1947 that the constitution mandated reservation in higher education and government jobs for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. This was to level the playing field. But there would be people who would obviously misuse the law, and there have been. That’s why you have to get a caste certificate made from the government to be able to get the benefit of reservation. Even then, there have been people who got fake caste certificates made, and then were later found out and got dealt with by the law.

            The reason I brought in that hypothetical situation is that it’s important to discuss how we define men and women. Who gets to decide who’s a man and who’s a woman? I don’t even want to say it’s all biology or 90% biology or 50% biology.

            Discrimination based on gender is wrong, and current rulings in sports are moving it into a slightly more egalitarian direction. (I’m talking about not excluding inter-sex persons who identify as women from competing in female sports). Even trans-women (who were born biologically male but now identify as female) can compete in the female category without having to do surgery as long as their testosterone levels are under a certain limit. My point is that in the event that some idiot comes and questions whether you’re a woman or not, you have the law on your side to *prove* you’re one. For regular cis-women, I suppose their birth certificates are enough. For trans-women, they undergo therapy and such like and probably psychological evaluations as well. That’s what I mean by consensus. I’m not saying I want me and all the biologists to decide who gets to be called a man and who gets to be called a woman.

            We have a distinction in sport because we do recognize that women and men have some biological differences (I won’t put a percentage to it) and that’s why sports should have male and female categories so the playing field is level.

            Like you said, a man wouldn’t risk posing as a woman just to win some medals because the social cost is too high. I couldn’t find any evidence of that happening in sport (although there was some controversy about some female Soviet athletes suddenly dropping out of the Olympics once gender testing for females became mandatory in the Olympics somewhere in the 60s; some researchers say they could’ve just been intersex persons who didn’t want to bear the societal ostracization that would’ve come with “failing” the rather primitive gender test).

            Which is why I want to take the conversation back to the original subject of the pronouns. If the conversation is about whether gender is biological or not and whether it’s a spectrum or not, then we need to stop talking about men and women and talk about the ones left out of this supposedly unfair biological narrative. See, I get why the narrative was unfair (and still is). Because by making claims that gender is what you’re born with, we were excluding many many transgenders (still are in many parts of the world). The point is that now we have a much more nuanced understanding of what it means to be a woman or a man that *includes* biology. But we’re not talking about men and women here, we’re talking about those who identify as neither.

            What about someone who identifies as neither man or woman? Someone who wants to be called ‘they’? Who gets to decide what category they compete in sports, for instance? Should we assume they don’t want to participate in sport? Should there be a new category altogether? A pronoun is not just in and of itself, it denotes identity, right? So what does that identity mean in society?

            These are some of the questions that come to my mind. I may not even be consistent in everything I say, because I’m floundering with these questions. And the questions are arising because there are somethings that I don’t understand – rather, I want to understand their *purpose*. For what *reason* are we (are rather you Canadians; India is still hugely backward in terms of feminism) changing a fundamental policy? If inclusion is a reason, then it must be carried out in its full, right?

            I appreciate your efforts to keep the conversation going.

          • December 28, 2016 at 9:12 am

            Hello,

            Before I address the questions and points you’ve brought up here, I’d like us to have a baseline common understanding of what, exactly, we are talking about. Can you please answer the following for me?

            – What do you mean by “gender”?
            – What does it mean that gender is “biological”? What are the traits that you are referring to?
            – What is identity? How does biology determine identity?

            I think I have a different understanding of the terms “gender,” “biological,” and “identity” and so I’d like to get a sense of what you’re talking about. Otherwise we will just continue talking past each other.

          • December 28, 2016 at 1:00 pm

            Much obliged.

            Sex refers to our biological traits – what we’re assigned with at birth.

            Gender is what we end up calling ourselves – men or women (as it is according to the binary) or whatever else there might be in the middle according to the non-binary structure. Now what we end up calling ourselves in most cases ends up aligning with the sex we get at birth. Sometimes it doesn’t (like in the case of transgenders) and that’s when we wish to be called something other than what we were called from birth.

            Some of the traits I’m referring to are aggression, muscle strength, lung capacity, risk-taking, the maternal instinct (which is not solely present in women). So a mix of pschological and physiological traits. There are many more, of course.

            The way these traits are influenced by biology is that men and women have a different hormonal makeup (which stems from having different chromosomes). For eg, men have more testosterone, women have more estrogen. Men never stop producing testosterone, whereas women’s production of estrogen decreases sharply after menopause, which is why then they’re at a greater risk of osteoporosis, fractures, etc. So for example, while we were evolving from animals, the caregiving burden was on females. Which is why we have breasts, have a maternal instinct. We do it better, because evolution has given us the advantage.

            What is identity? Specifically what’s gender identity? Honestly, I don’t really know. I found it puzzling that gender identity had to be added to the list of bases on which you can’t discriminate. What I understood is it got included because unlike earlier where humans could identify as either men or women, now gender is seen as fluid. I can say that I belong to neither, which is why you must call me “they”. On what basis, even I don’t know. From what I read, it’s not transgenders who want to be called they, it’s people who call themselves genderqueer or genderfluid. What does it mean?

            As for identity in general, I suppose it’s the way we describe ourselves along with how others describe us. So I could think I’m intelligent. Maybe my grades don’t show me that, and so society thinks I’m an idiot. Maybe society doesn’t know I’m a great painter or whatever and that’s why my grades suck. Maybe I’m just really great with children? Point is, when you say you’re this or that, there will be some way in which you express that identity in the world, and the world will *acknowledge* that identity to make it “true”. So I say I’m a terrific singer. But everyone else hates listening to me, so the ‘singer’ part of my identity doesn’t get validated by society as true. I say I’m a great driver. But I go and fail a driving test. Can I still say I’m a great driver? Nah, I don’t think so.

            So that’s why it’s important to have a conversation around gender identity as well. Your identity is not yours and yours alone – it is how you converse with the world.

            The way biology determines identity (to some extent) is because the way our brain’s made is passed on through genes. So for example, there is a correlation between a child’s IQ and his/her parents’ IQ. Environment plays a role too – for example, a child who gets adopted has higher IQ than his half-sibling who didn’t get adopted. So the idea being that we inherit a potential for a certain trait based on our genes, and whether we can fulfil the potential depends on the environment.

            There. I hope it’s clearer now.

          • December 28, 2016 at 2:19 pm

            Sex refers to our biological traits – what we’re assigned with at birth.

            Gender is what we end up calling ourselves – men or women (as it is according to the binary) or whatever else there might be in the middle according to the non-binary structure. Now what we end up calling ourselves in most cases ends up aligning with the sex we get at birth. Sometimes it doesn’t (like in the case of transgenders) and that’s when we wish to be called something other than what we were called from birth.

            Some of the traits I’m referring to are aggression, muscle strength, lung capacity, risk-taking, the maternal instinct (which is not solely present in women). So a mix of pschological and physiological traits. There are many more, of course.

            Ah, now you are introducing a distinction between sex and gender that was not present in our discussion before. This adds a level of nuance that we need, but we still do not have a shared working definition of gender.

            You say sex refers to biological traits—what traits, exactly? What traits make up “biological sex”? Give me a list of traits that you think fit under the rubric of “biological sex.”

            You did not really give me a working definition of gender. “What we end up calling ourselves” is vague. Is that it, just labels? Or is there something more to gender?

            The way these traits are influenced by biology is that men and women have a different hormonal makeup (which stems from having different chromosomes). For eg, men have more testosterone, women have more estrogen. Men never stop producing testosterone, whereas women’s production of estrogen decreases sharply after menopause, which is why then they’re at a greater risk of osteoporosis, fractures, etc.

            There are a number of assumptions embedded in this paragraph that need to be unpacked and examined with more scrutiny. “Men and women have different hormonal makeup” – on average, sure. But there are lots of things that shape hormonal makeup, not to mention it is dynamic. Hormonal levels are not stable things that never change, as you note with regard to lifespan. But even day-to-day levels of hormones are not static. What level of testosterone means “man” and what level of estrogen means “woman”? Why those levels? Do you require people to have their hormone levels measured before you agree to use their preferred pronoun if their preferred pronoun matches their visible secondary sex characteristics? What happens when secondary sex characteristics don’t match one’s hormonal levels (I think you, like many people, make a lot of assumptions about a person’s biology based on secondary sex characteristics)? What happens when a “female” body has very high levels of testosterone (for example, people with androgen insensitivity syndrome)? Are they a man because they have high levels of testosterone even though their secondary sex characteristics are female and you wouldn’t be able to recognize them as intersex just by looking at them?

            So for example, while we were evolving from animals, the caregiving burden was on females. Which is why we have breasts, have a maternal instinct. We do it better, because evolution has given us the advantage.

            What do you mean, while we were evolving from animals? We are animals. There are animals that the caregiving burden does not fall on females (e.g., penguins). There are non-social animals. What does “caregiving” mean? Does breastfeeding = caregiving; are they synonymous? What does it mean to “do it better”? That is a value judgment, not a biological fact. Whatever a particular “advantage” might be is dependent upon environmental factors, which are always changing.

            What is identity? Specifically what’s gender identity? Honestly, I don’t really know.

            Okay, I’ll give you my understanding. The term “identity” has multiple uses in everyday language. For example, to have “your identity stolen” is a specific kind of identity referring to one’s governmental and economic information but not to someone’s sense of self. In other words, when I say, “I had my identity stolen!” I’m not referring to my sense of self, but to things like my Social Security number and bank account information. When it comes to “gender identity,” it’s a little bit of both of those things—it’s someone’s internal and embodied sense of self as a gendered being, but also that sense of self is recognized and legitimated (or not) through institutions such as government, family, etc. (which you talk about more below).

            I found it puzzling that gender identity had to be added to the list of bases on which you can’t discriminate. What I understood is it got included because unlike earlier where humans could identify as either men or women, now gender is seen as fluid. I can say that I belong to neither, which is why you must call me “they”. On what basis, even I don’t know. From what I read, it’s not transgenders who want to be called they, it’s people who call themselves genderqueer or genderfluid. What does it mean?

            Gender identity and expression are often used where “sex” already exists in such laws because of exactly the distinction you began your last comment with. “Sex” is in reference to biologically-reduced notions of “man” and “woman.” Gender identity and expression is a way of broadening that protection to include people’s sense of self and behavior. Let’s take it out of the realm of trans and genderqueer and think of it heteronormatively. A protection for gender identity/expression would mean that a person who identifies as a man and uses he/his pronouns cannot be discriminated against because he does something like grows his hair long and wears nail polish. That is not a typically masculine gender expression, but just because he does not identify as a woman does not mean he should be allowed to be discriminated against on such bases. Do you agree?

            As for identity in general, I suppose it’s the way we describe ourselves along with how others describe us. So I could think I’m intelligent. Maybe my grades don’t show me that, and so society thinks I’m an idiot. Maybe society doesn’t know I’m a great painter or whatever and that’s why my grades suck. Maybe I’m just really great with children? Point is, when you say you’re this or that, there will be some way in which you express that identity in the world, and the world will *acknowledge* that identity to make it “true”. So I say I’m a terrific singer. But everyone else hates listening to me, so the ‘singer’ part of my identity doesn’t get validated by society as true. I say I’m a great driver. But I go and fail a driving test. Can I still say I’m a great driver? Nah, I don’t think so.

            But here is the problem with this line of argument: in your attempt to explain the validity of identities as identities, you’ve instead given examples of whether people are good or bad at the identities they claim. Let’s use the example of singing, onto which you’ve placed a certain value here—“terrific.” What happens when we strip that value away? What if someone simply says, “I am a singer.” How do you go about validating that as an identity, as their sense of who they are? It seems the simplest way is this: if someone claims to be a singer, and they sing, then they are a singer. This is (as I wrote about in the other post that I linked you to earlier) a performative understanding of identity. Whether or not they are a “terrific” singer is thus not so much a matter of their identity as such, but a matter of the sociocultural valuing of that identity.

            We can think of gender as performative as well. A “man” is one who claims they are a man and then who does what “man” means. The problem here is that “what ‘man’ means” is contested, always changing, never assured. Essentially, what you’re trying to argue is that we should privilege social norms as the arbiter of what a “good man” or “good woman” is, and you (like many others) want to ground those things in biology because it has the appearance of immutability and stability. Unfortunately, biology just ends up being a tool for the regulation of sociocultural gender norms, and this is the main problem I have with arguments like the ones Peterson is making. Even if I were to grant that there is a strict biological binary of male and female that determines one’s gender, it does not follow that therefore linguistic conventions should require us to refer to bodies in such ways. We could have a language without gendered pronouns and simply use gender-neutral pronouns for everyone.

            So that’s why it’s important to have a conversation around gender identity as well. Your identity is not yours and yours alone – it is how you converse with the world.

            It’s interesting you use the word “converse,” because in your explanation here I do not see you portraying it as a conversation but rather as a dictation, where “the world” tells you if your sense of self is true or not rather than as a negotiation between individuals as agentive and “the world” as structured but also malleable.

            The way biology determines identity (to some extent) is because the way our brain’s made is passed on through genes. So for example, there is a correlation between a child’s IQ and his/her parents’ IQ. Environment plays a role too – for example, a child who gets adopted has higher IQ than his half-sibling who didn’t get adopted. So the idea being that we inherit a potential for a certain trait based on our genes, and whether we can fulfil the potential depends on the environment.

            This is an extremely reductive understanding of biology, identity, genes, and IQ. I would encourage you to go do some more reading on these topics because your understanding as presented in this paragraph is not even close to being on the mark. In particular, you should look into biocultural anthropology and gene-environment interaction science (e.g., epigenetics). Also, IQ is a pretty awful metric for intelligence and has been widely criticized to the point of it being basically useless.

  5. March 5, 2017 at 9:16 am —

    Hi Will,

    Dead thread but whatever.

    I just want to clear something up with regard to “facts”, and also to ask some questions.

    The universe has facts, in science these are called laws.

    We did not make up Newton’s laws, we didn’t invent entropy, we didn’t create the electrostatic force by sheer will.

    In science a hypothesis is created and if that hypothesis is substantiated it passes into theory, then if that theory is supported by overwhelming majority of experimental procedure it passes into law.

    With the laws, if a law were to be found to be incomplete it would have to change to accommodate this incompleteness. We can see how science accommodates for this in Newtown’s law of universal gravitation which was tweaked by Einstein to fit more completely. That doesn’t mean that the law is not scientifically true, it means that humans had not come into a complete enough understanding of the underlying mechanism of that law.

    One could make the argument that calculus is a scientific law.

    On from there.

    Sex has a [reproductive] binary, this is codified as chromosomal data.

    Is every event in a life not informed by its genetics?

    I have no idea what any of the long list of neo-gender (for lack of a better word… gender-fluid?) terms actually mean. What I’ve seen people describe them as is terms that do not lie descriptively within the gender norm, but that still doesn’t describe what they mean. Are they so fluid as to have no meaning?

    Something can be said for the notion that they have meaning to the individual using them, but if that meaning has no basis in objectivity of description then does it actually have any meaning?

    An example would be I could say I feel like a man, and I would be describing what I subjectively think a man feels like. I would not be describing what “man the gender” feels like, because that has no objective descriptive analogue. It doesn’t exist. I am male, not sure if that’s important to know.

    What does have an objective descriptive analogue is phenotype. As an example we can tell a male from a female human by looking at their bones in the vast majority of cases. There are indicators for genotype in the expressed phenotype, they aren’t independently variant.

    I suppose my point is, where does reduction of gender stop? It seems like we’re going towards gender eventually being defined down to the absolute individual which is an incredibly difficult linguistic landscape to navigate in, particularly if one can be punished for not using the correct term the individual has decided upon. Seems like it would be simpler to say: a woman’s, man’s or [one’s]* phenotype will be expressed, and outside of causing {undue} suffering to others should not be punished. Accounting for things such as paedophilia, and other potentially violent expressions that could arise given certain cultural/familial environmental considerations that are in most cases already in law. Suffering may be a bit broad but it’s a starting point.

    This kind of legislation mandates responsibility in the same form as good legislation does, as in it doesn’t require responsible action it requires responsible inaction. It doesn’t punish the majority of people that are just going about their day not deliberately trying to offend anyone, and puts the onus on those that are seeking to offend someone.

    This is coming from a physics/biochem/maths perspective. Particularly from a physics perspective that is: if something does not have objectively descriptive and measurable phenomena (ie interaction), then it is irrelevant. Similarly from a mathematics perspective: This is x, it doesn’t matter what x looks like from an individual perspective, because by simple description of definition it is the x of both our perspectives.

    *gender neutral term goes here, they can be used in some cases though can lead to confusion, one is a bit linguistically blunt. Waiting for a better alternative to present itself as cultural phenotype, ie Ms.

    • March 5, 2017 at 11:46 am —

      I just want to clear something up with regard to “facts”, and also to ask some questions.

      The universe has facts, in science these are called laws.

      We did not make up Newton’s laws, we didn’t invent entropy, we didn’t create the electrostatic force by sheer will.

      No, that’s not how facts work. The universe doesn’t have facts, facts are constructed knowledge. We did make up Newton’s laws, that’s why they’re called “Newton’s laws,” because he created them. But Newton’s laws are not the same thing as “entropy” or “electrostatic force.” You’re confusing the laws for the forces themselves. Of course we did not create entropy in the universe, but we did create the “fact” that describes it. Such facts (or, in this case, laws) are never 100% certain and are always open to the possibility of being changed. They are our best approximatation of how universal forces operate. But the “facts” themselves do not exist outside of our construction of them.

      In science a hypothesis is created and if that hypothesis is substantiated it passes into theory, then if that theory is supported by overwhelming majority of experimental procedure it passes into law.

      With the laws, if a law were to be found to be incomplete it would have to change to accommodate this incompleteness. We can see how science accommodates for this in Newtown’s law of universal gravitation which was tweaked by Einstein to fit more completely. That doesn’t mean that the law is not scientifically true, it means that humans had not come into a complete enough understanding of the underlying mechanism of that law.

      This is mostly right, which is baffling since you just claimed that we did not make up Newton’s laws and then go on to explain how it was made up and has changed over time. Which completely contradicts your opening claim about facts.

      Further, that such laws are social constructions does not make them “not scientifically true.” However, it does make them tentative–always–because humans are incapable of purely objective knowledge (see Donna Haraway’s “situated knowledges” argument).

      Sex has a [reproductive] binary, this is codified as chromosomal data.

      Well, that depends on how you define sex. You’re assuming the definition is genetic, but in biology sex is primarily (but not solely) defined by the type of gamete (males make smaller motile gametes and females make larger immotile gametes) and is a species-level definition that does not always fit every single individual within that species (sterile individuals can still be assigned a sex, after all). For humans, chromosomes are one factor used in assigning sex (only since the early 20th century, though), but there are many other factors that are associated with biological sex in humans–genitals (which don’t always match up with chromosomes), secondary sex characteristics (which also don’t always match up with chromosomes, and are really the only obvious indicator of sex in everyday life–you don’t go around seeing people’s chromosomes), and hormonal levels (which shape secondary sex traits) all play a role in assigning sex to bodies.

      Is every event in a life not informed by its genetics?

      This is a meaningless statement meant to give genetics way more power than is necessary. No, not every event is directly informed by genetics, though you could make an argument that since we have genes and are involved in events that genetics inform it, but so what? Is just being “involved” even in the most minor of ways enough to privilege it over all else? And is it your argument that genetics should determine one’s sociopolitical positioning? Because that’s some eugentics-level shit and I reject it wholely and emphatically.

      I have no idea what any of the long list of neo-gender (for lack of a better word… gender-fluid?) terms actually mean. What I’ve seen people describe them as is terms that do not lie descriptively within the gender norm, but that still doesn’t describe what they mean. Are they so fluid as to have no meaning?

      Have you ever taken a social science course? Do you not understand what social norms are?

      Something can be said for the notion that they have meaning to the individual using them, but if that meaning has no basis in objectivity of description then does it actually have any meaning?

      First of all, there is no “objectivity of description,” you should really remove that illusion from your thinking. Second, you should study up on “meaning,” perhaps look into semiotics and/or something like interpretive anthropology.

      An example would be I could say I feel like a man, and I would be describing what I subjectively think a man feels like. I would not be describing what “man the gender” feels like, because that has no objective descriptive analogue. It doesn’t exist. I am male, not sure if that’s important to know.

      What does have an objective descriptive analogue is phenotype. As an example we can tell a male from a female human by looking at their bones in the vast majority of cases. There are indicators for genotype in the expressed phenotype, they aren’t independently variant.

      This is an overly simplistic description of both the subjective experience of gender and the physiological/material aspects of gender. You’re overlooking an important aspect of gender, which I’ve described elsewhere on this site, which is known as performativity. We have a general set of ideas of what “man” means because of our culture, and we associate that with sets of behaviors, which in turn reproduce the meaning of “man.”

      With reference to your overly simplistic claim about sexing skeletons, you cannot assign male or female sex to bones before puberty (really the only reliable measurement that can help assign sex is the pelvis, which does not differentiate until puberty), and post-pubescent specimens require a comparison specimen from the same population because environment shapes bodies in ways that mean things like “sex” can be difficult to determine without information about the population the bones are from (there’s stuff written on this in forensic anthropology about how sex determination is a Bayesian process). But what is being identified most of the time are measurements of pelvic bones, which any forensic anthropologist will tell you is a best guess, not a 100% objective description of the person’s sex, and definitely not their gender. If they collect genetic material from the remains, they can tell you what the person’s karyotype is, but despite your claims of a binary karyotype in humans, that’s simply not accurate. There are female bodies that have XY chromosomes (e.g., Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome) and there are male bodies with XX chromosomes (e.g., Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia), so again it’s a best guess. Further, the remains could be of someone who was a “third gender” in their society or a trans person in our society, and if the goal of the forensic anthropologist in the latter case is to identify the remains, assuming a 1:1 correlation of karyotype to sociocultural gender express/identity could prohibit that.

      Shit’s a lot more complicated than you make it seem.

      I suppose my point is, where does reduction of gender stop? It seems like we’re going towards gender eventually being defined down to the absolute individual which is an incredibly difficult linguistic landscape to navigate in, particularly if one can be punished for not using the correct term the individual has decided upon.

      A slippery slope argument? No thanks.

      Your concern about someone being punished for using the incorrect term is bizarre to me. Why should someone insist that they know better how to identify someone else? Why do you care if someone’s pronoun matches their karyotype (which you don’t even know for sure but assume you know based on your evaluation of their secondary sex characteristics)?

      Seems like it would be simpler to say: a woman’s, man’s or [one’s]* phenotype will be expressed, and outside of causing {undue} suffering to others should not be punished. Accounting for things such as paedophilia, and other potentially violent expressions that could arise given certain cultural/familial environmental considerations that are in most cases already in law. Suffering may be a bit broad but it’s a starting point.

      That’s actually not simpler because I don’t really understand what your claim is. Why should phenotype be the deciding factor in how people are defined? The problem you overlook is that this is not a simple move from “phenotype” to “objective description” in normative cases (cis men and cis women), but such descriptions are always political and foreclose some opportunities and open others because we live in a stratified society that treats people differently on the basis of appearance.

      This kind of legislation mandates responsibility in the same form as good legislation does, as in it doesn’t require responsible action it requires responsible inaction. It doesn’t punish the majority of people that are just going about their day not deliberately trying to offend anyone, and puts the onus on those that are seeking to offend someone.

      You should really read the change to the law that he’s arguing against. It wouldn’t punish people for accidentally misusing pronouns. It would punish people like him, an employee at a public institution of higher learning, who knowingly refuse to use people’s prefered pronouns and insist that he has the right to be disrespectful to students and colleagues.

      This is coming from a physics/biochem/maths perspective. Particularly from a physics perspective that is: if something does not have objectively descriptive and measurable phenomena (ie interaction), then it is irrelevant. Similarly from a mathematics perspective: This is x, it doesn’t matter what x looks like from an individual perspective, because by simple description of definition it is the x of both our perspectives.

      You should stop trying to use simplistic math rules to understand human existence, and perhaps look at what social scientists have to say about the issue–you know, since we spend our whole lives studying these topics. Humans are not simple math problems, we are complex and messy creatures with lots of variation in all kinds of areas of our lives. It is also impossible to give an apolitical “objective” description of humans because we are always already invested in descriptions of ourselves. You have a political motive for making the claims you’ve made here, whether or not you recognize it as such (and perhaps that motive has less to do with gender than with trying to overstate the power of your favorite scholarly disciplines).

      Finally, physics isn’t as “objective” as you seem to think, and you might do well to read some science studies, especially from work from people like Sharon Traweek, Thomas Kuhn, and Harry Collins.

  6. April 24, 2017 at 9:54 pm —

    Hi Will,

    Great dissection of some of the problematic things Jordan Peterson has said on this topic. I would be really interested to see what you thought of some of his other stuff (which I had the misfortune of hearing on an accidental youtube spiral…).

    How would you go about pointing out the flaws in some of these essentialist assertions he makes? Since his rise to internet fame last year on this so called ‘freedom of speech’ issue, there has also been an overwhelming amount of exposure and support for some of his other views particularly on his thoughts about the role of women in society and the workplace.

    Linked below some of his….interesting… thoughts on women…

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NV2yvI4Id9Q

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cUwqRMTL8oc

    Would be great to hear your view!

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