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.
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.