Though I think the relatively abstract or formal issues of free speech and academic freedom are what are most important in the Jordan Peterson controversy, I have of course found myself thinking about the substantial questions that have been raised about identity and language in general, and the proper use of pronouns specifically. I want to write a little about that in this post. I was spurred to write it by reading Jake Pyne's "Gender 'pronoun war' is about freedom for sure, but not free speech" at NOW, which reminded me of Dan Savage's post "About That Hate Crime I Committed at the University of Chicago" at SLOG. I highly recommend both pieces as background for this post.
A quick note: I'm sure that if this post gets any wide attention it will make me the object of many accusations. Please at least try to read it in the spirit of constructive dialogue that is intended. There's one sentence in particular in this post which I refuse to discuss out of context. I have marked it very clearly in the text. It has been thus marked since the first publication of this post. For what it's worth.
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It is sometimes suggested that white, cisgendered men like Jordan Peterson and I shouldn't really have an opinion about the problem of gender identity and expression among trans people. So before I give my opinion on this subject, I want to suggest three reasons that we might legitimately think very seriously about this topic, and discuss it very earnestly, before making up our minds.
First, I am an academic writing coach and teacher. If am to offer guidance to my authors and students about how to express themselves I can't very well just say I'm not qualified to speak about the specific question of pronouns for trans people and just refer them to actual trans persons who can tell them what to say. There will necessarily be interesting stylistic questions even after the general problem has been addressed.
Second, and similarly, Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist. As he has explained on a number of occasions now, his professional practice is all about helping people sort out their identity issues. In order to help them, he has to have a working theory about the psychology of gender identity and its relationship to pronoun usage. Like "trigger warnings", which are of dubious clinical value, the practical and therapeutic value of synthetic pronouns is not a settled matter in science. Psychologists, in any case, are more than entitled to an opinion here. They are obligated to have one.
Third, even the whitest, malest cislord may be the friend or father of a trans person. Or the friend or father of someone with identity issues. (The identities of the protagonists of both Pyne's and Savage's stories have not always been simple facts, we should note, but, precisely, "issues", i.e., they have both, at least for a time, been unclear about their identity and its proper linguistic expression.) As in the other two roles, it's important to keep in mind that having a general opinion about gender pronouns does not avoid reaching a particular judgment in particular cases. If my daughter told me that she had decided to be a "he" that would not be the end of a discussion but the beginning of one. However it may end, surely I am entitled to participate in the conversation.
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Okay, let's get into it. In my view, ordinary experience divides roughly into encounters with people on the one hand and things on the other. This division is captured in the English language in part by the use of personal and impersonal pronouns: "he" and "she" for people, and "it" for things, for example. "They" is famously ambivalent about whether it applies to things or people. And its ambivalence has even been leveraged to allow its use as a singular pronoun where the gender of the person referred to is unknown.
Of course, even in perfectly ordinary and uncontroversial cases, these codes can get a little scrambled. In some families the preferred pronoun for the dog is "it", in others it's "he" or "she". Likewise, many ships "prefer", if you will, personal pronouns. "She's a beauty, Captain," I'm sure Scotty has said to Kirk. But we do not violate the dignity of the Enterprise by saying that it (boldly) goes faster than light. I would argue that there is talk here of figurative uses of the pronouns. And they depend on the well-understood literal uses.
Now we get to something essential. In my everyday, folk ontology there are people and things. And people can be either men or women. Indeed, intuitively, they have to be either men or women in order to be people. (A note I wish I didn't have to write: I refuse to discuss this issue further with anyone who takes that sentence out of context in the obvious incendiary way that it can be read.) I realize that's a very strong statement, but I can soften it by saying that "being a man" and "being a woman" isn't anything very clear. It's just that in order to be a person you have to be one of these, ahem, things. When I attribute personhood to someone, we might say, I also—intuitively in the Kantian sense, i.e., immediately, without thinking—attribute a gender to him or her. As I elaborate below, it has something to do with how I interpret the "thing" that the "person" inhabits. When I say "you have to have a gender to be a person", I really just mean that your body has to have a sex.
I understand that my gendering can, in fact, be a misattribution, but it takes a great effort, in normal cases, not to gender you at all. For example, at the University of Toronto forum, entirely without thinking, I saw first a man (David Cameron), then a woman (Mayo Moran), then a man (Jordan Peterson), then a woman (Brenda Cossman), and then a woman (Mary Bryson). In terms of "preference", I got all but the last one right. But in terms of biology, I'm pretty sure I was five for five. And my gendering was, in fact, the application of a working (if "folk" or "lay") theory of human biology. I used habitual cues to figure out, in very general terms, what sort of person each of them is. This would help me interpret stories they might tell about their friends, their colleagues, their children, their sports performance, etc.
I've already said that if a friend or child of mine expressed doubts about their gender identity, which is to say, if they called the gender I had been attributing to them all these years into question, then I would not have any simple way to proceed. I wouldn't be content to just ask them what they want to be called. I would try to figure out how they could be questioning something that I had been so sure about for so long. It would take a lot of talking and a lot of thinking. If I had been thinking of someone as a girl for fifteen years and then a young woman for another five, it wouldn't just take an afternoon after coming home from her gender studies class where she "announces" that she's non-binary to revise my intuitions. I would still know her as someone whose identity was shaped as a woman. I would respect that history, which is one that we would share. And I would use my language respectfully in that sense.
Now, imagine the radical case of someone you know telling you that they are, in fact, no longer human and, accordingly, prefer the pronoun "it". (This is not an absurd hypothetical, as Savage's story shows.) Surely we would push back against this. We might do this out of compassion for whatever mental illness the individual may be manifesting. (Remember Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat.) Or we might do it on a more moralistic or political basis: someone who rejects their own personhood and asserts their thinghood would seem to be absolving themselves of, precisely, personal responsibility. They would be eschewing references to reasons and passions in understanding their actions and invoking mere causes instead. It would be amoral, unethical. Here, then, we may be inclined to disallow their private identity construction for the sake of the public good. This would not be disrespectful. In a sense, we would be insisting on respecting them—on "seeing" them as a person like ourselves.
"We would be insisting on respecting them," I said. Note that I'm using the singular they here because I have not specified their gender. That usage is standard and has been for a long time. I am not against it, and I don't prefer "him or her", which I find clumsy. (For a brief time on this blog I started using the neologism "himmerher" to lampoon this clumsiness.) And I would use the same pronoun in a situation where I was truly in doubt about the gender of the person I was referring to. I wasn't in the case of Mary Bryson, but there are people who present much more neutrally, much more ambiguously. I respect their gender expression, and I would never discriminate against anyone on those grounds. They are, to be sure, challenging my intuitions, but that is altogether fine. In an important sense they transcend my intuitions. They are sublime.
But here's the thing: I need those intuitions to get by in my everyday life. I need the default to be binary. I don't (at least not yet) understand the alternative world in which I don't make an immediate, intuitive judgment about whether the person I'm dealing with is a man or woman, or boy or girl. So many of my ways and manners about people depend on this judgment, the great majority of them unconsciously. So, while I harbor no animosity towards people who can't decide whether they are truly and really a man or a woman, while I can even understand why some people would refuse to make that decision, I cannot respect people who demand that I stop experiencing people intuitively as gendered. And, like Jordan Peterson, I can't respect a law that demands this on anyone's behalf—indeed, on anyone's whim.
They may as well be asking me think of people as things. It's not a distinction I'm prepared to abandon. It would make everything "uncanny", everything sublime. When you say you are a non-binary person, it sounds to me like you're saying you have no body. I hope you won't take this the wrong way, but once I see your body I want to know what sex it is. That's how it stops being an "it": by becoming a "he" or a "she". There may be other ways. But they are unfamiliar to me. They are strange. I wouldn't know how to be a person without a binary gender myself. I think some of "them" don't know how either. I respect their struggle but I also, sometimes, think they are deluding themselves. And sometimes I think they are putting me on.
Sublime experiences aside, then, the "prose" of my world (the prosaic world of everyday living) is populated by things and by people, and people are either men or women (when they are not boys or girls). My initial judgment about a person's gender is not the be-all and end-all of my sense of who they are, just as I know that I'm not "just a man". The way I like to put it is that my gender doesn't solve the problem of my identity, it just specifies a particular difficulty I have when trying to be myself. That problem was not solved for me by the pronouns I was given—or, to put it in Barthes' terms, by the "subjecthood" that was "imposed" on me by my language. Nor did it become any easier by that means.
Let's recognize that the problem isn't actually that of being a man or being a woman, or man in woman's body, or a woman in a man's body, nor even that of being neither man nor woman in either a man's or a woman's body. Rather, the problem has always been to be a person in a thing. To exist as a human body. The problem is being yourself. I know: it isn't easy. But please don't call the cops when I get it, me, or you wrong. Let them howl.