Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Foundations of Society, part 1

Here are two statements that are worth bringing together:

"The anti-knowledge and anti-science sentiments expressed repeatedly during the U.S. presidential election threaten the very foundations of our society."

"The pronoun discussion is not simply about grammar or gender – it's about re-examining the very beliefs upon which our society is based."

The first is from "An open letter from women of science", which, according to Jessica Kirkpatrick at the Women in Astronomy blog, was written by "a group of women scientists who have been working in Washington as AAAS science fellows". It's sort of a vague affiliation, but I take it seriously because it is being promoted by the CSWA. The second is from an opinion piece for the CBC by Julian Paquette weighing in on the Jordan Peterson controversy.

I will presume that Paquette and the "500 Women" are natural allies in the current iteration of the culture wars. But the ideological contradiction is here quite glaring and very common on the Left. Depending on the issue, the ideologues are prepared to declare either that "the very foundations of our society" are threatened or that "the very beliefs upon which our society is based" must be questioned. I think it's fair to say that this ambivalence is itself foundational for "progressive" politics.

One way to resolve the contradiction is to assume that they are talking about the foundations, not of our society, but their society. That is, they are talking about the basis of the ongoing progress towards the utopia they imagine. And that utopia is indeed "science based", if you will. As the "Open Letter" put it: "Science is foundational in a progressive society, fuels innovation, and touches the lives of every person on this planet." What about a "conservative" society? we might ask. Perhaps innovation is there fueled by something like human ingenuity and initiative, and perhaps the state is there constitutionally restrained from building institutions that, somewhat creepily, propose to "touch the lives of every person on the planet".

These foundations need, precisely, to be conserved, not implemented after traditional beliefs about what people are and how they can most happily live together have been "re-examined"—a word that is almost certainly a euphemism for "overturned". I have to say that, given the state of science (and the science of the state, if you will) these days, I understand the anti-science sentiment. Many pro-science people seem to the think that science is simply epistemic authority: an institution that has the power to tell you what to think and to believe. I like to think of science as a protected space of free thought and inquiry—not a place where I'm forced to examine my beliefs, but where I'm allowed to.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Fear of Fear has declared "xenophobia" to be the Word of the Year. I think it's a good choice. If we take the two big spikes in look-ups that cites to explain the choice, we can see that both came at a time when a populist backlash against the elites needed to be reinterpreted as a pathology in the population. There wasn't anything wrong with the elites, it had to be made clear, there was something wrong with the people. Ordinary people, it was said, are irrationally afraid of "people with backgrounds different from their own".

And this fear, it is usually implied, makes them bad people. It makes them less compassionate of others. At bottom, then, the rise of the word "xenophobia" marks a doubled othering: first "foreigners" are othered by ordinary people, and then ordinary people are othered by the elites. In fact, the fear of others marks a fault line (let's play the pun: a "line of blame") within the "common people" themselves. "We" are turned against each other on the question of whether or not we fear "them".

I've always found the political "phobias" puzzling. We don't vilify people for their fear of flying or fear of spiders. We don't even hold agoraphobia against people, even though we might, as members of the "public", take a little offense at their anxieties about us. But xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia are a different matter. Here we confidently denounce the person who harbors the relevant fear. We do not grant them the right to be afraid, we might say.

In my view, we should take seriously the idea that xenophobia is an exaggerated fear of foreigners. In an important sense, it is "irrational" (just as flying is actually perfectly safe and spiders are perfectly harmless), since most xenophobes have perfectly safe encounters with the relevant "other" every day. But, in another sense, there really is something to worry about. (When I was a young man, I, too, took a wrong turn in an American city.) Certainly, if the xenophobe is worried about the pace of cultural change, then it is rational to worry about the rate of immigration. This worry becomes a fear once one comes to believe, as many xenophobes do, that the elites don't care about the effect of immigration on local neighborhoods. Or when, in a more paranoid variant, they come to think that the elites are actively trying to destroy local culture.

The best way to cure oneself of fear is to face it. This does not, however, mean that it is always a good policy to force people to face their fears. If you put an arachnophobe in a closed room with a spider you're probably just going to turn them into a claustrophobe as well. (I have no idea if that statement is psychologically valid, but you get the point.) The important thing here is compassion. We have to understand that we really are talking about something that is rooted in fear. Too often, I think, we think it is rooted merely in hate. But that's only a consequence of mismanaging fear. We often come to hate the things we fear.

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," said Franklin D. Roosevelt. (You were already thinking it, I'm sure.) We seem at the moment to be very afraid of the fear of others—indeed, we are afraid, sometimes pathologically, of other people's fear of other people. This fear makes us hate the "xenophobe", who, ironically, is really just another Other. Maybe we need a word like phobophobia, the fear of fear. And then, maybe, we need to face that fear courageously. Perhaps we need to be as accepting of the existence of people who fear strangers as we are of the strangers themselves. Perhaps we need to face our fear of phobia.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Notes on Identity, Ideology and Ontology

The debate about gender pronouns is framed as both a political and a scientific issue. It raises questions of practice and theory that go well beyond the niceties of grammar. I think everyone agrees on this point, even if they disagree about how the questions should be answered and the issue resolved.

As I pointed out in my last post, however, it seems to me that the parties to this dispute sometimes talk past each other because they haven't distinguished as rigorously between sense and reference as Frege suggested we do. Of course, they can be forgiven for not observing a late-nineteenth-century analytical distinction that isn't even much used by professional philosophers today. In this post I want to get even more technical, so let me apologize in advance. It's a bit "inside Basbøll", if you will.

In his "Notes on the Theory Reference" (From a Logical Point of View, p. 131ff), the American philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine said that "the notion of ontological commitment belongs to the theory of reference." A theory, he explained, presupposes the existence of certain kinds of objects and these presuppositions just are its "ontological commitments." He also proposed to "give a good sense to a bad word" by defining "ideology" as a constraint on the ideas that can be expressed in a theory. Importantly, he pointed out that "the ontology of a theory stands in no simple correspondence to its ideology." Just because we know what sorts of things a theory is about, we don't necessarily know what knowledge claims it is able to express about them.

In my view, sense is to "ideological commitment" what Quine says reference is to "ontological commitment". While Quine used rather abstract theories of mathematics as examples, we can easily imagine how this insight could be applied to theories in the social sciences, which are certainly often ideologically "committed". There are many different social theories, many of which share the same ontology while affording the theorist resources to express very different ideas. In fact, at a very general level we could argue that all social theories are "about" the same "things", namely: people. But what they believe can (and should) be meaningfully said about those people is very different.

I put "things" in quotation marks because, in my view, we should, properly speaking, say that the human or social sciences are about people in the same sense that the natural sciences are about things. People and things are, in my opinion, ontologically distinct. In fact, as we will soon see, they are radically distinct from the point of view of ontology and reference. But bear with me just a little longer.

Social theories can differ ontologically depending on what they mean by "people", "person", "human being", etc. This actually maps neatly onto the distinctly political question of what "inalienable rights" people (and not other things or creatures) are supposed to have. We can imagine two theories that both claim to be about "people" (and not other things) but, on closer examination, we might discover that they construe the essential "being" of people different. There would then be talk of different "social ontologies". The ideal "charter of human rights" implied by these theories would, presumably, protect "the people" from the violence of the state in different ways.

The clash between people like Jordan Peterson and people like Mary Bryson is a great example. Both are, indeed, people, and, though we will see that this is worth not taking for granted, I think both would grant the other's "humanity" or "personhood" in an everyday sense. Interestingly, however, both feel that their very essence is being threatened by the other's rhetoric, and this rhetoric, I want to say, implies a "theory". We can say, then, that they don't recognize themselves in the ontology that the other seems to propose.

But do notice the different ways in which this plays out. Bryson thinks Peterson's "cisnormative" view of gender "erases" the possibility of non-binary persons. There is no room for the non-binary person in Peterson's ontology, Bryson thinks. Peterson, meanwhile, thinks that Bryson's theory fails to recognize the necessity of free expression. Bryson thinks people are essentially identities we might say, and the "right to be human" is therefore the right to be who you are. Peterson, on the other hand, thinks that people become who they are; they are not pregiven identities. He is therefore concerned to defend the right to express yourself as you choose, not the right to choose what others say about you. Bryson is worried about the threat of other people's expressions to your identity, who you are. Peterson is worried about the threat of not being able to express yourself, and therefore not being able to become yourself. It's a fundamental difference of temperament.

And, if I'm right, it's an ontological disagreement. Bryson seems to think we are who we are and need to be left alone to be that. Peterson (perhaps unsurprisingly as a clinical psychologist) thinks we've all still got a lot of work to do to become what we're capable of being. It would be interesting to see them debate the issue at that level. But that, of course, assumes that the parties could agree even to this way of describing their differences, which I don't think they could. I think Peterson would say that Bryson's position is ontologically incoherent and ideologically regressive. Bryson, thinks Peterson, doesn't care what Peterson is talking about but is concerned to prevent him from expressing his ideas.

In my opinion the problem cannot be solved as long as it is framed in terms of ontology, i.e., "the ontology of the social", "the nature of the self", psychological essentialism (my characterization of Bryson's position) vs. existential psychology (my characterisation of Peterson's position). The problem is this: the very idea of social ontology is nonsense. The social is not grounded in being but in becoming. The material world puts constraints on what we can become and this constraint is what we call "nature". Our theories about nature do have an ontology, but our social practices do not.

What about "people"? Didn't I say that people are the "things" of our social theories? Yes, and that's precisely why we shouldn't have social theories. The very idea is incoherent. We do not need to understand social ontologies but, as I have slowly come to understand, social "ethnopathies"*, which are not "what we think we are" but "what we feel ourselves becoming". Ontology, remember, is part of our theory of reference; indeed, it determines the proper referents of a theory and the theory of reference is a meta-theory in that sense. If there is not such thing as social ontology there is also no way of constructing social theory because there can be no system of social reference.

The strong view of this is that we can't actually, properly speaking, refer to people. This no doubt sounds very mystical. I don't think we should refer to people at all. I don't think we can. We can only refer to the bodies that people live through, their "natural avatar" if you will. What we can do with people is to defer to them. We can, in that sense, respect them. In fact, I would say that we demonstrate our own humanity towards another human being, not by identifying them as human, but by deferring to their own humanity.

This idea of deference might seem to throw in with Bryson. Isn't using someone's preferred pronoun simply an act of deference? Yes and no. I agree with Peterson that such deference is rendered impossible when it is mandated by law. We cannot be compelled to defer. That's just not how it works. If I use "they" to refer to you in the third person out of respect for the law (or fear of the consequences of breaking it) then I'm not, at the end of the day, showing you any respect at all. I have to feel my deference as a deference to your fundamental humanity, not as one more thing to fear the state for.

Let me conclude with what Kierkegaard might call an "unscientifc postscript" or "poetical experiment":

The meta-theory (the theory beyond the theory) of reference and ontology is, as Quine attests, a philosophical one. I would argue that the infra-practice (the practice beneath the practice) of deference and ethnopathy is a poetical one. Just as we cannot settle philosophical questions by invoking science, we shouldn't settle poetical questions with politics. (I'll return to this point: the pronoun activists are trying to accomplish with a policy what needs to be done with a poem. The only way to coin new words legitimately is with poetry.) A few years ago, I tried to transpose Quine's ideas to this end. I can now be even more precise.

Taking any practice, one poetically interesting handle we can get on its governance is its ethnopathy* [i.e., who is involved in the practice?]. But we can also govern through its realisability (to give a good sense to a vague word): what realities can be contained by it? The ethnopathy of a practice stands in no simple correspondence to its realisability.

The sentiment of ethnopathic commitment belongs to the practice of deference. For to say that a given essential qualification applies to subjects [people] of a given ilk is to say simply that the open sentence which follows the qualifier is just of all subjects of that ilk and none not of that ilk.

I realise that this might at first seem to be utter nonsense. But trust me when I say it is just very, very precise. And I think we're entering an age where this sort of precision may become very, very important.

*The notion of "ethnopathy" is not my coinage. I've heard it used both on the left and the right, both in a neutral descriptive sense ("the feelings of a group") and in a pejorative diagnostic sense (the constitutive malevolence, or ill-feeling, or antipathy, or even pathology of one group towards another). I have previously contrasted ontology simply with ethnicity. But I think this is too narrow, as the gender identity discussion shows. Ethnopathy is the feeling that individuals have for a group that is constitutive of that group. Ethnicity, on this view, is just one kind of ethnopathy. I recently noticed (see the footnote to this post) the word in the work of Daniel Bar-Tal on "intractable conflicts". I think that's very fitting.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Sex and Gender, Sense and Reference

"The idea of social constructionism is fine, but I don't think people have noticed that you cannot turn around and then claim that those constructs are sacred essences that you cannot question. This has always been a tension in feminism and gay / lesbian studies, and is going to be even more intense in trans- studies. If gender and even sex are socially constructed, then what makes my own private socially constructed identity so sacrosanct, so essential?" (Jonathan Mayhew)

The new legislators of pronoun usage seem to think that the things words refer to determine their meaning. Indeed, they seem to think that the people that words refer to should determine what the words mean.

Consider the case of Mary Bryson, who prefers to be referred to in the third person as "they". Bryson sees themself (is that correct?) as being of non-binary gender. That is, their gender identity is neither male nor female. They are neither a man nor a woman. The pronoun "they", they think, accurately refers to this non-binary gender identity.

But that's actually not what I usually mean by "they". In other words, in the above paragraph, where I have somewhat hamfistedly "respected" (as it's called) Bryson's pronouns, I'm using the word with a special meaning, peculiar to Bryson themself (note, again, this peculiar word, as my spell checker dutifully suggests). It's only when I'm talking about Bryson that "they" indicates a person of non-binary gender. In all other cases, when I say "they" I am using it as a plural personal or impersonal pronoun, to indicate more than one person or thing, or as a "generic" or non-gendered singular personal pronoun, to indicate a person whose sex I don't know.

Let me say that again. When I use the singular "they" I am not referring to the person's gender but their sex. Actually, that's of course not true either; I am unable to refer to their sex because I don't know what it is. In fact, a personal pronoun actually just refers to the person (specified by context) and carries information (or, in the case of "they", leaves this information out) about their sex. So "he" and "she", for example, indicates a person and tells us what sex they are.

[Update: A pronoun tells you what sex the speaker thinks someone is, not who that person thinks they are.]

Riffing on Frege's famous distinction, I think much of the confusion here has to do with the difference between sense and reference. As I've argued before, what is sometimes called "postmodernism" can be understood as a reduction of the problem of sense to the problem of reference. I remain sympathetic to this approach. And I've just realised something important that answers Jonathan's question in my epigraph.

When I say, "Jamie is an athlete. He competed in the Olympics," you learn something about him in the second sentence that wasn't in the first. You find out he's a male athlete, not a female one. There are two ways to interpret this. We could say, as Frege might, that the pronoun points to Jamie but says something about him too. It means more than its reference; it also has a sense. But that sense could, actually, also be considered a secondary reference, which is the sense (!) in which I consider myself a postmodernist. The so-called "sense" of the pronoun is really just another reference: a reference to, to put it bluntly, Jamie's penis or, more generally, if not quite generically, his sex. (Transsexualism in sports is very interesting, of course. And it may require a redefinition of sex, not gender, in terms of certain hormonal processes that determine athletic performance. However that conversation goes, it will continue to be a reference to biological or, rather, physiological sex, and the reason for this in sports is obvious.)

What Mary Bryson gets wrong is to think that the gender of the pronoun refers to her gender identity. Actually, that's not how identity works, as Frege showed. The gender of the pronoun could be understood as its "sense", but it doesn't mean (at least when I use it, or when most people do) what Bryson thinks it means. Bryson wants her pronouns to do way too much identity work. The pronoun simply doesn't invoke Bryson's (and certainly not Mary's) essence when I use it. She may think I'm misgendering her (just now), but she is simply wrong about what I mean. I am correctly (as I understand her story) identifying her sex, not assigning her a complete and immutable identity. The way I use "they" would imply (to people who understand me) that I don't know that Bryson is female.

This explains the "theoretical incoherence" of gender studies that puzzled Jonathan. They begin as postmodernists by refusing to make sense of our words in the ordinary way, reducing all meaning to the "play of signification", the endless multiplication of arbitrary references. But then, when the signifier points directly at them they suddenly take it, ahem, "personally". They notice the gender of the pronoun and think it's all about them, their gender identity, and, since they're not so presumptuous as to know who they are, they want the pronoun to express the full anxiety of their authentic being. They want to exist fully in the language. They should let their body do some of their being for them.

Other than a proper name, I don't know how to refer to someone's "true" or "authentic" identity. I can just try to talk about them at the level of referential detail that my knowledge allows. At the end of the day, Bryson wants to change the meaning of my pronouns, i.e., not the pronouns I prefer to be referred to with, but the pronouns I use to refer to people and things in my environment. I agree with Jordan Peterson when he says that neither Bryson nor the Parliament of Canada can decide what those words mean.

In a slogan that I'd like to become famous for, we can say*: "Pronouns have gender. People have sex." The gender of the pronoun conveys information about the sex of the person it refers to. Now, I respect people's privacy. So if someone wants to conceal their sex from me, by choosing a unisex name and an androgynous style, then I'm going to be stumped as to their sex and I'll be forced to use "their". It will not mean "I think this person is of non-binary gender" (because I don't know what that means) but "I don't know this person's sex." In most cases, they are in their right not to tell me, even if I ask.

As I understand the changes being proposed in the Canadian Charter of Human Rights, we are heading towards a future in which I no longer have a right to ask. I.e., not only do I not have the right to information that might help me determine the sex of the person I'm talking to or about, I don't have the right to seek that information through ordinary, interpersonal inquiries. These inquiries, unless framed as a respectful request for the persons "preferred pronouns," will be a violation of their dignity.

I think I'm understanding this correctly.

Anyway ... this was a really long and difficult post to write. I apologise. There are probably lots of things I need to clear up, but I'm going to put it out there. I think this is really important to think about.

*Note to self: always Google a pithy slogan you think you just invented before claiming to have coined it.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Description and Prescription

"Even the most strictly constative scientific description is always open to the possibility of functioning in a prescriptive way, capable of contributing to its own verification by exercising a theory effect through which it helps to bring about that which it declares." (Pierre Bourdieu, "Description and Prescription" in Language and Symbolic Power, p. 134)

Here's an upbeat linguistics lesson by Tom Scott that may soon be declared "hate propaganda" in Canada (or at least in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia):

For most of the lesson he's altogether politically correct. Note his admirably halfhearted struggle to remain "descriptive" as he describes the quirks of natural language—its "stupid" and "silly" features. He clearly doesn't approve of grammatical gender, and he's appropriately open minded about people who don't equate gender with biological sex. He's even humble about his qualifications to speak to the issue. Everything seems to be going well, even as he argues for the singular "they". But then he gets all transphobic at the end about "trying to force invented pronouns [like "co", "ne" and "xe"] into English." Clearly unaware of the awesome power of Canadian lawmakers, he tells us that this "has never worked."

Compare Michael, a "trans dude who likes to talk". He's altogether more with the program (let's remember that Bourdieu defines "theory" as a "program of perception"). He doesn't pussyfoot around with a descriptivist pretense. Rather, he tells you (!) what the simple, "easy" new rules of pronoun usage are.

The first rule, of course, is to "RESPECT PEOPLE'S PRONOUNS. Always. There should be no questions. There are no exceptions. If someone says, 'This is the pronoun that I want you to use to refer to me,' that is the pronoun you will use to refer to them." And he emphasizes how absolutely important this is. "To do otherwise is offensive, and invalidating, and humiliating, and, at best, awkward." And we wouldn't want to use language in offensive and awkward ways, of course! Indeed, there should probably be a law against it: "Respect people's pronouns. Easy."

I'll let you watch the rest of it yourself to get all of Michael's rules and tips. I just thought the juxtaposition of these two videos, which are three and two years old respectively, was very interesting. And it reminded me to go back and read Bourdieu's essay, which I may draw into this more explicitly soon.

Why They Shouldn't Make Me Call You They

"In this domain the individual will remain, individualism will remain, without any theoretical and ideological bulwarks. A man will continue to gain or lose his own soul." (Ezra Pound)

In an informative piece at NOW, Jake Pyne argues that the controversy surrounding Jordan Peterson's refusal to use non-binary gender pronouns is less about Peterson's right to free speech and more about the rights of trans people to "retrieve" their souls. He takes his own period of ambivalence about his gender (as he transitioned from female to male) as point of departure. "Being constantly gendered made daily life harder than it had to be," he tells us, "and it was already almost too hard. I had never heard anyone use the singular pronoun 'they' to describe themselves before, but it just made sense." So, with the support of friends and colleagues, "she" became "they" for a time before Pyne settled on "he". I agree with Pyne that his colleagues were admirable in the humanity they showed him at a difficult time. I'm confident I would have done the same.

What I want to do in this post is to challenge Pyne's characterisation of what is at issue and what is at stake. It seems to me that, in choosing a side in what he calls "the pronoun war", he is missing an opportunity to have an important conversation. Indeed, it's a conversation he himself laments the absence of.

Bill C-16 would add "gender identity and gender expression" to the list of prohibited grounds for discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act and amend the Criminal Code to make it a criminal offense to publicly incite hatred based on gender identity or expression. Notably, within the trans community there are actually many important arguments for and against hate crimes legislation, but these are not the debates we are having.

As far as I can tell, however, this is precisely the debate that Peterson is trying to have. He is not merely (indeed not at all) trying to argue "that non-binary gender pronouns are kooky." As Pyne notes, Peterson thinks it's much worse that. But Pyne subtly distorts Peterson's worry in order to make the problem seem as innocuous as possible. Peterson, says Pyne, worries

that the request to use such pronouns, along with proposed Liberal Bill C-16, amounts to a thought-police conspiracy to steamroll our basic freedom of speech. It has been the occasion for much hand-wringing by those who say society should not accept such requests.

But the words "request" and "accept", which accurately describe Pyne's own experience of getting people to call him "they" for a few years, are not the ones that Peterson himself would use, I think. Rather, he'd say that the demand to use such pronouns, enforced by federal law, amounts, quite literally, to the policing of thought and speech. It has, quite appropriately, occasioned much concern among those who say society should not mandate such preferences.

Now it's true that Peterson has at times "conjured-up images of good people dragged off to jail for saying or not saying 'ze' and 'xe' instead of he and she." But he's been quite careful (in most cases) to say that he expects only to be dragged off to jail when he refuses to obey the more "civil" remedies that, as "legal scholars like Brenda Cossman and Kyle Kirkup have patiently explained" (Pyne notes) are in fact quite likely. In fact, I don't think it's accurate, given that the Canadian human rights tribunals do actually have some teeth, to say, as Pyne suggests, that "it is not possible for Bill C-16 to lead to anything remotely like this." Cossman did assure Peterson that "you don't get to go to jail" for this sort of thing, but you may lose your home and your wages. I think that's "remotely like" being dragged off to jail for it.

More importantly, you might of course lose your job. As The Varsity reported, after the University of Toronto began receiving complaints from students who had found his views on pronoun usage "unacceptable, emotionally disturbing and painful," administrators sent him a letter reminding him that his academic freedoms had to be "exercised in accordance with [his] responsibilities as a faculty member, including upholding applicable laws." The university's media relations director, Althea Blackburn-Evans, told The Varsity that "he has a right to express his views on the law, on U of T policies, but he also has a responsibility to follow the law and follow U of T policies." And the letter offered pretty unequivocal guidance:

Depending on the context, if personal pronouns are being used, the refusal by a teacher or colleague to use the personal pronoun that is an expression of the person’s gender identity can constitute discrimination. In many situations it is not necessary to use personal pronouns at all, but where it is, the personal pronoun that is chosen as the person’s gender identity-related and gender expression-related identifier should be used.

As to Peterson's declaration that he might, indeed, refuse to use a student's preferred pronouns, the administrators were again admirable in their clarity: "We urge you to stop repeating these statements."

It is in this context that we have to take Peterson's somewhat petulant formula "You can't make me!" Perhaps he should have taken a line from Melville's "Bartleby" and said, without affect, "I would prefer not to," but the effect is the same. He is refusing to comply with the law, and the law is explicitly reproduced within the university policy. So he can be fined and he can be fired. And if he shows up on campus thereafter to speak to his students, he would, no doubt, actually be dragged off to jail for trespassing. So that's exactly like the image Peterson "conjured up". Like Thoreau, at some point you do "get to go to jail" for your civil disobedience.

All this notwithstanding, Pyne discerns a "subtext": "there is a segment of society that is accustomed to others accommodating their freedom, but not the other way around." Actually, the segment he is talking about is accustomed to accommodating others' needs when they politely request it, not to meekly submitting to preferences articulated as political demands. Recognizing this also let's us answer the question that Pyne says he's "actually curious about":

In what kind of society does the question of whether we should respect other people animate a major debate? In what kind of society is the answer to this question such a stumper? In what kind of society does the sentiment “You can’t make me” constitute a compelling argument?
It seems to be more of a rhetorical question than an expression of actual curiosity. But I'll try to answer it anyway. In fact, I think Pyne and I would agree on the answer at the most general level: only in an unjust society would "the question whether we should respect other people animate a major debate." More specifically, it would provoke serious debate only in an authoritarian society, where how we answer the question would determine our freedom to grant or withhold our disrespect to members of an entire group of people or, indeed, where it was being raised in order to criminalize any disrespect for any member of such a group.

And that, of course, is why, as Pyne points out, "within the trans community there are actually many important arguments for and against hate crimes legislation." It is not all trans people who want the law to govern their interactions with other people. They don't want to have respect bestowed on them by the state, nor have it imposed on their behalf on their fellow citizens. Like everyone else, they want to earn the respect of others. They don't want to be protected, we might say, if that comes at the cost of their freedom. To use an all-purpose image of Ezra Pound's, they don't want their identity to be a "box within which" but "a center around which".

Another way to put this, by way of answering the last version of Pyne's question, is to say that only in a totalitarian society does "You can't make me" become a valid debating point. It's not that Peterson can't or won't respect a trans person, it's that he wants his respect to mean something. It's only when you are being compelled to do something without argument, i.e., by fiat, that "You can't make me" constitutes a compelling argument. Indeed, it's the only argument that is left to those who would be free.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Identity, Gender, and Pronouns

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Fascism of Language

My title contains an ambiguity. Does it name an attribute, perhaps even an essence, of language? Or does it name an application of language, a domain of fascism? In his 1978 course on "the neutral" at the Collège de France, Roland Barthes clearly intended the first of these senses, which I think most people will also find to be the most natural one. As a way into some reflections on Jordan Peterson's concerns about the legal regulation of pronoun usage, the passage is worth quoting in full:

Language: "this by means of what, wanting, not wanting, I am spoken," strict rules of combination, syntax. These rules are laws, they permit communication (cf. safety, or driving rules for the citizen) but in exchange (or on the other hand) impose a way of being, a subjecthood, a subjectivity on one: under the weight of the syntax, one must be this very subject and not another (for example: one must by necessity determine oneself, as soon as one speaks, in relation to masculine/feminine, to vous/tu): the categories of language are coercive laws, which force one to speak. In this sense, I could speak of a "fascism" of language. (The Neutral, pp. 41-2)

Against this first sense, we can put a second, one that is perhaps more naturally labelled "linguistic fascism". Here we're talking about the coercion of language itself, not language as coercion. This is the sense that would also be implicit in talk about "the fascists of language". What is interesting is that the people who are pushing for linguistic fascism—for laws which do not just censor wrong speech but compel right, i.e, politically correct, speech—probably share Barthes' somewhat paranoid view of language. Indeed, as far as I can tell Barthes is a tutelary spirit in this area of scholarship, informing much of the work on "gender identity". His influence on this question is like that of Foucault and Derrida.

Back in the late 1960s and 1970s the project was to liberate language from its "coercive laws", a phrase that was meant mainly metaphorically, as a way of denouncing the power of official grammar, which, I believe, was an especially coercive force in French academic life. (This is something Bourdieu has written a great deal about. And Deleuze and Guattari say somewhere that schools train students to see language not as something to be believed but to be obeyed.)

But today's "social justice warriors" (who, I think it's fair to say, see themselves as working in the tradition of Paris, 1968, at least on some days) are doing something different. They are taking Barthes' description of the fascism of language literally. They have given up on disobeying language. Instead of refusing to obey the "law" of vous and tu (the distinction between formal address, as one might speak to a professor, and informal address, as one might speak to friends) or, as appears to be the issue of the day, instead of refusing to, as Barthes puts it, "determine [themselves], as soon as [they] speak, in relation to masculine/feminine," today's activists are proposing (with some success) to change the law.

Like I say, they take a literal view of the "laws" of language. They think that the rules of grammar, which have "oppressed" them all this time, can be changed by legislative action. They're not simply going to disobey the unjust law they perceive; they are going to compel you to obey a new law. They are not just insisting on being themselves despite the law. They are not trying to establish a freer relation to usage, but rather trying to establish a new and even more binding one. They are trying to "impose a way of being, a subjecthood, a subjectivity on" everyone. Since "the subject" is indeed constructed where "language takes places" (to use Waldrop's wonderful image), it is appropriate, I think, to call this, precisely, linguistic fascism.

I'll write more about this in the weeks to come. (It's "in my wheelhouse", as they say.) Brenda Cossman emphasized the difference between "the law as it is and the law as you would like it to be". Some people, it seems, need to recognize the distinction between language as it is and language as they would like it to be. Indeed, as Peterson suggests on the basis of his clinical experience, we do well to distinguish our identity as it is from our identity as we would like it to be. As his own current situation suggests, we find ourselves mainly in the way we manage our obedience. And our disobedience.

Monday, November 21, 2016



"Melancholy is big contemplative utopia."

I think it was Lisa Robertson who first made me see melancholy as a pining for utopia, a perfect kind of longing. I felt it acutely on the morning of Donald Trump's election, when months of depression seemed, if only for a moment, to lift. The image of Kirsten Dunst in Lars von Trier's Melancholia came to mind. Through most of the film, her depression makes her at times apathetic, at times, erratic. But as the (literal) end of the world draws nigh, she finds her pith and moment. She takes charge and shepherds her family serenely into the apocalypse. Likewise, when Trump was elected, my melancholy revealed itself as clarity. Unlike the shocked commentariat, I felt I understood exactly what was happening and knew precisely what to do; unlike Hillary Clinton, I had something to say.

Melancholy is big contemplative utopia. It is a system that functions to pose a seemingly boundless cognitive space where transformation, never a neutral event, always a grievance or an astonishment, can claim potential. Transformation may include decay, multiplication, reversal, inflation or minification, fragmentation or annexation, plus all the Ovidian modalities. But it is not possible to calculate which, or in what sequence. […] Melancholy is a latent or paused anticipation of something necessarily unknowable, where the latency is not passive, but an experimental site for non-identity. (Lisa Robertson, "Perspectors/Melancholia" in Nilling, p. 51)

Melancholics do not dream wishfully of the Apocalypse. They live in the nightmare of its slowly grinding gears. The same "machinery of transition" is seen by their fellows on the Left and the Right as evil in its parts but necessary on the whole. Their variously "progressive" and "conservative" policies are offered to move it forward or hold it back, but invariably assume that it will keep running. Melancholics are utopian because they perceive its underlying contingency. In their hearts, they know it will run its course. Their eye is to the fixed stars that remain aloof to the collision of planets. When the End comes, they keep their head because they haven't lost their perspective.

*Picture from

Two Stories about a Classroom Video

The email from a graduate student that Jordan Peterson read at the U of T forum reminded me of Jonathan's Haidt's account of being accused of classroom harassment. These are the real effects of political correctness.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

On Letting and Not Letting Language Take Place

"This 'I' has lately been confused with the expression of unquestioned subjectivity and identity. But it simply indicates that language is taking place." (Rosmarie Waldrop)

It may not have been his intention—it was brilliant if it was—but at the start of Jordan Peterson's opening remarks he provided a clear demonstration of his major thesis. He asked all the women in the room to stand up. Then he asked all the men in the room to stand up. He said he was doing this mainly to demonstrate the gender differences in who was taking an interest in the issue. But it actually demonstrated something much simpler: everyone understood what he was asking them to do.

Also, perhaps surprisingly given the context, no one seemed to take offense. It was an unusually disciplined audience, it must be said. Perhaps someone did take offense but did not feel sufficiently empowered to disrupt the experiment. But he was also doing something very ordinary, something very inoffensive. He could also have asked all the lawyers to stand up. All the faculty members. All the students. Again, this could have demonstrated something about the composition of the audience. And again everyone would have known whether or not to stand.

Or almost everyone, anyway. In fact, it is easy to imagine Peterson getting himself into trouble. What if he had asked all the non-binary members of the audience to stand (as I actually half expected him to do, before he had explained why he was asking people to stand)? The issue here isn't just one of language but one of civility. While it is perfectly civil to ask men and women, and lawyers and professors, to identify themselves as such, things change when we we're identifying people by their vulnerabilities. If he had asked all the non-binary or gender-non-conforming people in the room to stand there would perhaps have been few who would know that he was talking about them. They may have felt as uncomfortable at that moment as they may have felt left out the way things actually happened.

The reason is that it is an identity that is "at issue" in a way that being a man or woman is not. This is something that Peterson explains quite clearly during the University of Toronto forum. Where pronouns are concerned, gender identities are not substances but expediences. We use "he" and "she" intuitively in the hopes of identifying the right person in a particular speech situation. Just as we use "men" and "women" to get the right people to stand up. In language we use identities "to simplify the world for functional purposes," as Peterson puts it.

This is an elementary truth about language. As Rosmarie Waldrop aptly puts it, using a pronoun is not an "expression of unquestioned subjectivity and identity" but merely an indication "that language is taking place". Or, as Peterson puts it, using "he" or "she" isn't some powerful sign of respect. Using pronouns incorrectly, likewise, shouldn't be seen as a violation of anyone's human rights. Nor should arguments against punishing misuse of pronouns count as "hate propaganda". But elementary as this point may be to some, Mary Bryson won't have it. And her* reasons are very telling.

Bryson identifies very strongly as an "academic". "Practices of peer review are practices that we utilize to make assessments about knowledge claims," she says. "I would fully appreciate being able to enter into a discussion about gender and gender identity and issues around trans culture as a means of practicing peer review ... [but] 'simplifying the world for functional purposes' is not what I recognize to be academic practice." This is an amazing statement, which I will unpack in another post by way of a reading of some of her contributions to the peer reviewed literature. I suspect that by "peer reviewed" she means that she is beholden only to people she recognizes as her peers.

But what I want to point out here is simpler. She seems to identify "academic practice" with a negation or (to use her sort of language) an "erasure" of language as used by ordinary people for ordinary purposes. Kenneth Burke talked about literature as providing "equipment for living". George Orwell called one of his great essays on censorship "The Prevention of Literature." I think Peterson is right to worry about totalitarianism. Because she is totally invested in her identity as an "academic", Mary Bryson has, it would seem, found it necessary to prevent language from even taking place.

*Update 21/11/16 at 9:20: This appears to be an act of misgendering. While my choice of pronoun was, for obvious reasons, quite deliberate, it was not a deliberate act of misgendering. Rather, it was an honest mistake, which I have explained in my footnote to my previous post. I'm letting it stand both there and here, with this acknowledgement. At the time of writing this footnote, I have not decided what I will do in any future post. As Peterson's situation makes clear, there are many complex political and legal things to think about before one can safely talk about Mary Bryson in the third person.

The Denunciation of Jordan Peterson

Yesterday, a "forum" was held at the University of Toronto to discuss Jordan Peterson's opposition to the mandated use of so-called non-binary pronouns. A video of the event is available. There are lots of things to say about it (Christie Blatchford says some of them here), but I want to focus on the particular aspect of the proceedings that caused me to put those scare quotes around the word "forum".

It should be kept in mind that the event was originally planned as a debate. Instead, it became a "forum", which, I take it, implies something more like an airing of views and less like a confrontation of them. Peterson, we might say, was offered yet another opportunity to incriminate himself, and his critics were offered an opportunity, not to prove him wrong, but to denounce him. And this they very ably did.

Peterson himself pointed this out at about an hour and fifteen minutes in. "I have in fact been denounced today," he asked the audience to notice, "and what I am saying has in fact been described as hate propaganda." He was referring to this remark by Mary Bryson: "a lot of what we've been hearing here is hate propaganda." She* frames this remark by invoking the words of the justice minister, hot off the successful passage of the very law that Peterson believes threatens his freedom of speech. It's hard not to notice the implicit threat.

I think it is important to make these insinuations explicit. After all, Brenda Cossman, whose function seemed to be mainly to assure the audience that only the letter of the law, not its spirit nor its potential to be abused, is what matters, dutifully (but wrongly) denies that Bryson's remarks constitute a denunciation or anything other than criticism of his views. Indeed, throughout the event there was an unacknowledged tension between Cossman's assurances about the limits of the law's application and Bryson's very clear view that Peterson's work should not be allowed, i.e., should, for all intents and purposes, be illegal. Apparently Cossman simply doesn't notice that Bryson repeatedly questions Peterson's qualifications "to be employed at a great university" by suggesting that he is not up to speed with the relevant science. You'll notice that the moderator, a provost at the University of Toronto, thanks her for this smackdown.

And this brings us to the coup de grace that the moderator lets Bryson administer. It seems clear that Bryson had been deliberately brought in from outside the University of Toronto to serve this function. It's hard not to come to the conclusion that the question she received at the end had been prepared from the beginning—indeed, that her answer to it had also been prepared.

But before getting to her closing remarks, I'd like to go back to her opening remarks. Like Cossman, she expressed her displeasure at attending the event; she didn't, she said, want to dignify "this man and his ideas" through debate. Cossman had gone the extra step of stating her support for those who boycotted it.** Though I don't quite understand how one can support a boycott while participating in the event being boycotted, I suppose that is her right. I find it implausible, however, that the University of Toronto could not find two people who would be pleased to discuss these important issues. That they invited people who didn't really want to be there is telling.

Her response was to call on the University of Toronto to apologise for Peterson's "recent public works" (a phrase she used to distance them from serious intellectual contributions). More importantly, she framed this call for an apology by insinuating that Peterson's work is as contemptible as long-past pogroms against "homosexual" faculty members. It is very clear to me that Bryson undertook to denounce Peterson. It is almost as clear to me that she did this with the official approval of the University of Toronto. If the university does not immediately distance itself from her remarks, I will take my suspicion to be confirmed.

In fact, I think Jordan Peterson is owed an apology for this transparent attempt, not only to humiliate him, but to preemptively justify the disciplinary sanctions that are no doubt already being considered. I think his efforts have so far been heroic. His enemies seem intent on making a martyr of him.

*Obviously, I used this pronoun advisedly. Merely attending the event or watching the video would not offer any guidance about it. [Update 21/11/16 at 9:15: It turns out I missed Dean Cameron's guidance in his introductory remarks. He did not say explicitly that it's Bryson's preferred or mandatory pronoun, but he did twice refer to Bryson as "they" and "their".] Normally, there would be no doubt about how to refer to a person named Mary Bryson in the third person. But in this case I was, of course, unsure. Note, however, that I was not unsure about how to refer to Brenda Cossman. Context aside, this was mainly because of the differences in their style of hair and dress. I decided to find an online bio, hoping that it would refer to her in the third person. And I did. "Dr. Bryson is the recipient of multiple awards for her interdisciplinary scholarship," says her bio at UBC's Social Justice Institute (presumably they can be trusted to get this sort of thing right), "including most recently, a Senior Fellowship at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, and in 2000, the Canadian Women in the Spotlight, Wired Women 'Pioneer in New Media' award." Not only did she seem to openly identify as a woman, she had accepted awards in that capacity. But then I read Blatchford's column and was surprised to see her refusing to address Bryson by her preferred "they". Blatchford had also found a university bio. So I don't know exactly what to think. But I'm going to let the feminine pronoun stand. If it is not what Bryson prefers, I will consider my options, political and legal. [See the update above. And this video, which makes Bryson's preferences clear. I'm not going to erase my original gendering in this post or my subsequent post, letting this footnote explain how it came about. I will, as promised, consider it going forward.]

**Update at 23:18: I got this wrong in the original post, where I said Bryson had expressed support for the boycott.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

When Nudge Comes to Shove

"He had no social machinery but the cumbrous one of the intellect. When he tried to be amiable he usually only succeeded in being portentous." (Wyndham Lewis)

Andrew Gelman has an excellent demolition of SciAm's neuro-scientific explanation of Trump's victory up at his blog. I left a comment that I'll repost here with a view additional thoughts.

“The fact is if science is on the level of this piece (and much, if not most of it, is), then it does deserve to go down the drain,” says Alex Gamma. This is a very important point. The “progressive” impulse to settle political questions with science is as dangerous as the “conservative” impulse to settle them with moral sentiment. Scientific “explanations” of political decisions get in the way of understanding them. We sit in judgment on our political opponents, rather than engaging with them.

My very first reaction to the election result channeled Wyndham Lewis’s The Art of Being Ruled. “Social reform today [1926],” he begins, “is a very fluid and mercurial science,” and adds that “politics and science are today commutative.” Much later in the book, in a brilliant chapter called “Fascism as an Alternative,” he writes about the situation in Mussolini’s Italy:

In ten years a state will have been built in which at last no trace of European ‘liberalism’ or its accompanying democratic ‘liberty’ exists. […] In such a state it is difficult to see how ‘politics’ could exist. ‘Economics’ will simply disappear. All the boring and wasteful sham-sciences that have sprung up in support of the great pretenses of democracy, and in deference to notions of democratic freedom, will die from one day to the next: for they are the most barren of luxuries, and no one would be interested in keeping them alive for their own sakes (in the way the arts are sometimes kept alive) for an hour. (322)

The fascist approach to ‘politics’ is essentially to do away with it (in any recognizably democratic sense) and to replace it with “decision making” by a powerful person. What’s interesting is how the “science” of decision-making simulates this attitude, albeit with a pretense of democracy. Before each of Ezra Pound’s broadcasts from Rome during the second world war, Italian radio provided the disclaimer that Pound was being given the airwaves “in accordance with the Fascist policy of the free expression of opinion by those qualified to hold it.” If one didn’t know better, one would think they were trying to be funny.

But hasn’t “the age of Obama” been precisely a time when one felt unqualified to hold one’s own political opinions? I’m thinking here, for example, of the “science” of “nudging” people towards policy goals by “priming” their “implicit biases”. One has felt disqualified by dint of one’s limbic system, let’s say. The neuro-scientific end run around what people think and believe about their polity is in many ways like telling people that 97% of all scientists believe in climate change. They may be right, of course. But I think the effort to “qualify” political opinions with science has finally undermined the basis of science’s real authority.

Lewis exemplified the "commutative" nature of science and politics with their joint "revolutionary" fervor. "Everyone today, in everything, is committed to revolution. But when unanimity on the subject of revolution has become complete, then there will be no more revolution." Lewis is difficult to read, especially today. But here's something that bears thinking about:

There is creative revolution, to parody Bergson's term [i.e., "creative evolution"], and destructive revolution. A sorting out is necessary to protect as many people as have the sense to heed these nuances. A great deal of the experimental material of art and science, for instance, is independent of any destructive function. Reactionary malice or stupidity generally confuses it with the useful but not very savory chemistry of the Apocalypse.

A hundred years of trying to reform society with science has taken a toll on both science and politics. Perhaps this is the "permanent revolution" Lewis warned about. Whether it was by malice or stupidity we've been living through an ongoing apocalypse, always being promised that "four more years" will get the job done. It's almost refreshing to hear Trump's top adviser propose to harness the forces of "darkness" and "govern for fifty years". Again, though one suspects otherwise, one hopes he's trying to be funny.

I, too, hope I'm joking. But the problem is, of course, quite serious. The "liberal" establishment has been trying for many years (probably since the second world war at least) to "nudge" us with its "science" towards a particular kind of utopia and, therefore, like I say, through—slowly, very slowly through—a particular apocalypse. Lewis again:

The present [1926] is of course a particularly "transitional" society: but the transit must take some time as it must go all around the earth. Animal conditions, practically, must prevail while this progress is occurring. We begin already to regard ourselves as animals. The machinery of the transit is the "revolutionary" dogma daily manufactured in tons by the swarming staffs specially trained for that work. (25)

I think we can now see what it he meant. The "animal conditions" are, of course, our reduction to our "limbic systems". The "machinery of the transit" is the cumbersome apparatus of the welfare state, moving forward in its fits and starts and irritating little nudges, staffed by bureaucrats whose heads are filled with social theories, swarming through the revolving doors of universities, think tanks and government agencies. It would seem that someone has given the apocalypse a good shove forward.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Investigating Harassment, part 1

It is one thing to study sexual harassment as a general problem and another to investigate particular cases. Let us consider an example that is, to use the familiar Hollywood phrase, based on a true story.*

Early in the spring semester a student notices one of her professors at a political demonstration. His shared interest in one of her favorite causes adds to her already favorable opinion of him as a brilliant scientist and engaging teacher. Soon afterwards, her roommate, who had been one of the leaders of the demonstration, receives an email from the professor thanking her for organizing the event. She passes it on to her roommate because she knows she is taking his class. The student now answers the mail, thanking him, and he suggests they meet and talk politics. They do so, but the conversation also turns to the class she is taking with him, the professors research interests, and the possibility of a career for the student in the discipline. He believes she has an aptitude for it and tells her so. In fact, he encourages her to pursue a career in science.

Over several meetings (held mainly in cafes), they also discuss personal matters, including her relationship troubles. And he shares stories of his own problems in turn. At the end of one of these conversations, during which they discuss some current romantic troubles she is facing, he walks her home and, on parting, gives her a warm hug in comfort. With the coming of summer, they lose contact and their relationship becomes less personal. As she nears graduation, she approaches him for a letter of recommendation and, as he had expected when they first met, he is able to write her a glowing one. She is accepted into the graduate school of her choice and eventually earns a PhD. Over the years, they work together, albeit peripherally, in a number of collaborations and share author credit on several papers.

About ten years after their first meeting, however, the professor is informed by a Title IX officer that the events I just described are part of a sexual harassment investigation. The student has lodged a formal complain with the Office of Civil Rights at his university, alleging that his behavior caused her profound distress. How should the investigation proceed? How are we to decide whether the professor had in fact harassed the student?

First of all, let's agree that the harassment, if it occurred, occurred during that spring semester when they met. That, indeed, is all we are assuming that she is alleging. If her allegations are true then, by the time she went off to grad school, she would have been a "survivor". This means that the ten intervening years are of no relevance to answering our question, Was she harassed? And that means that she could have filed her complaint at any time after their last meeting.

It seems, at first pass, understandable for her to wait until at least after she had been accepted to graduate school. But it should be kept in mind that she might also want to deal with the harassment issue before she even asks for the letter of recommendation. Indeed, one critical question I would have asked as investigator, ten years after the fact, is why she asked for the letter of recommendation. If she was concerned about what he thought of her, and the relationship had "cooled", why didn't she see this as too risky? Couldn't she have chosen a safer reference, where there was nothing amiss in the relationship? I would have been a bit suspicious, in other words.

But let's imagine an alternative universe in which she had come to me before asking for the letter, there would be all kinds of opportunity to clarify the situation and demonstrate wrongdoing. Presumably, her distress was caused by the thought that his interest in her was not purely intellectual. She was worried that her career now depended on keeping things "personal" with him. The hug was "too friendly" for her, let's say. It felt "off". And now she was worried that he would proposition her. Perhaps she was worried that he would somehow tie this proposition to the much-needed letter of recommendation.

Well, all of that could have been clarified by having her ask for the letter of recommendation in writing. Or perhaps surreptitiously recording the request. And then having him make the counter-offer, i.e., "You can have the letter if you sleep with me." Or, somewhat less obviously, he could promise the letter, then make his move, and then hold back the letter when she refused. All of this could be documented with the help of the investigator—if, that is, she had gone to administrators at the time. It might even be possible to go the extra step of catching him trying to sabotage her chances of getting into grad school by writing an unsolicited letter warning about her. With the right institutional support, he could be exposed in this as well.

Like I say, this is a fictitious example. So let's also imagine an alternative scenario in which she works with the investigator to set the trap and he doesn't fall into it. Or, rather, suppose she was simply wrong to be distressed. She asks for the letter. He writes it and asks for nothing in return. Everything is documented. All the emails are in the hands of the Title IX officer. Is this really a case of harassment? I don't think it is. But I'm interested to hear what others think.

(In part 2, I'll deal with what I see as the consequences of these imagined scenarios for the assessment of his behavior ten years later.)

*I am of course basing my example on the case of Geoff Marcy and Sarah Ballard. I should actually two differences between my example and the true story. First, I have left out the reason that the relationship cooled over the summer. In the Marcy-Ballard case, it was because he had been warned that his behavior was being talked about. Second, I have him walking, not driving, her home after their last conversation, and I have him hugging her rather than putting a hand on her shoulder.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Learn to Engage

This is what I was trying to say on the morning of Trump's election (and the days that followed.)

(HT Robby Soave, who explains it well.) Real political engagement is a lost art on the Left, destroyed by social science and social media. As I said on Jonathan's blog, it's time to rediscover the ridiculously precise language of poetry.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Behavioral Specifics

"...the absolute WORST way to measure sexual misconduct is to query 'Have you been sexually harassed?' or 'Have you been sexually assaulted?' People’s working definitions of these experiences are expected to fall far short of the legal definitions ... Rather 'published recommendations for measurement of sexual assault and harassment typically endorse the use of behaviorally specific questions.'" (Katie Hinde, quoting NDRI.)

I’ve been frustrated with the way studies of sexual harassment in science are done. Not only do the questionnaires seem needlessly vague, and not only are the results interpreted in overly alarmist ways, they don’t seem to capitalize on the presumable intelligence of the survey respondents. They don't let the respondents think along with the researchers. It seems to me that a survey that signaled some seriousness, and made it very clear what sort of information was being sought, could provide (if a good enough sample could be collected) really important insights into the sex and gender climate in astronomy today.

I’m not an expert in designing such surveys. Maybe some degree of misdirection and vagueness is necessary in this sort of work. But here, in any case, is a set of questions I’d like a representative survey of astronomers to answer. I make them available here for the consideration of anyone who is thinking of investigating the issue, and would, of course, be happy to discuss the matter further with anyone who is interested. This proposed "instrument" should give a good sense of the sorts of measurements I'm interested in.

In my view, the survey should be accompanied by a cover letter that explains the intention of the survey, namely, to try to distinguish sharply between soft and hard forms of harassment, and get a detailed picture of the sorts of behaviors that are typical among astronomers in the area of gender and sexuality. The cover letter should include some examples of behavior and what the “right” answer would be in the opinion of the researchers. For example, the researchers could refer to cases that are part of the public record, like the relationship between Sarah Ballard and Geoff Marcy, and say how such experiences might inform a respondent's answers. I.e., how would Sarah Ballard rightly answer these questions?

Trigger Warning

This is a survey about sexual assault and harassment in astronomy. If you have been sexually assaulted or harassed, the questions may trigger traumatic memories and you might therefore not want to take this survey. It would be helpful to us, however, if you let us know the reason you are not responding. (Check one or both.)

I am concerned that this survey might trigger traumatic memories from experiences outside of the astronomy community. ( )
I am concerned that this survey might trigger traumatic memories from experiences within the astronomy community. ( )


When did you/do you expect to receive your PhD? [year]

What is your current employment status? [PhD student, post-doc, assistant prof, associate prof, full prof, non-academic]

What leadership positions do you hold? [RPI, department head, director, dean, president]

What country do you currently hold your primary employment position in?

What is your gender? [male/female/other]

How do you identify racially? [white/POC] (Perhaps this should be more specific?)

How many of your peers are also friends and/or lovers? [none, few, many]

Have you ever had a consensual sexual encounter with a peer?

After enrolling in graduate school, have you ever had a consensual sexual encounter with an undergraduate student at the same university and in a related program?

As a faculty member, have you ever had a consensual sexual encounter with a graduate student?

As an undergraduate, have you ever had a consensual sexual encounter with teacher?

As a graduate student, have you ever had a consensual sexual encounter with a supervisor?

Self-report of harassment and assault

(These are yes/no questions.)

In your judgment, have you ever been sexually harassed by a fellow astronomer?
*b. Has your harasser been punished?

In your judgment, have you ever sexually harassed a fellow astronomer?
*b. Have you been punished for this?

In your judgment, have you ever been sexually assaulted by a fellow astronomer?
*b. Has your harasser been punished?

In your judgment, have you ever sexually assaulted a fellow astronomer?
*b. Have you been punished for this?

Do you think your decision to have sex or not with another astronomer has ever directly impacted (positively or negatively) your career? Please leave aside the effects of your happiness or unhappiness with your choice of life partner, who may of course be an astronomer. Also, leave aside merely risk-avoiding behavior. If you merely considered but decided against sleeping with a student or teacher, which you judge could have potentially ruined your career but didn’t, you should answer no. (Likewise, merely “risky” but non-consequential decisions should also be left on the side in this question: if you got away with it, answer no.) The question is whether your career trajectory has been directly affected by your sexual decision making, i.e., whether your career has ever been directly at stake when making a decision to have sex.

Behavioral specifics

(These questions are to be answered [never, rarely, sometimes, often] unless otherwise stated. They are all about interactions with your peers and/or superiors. I.e., they are all implicitly about experiences "at work".)

How often do you engage in personal communication and encounters with your peers?

How often do you experience non-ironic uses of gender stereotypes at work?

How often do you experience ironic uses of gender stereotypes at work?

How often do you experience sexist language, i.e., language that demeans an individual on the basis of gender, or simply demeans all members of a gender?

How often are you exposed to overtly sexual remarks or jokes?

How often are you exposed to sexual innuendo?

How often are you invited by peers to engage in activities that are sexually themed? (This would include being invited to view pornography, visit strip clubs, or go to swinger parties.)
*b. How often do you find this to be inappropriate? [in no/few/some/all cases]

How often are you approached by peers in astronomy for sexual or romantic purposes?

How often do you approach your peers in astronomy for sexual or romantic purposes?

How often are you touched in what is to you a personal but clearly non-sexual and non-violent way? (This does not include impersonal or formal touching such as handshakes or standing closely in a packed elevator but includes hugs, hand holding, pats on the back, firmly grabbing your shoulders or biceps, or lifting your chin with a finger. It may be as a gesture of support or censure.)
*b. How often do you find such “friendliness” (or animosity) to be inappropriately personal or a violation of your personal space? (Remember these are not cases in which the touching is interpreted by you as in any way sexual or actually violent.)

How often do you experience being looked at in a covertly sexual way by other astronomers, i.e., primarily for the sexual gratification of the looker? (Leave aside looks by romantic partners.)
*b. How often do you find this to be inappropriate? [in no/few/some/all cases]

How often do you experience being looked at in an overtly sexual way, i.e., in way that is intended to communicate sexual desire to you? (Again, leave aside any looks by romantic partners from whom such communication is to be expected.)
*b. How often do you find this to be inappropriate? [in no/few/some/all cases]

How often have you been touched, without giving prior consent, for what you interpret to be primarily the sexual gratification of the person touching you? (Again, leave aside touches by current romantic partners.)
*b. How often do you find this to be inappropriate? [in no/few/some/all cases]

How often have you been touched, without giving prior consent, in what you interpret to be an explicitly sexual manner, i.e., a way that is intended to please you? (Please include touchings that both did and didn’t please you. But again leave aside romantic partners.)
*b. How often do you find this to be inappropriate? [in no/few/some/all cases]

How often do you experience physical violence from you peers?

How often are you offered sexual favors in exchange for professional favors? I.e., how often does someone offer to provide you with sexual pleasure in exchange for professional assistance provided by you?

How often are you offered professional assistance in exchange for sexual favors? I.e., how often does someone offer to provide you with professional assistance in exchange for sexual pleasure provided by you?

How often are you punished professionally for not engaging in sexually-themed activities (e.g., watching pornography or going to strip clubs) with your peers and/or superiors?

How often are you punished professionally for refusing to engage in sexual activities (e.g., kissing, fondling, oral sex or intercourse) with your peers and/or superiors?

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Liberal Arts of Being Ruled

"There should be a science of administration which shall seek to straighten the paths of government, to make its business less unbusinesslike, to strengthen and purify its organization, and to crown its duties with dutifulness. This is one reason why there is such a science." (Woodrow Wilson, 1886)

"Though shalt not sit with statisticians nor commit a social science." (W.H. Auden, 1946)

I agree with those who say that Hillary Clinton lost the campaign when she forgot that the president's job is to govern the people, not to deplore them. She may have forgotten this long before she openly put half the population in one basket and all her eggs in the other. Indeed, she was not at all alone in this forgetfulness. The past few years have seen an intense effort to "purify" our political organisations, not least within the university and it would seem that university students and their teachers are now the least equipped to understand how Trump was able to win the highest office in the land.

I think Robby Soave is absolutely right to suggest that Trump's victory was, in part, a backlash against political correctness, not least the version of it that has been nurtured in the "safe spaces" of America's college campuses. But I think the problem goes deeper. You can't beat a political opponent that paralyzes you with fear simply when he expresses his opinion. It's because the left demonized Trump that they were unable to defeat him. In a word that I hope to give a particular meaning to in this post, they dehumanized him. In that sense, the rise of Trump can be attributed to the fall of the humanities.

And that means that it can also be attributed to the inextricably related rise of the social sciences. For over a century, funded by a network of powerful foundations, they have wrested our understanding of our own selves away from, well, our own selves, and placed it under the tutelage of a confederacy of academics and journalists, a convocation of politic worms, who are more comfortable with ideologies than actual ideas. Indeed, the ideology of the moment is less important to them than subordinating thought to the forces of history.

Thus blinded, the intelligentsia was simply unable to understand what was happening. It had lost the capacity for independent thought. Indeed, it didn't have much of a taste for thinking any longer. An appreciation of poetry was supplanted by the popularization of science. Gladwell replaced Auden; "the clear expression of mixed feelings" was abandoned in favor of "thinking without thinking". Intellectuals were all too happy to sit with statisticians. Much better to commit a social a science than risk committing a thought crime. Organizations were cleansed of their impurities, the living organisms they comprised. Engagements became "interactions". Actual human beings of flesh and blood, hopes and fears, pains and pleasures, became "profiles" to be "situated" on social media "platforms" where they could be "liked" and "blocked" at will. Opposing ideas became threats; reality was deemed offensive. Friends became "allies". Enemies became monsters.

Think of rhetoric as the liberal art of humanizing your enemy, of converting animosity into language.* Not for the sake of your enemy but for the sake of your own moral orientation in the universe. Once you have decided that half your country has chosen a leader to represent only its bigotries, you have lost your way. Your ethics have been compromised by generalities. You have allowed a vague "theory" to overwhelm your data, which you have, I am afraid, taken too much for given. You've been taken in. And now you are living in fear of an inhuman oppressor.

Undermined by "foundations" (e.g., The Clinton Foundation) and overwhelmed by organizations (e.g., The Trump Organization), our institutions lost their footing. With the proliferation of media, we lost the immediate rightness of our conduct. Proudly declaring ourselves "reality-based" we mocked and ridiculed those who questioned our most cherished facts. We socially constructed an objective reality that had no room for the subjective idealities of our fellows.

Perhaps the names of the relevant parties is telling. Perhaps the end of Democracy is the rise of the Republic. The first step is to recuse ourselves from the Empire. Wyndham Lewis talked of "the art of being ruled"; Ezra Pound said "master thyself then others shall ye bear." Make love, not war, said Propertius. Don't say #NotMyPresident. Look in your heart and write, gubernator non sum. You are not the pilot. But have some respect for what pilots do.

I think we may have to face the fact that social science and democracy are incompatible. The social sciences conduct an undemocratic inquiry into society. Democracy is an unscientific way of governing it. It is because psychologists and sociologists have supplanted poets and novelists as experts on who “we” are that we have lost faith in democracy—at a deeper level, we have simply lost faith in each other. Democracy is possible only on a “humanist” foundation. As Pound tried to tell us a hundred years ago, the arts provide the "data of ethics". They are "the permanent basis of all metaphysics and psychology."

*This sentence was originally about poetry. After posting, I decided rhetoric is a better label.