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.


Jonathan said...

As I said in a post on my blog, they want to have it two ways: absolute social constructionism, combined with a rigid idea about identity. The appeal to peer review is especially laughable. Peer review is a process by which an institution or set of institutions conveys social authority. It is not a measure of objective truth. What if my totally wrong article goes through peer review? Does that mean that my conclusions suddenly become truth?

Thomas said...

That's a great post, Jonathan. "If gender and even sex are socially constructed," you ask, "then what makes my own private socially constructed identity so sacrosanct, so essential?" Indeed!