"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.