Friday, December 16, 2016

The Professor & The Pronoun: Part I

This will be the first part of a series of posts I will write on Jordan B Peterson. Now, for anyone who isn't familiar with the situation (ie is not Canadian), Jordan Peterson is a professor at UofT who released a video titled "Profesor against Political Correctness: Part 1", in which he outlines some of his thoughts on some new legislation called Bill C-16. The bill is a proposed amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code in order to recognize discrimination on the grounds of "gender identity or expression" (AKA codify hate crimes against Transgender persons into law). I won't go into the legal arguments around this bill - but I will leave this link here to a debate b/w Peterson and a Canadian Legal expert and expert on Transgender issues and allow you to decide which one had the better arguments (Spoiler: I think the 2 experts won by a wide margin. But I'll probably comment on that another day).

Initially, I wanted to cover everything he's written on the subject, starting with the video that started it all. However, as time passed, I realized that such a chore was probably unnecessary. I think there is enough wrong with his first video to inductively undermine his argument as a whole. Although such a strategy may seem like cheating - it really isn't. I know this isn't philosophically kosher - but I have an intuition that the burden of proof should be on the person making the grandiose claims. Now, I'm aware that Peterson's arguments are intended to be evaluated within the context of his worldview - but I think there is more than enough evidence from his initial video alone that various aspects of his worldview are mistaken. Also, before I go any further, I'll link you to a series of facebook comments I've written that are at least tangentially related this controversy.

So, the video begins with Peterson claiming that he's "very worried" about the "direction things are going in", due to his knowledge about the way totalitarian and authoritarian political states develop". Correct me if I'm wrong - but it sounds like his argument is that Canada is treading the waters of totalitarianism because it's becoming too politically correct. Now, my knowledge of Russian history isn't the best - but I don't remember the part where the USSR formed because one professor was told to address his trans students by the gender-neutral pronoun "they" instead of the gendered pronouns "he" or "she". Because that's what this is about. Bill C16 doesn't force you to remember the many neo-pronouns out there. It merely requires you to use the gender neutral pronoun "they" (which, although some prescriptive grammarians consider to be exclusively plural, it doesn't necessarily have to be thata way, as I will explain later).

All jokes aside though - my inner linguist knows that language mutates all the time - just like biological organisms incrimentally mutate via evolution. Keep in mind there are around 3000 - 7000 languages in the world, depending on what you call a language, and the vast majority of them are parts of linguistic families, which imply that various languages branched off of earlier languages. Plus, it's well known that languages accept new words, such as "loanwords", all the time. So from a global perspective, adding a new gender-neutral pronoun to English is hardly out of the ordinary. Oh, and to get back to the previous point about "they" being allegedly exclusively plural - there are many instances of  2 words having the same phonetic form (pronunciation) and the same spelling, but having different meanings (These words are both homonyms and homographs). So there is no reason "they" can't be both the plural and the singular, gender-neutral pronoun.

Now, I know a key part of this debate is in how these new words are legally enacted. Now, while it's true that new words aren't usually forced upon speakers externally, I can think of a few cases in which they are: racial epithets, older classifications for "mental illnesses", and other forms of  "derogatory language". Now, Peterson has argued that it's a false equivalency to compare racial epithets like the "N-word" with a refusal to use a gender neutral pronoun, since in one case, the racial epithet is an example of what not to say, while in the other case, it's an example of what to say. This argument, while appearing persuasive at first falls apart once one realizes that many languages have gender neutral pronouns or are gender neutral in general. And not just in the grammatical sense of gender. So really, it's not controlling "what you say" so much as it's removing the requirement that every person be ascribed a gender. Which IMO improves the scope of what can be expressed in our language - making English a more descriptive language.

So, why is it too much to ask to use gender neutral pronouns when dealing with trans persons, but not to use other forms of derogatory language? Is the problem with the way we classify derogatory language? Because you gotta admit, the idea that a persecuted minority accounting for less than 1% of the population don't seem like very good candidates for a nationwide conspiracy to steal your liberties. Or is it for purely for pragmatic reasons (since, as mentioned earlier, trans persons account for less than 1% of the population)? But then, where is the limit? People like to draw a parallel by asking whether we should be forced, by law, to address people as unicorns if asked. But I think the key failing of this line of reasoning is that, well, no one actually asks to be addressed as a unicorn. I think it completely misses the point, because we have at least a decent understanding of what makes trans persons feel the way they do. So we have objective evidence that the phenomena exists. We don't have that for people claiming they feel like unicorns.

Now, I personally think there is something more nefarious behind the line of argumentation adopted by Peterson and his ilk. Which isn't to say that they are bad people - but rather, that their philosophy is stained by certain underlying assumptions that are probably more politically motivated than anything else. I won't go into any more detail in this post except to point this out: he seems to suggest that people who use political correctness are basically "second-handers". Which, to be blunt, sounds like the kind of argument your crazy conservative right-wing uncle might make. Which isn't to say that his argument is completely illegitimate and therefore not worthy of engagement. Or maybe it does. Regardless, I'm a masochist, so I'll probably end up tackling this line of reasoning in a future blog post. And I'll probably write another on whether the rise of totalitarian and authoritarian states are really is analogous to what we're seeing by the "advent" of Political Correctness (spoiler: I think it's the exact opposite thing that's happening). But for now, I'm going to hit the books. Peace ya'll!

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