Friday, February 3, 2017

The Professor & The Pronoun: Part II

Remember how I said I'd eventually do another post on the Peterson fiasco? Well, today is finally that day. Unsurprisingly, this will be a continuation of a prior blog post, which was a response to some of the sillier arguments some of his followers made (namely about the alleged "made up"-ness of the pronouns). I picked that question since I have a background in Linguistics, and it was one in which I felt I could make a useful contribution. Particularly because it implicitly assumed prescriptivism (that is, how one "should" speak) and undermined descriptivism (how people actually use their words). And while it's true that Orwellian control over language can be a powerful tool of control (think of the way the "War on Terror" was framed), it does not follow that, because there was a "language mutation", the corresponding "language mutator" must have Orwellian intentions. This was, by my reckoning, where my last post left off, and where this one resumes.

Before I go any further, I just want to clarify something: when I linked my last post to my Facebook wall, an unpleasant conversation ended up ensuing, culminating in a trans person being reported for using "a false name", and subsequently getting kicked out of their account. Although I was initially quiet about the ordeal, I'm sharing it here as a reminder that, well, not all people that say they believe in free speech actually believe in free speech.

Getting back on point - at the heart of conversations such as these, there's often a deep, ideological rift in which no amount of argumentation can settle. This is most clear upon evaluating the arguments concerning whether there is a scientific basis for the notion of transgender as an identity (aka whether or not gender corresponds so strongly with sex that there is no room for any variations). Here is one I have taken the time to ask permission for and censor out.

The key take away from them is this; there's no simplistic "transgender gene" that you can isolate and point to and say "hey, that's the trans gene!". We have some potential accounts of the data (more on this later), but no complete theory. So, do we view this absence of evidence as evidence of absence, or as the jumping board for better, more up to date science? Well, if you google "scientific basis for Transgenderism", you might get the impression that the former option won out. You'll probably read that argument about the dangers of re-assignment surgery. You may even forget that you're agreeing with Catholic.org and Breitbart for the first time! But then, you'll hopefully take a step back and ask yourself what the other side is saying. And boy is it interesting! As it turns out, they argue, the history of Transgenderism in psychiatry is intermingled with politics. John Hopkins pioneered gender reassignment surgery in 1966, but then stopped in 1979 after a study against gender re-assignment surgery was published. Although to be blunt, the criteria it used to determine the success of the surgery was fairly silly (spoiler: satisfaction on the part of the person receiving the surgery wasn't one of them). Of note is that many other studies came out arriving at the opposite conclusion before, during, and after this period. Also of note is that the guy in charge at the time - Dr. Paul McHugh - was a rather strict Catholic, admitted to wanting to close the program for a while, and was open about how the procedure really grossed him out. Nevertheless, John Hopkins has recently announced it will resume performing the treatment and in fact, has gone as far as to officially support the LGBTQ community. Other organizations with similar views include the WHO APA, AAAS, and CAMH (this article covers them more exhaustively). For more on the history of the transgender movement, I would suggest reading this for the short form, and this for the long).

Unsurprisingly, there's much more research on potential causes as a result of this more widespread acceptance. The prior link lists a few recent studies being done. These two articles reference some older studies (one is as far back as 1999). I won't cover all the findings of these studies or whether they are "scientific" enough to compel belief (I'm not a biologist and the details are irrelevant to my case), but there are plenty of articles written for laypersons that cover some of their findings, from reputable sources, such as National GeographicNew Scientist, and Scientific American. To reiterate, none of this should be taken as deductive evidence for any particular biological or psychological account for transgenderism. I know what an appeal to authority is. Rather, what it is supposed to undermine is the rhetoric that the transgender identity is "unscientific". It also puts the ball in the gender binarist's court - for why should the burden of proof fall on the side of the wider scientific community? Of course, this isn't to say that the wider scientific community can't be wrong. But you better have more than rhetoric if you want anyone to listen - let alone, change their mind. And for anyone surprised that transgenderism could potentially have validity despite previously being questioned by "experts", then all I can say is this: you haven't been paying attention to the history of science. It took until 1987 for Homosexuality to stop being classified as a mental disorder by the DSM. What were you expecting?

Oh, while I'm on this topic - I also want to address a common reductio ad absurdum argument, based on hypothetical "unicorn"-gendered people and Lauren Southern's legal gender. I'll hold my breath on the unicorn people until they mobilize and start demanding equity. And as far as I'm concerned, the legal status of Lauren Southern's gender matters about as much within the context of this debate as Rachel Dolezal's race does in discussions of racial injustice. Find a few more people like her and demonstrate it's a problem, and then we'll talk.

So now we're back to the original ideological question; do we consider the absence of evidence as evidence of absence, or as the basis of new research? My view is the latter. In fact, I'd argue that, given the massive complexities of the physiology and psychology of sexuality, there must be many potential deviations from the norm. I mean, how strange would it be for patterns in our biology - on the brain and body levels - to completely, 100% cohere with each other in such a manner so that every "man" is a "male", every "woman" is a "female", and nothing exists in between, both in terms of sex and gender. To be blunt, this sounds like magical thinking. Of which uncomfortably reminds me of Dr. McHugh, the Catholic.com article, and to a lesser extent, Jordan Peterson. I wonder if these are in some way related? At any rate, this massive complexity, combined with persons claiming a myriad of gender hypothesis, would be neatly predicted by the hypothesis I put forward. And if we step out of our comfort zones to objectively evaluate some of the less intuitive claims of gender theorists, then we may find something of value. After all, science is only as objective as it's era permits.

So with that said, I think we ought to consider the transgender identity legitimate. Which undermines Peterson's central argument that the government is compelling him to explicitly behave in accordance to factually incorrect information (by way of speech). Which weakens the link between the ramifications of Bill C-16 and those nefarious practices of Orwellian states - in which the compelled speech is of falsehoods. However, there is another aspect of the argument that I think is far more significant, particularly from a libertarian perspective - the compelled speech charges. That is to say, whether Bill C-16's requirement that one address (or more specifically, not repeatedly misaddress) a person by one of the 3 recognized pronouns ("he", "she", or "they") of their choice, constitutes as compelled speech. And whether compelled speech - no matter how minute - is just in principle wrong. I think this is the exact point of divergence b/w those who support and oppose Peterson on this issue. And probably another instance in which derivations from the axioms of the ethical systems associated with the 2 major political identities don't match up (see this for an interesting meta-ethical framework which informed my choice of words, and this on a potential Cognitive Science approach to this). However, to tackle broad, theoretical argument such an argument is out of the scope of this post and so, I will only focus on the more direct consequences of the bill.

Firstly, I want to emphasize that any conversation about the consequences of Bill C-16 must also acknowledge the pros. Note that I am not talking about the intentions - but the things the bill does right. Namely, that it provides protections for trans persons from silly things like being fired. Or being threatened with genocide. With that said, let's look at the bulk of Peterson's legal argument against Bill C-16. Or rather, skip to the part where I respond. I mean, we've all heard the arguments before, so I won't rehash them here (although these two articles, combined with any one of Peterson's debates, summarize the key points). It basically boils down to whether or not you think it's acceptable that there's a chance.. however tiny... that the law will be misused. I'd argue there's always a chance a law can be misapplied. And it doesn't always lead to a financial penalty). So keep this in mind when considering your moral outrage towards this issue as opposed to others. Anyways, the standard response to this challenge is to point out that, unlike false executions, compelled speech can lead to catastrophic systemic damage, as laid out by The Gulag Archipelago. Peterson argues that the book can predict with very high accuracy whether or not a state will fall under a totalitarian regime. And apparently, the fact that "bloody Neo-Marxists" have "taken over" college campuses and are "now out to get you" falls in line with its predictive framework. I won't comment on this yet, as I haven't read the book, and I may do a post on this view in it's entirety. But for now, I'll attempt to re-orient the framing of this argument.

Anyways, under the most charitable interpretation of his view (and there are far less pretty ones when it comes to the "Cultural Marxism" comment), the underlying form of the argument amounts to this:

"a group of people who disagree with me performed the sufficient legal machinations to encode their beliefs into law, and I think they will cause more bad than good".

Now, I think any rational person agrees that what is "lawful" is not necessarily what is "morally right". But with that said - I can think of many instantiations of the above sentiment that would be more worthy targets of outrage. Substitute "a group of people" for "Big Oil" and you'll have plenty to be upset about. But here's the thing: we live in a society with laws. Laws we sometimes agree with, and sometimes we don't. But regardless, we're expected to follow them because, as Peterson loves to remind us, it's the best thing we got right now and "you couldn't do any better". Even if we have to follow a system that enables the planet to be slowly but surely killed off. So it can be argued that Peterson applying a double standard in terms of the cultural expectation that we all abide by the law. Now, I suppose his response would be that this is a special case, since the evils of compelled speech would, "by his estimation", cause damage that is not only catastrophic and systemic but also irreversible. Like Big Brother, Canadiana's regime could be too powerful to take down. But here's the thing - my belief that the government is far too cozy with Big Oil, and that that relation leads to... many problems... is pretty much of the exact same form. It's a belief about the distal potential side effects of currently implemented laws (or rather, several laws). But just because I think my view can be all but formally proven, it doesn't follow that I should wholesale refuse to abide by those awful laws (say, by refusing to pay taxes if I somehow knew it would go directly towards a corrupt politician). The whole point of a democracy is to put decisions to a vote. So if Bill C-16 is passed to law - a far better alternative would be to coordinate with your followers to repeal it. After all, we don't want to set a precedent for unnecessarily breaking laws.

I'll be the first to admit that I haven't watched/read/attended all of Peterson's videos/papers/courses. And I admit to greatly enjoying much of what I've seen (some of his rhetoric comes across as "appeals to authority" and invocations of the "naturalistic fallacy" - but I can see his overriding point). I'm even considering factoring some of it into my own cognitive science theories regarding the role of environment over time to human intelligence. But I've seen nothing thus far in his works that demands the same level of certainty as my belief in Big Oil killing the planet. Sorry, I just don't. And to be honest, I see less evidence for it thus far than for the existence of a legitimate transgender identity (regardless of how it is precisely physiologically and/or psychologically realized).

As a final note, I'm not sure whether there is a principled difference between being compelled to explicitly affirm falsehoods via speech and implicitly affirm them via behavior on the scale to which Bill C16 operates. That last part is key. After all, there is a wealth of information about how what we don't say can matter just as much as what we do. And I'm not referencing that damn 55% thing. I'm talking about the role of contextual and psychological information when it comes to processing information, and how that almost certainly confounds over prolonged periods of time. So, considering the minute scale to which this occurs (adding 1 new pronoun to be employed on an admittedly small segment of society), it's certainly difficult to draw a realistic analogy to, say, the rise of the Soviet Union, and subsequent silliness that emerged as a result of that lack of freedom (like their "science"). I think the scale is really off and the slope just isn't that slippery.

Now, before I get accused of being ignorant of history, just keep in mind it's not my camp making the grandiose argument here. So I don't see why I need to justify to every Peterson supporter why I don't buy this part. As far as I'm aware, there is no historical consensus on the exact role of restriction of free speech on the rise of totalitarian regimes (let alone the Communist ones Peterson has in mind). It undoubtedly plays a role, especially when paired with propaganda. But so does the historical ripple effect of prior political relations, many of which inform said propaganda. And which can arguably be linked to our innate bigotry and cognitive biases that predispose us towards simple explanations for complex things. Assuming encyclopedia.com is reliable, there seems to be a number of characteristics that could be the root cause of totalitarianism. For example, there's usually someone on the top of the totalitarian pyramid. I'm not sure who would fill that role in this context - some starving trans activist colluding with Justin Trudeau? At least Big Oil fits the role.

While there may be controversies surrounding the weight we should assign to each of these factors (in our explanations of the rise of totalitarianism), it's disingenuous to act as though one account is the be all end all of the discussion. Including Peterson's apparent commitment to a "marketplace of ideas" approach in which free speech itself is the mechanism of human progress. How would one even go about proving that? While these accounts may be sophisticated and elegant, I'm not going to accept assertions of its truth as an argument for why Bill C-16 should be entirely scrapped. Especially considering the view isn't exactly universally accepted to the same degree that, say, climate change is. If climate change can't get special treatment I don't see why you think this does.

I hope it's clear what the purpose of this post was. I'm not arguing each of these lemmas to death, because they have been argued elsewhere and they are irrelevant to my key point: if you're going to privilege your political views over comparable views of others (in terms of magnitude of consequence), then there ought to be a really high likelihood it's prima facie accurate. Otherwise, you're coming across as a bigot, guided solely by a deep-seated sense of disgust at the thought of a penis behind a short skirt. And then the key concern - that freedom of speech should never be undermined - gets lost. After all, wouldn't such an argument work significantly better if there were actual, tangible instances where this law really was misapplied?

Yes, this would mean you'd have to suffer first. And no, I'm not saying this is a good thing. But it is the way most long lasting social progress happens. MLK was assassinated. Mandela was imprisoned. Oh, and lastly, I'm probably not going to write that post on freedom of speech anytime soon. I got courses to do. Plus, it's not the sort of topic I want to take lightly, since I agree that it's necessary for the advancement of society. I just don't think it alone is sufficient. And if you've been following the "conversations" over creationism and climate change denial, you'd understand why.


EDIT 1: Added a paragraph on why this post didn't come out earlier, and why I'm not linking it to my facebook page.
EDIT 2: Added a comment on how many scientists refuse to debate creationism
EDIT 3; Made Grammatical corrections and reworded for clarity. Also tinkered with links.

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