Jordan Peterson is a tenured psychologist at the University of Toronto. He recently acquired some fame and notoriety for his public comments regarding some progressive gender ideologies and the use personal pronouns (See here, here and here). Peterson denied recognition for the “right” of other people to choose the personal pronouns that he is use when speaking to or about them, particularly if those pronouns are not part of Standard English or are loaded with ideology contrary to his own. Some members of the cultural left were unsettled by Peterson’s public claim, though I argue that Peterson’s stance, or something like it, is defensible.
First things first: It needs to be understood that personal pronouns within Standard English communicate ideas about sex. We know this because sex was used to make sense of our use of the personal pronouns within books about English grammar well into the mid-20th century. We also know this because we are competent English users—we know that when we discover the sex of an infant, adult person or non-human animal, we then refer to this person or animal as him, or her. That’s a fact. Other times, we might use personal pronouns to personify inanimate objects, but that is just to treat these objects as if they had a sex. It is thus not a counterexample to what I said. Hence, the norm is that these pronouns communicate ideas of sex.
We also know that the linguistic norm in Standard English for personal pronouns does not include the idea of gender identity disassociated from sex. Despite the obsession with transgender ideology in popular Western culture today, the concept of gender identity is a relatively recent addition to the academic lexicon and it is a very recent addition to the lexicon of popular culture, probably only within the last several years. Consequently, this notion of gender identity is far too new to have been included within our linguistic norms. Thus, if English speakers today use those personal pronouns on the basis of gender identity, then they are deviating from the linguistic norm, not practicing it.
So what is my point? Well, my first point is that Peterson is not breaking a linguistic norm in his refusal to use pronouns that are contrary to the sex of the referent. In fact, only those people who use these pronouns differently deviate from a linguistic norm. Hence, there is no “misgendering” with the normal use of these pronouns, for these pronouns do not refer to gender in the first place. My second point is that the vast majority of transgender people are clearly either sexed males or sexed females; hence, referring to members of this majority with personal pronouns that conform to their sex is not factually wrong, no matter which gender identity these members might hold. Thus, Peterson is neither linguistically wrong nor factually wrong in those cases.*
Critics might rebut that Peterson is morally or politically wrong for not using those pronouns, for he refuses to recognize transgender people for who they take themselves to be. Yet, so long as these people accept that Peterson’s pronoun use conforms to their sex, he is innocent of their charge. I say this because his pronoun use only communicates mutually accepted ideas about their sex, not those contentious ideas about their gender identity. Thus, this critic’s rebuttal is wrong, though it does help raise a suspicion of mine. Let me explain.
I suspect that the “real concern” for these progressivists is that they want gender identity to be a sufficient condition for manhood, womanhood or whatever else—they want recognition for who they take themselves to be, regardless of sex. And then, from this, it will be argued that language about men and women should be inclusive of transgender identities, including the use of the personal pronouns. Hence, the heart of this debate is not the use of language, but the public understanding of womanhood, manhood, or whatever else. In other words, I suspect that their preferred use of those pronouns is a means to reinforce and further embed the idea that, say, some biological males who have fathered children still qualify for womanhood (Bruce Jenner, I’m looking at you, buddy).
How do I respond to this “real concern”? Firstly, I remind my readers that personal pronouns are properly used to communicate ideas about sex, not womanhood or manhood. Thus, any change in the use of the personal pronouns can be resisted on that basis. Secondly, the proper understanding of manhood and womanhood is still an active metaphysical debate between progressivists and, well, everyone else. Hence, if progressivists demand that their conception of womanhood and manhood is recognized and used within the speech of all others, then they are, in fact, demanding everyone else to recognize and utilize their progressivist understanding of manhood and womanhood. That’s the ideological load to which Peterson objects, and with good reason, for it infringes on free expression and demands that some people act insincerly and untruthfully, which is to demand them to act badly.
It is this demand that journalist Chris Selley fails to consider when he asks, “[W]hat kind of jerk refuses to refer to someone as a he, she or they would like? They’re human beings, not issues.” How obtuse! Allow me to enlighten Selley and those who think like him: I reckon that it is the kind of “jerk” who is committed to being sincere and only saying that which he believes to be true, because sincerity and truthfulness are virtues. I also reckon that it is the kind of “jerk” who is concerned about the public and popular idea of manhood and womanhood, not just because truth matters, but also because ideas have consequences that can penetrate every aspect of life, as Richard M. Weaver once aptly reminded us. That’s kind of important stuff. It’s really important, actually.
So if some transgender persons and their allies do not understand why Peterson, or other people, might align with the pursuit of these virtues rather than the competing sentiments and feelings of “respect”, or why some people might prefer to pursue truth, or why some people concern ourselves with the proper public and popular ideas of manhood and womanhood, then the gulf between traditionalists and these other progressivists is tragically deeper than I thought. Whatever they understand, Peterson is on good grounds, as I have argued here. I thus conclude with a suggestion: If progressivists want to change our speech, then they should first change our minds. There is no amount of whining, complaining and legislation that will do this for them.
*The only cases that might create some uncertainty here are those involving intersex people, for their sex can be unclear. As interesting as these cases are, the Peterson issue pertains to transgender and non-binary gender identities, so intersex persons and pronoun uses are a topic for a different blog post.*
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