The debate surrounding free speech and transgender rights has raised some big questions: What is gender? What is identity? What is the relationship between an individual’s sex, gender, personality, and culture? I must admit, I have become incredulous towards anyone who tries to gloss over the layers and complexities of these underlying issues, no matter their position. Oversimplifying for convenience distorts the issues at stake and does a disservice to us all. Despite the overconfidence of some intellectual spokespersons, these questions have not been settled. And for that matter, these questions may never be settled once and for all, given how vast and profound is their human scope. Regardless, they remain open questions for now, and therefore should remain open to all forms of reasonable inquiry and discourse.
Beyond these underlying issues, there are big questions related to the social, ethical, and legislative issues: What are the specific concerns of transgender Canadians? And what should be done to advance and address them? What are the specific concerns of Canadians who advocate free speech? And what should be done to address them? So far, I haven’t heard or formed any adequate solutions to these questions either, though they are the more pressing political dilemmas. More public discussion and interaction is needed. There has been a dearth of this because we are all nervous to talk about it. But it is necessary. The integrity of our democracy depends on it.
I should clarify something important from the outset: on a personal level, I am willing to use a transgender person’s preferred pronouns if respectfully asked. I will adjust my language to accommodate their request if doing so would make them more comfortable interacting with me. However, I do not think that I or any other Canadian should be legally compelled to use certain language. If Jordan Peterson does not want to use gender non-binary language, then he should not be compelled to do so. I am concerned by the significant precedent and implications of introducing forms of legally compelled speech into Canadian law. I believe this is a dangerous pathway for any society to travel. So I support Jordan Peterson’s principled stand for freedom of speech.
I have learned that some of Peterson’s concerns are not properly understood by some of his critics. He is sometimes inaccurately portrayed as being against all transgender people. But this isn’t true. In actuality, his concerns surround gender non-binary identities and language specifically. Peterson has publicly used the preferred pronouns of binary transgender individuals. And as far as I know, he has not claimed he will refuse calling a transgender man “he/him” or a transgender woman “she/her.” Peterson rather argues that he should not be compelled to use the gender non-binary language created by individuals who reject established gender categories and language, especially since the rejection of established norms is often motivated by particular ideological ends that Peterson disagrees with. “If Canadians who believe that gender exists on a spectrum are free to choose their words and reality,” writes Irene Ogrizek, “Jordan Peterson … has a right to choose his words and reality too, however objectionable that concept of equality might seem.”
Should a non-Christian be legally compelled to recite the Nicene Creed with me as a sign of respect for my Christian identity? Would a non-Christian be disrespecting me if he or she refused to speak the words if I asked them to? Most people, including myself, I think would surely say no. Someone does not need to voice agreement with my views in order to treat me with respect. You can respect me as a human being and still disagree with some of my choices, opinions, or beliefs. And reciting the words of the Nicene Creed implies a profound understanding of human life and existence. I wouldn’t recommend just mouthing them lightly. Likewise, gender non-binary language is not nearly as trivial as some of its advocates claim (and incidentally, if its language is trivial, then why fuss over it in the first place?). Gender non-binary language implies a social constructionist theory of gender, which implies a particular understanding of human identity, which implies a particular understanding of human nature, life, and meaning. To claim gender non-binary language is “just words” is naive, disingenuous, or both.
A fundamental assumption behind human rights is every individual deserves basic respect, safety, and freedom as a human being, despite his or her race, sexuality, religion, gender, or status. Human rights are not essentially racial identity rights or sexual identity rights or religious identity rights or gender identity rights. Basic respect, safety, and freedom are afforded to individuals as inalienable rights on the basis of their human identity. The rationale for its doctrine is simple: “If you are a human being, then you are entitled to basic respect, safety, and freedom.” It is a person’s basic humanity that warrants unconditional respect. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms lists freedom of thought, belief, opinion, expression, religion, and conscience as “fundamental freedoms” afforded to Canadian citizens. Defending basic human rights should not be used as a Trojan horse to advance any one group’s particular views or agenda—which is precisely what some transgender advocates have done, wittingly or unwittingly, veiling debatable social constructionist theories behind moralizing statements like “human rights are not up for debate.” Human rights are indeed not up for debate. But transgender people do not deserve basic human rights because they are transgender. This is the divisive logic of identity politics. Transgender people, like all people, deserve basic human rights because they are human beings.
My own present view on the nature of gender may be best described as “interactionist.” I’m inclined to think that an individual’s gender is the product of the complex interaction of his or her biology, personality, relationships, and culture—an untidy mixture of nature and nurture. I therefore only find “social constructionist” theories of gender questionable as global, exclusive explanations, which is how some social constructionists construe them. I think these theories have valuable contributions to make to our knowledge insofar as they withstand the free marketplace of ideas in academia. However, whenever social constructionism or any other theory is defended by uncritically dismissing alternative views, simply because they contradict one’s preferred view, then it has become an ideology. No theory should be sheltered from questioning, within and across disciplines. The truth can withstand scrutiny.