On Current Events

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.


On Current Events

A shadow side of some politically correct behaviour is becoming more concerned with appearing good than with being good.  In other words, it’s possible to become more preoccupied with trying to look as if one is ethical and intelligent than with actually trying to live ethically and intelligently, maybe even despite how that may look.  The fact this happens is unsurprising.  Most people, to some degree, want to be seen by their peers as likeable, respectable, compassionate, intelligent, and so forth.  I know I have such impulses.  For better and for worse, people tend to try to present themselves to others in the best possible light.  But healthy self-awareness can turn into a dysfunctional obsession if someone’s motivation to appear good or compassionate or intelligent or whatever becomes more important to him than his motivation to actually be a virtuous person.

The same impulse is what motivates Facebook activism.  But it’s certainly nothing new.  In the first century, Jesus noticed the same impulse in some Pharisees who were especially prone to public displays of holy and righteous behaviour.  Today we are so influenced by marketing strategies and media that we’re taught to even market ourselves as if we were a product, whether on the internet or in a job interview or at a social gathering.  I’m told I need to create an attractive self-image to display for world.  Otherwise I risk ending up lonely and poor and unsuccessful.  Because image matters most in today’s world.  The impulse to present ourselves to others in an appealing light is a very old and very profound human motivation.  And it’s not necessarily a bad thing.  But we can go wrong with it if we begin to focus more on surfaces than substance in life, or on images than their deeper realities.  We can end up praising hollow virtue instead of real virtue.  Some forms of politically correct culture foster exactly this: an unhealthy obsession with appearing progressive and intelligent and sophisticated in the eyes of others, often by discrediting people who are perceived not to be these things, and often as a means of mutually reinforcing a sense of group superiority.  One problem with this kind of tribal thinking is it ironically does not tend to foster much authentic ethical concern or behaviour.

We play all sorts of games in life.  Social media games, religious games, economic games, family games, relational games.  Games help structure much of our shared life together.  We play many games together without even consciously realizing we’re doing it.  They’re games because they involve rules, expectations, winners, and losers.  Jordan Peterson argues there is sometimes a game we play around political correctness.  He posits the following eight rules guide the game: 1) Identify an area of human activity.  2) Note a distribution of success.  3) Identify winners and losers.  4) Claim that the losers are losing because they are oppressed by the winners.  5) Claim allegiance with the losers.  6) Feel secure in your comprehensive explanation of the world and revel in your moral superiority.  7) Target your resentment towards your newly discovered enemies.  8) Repeat forever everywhere.

Have you ever noticed people play this sort of game?  Have you ever played it yourself?  I have.  I see multiple problems with the game, one of which is the tendency to oversimplify complex human scenarios into reductionist explanations that conveniently divide the world into good people and bad people.  Sometimes this reinforces the same sexist or racist attitudes the game apparently decries.  In addition to that, habitually “splitting” people up into black-and-white categories can even become a psychological defence used to ignore some discomforting reality, like one’s own dissociated faults and immoral tendencies.  Easier to blame evil on someone else than to face it within myself.  This is like games played by some fundamentalist religious groups: just blame “the Muslims” or “the liberals” or “the unbelievers” for all the evil in the world.  It is hardly surprising, actually, that there are fundamentalist-like groups, from the political right to the left, and from hyper-religious to anti-religious, that engage in these sorts of games and tribal behaviours.  It is a cross-cultural, cross-political, cross-religious social phenomenon.

Political correctness as a cultural set of expectations, rules, and taboos about what should and should not be said in polite, sophisticated company most definitely exists.  Violate its norms and you’ll quickly learn about its existence.  Trouble is some of us would never seriously think of doing this in the first place precisely because they’ve already internalized the rules of the game.  It can go as far as becoming like a religious orthodoxy.  Crossing its standards is treated as blasphemy and sacrilege.  Heretics are shamed and excommunicated to live as exiles.  Personally, I do not think political correctness is necessarily good or bad, because I do not think any set of social taboos is necessarily good or bad.  Our use of taboos can have good effects inasmuch as they promote truly healthy, ethical, social living; our use of taboos can have bad effects inasmuch as they inhibit healthy, ethical, social living.  Seeing political correctness properly requires viewing it as a unique, evolving set of social expectations and taboos that possess the potential for positive and negative impact.  It is far too simplistic to see political correctness as either entirely good or entirely bad.  Its not an all-or-nothing matter.  Political correctness has its potential good sides and dark sides, along with its virtues and vices.

On Current Events

Our souls become sick if we never speak our own truths.  Our minds become narrow if we never listen to others speak their truths.  Jordan Peterson claims free speech is the fundamental problem-solving mechanism in a well-functioning society.  Understanding his point on a macro-societal level can be difficult.  The same principle holds true, however, for any social group or community.  Free speech is also the fundamental problem-solving mechanism for a well-functioning, healthy family too.  A family’s health is significantly influenced by the nature of communication between its members.  Communication is certainly a complex interaction.  In a healthy, functional family, commutation is guided by multiple values and practices.  Kindness, respect, empathy, and honesty may all be values that guide communication in a healthy family.  And the combined values are practiced by members seeking and encouraging one another to speak with kindness, respect, empathy, and honesty.  Healthy families that encourage free and open discussion amongst its members are better able to solve interpersonal problems.

Interpersonal problems inevitably develop in families when members are not encouraged or permitted to speak freely about what genuinely concerns them.  Explicit or implicit restrictions may be placed on communication for many reasons.  Dysfunctional families always have unwritten and unspoken rules.  Like “expressing emotions is bad because it is a sign of weakness.”  Or “don’t say what you honestly think because it might upset someone.”  Or “never get angry with Dad because Dad can’t handle it.”  Or “don’t let others know what you really want because then they’ll use it against you.”  Or “never allow yourself to be vulnerable because you’ll just end up getting hurt.”  Or “always smile and say nice things to one another or else.”  As rules multiply and harden they create sets of taboos that everyone knows and follows, often unconsciously.  They may be topical taboos related to what can and can’t be talked about, and what members should and shouldn’t say.  They may be emotional taboos about what emotions should and shouldn’t be expressed.  They may be behavioural taboos related to how members should and shouldn’t act.  And they may be relational taboos related to how members should and shouldn’t interact.

Taboos exist in every established social group and they do have benefits inasmuch as they support ethical, healthy living.  But excessive, unconscious taboos can become oppressive in dysfunctional families.  They evolve into sets of rules and roles and games that stifle authenticity and development.  One of the primary goals of family therapy is to help members listen and speak openly about their thoughts, feelings, desires, and concerns with one another.  Acceptance is often the first step to change.  And it is impossible to accept what is unacknowledged.  This means we must acknowledge what we really think and feel and want, as well as what our loved ones really think and feel and want, before we can act meaningfully to change dysfunctional relationships and circumstances.  Speaking freely and honestly is precisely what enables the whole process.  Doing this can be surprisingly challenging in families where dysfunctional taboos and habits have been deeply internalized.  We must let go of old habits and form new ones.  Sometimes we may not even initially know what we really think or feel or want when we have become so used to pretending to think or feel or want what we should.  Developing true personal and interpersonal knowledge greatly depends upon our ability to both think and speak freely.

Avoiding and even denying discomforting thoughts, emotions, desires, and interactions is often what motivates family members to form dysfunctional interpersonal patterns.  While the patterns may prevent them from having to face some unwanted discomfort, they also prevent them from really healing and growing beyond whatever is causing the discomfort.  So their relationship become stunted.  The unspoken systems become reinforced by fear of breaking rules and shame for doing so.  Everyone walks on eggshells.  And all of the dysfunction in one way or another stems from some spoken or unspoken restriction on what can and cannot be talked about.  In other words, families will experience dysfunction inasmuch as they restrict free speech.

I certainly would not suggest that family members should heartlessly say whatever crosses their minds in the moment, or that there shouldn’t be consequences for saying nasty, disrespectful, hateful things.  That would surely cause another kind of dysfunction.  Healthy families, like healthy societies, are formed around multiple values and practices.  This includes valuing respect and kindness and empathy and honesty and more.  Dysfunctional groups, in contrast, often collapse around one value.  Maybe kindness becomes the only value, so members only speak in dishonest niceties.  Or maybe honesty becomes the only value, so members only speak with brutal honesty.  Healthy relationships can be so hard to form precisely because they require balancing multiple interpersonal values simultaneously.  They involve a give and take.  They involve mutual openness and respect.  They involve empathy and honesty.  And they involve challenging and disagreeing from a motive of genuinely seeking what’s best for everyone.

In a healthy, well-functioning society, we need to listen to every voice, especially the voices of those we may find hard to hear.  We need to listen to the voices of transgender individuals.  We need to hear their stories and concerns with open minds and open hearts.  We need to listen to the voices of individuals like Jordan Peterson.  We need to hear his concerns with open minds and open hearts.  Such an exercise in critical thinking and empathy will surely challenge us.  One of the most challenging things we can do is to actively empathize with “the other,” whoever “the other” might be for us.  But if we are committed to speaking and hearing from our depths, to truly seeing one another’s perspectives and concerns, our minds and hearts may enlarge to hold what they previously could not.  We may discover humanity in people for whom we previously denied it.  We may discover enough space within ourselves and our society for us all.  And we may even solve some problems in the process.

On Current Events

I am pro-freedom.  I am pro-diversity.  I am pro-safety.  Affirming all three ethics amidst the complex circumstances of social life can become terribly challenging, as the recent free speech and transgender rights controversy has revealed.  The primary events and figures surrounding it have exposed some difficult ethical dilemmas and social schisms.  Both sides appear to be concerned about threats against freedom, diversity, and safety.  Jordan Peterson and his supporters are concerned with protecting freedom of speech, promoting a diversity of viewpoints, and keeping academia and society safe from dangers that develop from practicing censorship and ideological conformity backed by legislative power.  Some transgender individuals and their supporters are concerned with protecting freedom of gender identity and expression, promoting a diversity of accepted gender norms, and keeping transgender individuals safe from gender-based prejudice and discrimination that diminishes their quality of life.  At the heart of the issue there is a conflict of freedoms, a conflict of diversities, and a conflict of what is considered to best promote overall safety within society.

It is easier to see why members of both sides may see themselves as defenders and pursuers or the moral good from this perspective.  The controversy has created such a social disturbance precisely because both sides tends see their own side as the righteous one.  This can imply the temptation of demonizing members of the other side as morally bankrupt or ignorant or bigoted or whatever else.  Truth is the vast majority of people involved are concerned about freedom, diversity, and safety.  Approaching the conflict as a zero-sum, win-lose scenario, with the assumption that either one side can have their concerns met or the other side can have their concerns met, would potentially be a mistake.  Surely seeking a win-win outcome would require some creative problem-solving, but nevertheless it should be seen as a real possibility.  Achieving this would require careful dialogue paired with mutual openness and respect.  I am hopeful this is still possible.

I am still attempting to understand the viewpoints represented in this unfolding conflict.  I must humbly admit that I do not currently understand all that is involved.  So far I have not come across many defences of the current legislation that Peterson is critical of.  Nor have I seen many written defences explaining the specific troubles transgender people faces and how the legislation will specifically address them.  Perhaps I simply haven’t been looking in the right places.  I do believe all individuals should have the right to safety and freedom expression, so I would very much like to see detailed defences of the needs and concerns of transgender individuals.  If you are aware of any, please send them my way.

Peterson appears to have multiple, interrelated concerns.  He is concerned that the wording of the current legislation regarding gender identity and expression is extremely broad and ambiguous, and thus open to wide interpretations and applications.  He is concerned that imposing certain forms of legally-required speech is a precedent that opens our society up to many potential dangers.  Free speech is the most fundamental problem-solving mechanism in a well-functioning society according to Peterson.  Our ability to think freely and thereby come up with effective solutions to societal problems depends significantly upon our ability to speak freely.  Language control involves thought control, inasmuch thought depends upon language.  Indeed, one of the most effective strategies for controlling individual and collective thought is imposing controls on speech.  We therefore risk allowing problems to develop by restricting our collective ability to solve them.  Peterson also expresses concerns about how speech control can contribute to the potential rise of legally-mandated ideological correctness and uniformity.  Under extreme circumstances, such a sociopolitical climate can motivate ideological enforcers to use state-sponsored tactics of oppression to deter and punish non-conformity, and it can motivate the ideologically alienated to protest and fight back, not with speech but with violence.

Peterson is concerned about gender politics potentially restricting open inquiry in the academy.  He disagrees with those who argue gender differences are purely social constructions with no legitimate basis in biological differences whatsoever.  And he is worried that creating a politicized gender orthodoxy could make some forms of research or inquiry not only taboo but also illegal.  If he’s right, we are at risk of sacrificing our pursuit of truth at the alter of a particular pursuit of social justice.  I gather Peterson thinks gender differences are complex entities shaped by a combination of environmental, cultural, and biological factors.  In other words, his stance on gender isn’t reductionist.  Peterson is difficult to pigeonhole for this reason.  His views are influenced by non-reductive thinking.  So whether the court of public opinion (or potentially the state for that matter) find him to be right or wrong in the end, understanding and responding to his challenges requires nuanced thinking, careful listening, open mindedness, and committed dialogue all around.  We must press the assumptions and arguments of all positions.  Such a social endeavour, whatever its outcome, will surely benefit us all.