The core progressive assumption – the utopian notion that men and women and the societies they live in are endlessly capable of being perfected – has always been a problem. That’s because it overvalues nurture and undervalues nature in determining what makes human beings tick. In believing that nothing is unchangeable and everything is perfectible, progressives are predisposed to accept every new prescription for perfection, even when they are illiberal, or conflict with reality, or both.
Progressives have occasionally been allied with classical liberals in believing that the rights of the individual, not the collective, should reign supreme in law and policy – but not recently and not today. Instead, since at least the 1960s, they have championed racial, gender and ethnic quotas. That undermined the liberal project and made categorizing, counting, dividing and awarding privilege by race et al., acceptable once again. These days, such policies are so common that few recall how historic liberalism has thus been hollowed out.
Almost every day’s news contains chilling examples of progressive over-reach undermining liberal ideals including free expression and freedom of association, and, increasingly, empiricism, the self-evident idea that knowledge is derived from experience. In Canada, this conflict is playing out across an array of socio-political battlegrounds, perhaps most notably in the attacks levelled at University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson.
Peterson became famous for opposing the federal government’s legislation, C-16 (now law), that added recently invented gender “identities” as a prohibited category of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act. Peterson insists, on the basis of seemingly unassailable biological evidence, that in the vast majority of humans gender identities are not fluid but fixed.
And his views are worth quoting at length, this from his C2C Journal interview one year ago, where he summarizes the attempts to argue genders and gender identities are mere social constructs. Peterson objects and argues that gender identity is biologically fixed:
“There are sex differences at every level of analysis. There are masculinity/femininity scales that have been derived; they’re basically secondary derivations of personality descriptors. There are huge personality differences between men and women. There’s literature looking at differences of men and women in personality in many, many societies throughout the world. I think the biggest paper examined 55 different societies. And they rank societies by sociological and political equality. The hypothesis was that if you equalize the environment between men and women, you eradicate the differences between them. In other words, if you treat boys and girls the same, the differences between them will disappear. But that’s not what the studies showed. In reality, they get bigger. Those are studies of tens of thousands of people. The social constructionist theory was tested. It failed. Gender identity is very much biologically determined.”
Thus, if Peterson’s characterization of the literature is correct, but for the infinitesimally small proportion of the human population that is anatomically hermaphroditic at birth or anatomically altered by chemicals and surgery, if you are born with male anatomy you are a man, and if you born with female anatomy you are a woman. Pretending gender is subjective and engaging in word games about identity – as if we, not nature, choose our gender – is thus an affront to biological reality, rudimentary empiricism and also honest language.
Empirical reality and pronouns
Peterson has accordingly refused to use the alphabet soup of invented anti-reality personal pronouns – xe, xie, ze, xyrs and dozens of others. He also objects to being legally compelled to use such pronouns if a student or anyone else demands it. “If I refer to someone as ‘he’ or I refer to someone as ‘she,’ it’s not a mark of respect,” he remarked in an interview with C2C Journal last year, “it’s just categorization of the most simple and obvious kind.” He thus objects to demands he must use the made-up pronouns on two grounds: Such usage would be anti-reality – such genders are mostly invented by those who claim them – and that compelled speech is totalitarian in intent and outcome.
The legions of self-described progressives (or those who share their views) who attack Peterson mostly ignore the biological realities and downplay his concerns over forced expression. The most doctrinaire and authoritarian among them actually support compelled speech. They see themselves as liberals when in fact they have it reversed: Peterson’s the liberal in any classic understanding of that term. His critics are the magical thinkers, untethered from reality and who, when push comes to human rights tribunal and academic shove, will suppress free expression and/or demand compelled speech.
Illiberalism and anti-reality thinking in the media
This has become frighteningly mainstream thinking. The Globe and Mail editorial board recently betrayed both empiricism and liberalism when it reaffirmed its support for the inclusion of new gender pronouns in human rights law: “People who don’t meet traditional gender expectations should not be humiliated by employers, teachers or landlords, among others, who refuse to acknowledge their chosen name or preferred pronoun as a means of deliberate harassment.”
The Globe thus ignored science – “traditional gender expectations” signifies that the writer thinks basic biology is a construct – and endorsed compelled speech when it equated a refusal to use made-up pronouns with discrimination and harassment. The official position of the Globe is simultaneously anti-empirical and illiberal.
Columnist Tabatha Southey, in Maclean’s, weighed in with a piece asserting that Peterson is a favourite of the “alt-right”. Southey concedes he is not a Nazi but implies he’s a white nationalist because he retweeted an article criticizing black American rioters. To mock his refusal to call people by invented pronouns, and in an apparent attempt to be funny, she calls him various invented names such “Dr. Jordan Eggman”, and makes sport of his assertion that Marxist assumptions now pervade social sciences.
In other words, Southey uses guilt-by-presumed-association to smear her target. (Her logic, such as it is, brings to mind the great witch hunt scene in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, where the mob deduces that since witches and wood are for burning, and wood floats, any woman who floats must be a witch and therefore should be burned.) Ignoring Peterson’s equally fervent condemnation of both Nazis and Marxists, Southey instead engages in name-calling and ad hominem attacks and offers up red herrings and false equivalences. She entirely skips over the compelled speech concern which first got Peterson’s dander up in the first place and ignores, completely, whether “ze” et al. have any basis in biological reality.
Southey calls Peterson “the stupid man’s smart person”. But it takes a flight from reality to subscribe to the central tenet of Marxism: the notion that much of human relations are a “construct” imposed by those with power. But that is precisely what Peterson’s progressive critics believe, so it’s odd that they are so offended by his claim that gender neutral pronouns are a construct of prettied-up Marxism in a 21st century guise.
Maybe what offends them is that he’s right. Marxist analysis applied to economics has long argued that capitalism is a “construct” that was artificially imposed on people. In past centuries, Marxists argued talent, initiative, price signals, supply and demand, the benefits of competition, the desire to work and widely differing abilities, aptitudes and desires were not objectively real. They asserted all that could be ignored, torn down and replaced with a system where such factors had no influence. In ignoring all those economic and human realities, Marxism ruined entire nations in the last century, yet it still thrives in North Korea, is practiced in all but name in Venezuela and exists in the fantasies of extreme progressive utopians everywhere.
Yes, academic constructionists are born-again Marxists
So the notion that gender identity is fluid is redolent of old, discredited Marxist assumptions. It enables the construct of countless new realities, disconnected from empirical evidence that until now determined whether people were male or female. But if gender is malleable, why stop there? Why not insist – many of us would like this – age really is a state of mind? How about ethnicity a la carte? After all, if the biological reality of chromosome realities can be ignored in favour of a self-chosen label, why not do away with the pesky notion of ages and ethnic origins altogether? To paraphrase Descartes, today I feel like a 21-year-old, therefore I am.
The modern constructivists, pace the economic Marxists, ignore nature and believe people and outcomes are always and everywhere determined by power, imposed, and thus artificial. Human beings are thus subject to infinite deconstruction and reconstruction – whatever imaginary identity or society one wishes to impose and with zero regard for actual, on-the-ground realities.
The Toronto Star defends actual liberalism – this time
One has to hope that eventually, rational thought will prevail. Certainly it was heartening to see it in the Toronto Star. That newspaper recently articulated a classically liberal position on free expression in response to the star chamber inquisition visited on teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd by her supervisors at Wilfred Laurier University after she exposed her students to some Peterson pronoun heresies. This was rare: The Star is a reliable champion of race and gender quotas and identity politics, and is illiberal more often than not. But in this instance at least, the Star editorialized that, “At a university, of all places, freedom of expression should not be just one value among many.”
Hell may freeze before the Star endorses Jordan Peterson’s position on gender neutral pronouns. But he is the empiricist and the liberal. Too many of his critics are not.