Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Language, Gender Pronouns and Free Speech

You may have heard about the case of Lindsay Shepherd, a young teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada, who was interrogated and censured by a disciplinary panel for showing a video of a television current affairs show debate to her class. The panel consisted of Shepherd's supervising professor, a second professor and a university official. The ostensible reason for the hearing, which Shepherd recorded (and which you can hear here), was that by showing the video of the debate, Shepherd caused 'harm and violence' to her students. You could imagine that appearing before such a panel was pretty intimidating and going by the fact that the interrogation reduced Shepherd to tears, it could be said that she was subject to harm herself.

The video clip (which you can watch here) was of a debate between Professors Jordan Peterson of University of Toronto and Nicholas Matte of University of Waterloo, and others, about the use of gender-neutral pronouns such a 'ze' and 'hir' for people who identify as transgender. The issue has become particularly contentious in Canada since its parliament passed an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act known as Bill C-16, which criminalises the use of pronouns other than that which the person prefers. It puts the use of the wrong pronoun into the same category of crime as, say, advocating for genocide. Professor Peterson objects to the law compelling the use of such pronouns, whereas Professor Matte, who believes that there is no such thing as biological sex, agrees that the law should force people to address transgender people by whichever pronoun they prefer - no matter how many and varied are such pronouns. I have written before about Peterson's stance on this issue and how I believe the use of pronouns should be a matter of manners, not law.

The televised debate was civilised and respectful, if a little heated at times, and most reasonable people would agree that there are valid views on both sides. Leaving aside the merits of the arguments (and believe me, I have a great deal of sympathy for those who identify as transgender), it is symptomatic of a broader issue in Western countries - that of equating certain political and social views with violence in order to abrogate the right to free speech. The motivation of those who promote this equivalence is literally to delegitimise any views they disagree with. Unfortunately this call to ban any dissenting viewpoint is far too common today and is particularly characteristic of those on the political left who call themselves 'social justice warriors'.

A liberal society is one with heterogeneous views that can be debated openly. It necessarily means that some people will be offended and even emotionally hurt by opinions with which they do not agree. I believe there is a large degree of psychological hypochondria amongst those who claim to suffer harm from different views and that, in any event, emotional harm is no reason to compromise what is the most critical prerequisite to a free society - free speech. There is a world of difference between physical assault and having to hear opinions with which you disagree. Equating the two diminishes and legitimises physical violence, but of course that may be the real intention of those who do so. The fact that they they label themselves 'warriors' is in itself revealing.

The paradoxical thing about the transgender language issue is the premise that gender is purely a social construct, which is the view that Professor Matte expresses in the debate. This is the diametrically opposite position to that which gay activists have taken in respect of sexuality. We have come to accept that sexuality is largely inherent and yet we are expected to believe that gender is not inherent at all, despite the fact that sexuality and gender identity are closely linked (which is something that even gender activists would accept). The science is still evolving and we don't begin to understand all the linkages between physical biology and psychological traits such as gender identity, and the idea that the law should be used to be force people to use language that legitimises a particular philosophical viewpoint and to close down any debate - including on the science - is very dangerous. This is precisely Professor Peterson's objection.

It is the same tactic used by the those who advocate for draconian legal responses to climate change. In that case too, the science is far from settled (at least in respect of mankind's carbon emissions causing catastrophic global warming), but any view other than the orthodoxy is equated with Holocaust denial, no matter how scientifically sound is the scepticism. Lindsay Shepherd described her inquisitory hearing as Maoist, and it certainly was. Mao's Red Guards were never satisfied with silence - you had to profess the beliefs you objected to as vehemently as they did or they would persecute you to the death.

The prospect of being hauled before a tribunal for expressing a belief contrary to the consensus is perhaps the most ominous sign that liberal democracy is under real threat. We should all be a little frightened at where this is going.

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