EducationEssaysSex & Gender

Is it “Policing Speech” to Insist on Gender-Neutral Pronouns?

A dialogue about language and identity

Academic controversies over freedom of speech and “political correctness” are on the rise, and now Canada now has one of its own. University of Toronto professor of psychology Jordan Peterson has declared that he refuses to use gender neutral pronouns such as “zhe” or the singular “they.” This comes after the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduced Bill C-16 to add “gender identity and expression” to the list of categories on the basis of which it is illegal to discriminate or “publicly incite hatred.” Peterson argues that the bill is the first step toward the kind of policing of speech that occurs in “totalitarian and authoritarian political states.”

Peterson articulated his views in a lecture about political correctness, which he put online. The video soon went viral.

What follows is a debate about Peterson’s views, and the political, cultural, pedagogical, and linguistic issues surrounding the use of gender neutral pronouns. It takes place between two Canadian academics: Lisa McKeown is an instructor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto, and David Reddall teaches English and Comparative Literature at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta.

Lisa McKeown: When you initially heard about the Jordan Peterson story, what was your reaction?

David Reddall: Within academic programs in the humanities and social sciences — at least those I have some modest experience of — the dominant disposition seems to be shaped by herd psychology. If my prestigious and influential colleagues are happy with a development or idea, I had better be too, etc.

Peterson’s position lies outside that sphere, and he has made a case for it that is not entirely incoherent or implausible. Ordinarily, it is taken for granted that pronouns ought to agree with their antecedents in number: one wouldn’t write, for example, “this book has lost their pages,” but “its” pages. So, it seems problematic to write that “Gertrude has their objections to this claim,” because a singular, possessive pronoun is ready-to-hand in the English lexicon: her. However, I will readily admit — which Peterson seems very reluctant to do — that we shape language as much as it shapes us. Imagine, for example, what Johnathan Swift might have made of the expression, “surfing the web.” So, if the culture demands it, instead of substituting plurals for singulars to eliminate gender trouble, as it were, why not devise a fresh, gender neutral, singular possessive pronoun?

LM: I’d be interested in an example of what kinds of things have been influenced by herd psychology, in your experience.

Extrapolating from my own experience, there are absolutely academic trends in philosophy. There are also more entrenched strains of thought, for example dualism. Dualism is the idea that there are two categories of substance: mental stuff, and physical stuff, and ne’er the twain shall meet. This was of course famously proposed by Descartes, in a way as a by-product of his skeptical project in The Meditations. It subsequently permeated philosophical thought so intensely that even still, 500 years later, we’re trying to figure out how to challenge it.

I’m actually really unconvinced that Peterson’s views on gender aren’t kind of like dualism, a kind of entrenched dogma that is, admittedly, difficult to figure out how to break out of. For him, there are male beings and female beings: gender exists solely on a binary, and if you want to talk about being non-binary he thinks you’re making a category mistake, or something. What is so striking to me about his thought, as someone who is supposed to be trained how to think, is not his resistance to trends, but his resolute entrenchment in bad metaphysical dogma. That, combined with his arrogance, strikes me as irresponsible, both intellectually and pedagogically.

But okay, turning to the grammar question, I think it’s true that it is confusing, initially. There are also going to be cases in which the use of “they” is ambiguous — as in, it’s not clear whether you’re using the singular or the plural. However, this is also true of the word “you.” In fact, “you” used to be the second person plural, exclusively, while “thou” was the singular second person address. At some point there was a shift, “thou” fell out of use and “you” became commonplace as both a singular and personal address. And from what I understand there was a similar sort of resistance on the part of certain social groups who found this shift unacceptable, often justifying their position by invoking tradition and pointing at so-called grammatical rules.

In terms of available pronouns, there are a couple of things. First, we actually have used the singular “they” in English already. If I tell you I went to see my doctor the other day, but fail to specify the gender of my doctor, a perfectly common reply might be “Oh yeah, what did they say?” You aren’t speaking in the plural, you’re simply acknowledging the ambiguity of the gender. Similarly, some non-binary people appreciate the ambiguity of the term “they” — they might feel, for example, that their gender is not “neutral” but in fact includes both feminine and masculine qualities, and using “they” would allow for that.

Having said that, there are also other, newer, gender neutral pronouns that other people prefer, like “ze/zir.” Often people critique these pronouns as “too difficult” to incorporate and learn, preferring the more familiar “them.” Others seem to dislike “them” on the basis of its being “incorrect,” but that just seems straight up strange to me, from what I discussed above.

DR: Metaphysical dogmatism is especially frustrating because it seems to reflect a tendency to mistake traditional conceptions of the truth for the truth itself, which amounts to a striking example of situational irony when discussing skepticism! Would the introduction of ze/zir strike a satisfactory balance between pronoun/antecedent agreement and sensitivity to new and important thought about gender beyond the bounds of rigid binarism, in your estimation?

As for the influence of herd psychology, the most galling example that I have recently encountered was an indictment of a professor’s question at an honors thesis defense on the grounds that said professor is a white male. The professor in question raised an objection to the assertion that characters in a work by Virginia Woolf were taking part in “non-being” when they did things that were routine, habitual or unthinkingly banal or automatic. I think he made a good point: bad faith might have been less troubling, for example, whereas “nonbeing” implies winking out of existence or becoming the sort of thing that rocks dream about, to borrow from Aristotle.

The objection was greeted by the indignant response, “how typical of a white male,” which struck me as a non sequitur and an ad hominem at once. No one rose to defend the person who objected to the clumsy ontology (me included, I am ashamed to confess) and I thought to myself, what if someone had said, “how typical of an Inuit woman!”?

LM: Sorry for the delayed response. There have also been some political developments in the last week or so — last night there was a “debate” between Peterson and a panel of profs who study gender.

As for ze/zir and whether it stands up to both agreement and sensitivity to gender development, I think that’s an interesting question, but it’s not one for you or I to answer.

And I want to say something about why that is, because I don’t want to sound like I’m either trying to deflect a difficult question, nor as though I’m simply subscribing to what the right often so sneeringly dismisses as “identity politics”.

There’s a paper by a trans woman philosopher, Talia Mae Bettcher, called “Trans Identities and First-Person Authority,” in which she argues that, when it comes to questions about identity, there are two considerations. The first is what we sometimes in philosophy call “epistemic authority,” which is just that depending on the question, some people are in a better position to evaluate the answer compared to others. So when it comes to determining, say, if a man is being “creepy,” women are in a better epistemic position than men are, generally speaking, because we’re used to that kind of interpretive work. We spend our lives being “creeped” on, and so have the ability to spot the key details. Similarly, people of color will be better epistemically placed to know if a someone is being racist etc.

It’s more and more common these days to refer to epistemic authority, but Bettcher makes another distinction in her paper, which is that of ethical authority. She thinks that the reason we should defer to the first-person authority of others — that is, another’s ability to identify aspects of their attitudes, emotions, or even something like gender identity — stems not from epistemic authority (after all, we can all be wrong about ourselves sometimes, otherwise we wouldn’t need therapists), but from a kind of ethical authority.

She draws from something in my wheelhouse, J. L. Austin, who was a philosopher in Oxford in the mid-twentieth century who suggested that words don’t just describe things, but they also do things. So, for example, when I say “I promise,” I’m not describing my feelings, or my intention (which might be good faith or bad faith) but doing something — committing to something for which I am then accountable.

Similarly, Bettcher says that when we make avowals, we aren’t just merely reporting facts about ourselves, but taking responsibility for them. What this entails, then, is that first-person gender descriptions and third-person gender descriptions are doing something different. First person avowals aren’t just about describing facts, but are also a function of our dominion over ourselves. It’s a function, in other words, of our autonomy.

So if there is this key ethical difference between what first-person avowals are, versus third-person gender descriptions, notice the deep ethical problem with deciding, from a third-person point of view, what someone else’s pronouns should be.

Perhaps it seems like I got off track there for a minute talking about identity rather than pronouns, but the two are importantly linked. If different pronouns have different connotations for people, then surely it seems right to allow people to determine which pronouns suit their gender identity best. This is especially true since it’s also not the case that all non-binary people’s gender identity reduces to the same thing. Varying pronouns is part of what comes out of people pushing back against the traditional binary in order to make space for what might be a much more complicated gender spectrum than we are currently envisaging. Deciding, somewhat arbitrarily, that “ze/zir” should be “the” gender neutral pronoun would shut down that space. It would, to put a fine point on it, be oppressive.

Going back to your question about the “how typical of a white male” point — yeah I mean, especially in that context it seems unproductive. To give the generous interpretation (especially as someone in a field where the men outnumber the women and non-binary people) I can imagine that stems from a frustration that could be related to epistemic authority. Given the ways in which women’s labor has been incredibly undervalued (if not erased) historically, I can imagine that if someone was criticizing a character for engaging in “non-being” it might seem a bit tone-deaf to both other women in the room and/or Woolf scholars who would be frustrated that Woolf’s work (which, surely, aims to foreground this history of under-valuing) would be interpreted in such a way. Of course, I say that without having all the details of the situation.

DR: Your exposition is characteristically lucid and undoubtedly serves to explain your pedagogical proficiency, which moves me to pose the following question: when you are marking a paper and attending to both formal considerations and matters of content, do you feel obliged to assess failures of agreement as faults, or do you defer to the autonomy of the author when sorting out the accuracy with which pronouns correspond to their antecedents?

LM: I would defer to the student writer to decide their chosen pronoun. If they misgendered other people, or wrote something ungrammatical, I would probably mention it. I don’t tend to centre grammatical concerns when grading though, unless they severely interfere with their ability to get their argument across.

DR: That is a significant difference that I have noted between teaching Philosophy, which I did an embarrassing number of years ago, and teaching English and Comparative Literature, as I do now. I am duty bound carefully to assess grammar, syntax and punctuation as well as validity, truth and soundness. I think that’s why the general theme we have been contemplating is both vexing and fascinating from my perspective: I have no quarrel with those who want the liberty to identify themselves as they wish, nor am I part of what Giltrow calls the “complaint tradition,” whose members insist upon rigid orthodoxy in terms of usage and often ignore changes in epistemology, metaphysics and cultural politics. However, I think it is a faux pas, in purely formal terms, to assert that “a reader has their opinion,” when the antecedent is singular. There are many ways round this: I have suggested using “her” as the default, singular possessive, the better to overturn centuries of convention which served — erroneously — to imply that, when in doubt, one ought to assume that a human being is male. I would also be pleased to see usage change to accommodate the ethical and epistemic principles you so ably elucidated above. This is a practical, pedagogical problem for me: ought there to be no rule, or ought a new rule to be formulated, for the sake of ensuring that encoders and decoders can both understand and evaluate messages?


LM: Okay so I just read David Foster Wallace’s essay “Tense Present” — I was reminded of it because of these worries you just expressed, about the difference between SWE (Standard Written English), and the various dialects that his students speak, and then, apart from both of those, what actual “mistakes” are, and what the difference is and why.

The article itself is ostensibly a review of The Dictionary of Modern American Usage, but also seems to be a vehicle for DFW to reflect on what, if anything, constitutes authority when it comes to language.

And what he seems to land on is actually something else in my wheelhouse, which is something kind of in the territory of Ordinary Language Philosophy: that the rules of language are public, they are governed by public usage, and although someone can make a mistake without entirely sacrificing meaning by, say, misusing a word which we can correct in our interpretation, the rules are there primarily for the ease of communication.

So, importantly, this means that for him, there is an important distinction between what he identifies as the dialect of a lot of his New York-based students, what he for the purposes of the essay deems “Standard Black English,” and what is just straightforward incorrectness. The key difference being, of course, that one is a difference between communities, and the other a mistaken use on behalf of an individual within a community. He actually derides a certain kind of what he calls SNOOT (which is, for our purposes, someone who is incredibly concerned with the rules of language) for thinking that SBE is “wrong” because the SNOOT is revealing their own ignorance about a well-known dialect of English — one with deep roots and a wide community of speakers.

What this kind of SNOOT is doing, in effect, is conflating the dialect with mere “mistakes.” And, as DFW goes on to say, being able to switch between dialects of English is actually a sign of someone with not only linguistic savvy, but also social-cultural savvy.

But okay, before I get away from myself, let me now bring all of this back to the questions I have for you about the English you teach and questions about community. For better or worse, DFW says to his African-American students that they need to learn SWE (which, he jokes, might as well stand for “Standard White English”) because this is the language of the institutions, not just of the university but of the wider political institutions of the Western World. And while he acknowledges that the dialects of his students aren’t, say, “wrong,” he also is blunt about the fact that they need to learn SWE to succeed in the classroom — including his classroom.

And this is where things get tricky. Because on the one hand, his worry is that it’s his job to teach his students how to engage in the kind of institutions that control their society, institutions that are bigger than he is. So, in a sense, it’s irresponsible of him to not teach them SWE, and he is frank about how blunt he is with his students about this, in part to distance himself from unconsciously legitimizing that system; and yet, the way he presents himself as a gatekeeper is an act of legitimating the system he’s also trying to set himself apart from.

And there’s an ethical question here, because if we understand the problem the way he sets it up, then it’s not a linguistic question anymore about what is “right” and what is not, but rather a question about what is considered legitimate and what is not: it’s a question about gatekeeping, and about who we consider on the inside of that community and who we do not.

Because non-binary pronouns have been around for a long time — these aren’t mere “mistakes” — these are arising out of non-binary communities trying to figure out how to resist the gender binary on both individual and also community levels.

Stanley Cavell said something to this effect: “the philosophical appeal to what we say, and the search for our criteria on the basis of which we say what we say, are claims to community.”

So, having said all that, I guess I’m wondering if that resonates with your worry above? I guess I’m not sure if you are worried about whether the language should change at all, in this instance, or if your worry is not unlike DFW’s worry about being a gatekeeper of something bigger than yourself, that you are worried about allowing such changes in your own classroom might penalize your students down the road, in someone else’s classroom or perhaps even in their eventual career path?

DR: Very good. I think there is some definite correspondence between the position articulated by DFW and my own dilemma. Put very simply, it amounts to finding myself on the cusp of linguistic change and simultaneously obliged to explain and apply what could well be antiquated or problematic conventions. Having listened to a number of interviews and lectures featuring Peterson, I am starting to wonder if his uncompromising obstinacy can be explained in terms of a category mistake. He has devoted the balance of his energy and attention, in pedagogical terms and in his own research, to working out the psychological origins and consequences of totalitarianism. If mandating or prohibiting language use by law is always understood to be a symptom of the increasing power of totalitarian forces, then Bill C-16 could be seen as the opening gambit of a sinister, totalitarian campaign. I think the legal censure of hate speech or holocaust denial is consistent with the mandate of a liberal, democratic government, but Peterson seems to see the former, especially, as the beginning of an inexorable slide toward an Orwellian dystopia, such that the discussion of language in C-16 can be understood to be another attempt by a government (largely manipulated by ideological extremists, according to Peterson) to curtail freedom of speech. I think he could only be persuaded to stop tilting at this windmill if this mode of interpretation could be shown persuasively not to apply to C-16.

LM: Okay so Bill C-16 is essentially federal legislation that would change the Canadian Human Rights Code and Criminal Code such that discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression is illegal. Peterson’s worry is that this parallels the behavior of totalitarian governments by making some speech illegal? And that this is different, categorically, from hate speech?

DR: That’s the impression of your admittedly fallible interlocutor, yes. Moreover, he has a slightly odd but not entirely preposterous metaphysical mythos on his hands: order and chaos are at war for sovereignty over reality and if we don’t root our identities in something real, chaos will reign. He actually sounds like a religious prophet while holding forth on this score.

LM: Hmmm yeah a religious prophet who seems entirely out of touch with the community he’s alleging he wants to protect.

So let me ask you then: do you think there’s a way to correct this category mistake?

For example, might it be that in this case, this language change is being generated by the community itself?

DR: That’s the vital matter. I’m skeptical, because of his righteous zeal. I do not think it is impossible to sympathize with Peterson: in his clinical practice, he routinely encounters individuals in crisis and he has worked out an intriguing method, based on autobiographical writing, that has proved to be salutary for many of them. Constructing an intelligible, coherent biography has allowed some of these individuals to understand central crises in context, to stop perseverating on humiliating or ghastly memories, etc. He seems to think that if people can define their identities in purely subjective terms, and oblige others to address them accordingly, we’ll be awash in psychological and existential crises, because then you won’t be able to “face who you really are,” you’ll be able to invent yourself, and others will have to acknowledge that construction as viable, possibly on pain of legal trouble. That really freaks him out, not just because he’ll be in trouble, but because he seems honestly to believe the whole culture will be. I’m not sure how much of this you can stomach, but it is revelatory vis-a-vis Peterson’s problem.

LM: Which the government isn’t mandating from a top-down position, but instead attempting to protect the community’s own standards?

DR: I think that’s quite plausible, but Peterson won’t buy it.

LM: I mean, at this point, I’m less interested in Peterson buying it than I am in someone who might be convinced of similar worries but be less of a righteous asshole.

DR: Yes. Well, it seems pretty clear to me that many of his anxieties are groundless. It is also entirely possible that some mischief might ensue, especially if students want to mess with sincere but clumsy instructors.

LM: Or, let me ask you this: let’s peel away his charlatanry; do you think, when that is peeled away, there is a legitimate worry leftover?

I also ask because in a sense the DFW worry that his students would be punished down the line if he didn’t train them properly in SWE doesn’t apply here — it’s exactly Peterson’s worry that the law is going to punish people like him, people in institutions that refuse to use non-binary pronouns.

And if, as I previously described, Talia Mae Bettcher is correct in her claim that first-person gender claims are avowals — avowals that are not just based on a privileged epistemic (or knowledge) position, but also contain at their centre a special ethical position, then what’s left to even discuss? Why should we resist this move?

DR: I am not moved to resist this move in principle; I am eager to treat of it in a pragmatic, sensitive fashion as a pedagogue, especially in a field that demands formal, linguistic rigor. The link with DFW is also significant in this regard. Peterson’s ideas about the salutary power of autobiographical writing have some merit, I think, but his objections to pronoun usage seem hyperbolic and, at worst, he exhibits delusions of messianic grandeur. Permit me to return to an antecedent query: ought there to be no rule, or a simple and respectful set of standard conventions that are readily intelligible and applicable, in your estimation?

LM: Given the ethical import of such a designation, I’m going to reassert that I really think it’s not a decision that I can or should be called on to make — nor should anyone in the binary community, to be honest. But let me say a bit more about why.

I think your question stems not just from worries about institutional norms, like DFW’s, but maybe also from a sense of the slippery slope of many different pronouns up for possible use (and, therefore, lots and lots of possibility for misuse and misgendering?). Perhaps not, though it’s a worry I hear pretty often.

I think there are a few things to keep in mind, and the first is just sort of simple: I have a few non-binary friends, whose preferred pronouns are “they” for example. I also wrote a theatre review of a non-binary person’s theatre festival show over the summer, and zir’s preferred pronouns are ze/zir.

To start using these pronouns feels jarring, and forces a certain kind of reorientation. I also find this reorientation makes it easier and easier to use nonstandard gender pronouns. It’s not actually that different from having to memorize someone’s name, for example.

But aside from the pragmatic worry, there’s still an ethical worry I have with your question, which is that it’s asking me to speak for someone else in a way that makes me uncomfortable. Because again this isn’t an epistemic question so much as it’s an ethical one.

Bettcher also mentions in her paper, quite rightly, that people have this kneejerk confusion when confronted with a possible trans or non-binary person, that we have this need to know what their sex or their gender is. And part of this, she rightly notes is exactly that WE ARE SO USED TO KNOWING. That mainstream culture has historically conflated those two things, namely sex and gender, such that gender signals just are signals of sex. It’s jarring to suddenly change a whole swath of cultural signification, even if this change is necessary.

Of course, the fact that it’s jarring isn’t a justification for not doing it, and Bettcher would never say so. Her point is merely that it makes sense why it should be jarring in the first place.

You might say the same thing about gender pronouns. It’s jarring for us to feel like we just “don’t know” what someone’s gender is, prima facie, but that doesn’t justify setting up a system that would force everyone to conform to yet another kind of gender signal.

Even this very conversation might be called problematic by the non-binary community, to be honest, since in some sense I already feel like I’m speaking for them, and there are admittedly only so many questions I feel qualified to speak to on the topic.

What I hope I am able to contribute to the topic, however, are a few frameworks for understanding that these questions seem more about ethical questions about who is going to be allowed to be on the inside of a community versus the outside, the ways in which language performativity contributes to this question, and how this question of gender pronouns really, when it comes down to it, is about our society’s ability (or lack thereof) to take a step back from conventions and listen to what non-binary people are actually saying.

DR: I believe I understand your concerns and I certainly respect them. It was not my intention to call upon you to articulate a view on behalf of an entire community; I was merely curious as to whether you have a particular preference, given your sophistication and sensitivity, amongst the alternatives I enumerated. In order to teach in a context that accommodates, and therefore acknowledges the ethical weight of, non-binary pronouns, I think those of us who are not accustomed to their routine deployment ought to be willing to seek insight as to how and under what conditions specific language is best. It seems reasonable and polite to me simply to inquire when in doubt as one navigates one’s ordinary everydayness. The classroom makes different demands, though, which you undoubtedly see. I am not opposed to change; I am simply eager to implement it in an intelligent, ethical way.

LM: Sure yeah. I think your question is understandable. And I think conversations about this are important to have. I’m not demurring to avoid conflict, I’m mostly just trying to outline the reasons why I think I literally just cannot answer that question.

Having said that, I think it’s fair, from a pedagogical perspective, not to feel sure of how to approach the question in one’s classroom. Certainly having non-binary people in my life means that, in general now, I’m hyper-aware of the pronouns I’m using, and I definitely have worries that I will end up misgendering people.

But given the lack of stable conventions at the moment — I think that new conventions might eventually work themselves out, are working themselves out — I think that what matters is not that we can tell, antecedently, what pronouns to use necessarily, but that we approach the issue in good faith. So, I can tell you how that looked for me this fall after the Peterson fallout. I actually wasn’t sure what to do, or if my students would have noticed (I teach at a satellite campus) or if bringing it up would just draw more attention to Peterson, etc. But in the end I couldn’t in good conscience not say anything.

So I brought it up at the beginning of class, and outlined briefly what had happened (about a third of the class had heard about what had gone down). I stated that, contra Peterson, non-binary people are welcome in my classroom, and that if asked, I am happy to use a non-binary pronoun. No one asked me subsequently to use non-binary pronouns, I’m not sure if there were any non-binary people in my classroom or if they all even know what amounts to, and I didn’t go into details, but I hope that announcement went some way to opening up an environment in which students feel comfortable to ask for those things.

Beyond that, though, there were a few weeks where some of these issues came up again — I teach Bioethics, and the weeks we discussed abortion and IVF/surrogacy, the book I was using fell back on very traditional binary identities — equating women, mothers, and people who have uteruses — so I became suddenly aware that if I was going to welcome non-binary identities into the classroom, I needed to say something about how the book dealt with them (or rather, how it didn’t). Again, I can’t fix the book, but I can draw attention to this, point out the faulty assumptions (after all, non-binary people and trans men can have babies, be parents, etc.). There are actually a lot of words in English that don’t specify gender that one can use instead, and I tried to focus on consciously shifting my vocabulary as much as I could. But it’s also a process. There’s a lot in our language to unpack and examine.

DR: No doubt there is and indeed, the process of unpacking and examining language is fascinating, of course. I think Peterson’s zeal is troubling and it seems quickly to be making him a darling of the right (Conrad Black recently published a column that is practically hagiographical, thus vindicating the hypothesis that the praise of knaves is worth the scorn of sages.)

In any event, I suspect that as long as conversations like this one are possible, edifying progress can be made. I am certainly grateful for the chance to discuss the matter with you.

Also for you:

David Reddall

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