“What do you think of Jordan Peterson?”
Over the past year I’ve been asked that question by a surprising number of people. Friends, students, colleagues, believers, atheists, conservatives, and progressives – he’s captured the attention and the imagination of a lot of folk. I was even asked by a high school student this summer in the middle of an apologetics forum for my opinion on Peterson. He is loved by many. He is hated by probably just as many. I observed a Twitter conversation between atheists blow up this summer over the mere mention of his name. Then I read an article by a prominent atheist who was claiming that Peterson is the future of atheism while the old guard “new” atheists like Dawkins and Dennett have grown just that – old and tired. I’ve been told that he’s a bit of a rock star in Canada, and he’s most definitely a YouTube sensation.
I’ve got to be honest. Any opinion of mine on Peterson would, at this point at least, be uninformed. I haven’t read his book. I’ve only watched a handful of his shorter YouTube clips. I don’t even follow him on Twitter. Although sometimes it feels like I do since he is retweeted so much.
Instead of posting some grand statement on Peterson-ism, I’ve decided to write something on just one video on YouTube. The video contains a “talking head” discussion on a news show between Peterson and a transgender professor at the same university in Toronto. By the way, it’s genuinely impressive how many of these types of videos of Peterson exist on YouTube which should tell you that the dude definitely gets ratings.
The topic of conversation is Bill C-16 in Canada which, according to Peterson, compels speech in the form of requiring individuals to use the proper pronouns when referring to people particular in the transgender community. To be fair, you don’t have to do much digging online to find people who believe that Peterson has misinterpreted the bill. It should be pointed out however (and Peterson is hasty to make this point) that the University of Toronto where Peterson is a tenured professor has interpreted this bill in the same way that Peterson has. But the question of how a bill has been variously interpreted is not as interesting to me as the idea of compelled speech. On that point I am firmly in Peterson’s camp. The compulsion of speech from the government is an Orwellian imposition on freedom not just of speech, but also freedom of thought.
I think there is at least some truth in the claim that language structures reality. Language at least serves as a kind of road map helping to make sense of reality. If that is the case, then language can be employed and imposed by certain actors in a society – particularly those in academia, the media, and the government – in order to change perceptions of what is real and therefore what is right and proper. I know that sounds cynical, but think about how Trump deploys the language of “fake news” or the abortion industry deploys euphemisms like “women’s health.” The power of a culture is in what it normalizes, and the principle power in normalizing is in language. The modern (or rather postmodern) gender debate is a great example of this. Words like “cisnormative” are created in academia and then deployed by influencers across the culture to create the impression that it is somehow unusual or perhaps immoral to agree with the overwhelming consensus of human history that gender is binary and that exceptions to this are rare diversions from the norm. To dare disagree with the new language is to run the risk of being labeled with other words like “transphobic,” “bigot,” or perhaps even “fascist.” This labeling is yet another means of control with the use of language. It doesn’t matter if Jordan Peterson is literally a fascist. That word doesn’t mean anything other than “bad person who engages in badthink whom you definitely shouldn’t agree with.” Obviously, we are all guilty of using language in this way. But it is extremely troubling when a government starts using language in this way and endeavors to punish those who are slow to adapt to the new language.
It’s always helpful on issues like this to change the issue in your head as you’re thinking about it. For instance, if it is a position that we are already inclined to agree with, we are less likely to see governmental intervention as an imposition. “Good. It’s about time,” we might think. So change the issue to something else that you are less likely to agree with. Imagine that the government compelled you to add “the Great” whenever talking about the President. George the Great. Barack the Great. Donald the Great. “Oh, that’s different,” you say. Why? It is only different because now you are thinking about an issue with which you disagree. Government compulsion of speech is never a good or acceptable idea in a free society whether that means compelling an artist to create art which he deems inappropriate or a professor to use a pronoun which he deems inappropriate.
But what about on the personal level? If we take the government out of the equation, is it proper for a person to be called by the pronoun that most properly describes their reality? Or is it proper for a person to be called by the pronoun that most properly describes my reality? I must confess that on this question I have a lot less clarity.
At one point in the video there is a brief discussion about the relationship between kindness and truth. Which is more “important?” We clearly know where Peterson stands. What is most important is truth. And not the type of subjectively experienced feeling that passes as truth today. No, what matters is cold, objective, scientific truth. What matters to the other professor is kindness – specifically being kind enough to another person to call them what they desire to be called.
A case for truth
As Peterson points out, we have quickly reached the point of absurdity on this issue. In New York City there are 31 recognized genders. There has been a veritable Cambrian explosion of genders in the past 10 years. With the gender explosion, there has also been a growing and unwieldy list of pronouns being added to the cultural lexicon. Not only is the list of preferred pronouns impossible to keep up with, it is also normalizing absurdity to the point that some parents are now attempting to raise their children without gender. Peterson makes a case for not normalizing the absurd. Individuals don’t possess the right to change the structure of language for everyone else simply because of their subjective reality.
You could also make a case that accommodating subjective truths in order to be kind is actually not kind at all. If a friend is bulimic because she earnestly believes that she is overweight despite physical evidence to the contrary, it is not kind for me to agree to call her fat simply because that is “her truth.” But it would be unkind for me to not somehow acknowledge the painful reality that she is living every day which leads me to the case for kindness.
A case for kindness
I know myself well enough to know that I’ve got more than a little Jordan Peterson in me. I’ve often joked that without the Holy Spirit or the accountability of people who love me enough to tell me the truth I would fully embrace my inner “facts don’t care about your feelings” Ben Shapiro. Shapiro and Peterson have a certain resemblance. When Peterson challenges the supposed “pay wage gap” with actual data, it’s understandable (at least to me) why people would stand and cheer. When Shapiro calmly and quickly “owns” an emoting college student with a barrage of facts, he gets thousands of clicks on YouTube. Their bold and aggressive public defenses of the truth regardless of anyone’s feelings has gained them a huge following, but it is also potentially their blind spot. (To be fair, the forums in which these two men often engage with people who disagree with them don’t lend themselves to much “pastoral” engagement. It also is clear to me that what some would label as “unkind” is really just a matter of not being agreeable – which is a very different thing. Someone telling you that you’re wrong does not mean they are unkind.)
Never are we told that “owning” is a fruit of the Spirit. But kindness is. My suspicion is that a biblical definition of kindness might look slightly different than this professor’s definition. When it comes to gender identity or any other difficult cultural issue, biblical kindness is certainly wrapped up in biblical truth. But equally, biblical truth should be wrapped up in biblical kindness. Transgender people are troubled people. Loneliness, depression, anxiety, and suicide are epidemic among them and people who suffer from such things most certainly deserve kindness from those who follow Jesus.
So, what pronouns should be used? Well, this is just my opinion. I will personally not adopt non-binary pronouns. To participate in the proliferation of new pronouns is to participate and normalize absurdity. If the person were to push the issue with me, I would simply ask them if I could simply refer to them using their first name and avoid the pronoun question altogether. If it is a person who is presenting themselves as a particular gender, I would personally use the pronoun that is in keeping with the way they are presenting themselves. I hear the complaints of some: “To call a person ‘she’ who is biologically male is to deny reality.” That’s true I suppose. But think about it this way: If my friend were to get married to his boyfriend, it would be weirdly obtuse of me to not refer to him as his “husband.” To call him his husband is not to endorse gay marriage. It is simply to acknowledge the reality of my friend’s life. To call a dysphoric person who is biologically male “she” does not mean that I have accepted her ontological “she-ness.” It doesn’t mean that I endorse the transgender movement or that gender is not binary or that (as some would have us say) “some women have penises.” And it doesn’t mean that I don’t desire healing in her life. If the requirement of my discourse with any person is that I unreservedly endorse their every perception, belief, and behavior, we are not going to have many fruitful relationships. But using the word “she” as a way of merely acknowledging a person’s self-perception may be a small kindness that can hopefully open a relationship rather than close it.