So I was listening to a recording of Sam Harris’s Waking Up podcast just now and was put in the uncomfortable position of getting exasperated with one of my intellectual heroes (Harris).
Harris was interviewing Jordan B. Peterson, which I thought was exciting given Peterson’s thoughts on mythic archetypes. I’m a creative writer myself and I’m also a total spazz for literary criticism, mythology and history. I was kinda stoked about this. But before they got to what I thought would be really interesting they began by discussing a legislative measure in Canada protecting gender identity from spontaneous public heckling.
Soooooo I’m a trans lady myself (on HRT for over two years and been totally out for as long) so I realize I have a protective emotional impulse on this topic. But I think there are glaringly obvious reasons why these legal policies should not be seen as absurd on their face.
Yelling random invective is something that you could end up in court for. If I loudly scream ‘fuck you’ while we are arguing in public I can reasonably expect legal charges. The basic way of behaving in question is not something the mainstream would disagree about beforehand. We all agree that random and spontaneous verbal harassment should have some kind of legal protection or social consequence.
Peterson trots out the Canadian protection of gender identity and preferred pronouns as if people would be hashing it out with you on a regular basis and it wouldn’t be reasonable to impose a legal penalty for it. I know I’m just relaying an anecdote here, but I work in an elementary school. It requires you to be around all kinds of people all day. In general, my gender identity and preferred pronouns are not a problem. Around the time I came out I was assured personally by many of my coworkers that I had nothing but support from them.
I’m not trying to say my lucky experience is normal but I am saying that there is such a thing as an ordinary expectation of civility in mainstream culture. All our lives we’ve learned that baiting trouble is a bad idea so I don’t see how legally protecting preferred pronouns and gender expression is somehow beyond the pale. It does not demand anything that general social mores do not already.
Large diversity of different non-binary pronouns are mentioned by Peterson as a problem and a dangerous foreign step into something static, delicate and necessary. The volume of different pronouns alone is, for Peterson, an indication of scary Marxist post-modern nutjobs taking over the world. Listen to the video yourself if you think I’m exaggerating. Peterson mentions social justice tribunals and means for determining unconscious biases that he says are not supported by science.
I realize that Peterson sees the pronoun question as the ‘bath water’ and the suspect unconscious bias examinations as the ‘baby’ in question here, so he presumably sees the pronoun issue as the tip of the bigger iceberg and, implicitly, not strictly culpable. The segue from the specific policy protecting gender expression and preferred pronouns to Peterson’s general anxieties about social justice kicking open the door to cultural fluidity is glossed over. After talking about employers being sanctioned for the bigoted language of their employees while on the job or with the public, Jordan Peterson says this that this is in keeping with “other elements in the background that are equally reprehensible” and then starts with the social justice tribunals.
You could say that Peterson is not specifically laying blame against transpeople here, but he is also trotting out an implicit association between gender-nonconforming people and social break down. Jordan B. Peterson is a big boy and I think we can safely assume he knows that he’s making the association. The fact that he glosses over it could mean that he doesn’t think it matters, that he takes it as a matter of course or that the audience should know already that the pronoun lead in was a “ringer” to begin with- that it never was the real subject. None of those possibilities provide a sequential justification for the association.
(I don’t wanna dwell on things beyond Peterson’s bald subject jump, but he mentions that he’s worried about the dialogue concerning biology and gender identity- read Julia Serano and Susan Stryker. The trans community is interested and active in that conversation and making it sound like you’ll be slammed in an iron maiden for mentioning it is stupid)
My next big problem here has to do with what I think is a misunderstanding about non-binary language. Let’s start with something nice and plain and personal. To say nothing of the genuine experience of non-binary individuals, non-binary language can make the early steps of coming out easier to understand for trans people within the binary. This I’ve experienced.
In my early twenties I made my first earnest attempts at coming out. In the interest of staying on topic I’ll try to not digress too deep into personal anecdote. I barely knew what I was doing at the time and soon I became anxious to be familiar with a body of information that would make my feelings easier to talk about. I began reading everything I could find about gender variance throughout history and current psychological wisdom. I found book-length studies of male crossdressers, historical texts and pop culture commentary. A lot of it was extremely interesting and academic curiosity alone would have been reason enough to read all that in the end.
Curiosity may have been the only reason in the end, since nothing I found addressed what I wanted: what I wanted was to understand my dysphoria and find a way to think clearly about feelings that would help me to put self-destruction behind me. It just didn’t happen during my gender bending psychology, pop culture and history kick. A book about gender-fluidity did speak to what I was feeling though. A day putzing around in Barnes & Noble put me in touch with Gender Outlaw by Kate Bornstein.
I said earlier that I wasn’t going to make this particular entry all about me and my life. I’m really not, even now: I’m just trying to explain how language without it’s emphasis on designating someone as male or female has practical applications for trans people within the binary, like myself. I was raised in a starkly non-conformist mixed-race environment both before and after my parents’ divorce. As the child of a single mother- and also as a female-identified queer -I need no convincing as per feminism or the oppressive nature of historical gender roles. A basic part of my nature spoke to a particular state of being- to express it would be to walk into a rhetorical nightmare of “you think femaleness is X”. I had no way of discussing or understanding it, even to myself. For me, learning how to think and talk about gender outside of the binary was a much-needed kiss of life, even if I myself am not non-binary.
So let’s wrap this up: dysphoria has to do with a visceral experience of being required to live in total resistance to your gender identity. If I may hearken back to my parenthetical remarks about Jordan Peterson, I’d be all ears for a definite verdict from evolutionary biology or neurology relating to gender identity. The conflict between how I was reared versus how I felt is so staggering and mysterious that I can’t help but wonder about biological factors. But however amorphous this notion may be for a cis person, let us at least stay with the bedrock that dysphoria is total panic and confusion; dysphoria is to be driven toward what you need because where you are right now is fundamentally not supportable. Dysphoria will tell you what you need to get away from but it will not tell you where you are going. My resistance to dysphoria has taught me that I am a transwoman. I know that now, but simply knowing the word ‘dysphoria’ and the concept of gender-variance could not have told me how I would make sense of things in the end.
In case that’s too wordy: gender dysphoria is a visceral, repulsive experience that does not endear you to normal ways of discussing gender. Non-binary language can be way of disarming aspects of this early on, even if one is not non-binary.
I think that might be all I have to say about this that requires any sort of minutia. And, although I said it would not be, it was largely anecdotal. What I wanted to do was explain one or two plain reasons why a gender-nonconforming person would benefit from non-binary language, whether or not they are non-binary. As far as legal protection and rational expectations go, you cannot yell ethnic slurs or insults without legal sanction- I’m not convinced that protecting gender identity demands anything more of society.