Review: Sam Harris & Jordan B. Peterson - Gender & Human Rights (2017-01-29 13:01)

Sam Harris's latest podcast had Jordan B. Peterson as a guest, who recently got a lot of media attention due to his response to the Bill C16 in Canada [3]. If you want to hear the conversation for yourself you can find it here. In this article I want to address the very first part of the conversation which addressed topics like Gender Identity, Gender Expression, Pronouns and other related issues.

My first reaction to the conversation was quite normal, but as I started digging into the sources I was quite disappointed. With Sam always pointing out to have intellectual honesty his guest was not really up to this and also for Sam the occasional exaggeration slipped in. It seems to me that they actually talk about a serious issue, but fail to distinguish that there are people who really want to make society a better place and those who think they act on behalf of another group (SJW).

I hope that I get the facts right, but if you figure I missed something or misrepresented a view, please feel free to point this out.

The back story, for those who don't know, is the recent Bill C16 from the Canadian government, which on the federal level extends human rights to additional groups, this time to Gender Identity and Gender Expression. Jordan B. Peterson expresses immediately, that "Gender Expression is not a group" which is a fair point. He moves on to point out, that one now could be provisionally prosecuted under the Hatecrime legislation for "criticizing someones choice of fashion" and also explains how the Ontario Human Rights commission defines gender expression which includes the choice of cloth and dress.

This already brings up an issue, when looking into the actual statements [0]. It is correct that the document describes Gender Expression as Peterson describes it. His statement, however, sounds like one would be prosecuted when insulting someone else on the street for their choice of cloth.
This completely bypasses reality, because the Code (Ontario Provisions [1]) states that:

"For the Code to apply, unequal treatment must have occurred in one of the five areas in the Code and be based on one or more of the grounds in the Code."
The five areas referred to, are "employment", "accommodation (housing)", "goods, services and facilities", "contracts" and "membership in trade and vocational associations". To me, this intends to address structural problems rather then individual situations.

As an example: if Peterson would structurally discriminate a group of students at his university because of their choice of fashion he would violate the Code - if he, however, on the street negatively comments someones cloth that would actually not fall under it.

He moves on to the fact, that he cannot understand how this (Gender Identity, Gender Expression) needs protection of this magnitude. I can follow this to a certain extend, but it has the problem of assuming that our societies works fair and treats everyone equally already, which is definitely the case in most areas but not everywhere.

The conversation then moves to the issue, that the Code requires the use of so called preferred pronouns. Sam points out that his audience might not be familiar with this so Jordan moves on to explain and states:

"[...] that gender is a social construct and that there are multiple variance of gender, gender identity and some of those don't fit neatly into male/female classifications; the legislations says that people can inhabit any position on that spectrum or not be on the spectrum at all, between male and female, which of course I find that particular claim especially incomprehensible [...] people who are non-binary which is the terminology are entitled to be referred to by pronouns other than he or she which include they which I would suppose be the most moderate compromise and then a host of other pronouns [...] truly there is like seventy different sets of them. And there is no agreement whatsoever on which ones should be used and none of them have entered popular parlance because they are bad solutions to the problem."

I am not entirely sure, but it seems to me that Jordan doesn't really understand the term Gender in contrast to sex, or if so he doesn't care to use them with their intended difference. I agree that social constructionist view could be a bad idea especially when it is radicalized. A quick look at Wikipedia can show why that might be:

"In that respect, a social construct as an idea would be widely accepted as natural by the society, but may or may not represent a reality shared by those outside the society, and would be an "invention or artifice of that society." [6]

It is an issue if we just make stuff up and treat it as being real and abide by it (eg. religion). Jordan, however, seems to be sure that gender is already found to be something that doesn't comply with reality at all. Granted, it is a complex topic and my knowledge is limited in that area as well. The question however (in similar regards as with religion) is, what are the benefits of making stuff up even if it isn't real, but helpful for our social community. I guess that the most important point is that we are aware that we make stuff up. This is an area where I expected Sam to link this to beliefs and well being in general.

In the latter part Jordan refers to the seventy different sets of pronouns which, even after extensive search, I could not find. The only source I could find is the reference to the couple of pronouns he mentioned [4]. One last point, that I find weird is his strong focus on the term 'manufactured pronouns'. Language evolves and brings up new terms. Since we didn't have words for elementary particles or concepts in psychology from the dawn of time, we made them up when we needed them. The same happens here, when we need some pronoun that doesn't refer in particular to a male or female entity. In the end of the paragraph it would have been nice not to only state the opinion that those are bad solutions, but to make a suggestion for a better strategy.

The next sentences Jordan utters brings me close to the question whether he values free speech in a way he later claims to do when saying: " [...] I don't like their philosophy and find it reprehensible to say the least" with reprehensible meaning deserving censure or condemnation which could be interpreted as he wanting to silence the other side, in the same way he claims they want to silence him. This however could be also simply my misinterpretation at play, so let's move on.

In minute 11:00 Jordan makes a very strong claim about the responsibilities of employers and that they are now liable for EVERYTHING that an employee might utter. I think he fails to make the distinction between action that I as an employee take on behalf of my company and private actions. My intuition here is, that responsibility lies on the company for the former action and on myself for the latter one.

At some point Jordan discusses the problems of unconscious bias training. Since I am not an expert in that area, I cannot add much, but want to make the distinction between identifying unconscious bias and doing something about it. As far as my research shows it is possible to identify unconscious bias. However, avoiding unconscious bias through training seems to have a limited effect as:

"The central contradiction of hidden bias training is that you can’t train something you can’t control. The classes suggest that you can become more objective just by learning about and thinking about your unconscious biases, but it’s not that easy. Understanding implicit bias does not actually provide you the tools to do something about it,” (Greenwald, the University of Washington, psychologist) [5]

The conversation then turns to Freedom of Speech and Sam states:

"[...] that Freedom of Speech is not just one among many different values, it really is the master value because it's the only corrective to human stupidity. It's the only mechanism by which we can improve our society and in fact it's the value that allows us to improve our other values, through compensation."
I fully agree with this statement. I should be able to challenge an idea, and not be hindered to speak freely, as long as I abide by the rules of a civil discussion.

In the end Sam brings up the difference between a positive injunction and a negative injunction. His example of a negative injunction is: "Stop using the N word. It offends me". Demanding from someone to learn a list of pronouns and use them correctly is given as an example for a positive injunction. It seems that we could phrase the underlying problem here from two sides. A male sex person who is trans-gender and might feel to be very feminine could be offended by being referred to as he, and reacts in a way the negative injunction example is given. On the other hand the same person could expect and tell everyone to be referred as she and demands that this is being used, a positive injunction.

This leads us to the part, where Sam, completely avoids his own concept of intellectual honesty. He brings the example of someone going around and ask to be addressed by a 16 digit number, a positive injunction. I would ask: Who would take them seriously? Probably nobody. And this is how it should be, especially if the person would change the number every minute. SJW who use the legislation in such terms are actually a problem, and don't see how much they are hurting the people that they try to 'fight' for. Furthermore I agree, that imposing a cost on people that is not relational, should and here I would dare to say would not pass legal procedures. This is were Jordan again falls to using extremes himself, when states that people now could act like:

"I am going to be offended, AND I am going to take you to court, AND you could be charged under hate speech, AND I could change that pronoun in an hour if I want or tomorrow or the next day on a whim."

I agree that it could be difficult, if someone intentionally changes their pronouns every 5 minutes to annoy people. No judge will account this as being something reasonable. Or to say it another way - they should not and if they do then we can speak out against this. As I stated in my last blog post, the goal should be a conversation. Imagine you are around someone who actually asks you to use he the one day and she the next one. You are free to bring this up and as stated in the beginning, the moderate compromise could be to find a pronoun like 'they' that you can just agree to use, when you are not comfortable with the effort of changing it all the time.

There are people who will not get it right - but as Sam Harris often pointed out - intentions matter because they indicate what people are going to do next [7]. Someone who doesn't seek resolution and dogmatically say they won't use any 'manufactured' pronouns are not part of the solution, as they also do not seek resolution through conversation. They are one of the reasons why we loose more and more reasonable people, which become SJWs.
In the end Jordan makes a small comeback on this topic. He points out that it needs to be negotiated, amongst the parties. I would have wished for this expression right from the start, rather then pointing it out in the very end.

In conclusion, I would like to have seen a more specific approach to the topic and distinction between different scenarios. We need to be careful though, that we do not slide into the same mistakes, that radical SJW often do and keep a sane specific discussion, about how our world ought to be. To help you start with that: How would you answer those specific questions? (my answers are given as well)

  • Should I abide by a change of pronouns if requested by someone? Yes
  • Should I accept every arbitrary alphanumeric sequence as a pronoun? No
  • Should I abide by a request of changing pronouns if it is switched every minute? No
  • Should I be punished when not complying with an arbitrary alphanumeric sequence as a pronoun? No
  • Should I be punished if I always keep using the pronoun he in my job offers? Yes
  • Should I be punished if I meet someone and after being asked to avoid an intuitive pronoun, I missed it and got it wrong? No
  • Should I be punished if I miss it 5 times? No
  • Should I be punished if I don't care and still use the pronoun I assigned to that person? Yes
  • Should I be punished if I tried to talk about my difficulties and offered to use a neutral common pronoun? No

Should I try to seek the conversation? Yes

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