An argument has been spewing its way across my social media feed about pronouns. It started with a University of Toronto professor called Jordan Peterson who made some videos about how he thinks that pronouns other than he and she are wrong and bad and no one should use them. You can read what he says here.
Naked Man linked me to this mess and asked what I thought of it. I think that Peterson is a bigoted idiot and he is totally wrong about the new wave of pronouns.
Perhaps I should break down a bit why I think that name calling is justified.
Peterson trots out the usual crap to justify his dislike of pronouns other than he/she, which can be broken down as follows:
-It is an assault on language.
-Hate crime laws will put normal people who misgender others by accident in prison.
-Everyone has an obligation to present themselves in a way that makes it easy for others to interact with them.
Now I will give Peterson credit in one way; he avoids the usual claim that biology backs him up, which is also completely bogus. However there is still plenty wrong.
Using alternate pronouns is not an assault on language. Language is not fixed. The perfect form of language does not happen to be the one you were taught when you were four. Language evolves based on the people that use it, otherwise we wouldn't *have* any recognizable language. We all adapted to the word computer as a noun, black hole as an astronomical object, and ISIS as a political entity rather than a mythological figure. Language changing with the times and with culture is just the way things are, and saying that we shouldn't do a thing because it is a change to language is asinine.
Thoughtful criticisms of how hate crime laws work are something I would actually like to see. I think we should talk carefully about how those laws work. If Peterson had actual examples or legal critiques of these laws I would listen because that is a thing I am interested in. Instead he seems keen to use his opposition to the laws as an excuse for acting like an asshole to marginalized people. Object to the laws? Sure, fine. Maybe even good! I don't know how the laws work that well, so they might well be overbroad. But using that as an excuse to refuse to give an important consideration for someone who needs it, and which takes almost no effort on your part? For shame. The risk of imprisoning people for trivial offences like calling someone 'she' when they self identify as 'xe' is nonexistent. The laws are aimed at consistent, deliberate misgendering, not accidents or pronoun usage for a person with a perference the speaker is unaware of.
The bit about people having an obligation to present themselves in ways that make it easy for others really boils my blood though. Peterson basically has decided that everyone has a moral obligation to cater to his biases in all things. They have to dress, speak, and identify in a way that is easy for him. That way he never has to consider that there are people different from him in the world and he is saved from the tragedy of accepting other ways of living.
Peterson is a privileged upper class man who is angry that he might have to think about his preconceived notions and challenge some of his deeply held beliefs. He is desperate to preserve the sanctity of the world he was taught to believe in and he is happy to cause whatever harm is necessary to do that.
Do his arguments about the laws surrounding hate speech have merit? Maybe. I don't know. I am hesitant to have the state regulate speech, so I am naturally sympathetic to that worry. But what I do know is that the rest of what he has to say is crap, and that leads me to believe that he is blowing his legal arguments out of proportion to justify his indignance at having his worldview challenged.