Category Archives: Social Justice

Human Rights and Social Justice issues in Canada and internationally.

“Unthinkable”

American religious conservatives have a problem.

Riding high on their partnerships with the Trump administration and the perception of being political kingmakers, they need to be sure that they will be able to sustain their momentum for years to come. And with the newly-stacked U.S. Supreme Court making the overturn of Roe v Wade a seeming inevitability (as well as putting the overturn of marriage equality within sight), they are now looking for what to do in a “post-Roe” world to retain their energy, power, and dizzying levels of funding. And in the discussions they have about that dilemma, their solution, often, is to work toward a world in which they have made abortion “unthinkable.”

“I’m not suggesting that the proposed laws are unimportant—on the contrary, pass more of them! I only wish to remind us that our goal is to make abortion unthinkable as well as illegal. And that means our work has only just begun…” –  John Stonestreet and Roberto Rivera, Breakpoint

When I speak about American conservatives, of course, I don’t mean to suggest that there is some central plan or hive mind. It doesn’t work that way. Even getting U.S. Evangelicals and Catholic fundamentalists onto the same page can be a challenge sometimes, and the religious nationalist industrial complex is made up of an infinite number of organizations all vying for dollars in the same fundraising pool. But there does seem to be a fairly cohesive and organic process in which talking points filter out and take shape – and “unthinkable” appears to be one such trend in linguistic spin.

The origin of this particular incarnation of the talking point (it has been mused about many times before, but not with this degree of viral spread and consistency) appears to have been January’s Evangelicals for Life conference, in which the senior vice president of Alliance Defending Freedom’s (ADF) U.S. legal division Kristen Waggoner encouraged attendees, using the phrase. Waggoner’s encouragement came about a week after Robin Marty’s Handbook for a Post-Roe America was published, and progressive news outlets were discussing how to respond to the possibility of a patchwork or even nationwide ban on abortion. The possibility that the left might evolve to cope with a changing legal landscape – as far as EFL attendees were concerned – needed to be thought out and prepared for.

So when Ontario Member of Provincial Parliament Sam Oosterhoff tells an anti-abortion rally in Toronto that he pledges to make abortion “unthinkable in our lifetime,” it’s helpful to look at religious conservative media for clues as to what he might mean by that, and where his influences are coming from.

“New Hampshire Right to Life’s position is clear, she said. ‘We would want to put restrictions on abortions and make it unthinkable and illegal…’”Concord Monitor

I could go at some length about how promoters of the sensationalistic and Planned Parenthood -defaming movie Unplanned seized on the phrase during their publicity tour, or how it’s turning up on Fox News, or how it came up during anti-abortion rhetoric pertaining to legislation in New York and Georgia as well as a legal ruling in Louisiana, or how it spread widely enough that even a perceived-left website like Vox gave it oxygen – but that only establishes that there is definitely a narrative. I’d much rather look at what religious conservatives are getting at, when they use the phrase.

“Every answer to why abortion is viewed as still ‘needed’ stems from a deeper-seeded issue which we could be fighting against… we need to combat the issues which give abortion supporters reasons to think it is the better ‘option.’ Abortion needs to stop being an excuse for not addressing the larger issues at hand…” – Paul Collier

If anti-abortion groups wanted to turn their attention toward addressing poverty, it would probably be a welcome development. Sadly, you won’t find a whisper of that, and doing so would probably frighten the megadonors with whom they collaborate to form the Republican / Conservative political base. But getting religious conservatives to speak candidly about specific objectives isn’t always easy. Afraid that too much transparency might allow opponents to organize effectively against them, they often restrict their public musings to dog whistle terms (of which “unthinkable” is arguably one), and stay effectively mum about which political candidates they’ve managed to get nominated as candidates in an election. But in venues seen as relatively safe and exclusive, or from pundits who are seen as less prominent, sometimes you’ll find some elaboration.

One such pundit is The Federalist’s Georgi Boorman, who actually proposed a 6-point plan. Chief among these is to “Improve Reproductive Education” – but you won’t find her making any mention of contraception (elsewhere, Boorman reveals herself to be not a fan of The Pill), condoms or family planning. There’s no direct mention of sex education in schools, either, even though it would clearly be the necessary vehicle for what she has in mind. The “reproductive education” that she speaks of is predominantly “to educate women on the dangers of” abortion (by which she means the usual far right claims about health dangers of the practice), a fetishization of the stages of fetal development, and more fearmongering about the current medical process (i.e. she cites “the horrid conditions of abortionist Kermit Gosnell’s facility” as a typical example… it’s far from it).

The remainder of Georgi Boorman’s suggestions include more criminalization (elsewhere, she openly supports the death sentence for women who abort) and the vague “celebrate life” mantra, as well as increasing support for adoption (“especially cross-racial,” she adds, stealthily riffing on anti-abortion groups’ efforts to portray the procedure as a kind of racist genocide perpetrated by leftists) and – of course – ramping up funding for anti-abortion fake pregnancy centres.

On these points, her proposals are within the purview of those of Abby Johnson, whose own proposals are steeped in proselytizing and expanding anti-abortion pregnancy counseling centers into additional areas that beatify motherhood, but do not provide any hints of information about contraception or family planning (other than, perhaps, the “rhythm method”). But Boorman also adds a notable comment about “support[ing] fatherhood”:

“… what if fathers were asked to step up as parents and providers, instead of being written off as unqualified sperm donors? What if our culture demanded it? … Millions of fathers have been robbed of this opportunity since Roe, and our welfare system has enabled this by disincentivizing marriage and fatherhood obligations. … Instead of affirming mothers’ unilateral decisions by default, we should encourage fathers’ involvement (including marriage)…”

When religious conservatives frame opposition to gay and trans human rights as “protecting marriage,” LGBTQ+ organizations and spokespeople often quip about the hypocrisy in their seeming lack of worry about divorce and cohabitation. But the fact of the matter is that anti- groups have never stopped tilting at those particular windmills, either. An outright ban on divorce is only touted by the most extreme among them, but “disincentivizing” and creating an institutional system that heavily favours marriage come up often, and the idea of restricting divorce or making it difficult retains some level of popularity.

Other religious conservatives are more ambitious. Around the same time that Kristen Waggoner was proposing that abortion be made unthinkable, the Heritage Foundation hosted Sue Ellen Browder, who claims that “the sexual revolution hijacked the women’s movement” to make abortion and contraception priorities. This, too, is not a new argument, but it is gaining new popularity with organizations seeking to keep the money rolling in after an overturn of Roe. And with anti-trans, anti-sex work and anti-porn feminists partnering with religious conservatives like never before, there appears to be a sense that they have an opportunity to co-opt womens’ rights, which can then be used as a shield against accusations of homophobia, Islamophobia and puritanism, while at the same time purging it of reproductive rights advocacy and sex positivity, maintaining a subordinated role for women in administrative areas, and asserting the doctrine of complementarianism (a teaching used both to mandate motherhood as a woman’s integral life goal, and to invalidate LGBTQ+ peoples’ rights to live their lives as they need to).

“The battle against feminism is better fought by women because the public has been convinced that men are not qualified to speak about issues that affect the fairer sex…”John Horvat II

On this point, James V. Schall suggests that religious conservatives need to target the entirety of the sexual revolution: “The path, when spelled out, is a direct line from divorce, contraception, and abortion to single-sex ‘marriage,’ in-vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, and designer babies and now to a refusal to continue to increase and multiply with transgenderism, population decline, and, ultimately euthanasia… If we were to eliminate abortion, we must freely stop committing the sins that initiate disordered conceptions… Without this conversion, we will continue on the same path on which we now are traveling…”The Federalist’s Cullen Herout (which, admit it, must be a pseudonym) agrees at least on the point about contraception, saying “… if the goal really is to make abortion unthinkable, that cannot and will not happen without a large-scale shift in our cultural attitude toward human sexuality and contraception…”

So the next time your local political representative muses about making abortion “unthinkable,” it’s only reasonable to press them to elaborate. Because there clearly is more to that statement – and while religious conservatives obviously don’t think in total homogeneity, there’s enough like-mindedness to view this sort of dog whistle with alarm.

Free Speech, When The “Debate” is You (and You’re Not Invited)

There’s a duplicitous game of sleight-of-hand that is taking place in discussions about freedom of speech in academia and the public square.

Here’s how it works: at first, a person fishes for controversy by saying several things that they know will offend people.  If this garners enough attention, then the process recurs organically — say, whenever a politician wants to reference the controversy as a coded dog whistle to their base, or when a teaching assistant replays a recording in class because she thinks the discussion is interesting and challenging.

And the moment the people targeted by that discussion get angry and protest, they’re described not as being upset about the content of what is being said, but rather their protest is reframed as opposing freedom of speech itself.  Whether you see that as accidental or deliberate probably depends on how cynical you are about the whole issue. Continue reading Free Speech, When The “Debate” is You (and You’re Not Invited)

Gospel By Gaslight

If gaslighting is “a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity,” then religious fundamentalism (of several sorts, although my experience is specifically with Christian fundamentalism, and other forms may vary) is a particularly insidious form of mass gaslighting.

Although I no longer hold to any particular faith, I continue to believe that the problem is fundamentalism, rather than any particular flavour of religion in its moderate form.  I do recognize that faith can have a positive effect in peoples’ lives, and has the potential to teach a certain amount of goodness and morality that people can otherwise be too self-absorbed or indifferent to learn of their own accord.  But fundamentalism, often a hardline, literalist interpretation of scripture(s) in a way that is intended to override a person’s own thoughts, experiences and inner sense of reality, easily fits the bill of spiritual gaslighting.  Fundamentalism, in its authoritarian insistence on flatly denying anything contrary to its specific interpretation of faith, its reliance on often contradictory (or at least vague and unclear) scripture, and in its refusal to adapt when quantifiably true information becomes known, can then only possibly destabilize a person’s sense of self and delegitimize their whole sense of what is true.

My own experience gave me endless examples of this, each of which had to be dismantled in a process that took years and left me bitter and angry when all was said and done.  I had been raised Catholic at first, but then from the age of 7 until I was 17, I, my mother and sister began attending a Protestant church that was so radical it was kicked out of the Pentecostal Assembly.  That church was seen as one of the more modern of its day, but that didn’t make it progressive as a result: the sell was loving, but there was no shortage of absolutes and militant edicts to be confronted with, requiring entire changes of life, and threats of rejection or divine consequences for failure.

The example that stands out most memorably stems from having been a child / teen who struggled (because that was what I was taught to do) with attraction to both sexes, and a gender identity that I was unable to articulate (because we didn’t have the language for it in the 1970s and 1980s) as being out of sync with my birth sex.  All of these things were a part of my core person, things that I couldn’t switch off like a light, things that I prayed for years for Jesus to take away, things that I threw myself into 24/7 efforts like bible study and evangelism in hopes that they’d help me overcome.  All of these things were in direct conflict with what my religion told me was true and morally acceptable.  My faith told me that Christ could “heal” me if I just believed (I did, ardently; he didn’t).  My faith told me that Christ could cast my demons out, which was a particularly horrible kind of mind game, suggesting that intrinsic parts of my being were actually manifestations of Satan incarnate.

Continue reading Gospel By Gaslight

What the “Walk on the Wild Side” controversy says about trans* awareness and a changing social movement

A little over a week ago, a University of Guelph student union drew international ire for condemning Lou Reed’s 1972 song “Walk on the Wild Side” as transphobic.  This occurred after the Central Student Association apologized on social media for playing the song at a campus event.  Although this might seem like a minor thing to get upset about (especially in the outrage-saturated age of Donald Trump), and most of the reaction has focused on the historic roots and intent of the song, the controversy is actually a noteworthy reflection of the changes that take place as a social movement — in this case, trans* activism — matures.

This brings to the surface a lot of mixed feelings for me, as a former activist who chose to be visible and vocal at a time before trans* people were taken seriously, let alone had much in the way of public acceptance.  “Walk on the Wild Side” was an inclusive part of the subculture; one of the rebellious anthems we rallied around and took pride in.

It shows how profoundly things can change as a marginalized class of people becomes better understood and more enfranchised: even those things that had once been welcome and validating can become sour and invalidating.  It also says much about how social movements evolve, and how each generation inevitably repudiates the last, as they seek to distinguish themselves.

It’s a process I came face-to-face with several years ago, while trying to form a trans-specific support organization in Alberta.  One of the town hall participants took me aside and tried to impress upon me that in order for the trans* movement to advance, the “dinosaurs” (which included me, apparently) needed to “make way for the new age.”  As hurtful as the discussion was, they did have some points that resonated in the years that followed, and ultimately contributed to my decision from withdrawing from trans* activism and (mostly) from writing about trans* issues.  Some of the concerns they raised were painfully pragmatic (i.e. needing to have leaders who didn’t bring with them the baggage of bitterness and ill will of having fought the lesbian and gay establishment for inclusion in LGBTQ activism), some insulting (i.e. suggesting that one had to be younger, academic and/or trans-male in order to be an acceptable “face” of trans* activism), but other arguments were the byproduct of recognizing the changing language we use to communicate trans-ness… and the tide of acceptance that was coming with it.

After all, the activism I was accustomed to was a kind of triage, of coping with and trying to educate traditionally hostile medical, governmental and social institutions, while directing people in need to safe, welcoming inroads and pushing those institutions behind the scene to provide better options and opportunities.  I’ve often likened the experience to dashing ourselves against the rocks in the hopes of blunting them enough for the next people to come along.  But the activism that was quickly becoming needed was more direct — lobbying, legal challenges, public actions — and although I started making some of those changes in what I was doing, there was a danger that by trying to be an intrinsic part of that activism, I might inadvertently hold it back by defaulting to the triage-style efforts I’d been accustomed to.  In the end, I realized there was some important truth to this.

My point, of course, is that along with awareness about trans* people, the movement toward trans* human rights is undergoing a generational metamorphosis.

Part of that metamorphosis is in the language used to communicate “trans-ness,” if you will.
This is seen in the many diverse and sometimes seemingly-chaotic genders that are being investigated and embraced as peoples’ terms of self-identification.  Although many of the newly-embraced genders are relatively beyond my own experience (I’m personally comfortable in a gender binary, while still recognizing the problematic social constructions with that), there are almost always very deep and specific reasons those gender terms have been embraced.  I’ve learned to respect and support (while not trying to speak for, except when there is no one present to do so) gender diversity that is outside my limited range of experience.

I raise this as a point of language because before a movement can fully coalesce, the language it uses to communicate itself needs to be rethought.  Until trans* people had a language to communicate their own experiences, they had to cope — often with a lot of frustration and awkwardness — with the language that was imposed upon them.  In my lifetime, trans* women and trans-feminine persons were conflated with gay men (particularly effeminate ones); trans* men and trans-masculine persons were conflated with lesbians (particularly “butch” dykes); trans* people were defined and categorized by medical practitioners who constructed stigmatizing models of mental illness to explain them; pornography and second-wave feminists alike defined trans* women as “she-males” (usually with the implication that ‘she’s really male’); social conservatives wielded terms like “crossdresser” and “transvestite” to reduce peoples’ entire experience to a clothing fetish… and even those terms were imperfect and evolved unexpectedly.  For example, in the 1990s, a lot of trans* women actually did refer to themselves as “crossdressers” and used that as a label to rally under — it was the limitation of the language people had available to them at the time.

It wasn’t until trans* people were able to assert their right to define themselves and determine for themselves what their words meant that the old stigmas could be shed and better-fitting terms and their definitions could be settled upon.  Some of that is still taking place, and it may seem strange at times — but it is a necessary process (I, for one, welcome and embrace it — as long as no one tries to redefine my own self and experiences, in the process).  Even now, there are still disagreements about using words like “transgender” as umbrella terms (which I why I personally prefer “trans*” — it provides a much more open-ended acknowledgement of the diverse range of experiences being discussed).

But some of the earlier problematic use of language still remains in the things that were written about us — both by cis* (non-trans*) people, and by we trans* “dinosaurs.”

I won’t go into too much depth about the particulars of the song “Walk on the Wild Side,” since a lot of that is public record.  Reed wrote the song as an intended tribute to some of the trans* folks he knew as a part of Andy Warhol’s clique at The Factory, particularly Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling.  It’s also probably historically relevant that Reed had a lengthy and enigmatic relationship with a trans* woman (who has unfortunately faded into obscurity), which had a profound effect on him.This doesn’t change the fact, of course, that the song has some lyrics that now tread into potentially misgendering and transphobic tropes (“… Plucked her eyebrows on the way / shaved her legs and then he was a she….”) The content hasn’t changed — but the context given those lyrics certainly has.  And even if there is a consensus right now it that the University of Guelph Central Student Association is on the wrong side of the issue referring to the song as transphobic, the evolution of trans* activism and the lesson of histories of other social movements tell me that the student union’s statement is more in line with where that activism is headed.

This is true of a great many things that used to be a part of what used to be the trans* subculture.  Some of the things that we consider offensive now were embraceable or rallying anthems even ten or fifteen years ago, if only by the virtue that trans* people were so stigmatized and made to hide that anything that acknowledged our existence in even a mildly sympathetic way felt like progress.

Today, the film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar is likely to bring up heated discussions about the differences between drag queens and trans* women — if not angry division about whether drag is a kind of trans* “blackface.” In 1995, it was a celebration of a culture that was often one of the few safe-havens and opportunities to come out of the closet that trans* women had (although how welcoming the drag community was varied by region), even if it meant being willing to be a bit of a self-caricature.

In 1987, Aerosmith’s “Dude (Looks Like A Lady)” was sometimes taken as an affirmation, despite its misgendering — and in a twisted way, this may even have been in part due to the uncomfortably sexualized form of acceptance implied in the repeated refrain to “do me.”

In 1992, it was hard to know how to feel about the treatment of the character of Dil in The Crying Game, given Jody’s obvious love for her and the well-developed and nuanced relationship that she forms with Fergus… yet that is starkly contrasted with the jarring pivot of the movie, which has the latter vomiting upon the discovery of her trans* status.  Today, the movie is seen as the progenitor of the “vomit shot,” a recurring trope in an enormous amount of offensive material that portrays sex with trans* women as sickening.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch had a cult following that still largely adheres to the play and film, despite the fact that both [spoiler alert if it’s needed] end with the protagonist’s detransition — though to be fair, Hedwig has a second trans* character who doesn’t, so the decision is fairly painted as an individual one, rather than a morality tale that should apply to everybody.

Probably most notoriously, The Rocky Horror Picture Show periodically inflames division for centering around a character who was recently described as a “cannibalistic-murderer-mad-scientist obsessed with constructing the perfect Adonis to submit to Frank’s erotic pleasures,” while the original film (and theatre participation that went with it) is also paradoxically fondly remembered as peoples’ first opportunity to present themselves in public as their identified gender, and for its affirming themes like “Don’t Dream It, Be It.” Of all historic trans-related media, RHPS probably has the most chequered baggage, and isn’t helped any by being written by someone who somehow found a way to be both gender diverse and transphobic simultaneously.  In 2017, RHPS might be slightly rehabilitated by its campy intent and a remake starring Laverne Cox (which sadly makes it one of the few films about trans* people that the media industry saw fit to cast an actual trans* woman in), but I suspect that the future will not be as kind.

We’re even seeing this in the Twin Peaks reboot:

“When Denise first appeared on the ABC series in 1990, she was a trailblazer. Then (and today), trans people were practically nonexistent on network television. So to see a trans character like Denise who was smart, capable, and more than one-dimensional was a breakthrough moment for representation.

“… Jenny Boylan, a trans activist and cochair of the GLAAD board of directors, posted on social media that the scene “made me squirm.”

“25 years later the David Duchovny trans character in #twinpeaks ep 4 lands really differently, made me squirm. I’m not your dancing dwarf,” Boylan posted on Twitter…”

From perhaps 2006 to 2010 (my approximation, anyway), there has been a shift in language, and this has brought about a parallel shift in thinking. With the aftertaste of 2005’s Transamerica and the newfound ability of trans* people to tell their own narratives and define their meaning, it became no longer enough that a work of film, music or art simply be sympathetic for it to become anthemic or a point of communal pride. Since then, the language — and the context and depth of understanding that goes along with it — has been changing.
Inevitably, that means that some of the things we remember fondly do go the way of the “dinosaur,” fortunate or unfortunate as that may be.
(This post also appears at rabble.ca)

Free speech, and the cruel shackles of empathy and mutual respect

jordanpeterson2

In Canada, we tend to value freedom of speech very highly, and it’s often said that the best way to counter objectionable speech is with more speech.

That’s the first thought that crosses my mind in the case of U of T professor Jordan Peterson, who declares in a series of YouTube videos that he will not honour trans* peoples’ chosen pronouns, and opposes trans* human rights protections, all in the name of combating “political correctness.”

Of course, that would be an ideal world. In the real world, it’s still not that unusual for discussion of trans* issues to devolve into a “balanced” debate between pro- and anti-trans* academics over whether they exist at all, without any annoying context like actual trans* people being present to discuss their lived experience of, well, existing.  In the real world, there are real problems about who gets to speak, and how widely they can be heard… and the marginalized are often not given much voice to matters that affect — and are specifically about — them. In fact, the established and prolific voices in today’s media are more often quick to reject attempts to “inflict” change, or energetically create a lopsided portrait.

Speech is not a truly universal and equitable thing in the first place. Rather, it is something that is dependent upon access to favourable platforms, and is usually pre-emptively muddied by characteristic value judgments made about the speaker’s class, gender, race, etc.

Nevertheless, we strive for it as best we can. And in doing so, we arrive at the next irony: the very act of protesting ignorance with speech becomes itself heralded as evidence of censorship — as if the only way one’s speech can be truly free is for everyone else to remain silent.

The outcry and protest of ignorance [edit: example removed, was based on bad information – M] is speech, too — that of the protestors.  But in a disparate society, privileged speech is defended, while protest of it is often minimized, marginalized and dismissed as rowdiness, whinging, totalitarianism (!), censorship, and noise.  It becomes: “a little free speech for me, and a little shut-up-and-take-it for you.”

But let me back up for a moment.

Jordan Peterson is a University of Toronto (UofT) psychology professor who began his rants — especially about, but not limited to, trans* people and a “radical leftist ideology” — in late September, saying from the beginning that he felt he could face consequences, and even feared government or university reprisal because of existing human rights and hate speech laws.  He told Postmedia:

“I think (Bill C-16) risks criminalizing discussion about aspects of human sexual behaviour and identity that we need to discuss,” said Peterson, explaining that there are layers to C-16 — the biology of sex, gender identity and gender expression, for example — that could cause problems down the road.

One of his top stated concerns has been with the inclusion of trans* people in existing hate crimes legislation. The thing that people forget about this when it pertains to speech, though, is that the law has already been tested and shown to apply only exceedingly sparingly. If Bill Whatcott’s homemade but mass-distributed “anal warts” flyers equating LGBTQ people with pedophiles, and lyrical invitations to “kill the homosexual” skirt the edges of hate speech — some permissible and some not — then Peterson probably has nothing to worry about. Speech can indeed be hateful, and yet still not be legally actionable as hate speech.

But given that he seems only (or at least primarily) worried about human rights and hate crimes legislation when it pertains to LGBTQ people, one has to wonder if the concerns are cover for fears about the growing acceptance of trans* people in society.  He stated from the beginning that he will not use non-binary pronouns for other people, even if they request that.  He also said in his first video that he is “scared by the people behind the doctrines,” and attributes them to a radical Marxist ideology (reminiscent of the “cultural Marxism” panic making the rounds among social conservatives). He even compares the latter to Naziism, because of what he considers “murderous” and “Marxist” policies around the world.

Peterson frames his views in an academic and perhaps libertarian perspective, rather than a religious perspective, but he has been enjoying the support of religious conservatives.  This is probably because his views are quite compatible with the right-wing narrative that accepting and acknowledging trans* people as they need to live is (as enunciated regularly at LSN) a “disservice” and “false compassion because it’s not true.”

Peterson’s remedy to all of this dreaded political correctness — and what he calls upon listeners to help him with — is to propagate a “No PC” sticker campaign across the campus, and beyond.

The response to his videos has been mixed, with fierce supporters and opponents.  It has reportedly spawned threats, and affected some students’ class attendance.  In recent days, personal information about trans* students was circulated in far right subreddits, and protesters were nearly overwhelmed by an angry mob that allegedly included neo-Nazis.  This puts the University of Toronto in a quandary, as calls for reprisal — including possibly firing Peterson — have arisen.

From my perspective, reprisals like firing are not really a preferable end goal. We do value freedom of speech in Canada, after all — especially in academic settings — so there is that kernel of validity, even if Peterson’s speech is disrespectful or hateful. He’s entitled to his opinion, and also to be a jerk about it, on his own time.  Restrictions on freedom of speech are too often used to oppress minorities rather than people of privilege, anyway — much like the “homosexual propaganda” ban in Russia, which conservatives are still trying to figure out how to lobby for in North America.  It’s that extra step that Peterson wants to take it with students and colleagues which makes the question particularly difficult.

When I say this, though, it’s also partly because I’m an avid reader of social conservative media, and understand the undercurrent of persecution narrative activism. It’s why I can recognize what likely motivates someone who — without anyone ever asking him to respect trans* people in the first place — took it upon himself to loudly and energetically pursue free speech martyrdom anyway.

And personally, I see no value in giving it to him. Peterson’s actions — whether deliberately or by coincidence — are destined to place him in a growing collection of social conservatives who self-immolate for a few moments of anti-LGBTQ fame. It’s become trendy to seek a place on the Kim Davis speaking circuit, alongside Fundie cake bakers, and the twice-suspended Alabama Chief Justice who tried to singlehandedly overturn marriage equality in the United States.  Free speech martyrdom is also Ezra Levant’s entire schtick (which he’s still trying to parlay into a media network), so it also has just as valid and active a presence in Canada outside of overtly religious circles.  Whining that someone’s “special right” to dignity and equality is trampling your perfectly ordinary right to discriminate seems to make you a far right folk hero, these days. One of the end objectives of this, of course, is to insert a special religious exemption in human rights laws, so that people can practice their faith by refusing to sell to, hire, or otherwise co-exist with heathens (I might have got the precise wording wrong on this, because I don’t remember the particular scripture where Jesus commanded his followers to willfully disrespect and refuse to do business with sinners — I keep getting hung up on the “love one another” and “give unto Caesar” parts, for some reason).

Anyway, free speech martyrdom will allow Peterson to play hero… or at least until some other dupe comes along. After all, the whole value of the Kim Davises and Melissa Kleins to conservative activists only lasts as long as they’re useful to the two legal groups (Alliance Defending Freedom and Liberty Counsel) trying to etch anti-LGBTQ discrimination into American law, plus the allied think tanks, religious organizations and media outlets that are parasitically fundraising off both their successes and their failures. The Kleins, for example, recently closed their bakery, ruined because they thought that refusing to do business with a lesbian couple was a noble idea — and now they’re almost forgotten, except by the vaguely-phrased legend of the cake bakers. In that circuit, the fate of someone like Jordan Peterson is irrelevant.  The point of beatifying the speech martyrs is to entice more dupes into creating more situations that help build a narrative which frames LGBTQ peoples’ rights to live, work and do business as automatically and inherently persecuting to people of faith… something that Peterson’s firing would fit into just as beautifully as any technical victory he might (though it’s a longshot) find some way to score.

Either way, giving Peterson the glory he seems to seek really only feeds an ongoing anti-LGBTQ political tactic — even if deceptive — and gives it power.

Yet, there does have to be some form of limit. There’s no denying the destructive effect of cumulative aggressions and microaggressions. It’s one thing to be told by someone that they think you’re deluded and that they refuse to respect you. It’s quite another to be told that in billionuplicate, at every turn, by several people you don’t know (and even worse: some you do), without you ever having done anything to warrant the hostility. If you pay attention to news related to trans* people, you know that stories of suicides due to bullying and harassment arrive on a weekly basis… and that’s only the reported instances.

Because as valid as the need to protect free speech is, it is also very often weaponized, and used to gaslight entire communities that just want to be able to participate in society and be accorded the same dignity and respect as anyone else. It’s used to minimize them, tell them they ask too much, and shame them into going away — back into their closets would be just fine, for example. Remember what I said about free speech in the real world being often a one-sided or lopsided thing.

But where to draw the line on hateful speech is almost impossible to determine. It’s easy to limit speech in cases of libel and direct harassment or incitement. Cumulative hatefulness, though, is difficult to realistically pin on an individual, especially given that an individual doesn’t always intend the hostile fallout generated by their supporters or the like-minded. I don’t know that it can be done legislatively, except in extreme and / or intended instances.

What has to happen is a mass awakening, and a mass rejection of ignorance — and unfortunately, the pace of that kind of change is glacial. Of course, mass backlash will still be framed as persecution and censorship, but it will be better recognized widely as a reasoned response to bigotry.  And that takes time and awareness… and continual revisitation.

And if there is no clear legislative solution, then there’s not a lot of guidance outside the court system, either. So I understand the position this puts the University of Toronto (and potentially the Ontario Human Rights Commission, if it came to that) in… particularly with the issue of pronouns.

The thing to keep in mind about pronouns is that deliberately misgendering someone is itself an act of hostility — an act of asserting that you know better than someone else who they are, what they need and what their life experiences mean. It’s putting your inconvenience of having to adapt ahead of the reality of their entire lives. It’s not just about invalidating one’s choice of pronoun — it’s about claiming the right to authoritatively invalidate everything that they know about themself(/ves)*.

[* And if you paused for less than five seconds to look at that, understood it — however awkward that pronoun might have looked — shrugged and moved on, then congratulations: you’re far better able to cope with gender neutral and / or singular “they” pronouns than a UofT prof!]

Allowing Peterson to speak his opinions about “gender ideology” is one thing. Having him publicly vow to deliberately antagonize and disrespect students and other faculty members is quite another.  And as the increasing tensions and threats over the course of his campaign have shown, sustained, hateful free speech can have serious consequences.

So what is to be done?  The best scenario would be if Peterson would recognize where he has stepped beyond speech into deliberate antagonism and borderline incitement, maybe apologize, or at least leave things be, but that’s obviously not going to happen.  Probably, the only result that both he and trans* advocates and supporters will be satisfied with is some form of free speech martyrdom, in the form of firing or some lesser kind of censure.

And this will inevitably once more feed the conservative persecution complex, and the dreams of a Trump-like saviour to free them — in the words of the inimitable Samantha Bee — “from that prison, and the cruel shackles of empathy and mutual respect.”

(Crossposted to rabble.ca)