Posts Tagged ‘ language ’

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


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

Paths of Pain, and the Ownership of Language.

Marc Maron recently ran a follow-up interview with fellow comedian Todd Glass, who had come out as gay on Marc’s podcast, WTF.  Marc’s podcast has often been strikingly introspective, and a moment came up that epitomized this. Glass started talking about language, the way that words can be weaponized, and the way he’s experienced this since coming out as gay:

(at 20:12) GLASS: But for me, I want to keep evolving.  I don’t want to be the type of person who drops one word out of my act and then the other word and then goes ‘oh my god, when’s it gonna stop? I’m done evolving!’  Don’t f***ing brag about that…  ‘Cause… you know, the reason those words — I realize it with the word ‘gay’ — the reason people think it’s not bad is they don’t see the path of pain where it leads back to…

That sticks out in my mind as important, as it speaks almost directly to the controversy that happened when Marc interviewed RuPaul Charles in the previous podcast, as part of RuPaul’s ongoing string of controversies over language:

(at 1:16:41) RUPAUL: No no no, it’s not the transsexual community who’s saying that. These are fringe people who are looking for storylines to strengthen their identity as victims. That is what we’re dealing with.  It’s not the trans community, because most people who are trans have been through hell and high water and they know — they’ve looked behind the curtain at Oz and went, ‘Oh, this is all a f***ing joke.  But, some people haven’t, and they’ve used their victimhood to create a situation…  If your idea of happiness has to do with someone else changing what they say, what they do, you are in for a f***ing hard-ass road.  Because the ego would have you think…  that is a trap that the ego will have you… it gets you every time…  My 32-year career speaks for itself.  I dance to a different drummer.  I believe that everybody, you can be whatever the hell you wanna be. I ain’t stopping you.  But don’t you dare tell me what I can do or say. It’s just words.  Yeah, words [mocking] ‘you… your words hurt me…’ You know what? Bitch, you need to get stronger.  You really do, because you know what, if you’re upset by something I said, you have bigger problems than you think.  I’m telling you this….

The sad thing about that is, earlier in the interview, RuPaul had some interesting but challenging things to say about building social movements around identity and about deconstructing “the matrix” of social illusions that people have.  While I don’t really agree with him on all points, it does provoke some thought and provide some insight about where he’s coming from.  “Identity” is a vague enough concept that it deserves to be questioned and picked apart from time to time, and that’s what RuPaul does.

Of course, language is also the means that people use to become self-aware, communicate that self to the world, and build common cause… so your mileage on that will vary.

The Spirit of It

Now, I don’t like playing word police.  I’ve done it a few times, and I recognize the importance of words and the evolution of language.  The effect that has on both forming social movements and shoring up one’s sense of self-respect (if not pride) is admittedly significant.  But the bigger issue is often the spirit with which something is said or intended.  So my overall thoughts on language are mixed.

Sometimes we only have the language we’re given.  We’ve only relatively recently coined “cisgender” and “cissexual” (words to mean “not transgender” and “not transsexual,” sort of like “heterosexual” is to “homosexual”) because using “normal” drips with judgment and condemnation, and “genetic” is not scientifically accurate or verifiable.

We still fight over terms like transgender, transsexual, trans* (with or without the asterisk), etc.  Depending on where you are, sometimes you need to be keeping a bloody scorecard.  In one group, people prefer “transgender” because it doesn’t imply that being trans is about sex; another group will prefer “transsexual” because it’s always been the term they knew, or because it is about changing the physical sex, for them; yet another group will totally reject “transsexual” because it was coined by the medical community and they want to reject the mental health stigma or the clinical abuses that people have faced in the years prior.

The words changed over time, too… it wasn’t that long ago that people embraced “tranny,” and sometimes even accepted the word “transvestite,” however inappropriate that might have been — either because they didn’t realize the implications of the word, or because it was the only label available in a drop-down menu, in one of those rare spaces we were welcome, at the time.  Although there’s a relatively consistent aversion to “tranny” and “shemale” now (aside from a few people who still use them to describe themselves), it hasn’t always been that way, and the labels each come with a plethora of nuances, and occasional people who embrace the terms for themselves.

I tend to prefer trans (or trans*), because it’s open-ended.  It’s supposed to be an adjective, not a straitjacket.  Personally, I’d hate to ever find myself parsing a descriptor so narrowly and precisely that it starts to define me, rather than the other way around.  But I really don’t blame people for getting a little peeved about there being a minefield of language.

And if you’re thinking that this kind of fight over language is just particular to trans* people, then keep in mind that decades later, LGBT people still have divisions over whether they want to retake or banish the word “queer.”  Divides exist in other communities, as well, such as the split over the terms “First Nations,” “Native,” “Indigenous,” “Aboriginal,” “Native American,” etc.:

“But lately, I question if we are empowered or disempowered by this term and this assigned title –and if it permeates and weakens our identity.

“Not the term in itself, but by all matters, machinery, and meaning (explicitly and implicitly) implied by the assignment of the title onto us by Canada, the acceptance of it on our part, and all that comes with such uncritical acceptance and internalization…”

…is a passage that almost looks as though it were plucked right out of an article on trans* -related language, doesn’t it?

Words are important to us.  They’re inevitably used to define us, so it’s natural for us to want to be the ones who determine what those words say.  Except that we can’t.  Abolishing a word isn’t going to erase the pain that went with it, nor will it change the attitudes of the people who wield the word as a weapon.

Because there can indeed be a path of pain associated with “tranny.”  When it was the language used whenever a person is attacked, disrespected, disowned, denied services, threatened, refused entry, humiliated, or more, it becomes a foci of microaggression: where any one incident can seem surmountable or even trivial, but when multiplied by thousands, it becomes monumental.  Perhaps RuPaul had the luck or privilege to escape a lot of that (he is, after all, able to take off the wig, makeup and sequins when it gets to be too much), or perhaps he found the rare strength to power through it all without it eroding his spirit — but trans* people at large aren’t always able to do the same.  Words have power.

What we can do in the discussion about language is assert our right to be respected, and to be dignified as the people we say we are. We are only ever entitled to speak for ourselves.  We never were empowered to label everyone who’s trans*.

RuPaul, of course, is speaking for himself, and that’s cool.  The whole word debate arises because he is speaking for himself, but trans* people — and just about everyone else, for that matter — assume that he’s labeling trans* people.  If there were a way to achieve clarity on this, it wouldn’t matter what terminology he embraces and throws around.

But where RuPaul Charles derails is not from pointing out the inevitable failure of communal self-identification (because we are not some homogenous collective Borg hive — I get that), but by invalidating those who are targeted by said language, and validating the ways the words are used to target them.  “Grow up, get a spine” is not helpful, and minimizes another’s pain.  While we’re busy trying to turn that “victimhood” into empowerment, RuPaul is there to act like there wouldn’t be any pain at all, if we only had more spine.  That’s not helpful, and it’s quite inelegant, at that.

The language debate became an argument over the willingness to respect.  Does one surrender the use of the word out of a willingness to listen to what someone has to say about who they are, what they need and what their life experiences mean… or do they instead extend a big middle finger to them and declare that they know better, and that (whether anyone likes it or not) they’re appointing yourself the arbiter of another person’s reality?

Not One-Sided

But that respect goes both ways.

Something that always bothered me about this discussion was that often it became an angry shouting match about who trans* people are not.  Most often, this has to do with people distancing themselves from drag queens.  Now, I’ll admit, it’s difficult to change the impression that the public has, when society routinely conflates trans* with drag.  Virtually every newspaper story you see on trans* issues is illustrated with a photo of drag queens in a Pride parade (okay to be fair, some are finally starting to know the difference).

Drag isn’t the same thing as trans*, although some trans* people find that a safe space to explore and / or come out, so there can be some overlap.  Trans* is different — not better, but different.  Clarity would be nice.  But what happens is that instead of calling for clarity, people slip into the same bigoted stereotypes and assumptions about others that they don’t want applied to themselves.  Denigrating someone else in order to elevate oneself is very low.

The new argument is that “drag is trans* blackface.”  But drag was never meant to lampoon trans* people — it lampoons gender itself, both masculinity and femininity simultaneously.  It’s quite likely that it’s becoming an art that’s past its time, because of the effect it has on intersecting groups and issues (i.e. that regardless of the original intent, in current context, trans* people are lampooned by circumstance), and the buttons that it now pushes.  But I’m not going to start that discussion here, nor will I malign the integrity and motives of the people who engage in drag… some of whom set out to challenge gender as much as anyone who is genderqueer, but simply took a different avenue and during a different time.  It’s a conversation that’s looming, but not one that trans* people can have arbitrarily and unilaterally — at least not if you believe in decolonizing activism.

There’s another group of people that are often taken issue with, in the discussion about the word “tranny.”

While composing this article, I ended up getting into a heated exchange in probably the worst venue to have an intelligent conversation — Facebook.  One follower had been pushing me to write on the subject, and decided to elaborate on why they felt words like “tranny” are offensive: she associated the word with the porn industry and prostitution, and didn’t like the implication of being associated with such people… “sleazy,” “freakish” and “deluded” (because apparently, doing sex work means that one must not be really trans*) people.

People like me.

I don’t do sex work now, mind you. I did at two points in my life, though — once when I first left home at 18, and again later when I transitioned and was more or less dropped off the payroll by my employer.  I was outted on this point a couple years ago and haven’t written about it much here — but I’ve been having to discuss it a lot more recently because of legislative issues in Canada. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it, either.

I didn’t use words like “tranny” or “shemale” then, mind you, unless it was part of a date’s fantasy (at which point one inevitably has to put up with it).  And currently, things are fading far enough into the rear-view mirror that it would make as much sense to call me a tranny as it would to call me a soup can.  So I have no vested interest in defending the words themselves.

But the words used are no longer relevant, because the question of intent goes both ways, too.  Because what I was really being told was that my conversant’s pain was from having to be associated with what they felt was a lesser form of person.

Your path of pain does not give you entitlement to create more pain by bulldozing through me.

And from this point forward, I am no longer interested in this argument about language — or at least not until we have a good, solid discussion about intent.  Because while I recognize that there is genuinely a path of pain that some people have regarding the word “tranny,” sometimes it’s really about disdain.

(Crossposted to The Bilerico Project)

CBC: Should we use gender-neutral pronouns instead of ‘he’ and ‘she’?

CBC is asking the question, “Should we use gender-neutral pronouns instead of ‘he’ and ‘she’?”  Citing Sweden’s addition of a gender-neutral pronoun to the National Encyclopedia and a news story last year about a Toronto couple who wished to raise their child genderless until the child decides, and asks:

Do you think language should be gender-neutral? Why or why not? Or, is this going to far in the quest for equality between genders? Does changing the language make a difference?


Speaking for myself, I’m not terribly oppressed by “she.”  The only times I was ever close to being oppressed by “she” was before my transition, when people would use it to mock me, and try to undermine the masculinity that I tried to put on in order to avoid drawing attention to myself (obviously unsuccessfully).

But I’ve also known several people who do experience oppression by being forced into “he” or “she” or thrown into some worse (“it?!?“) box when the first two don’t adequately fit.  I know some who use zie and hir, and a couple who prefer a singular they.  That’s cool.  I sometimes have a problem with remembering, but otherwise, I do my best to respect that.  There’s a level of experience there that is beyond mine, and I recognize that I have privilege here, so I can afford to cede to and honor someone else’s wishes on this.

The question goes a little deeper, though.  Are “he” and “she” part of a larger colonial hegemony that divides men and women in a most fundamental level of language in ways that we don’t recognize because we’re so used to thinking about them as “normal?”  That’s a profound question, and I really don’t know the answer to it at this moment.  It’s worth thinking about, and digging deeper.

For the moment, I’d be glad to see a widely-accepted gender-neutral pronoun in use, provided it doesn’t get forced on anybody.  I’m still comfortable with “she” and probably wouldn’t use a gender-neutral alternative, unless that hegemonic question led to some unexpected epiphany.  But I’m glad to see some recognition building that pronouns can oppress and do oppress at times… and questioning ways to change that.

The Death of the “Transgender” Umbrella

(Part of a three-part series:
Part 1: The Death of the Transgender Umbrella
Part 2: Why The Umbrella Failed
Part 3: Decolonizing Trans as Allies)

If you’ve traveled anywhere among trans or LGBT blogs in the past year or three, you’ve inevitably come across an ongoing battle over labels, and particularly “transgender” as an umbrella term.  It seems to be a conflict without end, without middle ground and without compromise.  And yet for discourse on human rights and enfranchisement for transsexual and transgender people to move forward at all, at some point that discussion needs to have some sort of resolution, and some thorough dissection of the argument will need to take place.  Could an alliance-based approach be a solution?  Or more accurately, could enough people on both sides of the argument be willing (that is, to not see their position as immovable) to seek an alliance-based approach for it to make a positive difference in the discourse?

I don’t know.  But something that has become clear to me over the past while is that the language is changing.  And I don’t have to like it, but I have to understand what that means.

I only speak for myself.  In the end, it’s all I really can do anyway.  I don’t speak for any trans-related community, don’t speak for The Bilerico Project or any of its other contributors, don’t speak for any other place I’ve posted or published writing, don’t speak for Alberta trans people — just me.

I say that because the international trans community is in a state of flux.  As the community defines itself, we’re discovering just how diverse “trans” really is, and just how inadequate any one single definition is when it tries to cover everyone.  A result of this is that in 2011, while the mainstream world is just starting to twig on to trans anything, trans and LGBT forums are finding nearly every conversation on trans issues, trans rights, gender studies and identity disintegrating into a debate about “transgender,” its use as an umbrella term, and whether there should even be an umbrella at all.  It’s reached the point that it’s stalemated any and every other discussion.  And ultimately, I realize that nothing some writer and blogger from Southern Alberta says is going to change that, but I can make my own declaration on the matter.  And in that, I speak for myself.

Because our language for trans issues is changing. Continue reading

Opponents of Social Progress (In The Bedrooms of the Nation II)


Due to a moderation queue flooded with mind-numbing racist, Islamophobic and homophobic freeps as well as a reasonable question about singling people out, this post is withdrawn for the moment, until I can decide how I should address that question and also re-examine my moderation policy.

I’m normally not that big on censorship, but apparently, I’m going to have to make exceptions.

This post will be back, although perhaps tweaked.