In the whole Lindsay Shepherd and Wilfred Laurier University fiasco it is hard to nail down a root cause for the affair because it sits at the nexus of a lot of issues swirling about in our culture and society today. But the story can be traced as such; Lindsay Shepherd showed a clip of Jordan Peterson in class. Jordan Peterson is opposed to the concept of the use of gender neutral pronouns being potentially legally enforced under the auspices of bill C-16 and the Ontario Human Rights Code. Progressives have come to view any opposition to the idea of using gender neutral pronouns is a litmus test for whether a person is “trans-phobic” and thus, whether intentionally or not, an advocate/agent for the Patriarchy. The Patriarchy is an important idea because life is seen by modern Progressives as a giant series of ongoing power struggles between groups and identities with White Males at the top. And to get to the top a group must actively be oppressing other groups. And so, by proxy, Jordan Peterson by opposing the enforced use of gender neutral pronouns has become representative of the Oppressor. The Oppressor must be resisted. He must not be provided platforms for disseminating his views. His views have no validity and any suggestion that they may have some merit is morally wrong because oppression of any type is wrong. Some common examples of ongoing oppressions in our society;
- Christianity oppresses free sexual expression
- Whites oppress blacks and minorities
- Straights oppress gays and transgendered
- Capitalism oppresses poor people
- The West oppresses Islam
- Jews oppress Palestinians
And thusly Lindsay Shepherd was complicit in perpetuating the ongoing oppression of trans-gender people by providing Jordan Peterson a platform. And this warranted sanction in the eyes of the university… until the recording of the interrogation session became public.
The whole Post-Modernist world view of Oppressors and Victims and eternal power struggles is not something we have the philosophical tools to unpack here. Suffice to say that we should all be scared; university social studies and humanities faculties are filled with professors that believe in the Post-Modernist narrative and are “training” hundreds of thousands of young people who enter life interpreting the world through this prism that discards ideals of merit, rationality, intellectual rigour and cultural stability.
It is interesting though to examine whether being called “xie” or “xer” is a right or if failing to use those artificial words is a violation of transgender rights or an abrogation of one’s responsibilities in the exercise of Free Speech. If it weren’t actually a “right”, or seen to be a violation of accepted limitations on Free Speech, much of this brouhaha would be laughed at as just another peculiarity of politically correct campus life.
Rights should always be discussed in tandem with Responsibilities. There are no rights without the responsibilities that accompany each right. Libertarians view rights as either “Negative” or “Positive” rights. For a person to have rights there are responsibilities imposed on their fellow humans. In the case of Negative Rights our fellow humans need to do nothing and need only abstain from doing anything. Negative = Abstention. Positive Rights however ask fellow humans for action in order for that right to be exercised. Positive = Action.
An example is the Right to Free Speech. It is a Negative Right because in order for me to exercise my right I need you to do nothing, only abstain from any interference. A Positive Right would be, say, a Right to Education which would by extension mean that someone has to take action to provide you with an education either by actually doing the teaching or funding it. Libertarians argue that the only natural rights are Negative Rights and that all Positive Rights can only be enforced by contract between individuals; that it is morally wrong for the government to impose Positive Rights on the citizens and the country at large by compelling behaviour as a result of their monopoly on violence.
It’s worth noting that there is some dispute on the validity of Negative vs. Positive rights, the argument being that while say, the Right to Property is a Negative Right, if it’s violated and some thieves steal off with your stuff, it’s everyone’s prerogative to take action and restore your stuff to you as a way of ensuring that your Right to Property is not just some theoretical abstract and actual reality. Taking up the Libertarian idea of a Positive Right requiring contract, arguably by being citizens in a country we have contract with each other to ensure the protection of rights through necessary action. And this introduces the notion of Reciprocity – a right can only be such a thing if there is reciprocity, an unwritten contract between citizens that if you protect and respect my rights then in turn I will protect and respect your same rights. It’s a main reason why animals can have no rights like humans have – we can love and respect them and treat them humanely but because they cannot reciprocate our actions they cannot therefore have rights like humans.
But in today’s Western societies we accept that the self is not absolved of any responsibility in the exercise of rights. Going back to my Free Speech as an example, it is a Negative Right that asks you to do nothing, but our society also legally requires me to not use that Free Speech to incite violence, to incite hatred, nor to slander anyone. Those are my responsibilities. Unless you are a Free Speech absolutist that rejects government coercion of any behaviour and endorses a position of no restrictions and thusly no legally enforceable personal responsibilities in the matter of Free Speech, it’s generally accepted here in Canada that these are “reasonable” limitations on Free Speech and my responsibilities as a practitioner of that right.
So going back to “xie” and “xir”… if there were any “right” to have your gender pronoun of choice used that would be a Positive Right because it is asking for action by others. Beyond disputing the whole notion of Positive Rights (see the three generations of rights and what an open-ended mess Positive Rights in the 2nd and 3rd generation can become), but what is the reciprocal action from the trans community? There is none. And because it is a one-way street it is not a “right” but more appropriately a requested courtesy. And manners are subjective and cannot be enforced by law. I can call someone an asshole to their face, and while that may be rude and perhaps I should be socially sanctioned for this behaviour, I should not be thrown in jail or fined for doing so. The government should never be in the business of compelling manners.
But that’s not the argument the proponents of gender neutral pronouns have taken up because they know it’s an easy loser. Rather they’ve hinged their argument on the idea that my responsibility in the exercise of Free Speech is not to incite violence or hatred as was described and is widely acknowledged. And by refusing to use gender neutral pronouns I am doing exactly that. Speech is violence. But that argument cannot stand either. Better articles have been written by Jonathan Haidt and others about the push to have speech (or silence) interpreted as violence so there is no need to rehash them here.
So, in the end one can conclude that there is no first generation or even second generational “right” to be called by your gender pronoun of choice – at best it’s a Positive 3rd generational (i.e. social aspirational) right that has no evident reciprocity for the vast majority of fellow citizens. And it’s a dangerous overstretch of the definition of violence to suggest that failure to use these pronouns of choice are in violation of our responsibility not to use Free Speech to incite violence or hatred. It’s not a right, but virtue signaling and political correctness run amok, a power play and an attempt to create yet another litmus test to measure where you land on the Progressive scale of morality.
We’re still waiting for Justin Trudeau to use “xie” or “xer” in a speech. It’s coming.