The claim is being made that if we do not affirm the self-understanding of those in the transgender community by using gender neutral pronouns (see the case of Jordan Peterson for an example of how serious people are about this) then we are causing them “harm.” The flip side of that, which does not seem to be considered, is the “harm” that results from forcing the rest of us to use gender neutral pronouns.
This sword definitely cuts both ways, but I believe there is a way out.
I assume you have heard of the “North” pole. It’s where Santa lives with his wife, elves and reindeer.
And you’ve probably heard of the “South” pole, complete with penguins and vast sheets of ice. And the occasional crazy scientists who need to be rescued.
Those two labels “North” and “South” are associated with the magnetic properties of the planet. Every magnetic field is comprised of both a “north” pole to the field, and a “south” pole to the field. Sometimes there are multiple poles within a given field, but they are always either “north” and “south.” If this is unfamiliar to you then hopefully Wikipedia can succeed where public education failed.
Now suppose a scientist claimed that a third magnetic pole, something she referred to as the Zooth pole, also existed. In her understanding of magnetism there exists a South pole, a North pole and a Zooth pole. She carried around with her a piece of metal, and insisted that others affirm that it has the “Zooth pole” property.
Suppose other scientists objected. Where was the evidence? How does this supposed “Zooth” pole interact with the other poles? Does the “Zooth” pole possess the same electromagnetic properties as the North and South pole? If she wishes to overturn such a longstanding discovery of science she better bring some pretty compelling evidence to the table, right?
“Settle down!” She protests. She isn’t trying to overturn the magnetic understanding of all those other scientists at all! They are welcome to keep their personally held beliefs about magnetism. All she is asking is for other scientists to affirm her personally held beliefs about magnetism; namely that this Zooth pole exists, and that she possesses a piece of metal that exhibits that magnetic property.
Everybody else is free to believe what they want, but she politely asks them all to affirm her beliefs.
Such a claim is absurd, of course. To make the claim that there is a third “Zooth” magnetic pole is to go well beyond that individual scientist’s personally held beliefs; such a claim says something about object reality itself. Making such a claim requires redefining the entire field of magnetism. To use that word would be to implicitly acknowledge that the word corresponds to something in objective reality – specifically something within the field of magnetic theory – that objectively exists.
If other scientists were to politely affirm this individual scientist’s “self-understanding” about magnetism, they would implicitly be redefining an entire field of study. So much for letting them keep their “personally held beliefs,” eh?
Gender neutral pronouns
Now consider this within the context of using gender neutral pronouns.
When an individual insists that other people refer to that individual in terms other than strictly binary “male” or “female,” those alternative words do not merely reflect some personally held belief, those words are part-and-parcel of an entire understanding of what it means to be human. Humans have traditionally understood themselves within the context of a sex binary that is rather analogous to the binary nature of the magnetic field. There is North and South, and there is Male and Female.
By using “gender neutral” pronouns, the binary concept of human nature is implicitly cast aside because that person understands themselves as something other than one of those two options. But they are not content to limit their understanding to themselves. As with the scientist who insists that other scientists affirm her self-understanding of magnetism by using the term “Zooth,” the gender-neutral crowd is actually insisting that the rest of us implicitly affirm an entire frame of reference for understanding humanity (and therefore ourselves!) that is consistent with their personally held self-understanding.
If the use of gender neutral pronouns casts aside the sex binary understanding of humanity, then when I use gender neutral pronouns I am implicitly affirming something about humanity; that our sexuality is not binary. I am not merely affirming the other person’s “self” understanding, or “self” identification, I am agreeing that their understanding and identification is, in some way, accurate for all humans, myself included! I am agreeing, implicitly, that human sexuality is on a spectrum instead of binary.
In short, when we use gender-neutral pronouns we implicitly declare, “you guys were right all along.” Which is to say, the gender-neutral crowd wants to win the debate without ever having to engage in any real debate. Like the scientist who insists that other scientists use “Zooth” they can force everybody to affirm the accuracy of their worldview without having to do the hard work of actually persuading anybody through pesky little things like evidence, reason and independent verification.
About that harm thing…
The allegation is made that if we do not affirm their self-understanding then we cause them harm. Therefore we must affirm their self-understanding and, by implication, affirm that their understanding of human sexuality (spectral, not binary) applies to all humans.
But that is not how I understand myself.
I understand myself as a male. A binary male. I understand, and identify, myself as one of only two binary sex options for the human race. This is inherent to my understanding of myself at an extremely deep level; it goes right down to the foundations of my vision for myself as a member of the human race.
So if I affirm the spectral interpretation of human sexuality that the gender-neutral pronoun crowd insists I affirm, then I would be affirming something other than my own understanding of myself. I must pretend to be somebody that I do not understand myself to be.
We are told that if we fail to affirm the self-understanding of those who accept the spectral view, that we “cause them harm.” To which I ask, “doesn’t that harm apply, equally, to those who hold to the binary view, but are forced to affirm the spectral view?“
After all, if a person is “harmed” when they must affirm a view of themselves other than the view that they actually believe to be true, then somebody with a spectral self-understanding is harmed when they must choose between “Mr.” and “Mrs.” By the same reasoning, a person who holds to a binary view of humanity would be harmed when they are forced, contrary to their personally held self-understanding, to refer to those around them using one of the various (and ever-expanding) gender-neutral pronouns. If they affirm that somebody else is sex-spectral then they implicitly affirm that all humans (themselves included!) are sex-spectral, whether they believe it or not.
They are forced, for fear of being dragged in front of a human rights court or thrown in jail (Jordan Peterson is facing such prospects right now), to pretend that their self-understanding is something (spectral) other than what they truly believe it to be (binary). They are forced to pretend to be somebody other than who they really believe they are.
Which, ironically, is exactly what the transgender community claims we are forcing on them by not using gender-neutral pronouns. So they propose to solve the problem by forcing the problem on everybody else.
So how do we deal with this? It’s a sticky situation, but I believe there is hope.
A way out
I would like to propose that there is a way out of this predicament. And to illustrate that way out, I bring us back to our scientist with the Zooth magnetic pole. Rather than forcing all other scientists to affirm her understanding of magnetism, a real scientist would go about proving that Zooth is an objectively real magnetic phenomenon. She would conduct experiments, gather evidence, subject it to peer review, and publish her findings in mainstream scientific journals. Other, independent, laboratories would seek to duplicate her findings, and the field of magnetic theory would become all the richer from her discoveries.
If we seek a path out of this gender-neutral stalemate of “who is harming whom by not affirming each other’s self-understanding,” then I would suggest the path forward is through appropriate research. The reigning paradigm (for good reason) is the binary view of human sexuality, so it is incumbent upon the spectral crowd to get to work.
How would one test both the “binary” hypothesis of human sexuality, and the “spectral” hypothesis of human sexuality? How might they be verified / falsified?
What controls need to be put in place to ensure accuracy?
How would you test for false positives and false negatives?
These are the questions that the spectral crowd needs to answer. In short, bring us real evidence. Persuade us that our binary view of human nature is factually erroneous. Provide evidence that the spectral view of human nature corresponds better with the true human nature. Show us the tests. Have them peer reviewed. Publish them in mainstream journals.
As it stands right now, unfortunately, the data simply isn’t there.
And if they are right, then won’t we all be the richer for having a fuller, and scientifically verified, knowledge of what it means to be human? If the spectral view is correct then those of us who hold to a false belief system would be indebted to the spectral crowd for showing us the error of our ways.
I look forward to seeing the evidence, but until that time you can count me out of using pronouns that I do not believe correspond to anything objectively real. My view of human sexuality is pretty simple, and consistent with the scientific evidence (to date):
Male = “has a Y sex chromosome”
Female = “lacks a Y sex chromosome”