A Virginia teacher has been fired because he chose to refer to a transgender student by the student’s preferred name while avoiding any gender pronouns. The school said Peter Vlaming must use pronouns.
While most media outlets reported the story as the teacher’s refusal to use pronouns, The Hill called it “misgendering.” But there’s no evidence that Vlaming has used feminine pronouns or the student’s “deadname” after the student came out as a transgender boy.
While Vlaming cites religious freedom, free speech is also at issue. Public schools are government run institutions and are bound by the first amendment.
It’s clear that government employees, or those employed by government funded agencies, can be prohibited from saying certain things. Harassment and verbal abuse are two examples. But whether someone can be forced to say something against their will—compelled speech—or be fired is an issue the courts must decide.
I’ve been critical of psychologist Jordan Peterson, who rose to fame alleging that Canada’s transgender rights law would result in compelled speech. And while I stand by my disdain for his absurd comparison of transgender activism to communism’s 100 million deaths in the twentieth century, social justice activists are proving Peterson’s concerns about compelled speech correct.
An essential point classical liberals make about advocacy for your equal rights is the reciprocal responsibility to respect other people’s equal rights. Vlaming’s choice to use the transgender student’s preferred name while avoiding both female and male pronouns is a reasonable compromise. But coercing people to using pronouns they don’t agree with—or lose their jobs—is an unreasonable violation of their human rights.
In other words, the equal rights of both parties are respected when we draw the line by saying that employees cannot use pronouns against a person’s request, but that person cannot force you to use pronouns that you don’t want to use.
Peterson should be met with critical, but intellectually honest, thought rather than adulation.
People can’t stop talking about psychology professor and intellectual dark web thinker Jordan Peterson. Charismatic personalities are emotionally compelling, for better or for worse.
But I have mixed feelings about him. I agree with Jordan Peterson’s basic psychological message: we must get our personal lives together before we try to change the world—otherwise we’ll do more harm than good. And related to this is that with equal rights comes equal responsibility.
Peterson’s straw men
But I think Peterson’s politics is too alarmist, and this detracts from his psychological message.
I disdain hysterics on both the left and the right. And I think too many people talk past each other, offering straw man arguments rather than accurately representing their opponent’s positions.
We’re all guilty of this to some extent, and I am no exception. But some are more egregious than others, and I include both Peterson and many of his critics in this category.
Peterson rose to fame when he objected to Bill C-16 (now law), which added gender identity to Canada’s civil rights law. He claims C-16 would force people to use alternative gender pronouns, which if true would violate their free speech rights. He says this could result in civil fines or even jail time for those who refuse to pay the unjust fines.
Peterson is clear that he doesn’t believe transgender women are actually women. Further, he advanced the alarmist claim that alternative gender pronouns are “the vanguard of a post-modern, radical leftist ideology” that is “frighteningly similar to the Marxist doctrines that killed at least 100 million people in the 20th century.”
Nowhere does C-16 explicitly compel the use of alternative pronouns, however. His claim is based on a slippery slope argument. Though Wilfrid Laurier University tried to censure Lindsay Shepherd for showing a video clip of Peterson debating C-16—but failed due to public pressure—this is hardly comparable to a Soviet gulag. And notably, this case involved a university, not a governmental entity.
“Postmodern neo-Marxism” is Peterson’s favorite boogeyman. But this is a conflation of two different, and sometimes opposing, ideologies.
Postmodernism is notoriously difficult to define. The best definition of postmodernism I can offer is that meta-narratives—the big stories we tell ourselves about why the world is the way it is—are socially constructed. And postmodernists like to deconstruct the power interests of Western society’s meta-narratives. This can include skepticism toward science and reason even to the point of denying there’s any such thing as human nature.
Marxism, however, promotes a particular meta-narrative. And that’s a problem for postmodernists.
Still, there are similarities. Postmodernists think the meta-narratives of Western society serve the power interests of white male elites. And neo-Marxists see a complex array of power struggles—the rich oppressing the poor, men oppressing women, whites oppressing minorities, cisgender heterosexuals oppressing sexual and gender minorities, and so on.
But while there is some agreement between postmodernists and neo-Marxists, it’s a mistake to conflate them just as it would be a mistake to conflate Christians and Muslims because both believe in God.
Progressive straw men
Peterson’s progressive critics are no better, however. They claim he opposes equality when in fact he supports equality under the law but not equality of outcome (though the latter, it should be noted, is a conservative straw man).
That Peterson is all about oppressive hierarchies another favorite straw man. I’ve read both of Peterson’s books and watched many of his videos, and what he’s saying is quite different.
In the first chapter of 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos Peterson says hierarchy in some form is unavoidable because it’s built into our biology. He disagrees with the claim that hierarchy is a social construction, though manifestations of it can vary greatly from culture to culture. Peterson notes that even lobsters, with whom we share an evolutionary ancestor that lived hundreds of millions of years ago, have hierarchies. That’s how deeply biologically ingrained it is.
However, Peterson is clear that hierarchy is not inherently good or bad. It just is. It’s important to understand this because you don’t want to find yourself at the bottom if you can help it. And because societies that think they can eliminate hierarchy end up with horrifically murderous hierarchies—such as every communist country that has ever existed. As such, he opposes both far left and far right identity politics and instead advocates hierarchy based on merit.
Of course, intersectionality—the progressive belief that some people belong to multiple oppressed groups, which creates a unique experience of oppression that is greater than the sum of each oppression taken separately—unwittingly creates its own hierarchy where people compete for status by asserting they are more oppressed than others. Call-out culture—trying to lower other people’s status by publicly castigating them for oppressive or culturally insensitive behavior no matter how small (“microaggressions”)—is a prime example of social justice activists jockeying for status.
With Peterson and his critics talking past each other, we are still waiting for a serious debate.
Stoicism is primarily about justice, courage, moderation, and practical wisdom. Mitigating negative emotions by distinguishing between what is up to us and what is not up to us—and what belongs to us and does not belong to us—is a way to practice these virtues.
But politics, like religion, is increasingly a moralistic endeavor. Conservatives, progressives, centrists, and libertarians all believe that their political ideology is the wisest and most just. It was simply a matter of time before some Stoics would start suggesting that a true Stoic must endorse this or that political ideology.
Partisan politics, however, undermines trust and respect in a group. It shows a failure to understand what’s your and what’s not yours.
I’ve seen a few Facebook posts promoting psychologist Jordan Peterson as a Stoic hero. Peterson’s big idea is that you will only create chaos if you try to change the world before you get your own life in order.
But his politics often overshadows his self-help message. Peterson shot to fame with his vocal opposition to adding gender identity to Canada’s civil rights law. Most legal experts, however, disagree that people will be forced to use alternative gender pronouns.
Peterson sees pronouns as a symptom of a larger problem. He rails against “postmodern neo-Marxism” (a straw man conflation of two different things). And his caricature of the left has caught the alt-right’s attention, though Peterson condemns the alt-right.
Meanwhile, left leaning Stoics are pushing progressive politics. Author and philosopher Massimo Pugliucci recently wrote on his blog that of course Stoics should call themselves feminists and support other progressive social justice causes.
I disagree with Massimo, however. I don’t disagree that feminism is about women’s equality. But women’s equality and gender equality, though related, are not the same thing. Further, feminism is only one of many ways one can support women’s equality. And I disagree with feminism’s frequent anti-male rhetoric, the way it ignores issues other genders face, and the popular claim that conservative women cannot call themselves feminists (especially if they’re pro-life).
I also disagree with the frequent progressive failure to reject bigotry as a matter of principle (e.g. “It’s not sexist when women say derogatory things about men,” “African-Americans can’t be racist,” or “Religion is just an excuse to discriminate.”).
Not being a progressive doesn’t imply lack of support for social justice. I believe that the equal rights of the individual are the basis for universal human rights. Further, these rights exist independent of government, and government’s first task is to protect these rights by not placing restrictions on how you live your life (so long as you don’t impose yourself on others). And I endorse the belief that people should be judged by their character, not by their race, sex, gender, religion, etc.
But I am not about to say that Stoics should be classical liberals. Other people’s choices don’t belong to me. Rather than say that Stoics must adopt certain political labels or causes, my position is that if a Stoic claims to value justice, courage, moderation, and practical wisdom then it is that Stoic’s responsibility to develop political positions that reflect this. Honest people will disagree, however, so this means there will be conservative Stoics, progressive Stoics, centrist Stoics, libertarian Stoics, and so on.
The best response to someone who says that a Stoic should adopt this or that political label or position is: “That’s not up to you.”