Awhile back, I saw a video of Jordan Peterson being confronted by some LGBT activists over the issue of “misgendering.” If you’re blissfully unaware, misgendering happens when a person claims a gender (whether real or invented) that is not rooted in biological reality & demands that he be addressed according to his claim, but someone around him doesn’t play along and addresses him according to biological reality rather than gender. In other words, it happens when someone uses the word “he” instead of “she” to refer to a man who thinks he’s a woman. Dr. Peterson’s rise to popularity was in large part due to him speaking out against the kind of authoritarian speech codes that demand such submission, so he naturally attracted a lot of controversy.
One of the arguments that’s leveled against him in the video is that there are trans people who are killing themselves because of misgendering, and so if people don’t start using he, she, xe, zir, thon, and so forth on demand, then they’re effectively responsible for these deaths. Peterson correctly points out that this kind of rhetoric makes dialogue impossible, but he doesn’t really unpack the “why” of it. Nevertheless, because this is a line I hear come up over and over, it got me thinking: what exactly is wrong with this kind of discourse?
Ultimately, this is one of the arguments that Social Justice Warriors use because it excuses their own fanaticism and lack of perspective. It’s a matter of life and death! People are dying in the streets every day! SJW’s sincerely believe that every time they call someone afflicted with gender sanity a bigot, they are saving lives. Every time they punch a “Nazi” (i.e. anyone who fundamentally disagrees with them), they think they are doing the work of angels.
And the rhetoric of it all catches the rest of us off-guard. Like the old loaded question about when you stopped beating your wife, the frame of the argument prevents rational discourse on the subject. Its assumptions bear the accusation of murder (or at least accessory to murder), and so every reason for not adopting the meaningless babble surrounding the innumerable proposed genders sounds like some kind of excuse for killing an innocent. But if the rhetoric is deceitful, then there’s no reason to abide by it. So let’s step back out of that frame and see whether their reasoning makes sense in analogous situations that aren’t so politically charged.
There are, for example, plenty of teenagers who have threatened to kill themselves if their girlfriend or boyfriends broke up with them–and there are too many who actually followed through. But that threat absolutely does not create any responsibility on the part of those significant others to maintain a romantic relationship with such an unstable person. No one has a right to abuse compassion and strong-arm another person in such a fashion. Likewise, if a mugger were to come up to you and demand your wallet but points his gun at himself instead of you, there is still no legal, ethical, or moral obligation for you to simply hand it over. Neither is there a social expectation that anyone would hand it over, which is probably why this strategy is confined to classic comedies.
So if a transgender person holds himself hostage in the same way and demands neologistic pronouns, phony affirmations, and other forms of patronization from the people around him who keep inadvertently reminding him of reality, it is not they who are a danger to him, but rather he who is a danger to himself. If there is no obligation to surrender your ongoing affection or your money in this kind of auto-hostage situation, how much less of an obligation is there to surrender something even more valuable like your integrity or the truth?
And really, I suspect there are no few transgenders who aren’t terribly happy when their self-appointed spokespeople put them in this category. Nobody thinks very highly of the crying teenage boy desperately trying to hang onto a girl who no longer likes him. Why would people who already have plenty of issues with public perception want to be portrayed in the same way?
Nobody wants trans people to die, and whether or not you play another person’s pronoun game is for each individual to decide in the context of their relationship with that person–its not a matter to be resolved by petty tyrants flexing their muscles. But when somebody is holding a gun to their own head, don’t let their rhetoric trick you into thinking your finger is the one on the trigger.