The Logic of Respect
by Daniel Tippens
In 2016, University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson garnered a good deal of attention in the press after he decried – and refused to comply with – Canadian legislation (Bill C-16) that would make “gender identity” and “gender expression” protected categories under their human rights act. Among other things, the Bill made the failure to use a person’s “preferred pronoun” legally actionable; a proactive compelling of speech that Peterson observed goes far beyond the normal restrictions on language that one finds in every liberal democracy.
While the idea of legally mandating that people refer to others by their preferred pronouns is a relatively new one, the idea of making it a societal norm is not. Trans and gender activists, especially young ones on college campuses, have been advancing the notion for a while now. Their reason? They want their neighbors and fellow citizens to respect their identities, and mis-gendering disrespects them. I think that for the most part this view is based on a misunderstanding of how respect – and in particular, respect for one’s identity – works.
Suppose I am a foreigner traveling in the United States. I ask you for directions, and as I try to communicate with you by gesturing at my map and making different facial expressions, you quickly realize that I don’t speak or understand a word of English. When I am getting ready to leave, I confuse “thank you,” with “screw you” and say the latter. Given that you know that I don’t understand the meaning of these words, it would not constitute an insult – an act of disrespect – and you wouldn’t take it as such. You’d most likely chuckle, while waving goodbye.
What this shows is that a word or expression can’t signal respect or disrespect if one doesn’t understand it. If I am required, socially or otherwise, to use the pronoun ‘ze’ to refer to someone, then identity-respect is not something one can get from it. If it isn’t an insult when someone says “screw you” without knowing what the words mean, it can’t be an expression of respect when someone uses ‘ze’ without knowing what it means. Of course, it is possible to respect someone’s wishes by calling them by their preferred pronoun, even when you don’t know what it means, but that is not the same thing as respecting his or her identity.
Just to illustrate a little more; consider the common phenomenon of respecting the food in someone else’s culture. If you go to their house, without ever having tried their dishes — and they know you haven’t tried it — when you tell them with all the meaning you can muster, “your food is excellent,” they will probably look at you with puzzlement, or worse, agitation. Given that you haven’t tried their food, you don’t know what the meaning of “food” here, is, and so you can’t pay respect to it no matter how hard you try.
I think the same goes for pronouns. At best you can respect someone’s wishes, but unless you know the meaning of the words, you can’t respect their identity.
One might think this is just a practical problem — people just need to learn what all these pronouns mean, and then they can pay their proper pronoun respect. But beyond being impractical, it isn’t really possible, because the meaning of the pronouns, like ‘ze’, are the genders they refer to, and these genders are understood internally and privately. According to trans and gender activists, genders are defined by how the individual feels. If I don’t feel like a man or a woman, I may identify as non-binary, and ask to have that identity respected by being referred to as “they.” Since genders, and therefore the pronouns which refer to them, are privately and internally defined in this way, those of us who have never felt what it is like to be non-binary can’t understand what ‘they’ means in this context, much less pronouns like ‘ze’.
The more significant point, however, is that respect simply isn’t something that you can get by forcefully demanding it, and pushing legislation or social sanctions to require people to use respect-engendering preferred pronouns is doing precisely that.
On an interpersonal level, we know this is true. Think of that annoying teacher in grade school who happened to have his PhD, and demanded that everyone call him “Dr.” Every student would ridicule him, behind his back. The idea that the students were respecting the teacher’s identity as a PhD recipient, when forced to refer to him by his title is (respectfully) laughable. The same obviously applies when you force people to use someone’s preferred pronoun — being compelled to refer to someone as “ze” doesn’t engender any respect for the individual’s identity.
I suspect that activists think that while forcing correct pronoun use doesn’t get one respect at the individual level, it does get respect for a group. But this is a mistake for the reason just mentioned — respect simply isn’t something that can be required (even at a group level). Rather it is something that is earned.
Think about the stigma that now surrounds the N-word. Obviously, the stigma was not always there. For much of history blacks were referred to by this derogatory word. Today, for the most part, this is not the case. To use it, in most of the country, is to invite censure and worse.
What changed? Was there a movement to make use of the N-word illegal or otherwise compel people to use different language? No. What happened was the civil rights movement — blacks came together, protested injustice, argued that awarding civil rights for blacks would not just benefit them, but everyone, and they won. They fought their way to greater protections, and came closer to enjoying equality in the U.S. This remarkable series of accomplishments and actions – protests, marches, legal victories, etc. – earned black people greater respect, and the N-word has become increasingly taboo ever since.
A similar point is illustrated by the gay community’s success in gaining marriage equality, and the stigma that is now attached to words like ‘faggot’. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that barring gays from marrying is unconstitutional. This was the result, among many other things, of a sustained public-perception campaign, the purpose of which was to show people that gays are much like everyone else. What they did not do was demand that the use of ‘faggot’ should become legally actionable or that ‘gay’ should become legally mandatory.
In a very short period of time, public opinion toward gays changed dramatically, culminating in a majority of Americans supporting marriage equality today. What followed was that pejorative language against gays became increasingly taboo and today is met with heavy disapproval. In the case of the gay community, what earned them respect was a combination of showing themselves to be just like everyone else in all the relevant and important ways, and earning marriage equality at the federal level.
If trans and gender activists want people to pay non-binary people respect by referring to them with their preferred pronouns, then they need to understand this crucial point: A change in language follows the acquisition of respect, it does not create it.
Finally we come to a purely personal question — even if one could coerce respect, who would want it under such circumstances?
I am reminded of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, in which the main character, Offred, begins covertly interacting on a more personal level with the commander, Fred. In this dystopian society, women are forced into slavery. Their value in the society of Gilead derives solely from their ability to have children, and they are not permitted any possessions, social capital, or power of any sort. Given these circumstances, when Fred makes it known to Offred that he would like to spend time with her in private, she jumps on the opportunity, seeing it as a way to secure things for her own personal gain.
Every night she kisses Fred goodbye, not out of intimacy, but because she knows that he wants it. Later, he circles behind her while she is sitting down in his office, and places his hands on her shoulders. He asks her what she thinks of what men have done to women in Gilead, and she suspects that since he is asking her opinion, he is trying to form some kind of personal connection with her.
The problem is that the whole relationship that Fred has with Offred is coerced. If Offred had the ability to do whatever she wanted, she would never interact with Fred. Indeed, before being pushed into this oppressive society, Offred had a husband, whom she thinks about and searches for every day. But, Offred knows that if she doesn’t do what the commander wants, she might be killed or harshly punished. Clearly, even if Offred did go through the motions, exhibiting love for Fred, it would be coerced. It is as though Fred were demanding that Offred love him or else be punished. My first thought when considering this was how Fred could even want love that was acquired in such a way? Wouldn’t forcing someone to love him, even indirectly, undermine any satisfaction he would get from it? Worse, wouldn’t it make him feel like he doesn’t have what it takes to get someone to love him freely?
The same questions arise with regard to forced respect. Even if one could get people to use their preferred pronouns under threat of legal sanction and even if that would secure the desired respect, who could get satisfaction from it? That is precisely what makes us feel so strange when we try to empathize with overqualified grade school teachers who demand we call them “Dr.” — we just can’t understand why someone would want forced respect in that way. Maybe I am missing something, but until I figure out what it is, I will remain puzzled by the “give me respect or else” crowd.