What we call each other has become a battlefield and it’s expanding because more and more people are beginning to insist on their version, making more and more people really mad at being told how to talk.
Jordan Peterson, for one, has staked his career on just-saying-no to new names. He became world famous in 2016 for opposing Bill C-16, a Canadian Law which he claims would force him to use the preferred gender pronouns of his students when addressing them.
Peterson’s truth in naming is that men are men and women are women as a biological fact, without room for subjectivity or personal feelings. But someone else’s truth is that they are a zher, so there. Two truths must converge on one pronoun.
Throughout most of the history we know about, people like Jordan Peterson had the power to win that battle. It wasn’t even a battle. That’s why zher still sounds funny.
Who knew when we opened our first email account and started learning about the Internet that it would lead to a new source of power that could even the odds, maybe even turn the tide. Dr. Peterson felt attacked throughout most of 2017 because he was. People who agree with zhers can now find each other and form networks to combat perceived common enemies.
Peterson’s life was and still is seriously disrupted by organized opponents. Academics don’t like this kind of heat and he has suffered in some areas.
Peterson is not destroyed, though, far from it. He is definitely not paying a financial price, yet, for standing up against what he saw as a tidal wave of enforced correctness. But he is now operating out in unknown territory and the outcome of the contest he has chosen to define himself is not clear.
The power to name things is expanding. New parties are demanding a seat at that table. Iconic features of the cultural landscape have traditionally been named without sensitivity to personal feelings, particularly the personal feelings of marginalized people. The N-word has acquired layers of meaning over the years. The Redskins are still a thing in Washington.
How do you win this battle? Get a law passed? Jordan Peterson calls that ‘compelled speech,’ and sees it as an impediment to free speech. It’s tough to argue with him because, in fact, when a law forces you to do something you don’t want to do, that is pretty much what being compelled means. Peterson’s heart and mind will not have changed but he will be forced to present fake public behavior to avoid arrest, that’s what he says the law will do.
Everyone agrees with public safety as a reason to impede free speech; no yelling fire in a crowded theater. We’d all like to be able to sit back and enjoy movies without constantly having to make threat assessments. But everyone has not agreed that hurt feelings (one end of the spectrum) or even verbal abuse (the other end) should be a reason to impede free speech. It didn’t used to be against the law to really screw someone up with the names you call them. According to Peterson, it now is.
Is that a win? It sure makes some people feel better at the moment, people who never felt good about what they were called, people who have never had much power to name anything.
Is Dr. Peterson losing? He was denied a grant extension, first time ever for him. Poor Dr. Peterson. Ha! Are you kidding me, he’s a hero to millions of people who hate being told how to talk. He’s filling lecture halls, selling books, videos — printing money.
Many commentators say that the cisgender heterosexual white males, especially American ones, have had all the naming power for as far back as we know, and some of them are threatened by others claiming that authority now. It’s not just a matter of what someone is called — it’s a matter of who has the power to set the parameters of what is acceptable in the first place.
I don’t know how this ends. As a cisgender heterosexual white American male myself, I’m not even sure what my stake is. Many other cisgender heterosexual white males do seem to be sure what their stake is because they make up most, but not all, of Dr. Peterson’s supporters. I am not one of them. It feels to me like referring to people the way they want is a no-brainer, plus it’s easy and it costs nothing.
I’ll call anyone anything they’d like to be called, although of course I’d prefer there wasn’t a gun to my head because it isn’t necessary.
The US, on the other hand, points lots of guns and names big parts of the world according to its version of the truth — ‘The Free World’ is a good example. I was culturally conditioned at the earliest possible age to think of most other people who don’t look like me as somehow vaguely imprisoned.
The power to call individuals or groups ‘Terrorists’ and have it stick is reserved for a few top-dog nations. Just having that name means no one has to take your grievances seriously. It means you’re not really a person and it’s ok to kill you.
In the US, the name ‘Terrorist’ is reserved almost exclusively for non-white outsiders perceived to be attacking the Homeland. In China, the name tends to be applied more domestically. Uighurs who won’t conform to Han Chinese ways are Terrorists, to be systematically identified and re-educated.
States name people Terrorists to help make violence feel alright to their own citizens, or at least to enough of them. It’s a psyop. All names are psyops. A binary gender naming system conditions us to think there are two genders. In fact, gender is not just a spectrum rather than a categorical concept — it’s a multidimensional spectrum concept. There are several spectrum concepts, different levels and densities, inside the idea of gender.
States need categories because States need to count. People everywhere who don’t fit well in some crucial category are fighting back. The psyop isn’t working as well any more in the US.
In China it is working better than ever.
Xi Jinping promised that he would defend his sense of the truth forcefully, at his Party Congress in October, 2017. He meant it as a general principle, but everyone knew he was also referring to Taiwan.
Six months later he showed how specifically he was tracking names when the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) sent a letter to 44 major airline companies from all over the world, simply asking them to check their websites and make sure the name ‘Taiwan’ was shown accurately. He warned of consequences if they did not remove any references to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau that “mistakenly describe them as countries or anything otherwise inconsistent with Chinese law.”
President Xi’s truth is embedded in the ‘One China Principle,’ partially stated in the Preamble to the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China as:
Taiwan is part of the sacred territory of the People’s Republic of China.
How do you argue with that? The word ‘sacred’ could be a questionable translation, but the idea of the One China Principle having transcendent status is probably accurate. The China-ness of Taiwan is not deduced logically any more than one of Dr. Jordan’s students feels the female-ness or male-ness of themselves solely as the result of rational analysis.
Xi Jinping knows very well that Taiwan wasn’t consistently ruled by China after it was first brought into the Empire in the 1660s, and that it wasn’t even an official province until 1887. History is almost never an unarguable basis for naming places.
Power is. That’s it. That’s the message.
Airlines are removing the errors in their websites that inaccurately represented Taiwan, and sometimes Macau or Hong Kong, as separate nations. News stories in the western media describe the actions of Qantas, Delta and others as “giving in.”
There has been name calling — ‘Orwellian,’ for example — in the battle over the use of names. Some airlines have done nothing and referred the question to their government. They have asked for more time. The CAAC has said, “no.”
Compelled speech needs a stick and China’s will be administered through its new Social Credit System. The CAAC has responded to foot-dragging airlines by warning them such behavior will be reflected in their credit score. Wait, what?
Chinese credit scores are just an extension of trails already blazed in the west. Credit scores indicating the trustworthiness of individuals to pay their bills have been a thing in the US since Bill Fair and Earl Isaac began working in the 1950s on the credit reporting system that eventually became FICO.
Western observors have expressed concerns over China’s Social Credit System, being tested currently through Sesame Credit (owned by Alibaba) and seven other companies. In addition to information about paying bills, the Social Credit System adds other dimensions of an individual’s beliefs and behavior to produce an index of overall trustworthiness for everyone. Good scores mean not just favorable credit terms and more purchasing power, but also access to better schools, job opportunities, ability to book plane flights, and more.
The rest of the world is now learning that the system also includes Social Credit for Business. It became apparent when the CAAC pointed out inaccuracies on the Qantas and Delta website after the letters were sent — and demanded corrections and an apology for the pain their errors caused the Chinese people. Failure to comply would be reflected in their Business Credit Score, resulting in additional inspections, less attractive gate locations, landing restrictions, and other negative consequences.
The power to call Taiwan ‘Taiwan,’ instead of the Republic of China, its official name according to some aspirational version — and to have ‘Taiwan’’ represented everywhere in the world on its terms — comes from controlling access to the world’s largest consumer market. Corporations will rectify past errors and self-censure to prevent future ones. Qantas and Delta did.
Jordan Peterson has become rich and famous by standing up to ‘compelled speech’ in a sophisticated and intelligent manner. But even so, many oppose him and say his way of talking causes pain, just like China says airlines’ use of names caused the Chinese people pain. I have different reactions to the two situations, which probably comes from my conditioning. I can’t help but root for the underdog when people want to be called zher and I can’t help but see Delta stressing the Chinese people with their on-line pull-downs as political cover, aka — bs.
Plato worked this issue well in the Cratylus, a dialogue specifically concerned with the correctness of names. He has Socrates question two individuals representing two sides of the question — Hermogenes, who believes names emerge in an arbitrary manner through culture (conventionalism), and Cratylus, who believes names come from the Gods and are inherent to the person or object being described (naturalists)?
Conventionalism gets trashed for the majority of the dialogue, but Socrates also finds fault with Naturalism near the end, for all the instances in which names do not completely capture what is being described.
I interpret this dialogue to mean that names, mostly, are based on something real; ie, a high percentage of people called ‘males’ conform to a cluster of defining characteristics — but also that a dose of local consideration is always needed, because there are outliers in every defining characteristic.
States aren’t very good at handling outliers, which could represent nuance in an important category for counting, like ‘Male.’ But wait, Jordan Peterson is also anti-nuance for ‘Male’ — how would he feel about being compelled to talk about Taiwan as a runaway province of China, which is President Xi’s version of Naturalism, his sacred version of truth?
Plato ends the Cratylus, after disposing of both sides, with a rant against language in the first place. It can never capture the essence of who we are and what we experience. Our personal relationships are built on more than language, but our formal relationships are not. Inadequate as they are in individual cases, words are the unnuanced shorthand that helped get us where we are as a species.
What interests me are the different scales and realms where the concepts apply. Naming Rights is the ultimate expression of power. Where leadership draws on disunity as a source of strength and power, it opens the door for new names and new battles over names. When leaders emphasize unity, they can find themselves dictating names to their neighbors.