Professor Peterson, I teach students.
I teach trans students. And I'm asked often to call people singularly they. It started probably about four years ago. It struck me as very odd. I'm 52. And some of them you can tell that it’s coming from a very deep place. That's how they feel, and they deeply need to be called they. Some of them, my horse sense says, that they're kind of enjoying giving me a certain shock, and there's a certain theatrical element. That's my horse sense, that there's a certain épater la bourgeoisie about it. I feel it. And I'm probably right. But I can't know. I'm a linguist, I'm a person, and my general feeling has been that whatever they ask I just go with it, and let's change the usage of the pronouns because we have a lot to do.
Now what you said is interesting.
You said that how you make the difference in deciding these cases is that you have psychological training, and you can tell. What I want to know is, for my own elucidation and also because many of us wondered but then it kind of went by: How do you know?
Now, I want to specify, I'd rather you didn't recount the whole episode of how ridiculously you were treated amidst that whole controversy. Three quarters of the room knows. I sympathize with you. I thought it was ridiculous. I want to know specifically, because I'm a linguist without psychological training: How do you know?
And if you hear a tiny bit of skepticism in my voice, you're correct—however, I am open to being convinced. Based on your training, which is immense, how would you know which students to discount as opposed to which ones to go along?
Peterson’s initial answer:
Well, first of all I wouldn't know, which is partly why your skepticism is justified. But I have to be responsible for what I say based on my willingness to take responsibility for my judgment. So I would be willing to do that despite the fact that I might be wrong. Having said that, in any reasonable situation I would err on the side of addressing the person in the manner in which they want to be addressed.
But that's not the issue for me. The issue is that now I'm compelled by law to do so. It's like: No, not doing it. Not now, because it's compelled by law, so that's the end of the game so far as I'm concerned. There's no excuse for compelling it by law. I don't think it was an isolated legislative move. I think it was part and parcel of a whole series of legislative moves that have been made. I think it's an attempt by a certain radical ideology to get the linguistic upper hand, which I think is a terrible thing to do. So I have lots of reasons for rejecting the legislation.
This exchange followed:
McWhorter: I want to hear about how your psychological training makes the difference. That's very interesting. We're talking about expertise here. And my ears pricked up when you talked about how there is a way of thinking that would allow us to decide.
Peterson: No, there's a way of thinking that would allow me to decide for me.
McWhorter: No, us to decide for us. Surely you have a larger mission than what's going on in your own head, and I mean that.
Peterson: No, I have a perfectly straightforward mission which is that there was no damn way I was going to say those words if compelled to by law. That was my mission.
McWhorter: You didn't want to model for the rest of us a way of thinking? It was really only about you?
Peterson: Well, it was about me and the law. I thought the lawmakers had gone too far. They stepped out of their appropriate territory into the realm of linguistic freedom. And as far as I was concerned I wasn't going to put up with that … And I've spoken with no shortage of trans people. And my proclivity has been, without exception so far, to address them in the manner that seems most socially appropriate.
Now you asked a specific question. Do I have special expertise that I might share with other people––
McWhorter: Because you're doing Martin Luther and I think these issues are a little subtler than those.
Peterson: Well, what makes you think that you’re doing the kids who are grandstanding any favors by going along with their manipulation?
McWhorter: Because I can't know which ones those are.
Peterson: Well, fair enough, but you have a type one and type two error problem. One error is that you don't call students what they deserve to be called. That's one error. And the other error is that you call students what they want to be called even though they don't deserve it. And what you're trying to do ought to be to minimize both of those errors. To do that you have to take a middle route.
Now, what you've decided to do—and I'm not criticizing it—you've decided to allow for the possibility of 100 percent of one of those errors, because you think it's a less significant error. You know, you might be right, but it's not like you're acting in an error-free manner. You decided to minimize one form of error at the expense of the other. Because I'd say you're allowing attention-seeking and somewhat narcissistic undergraduates to gain the upper hand over you in your class. Now believe me, it's not a criticism, I understand why you're doing it.
Weiss: Isn't John just erring on the side of generosity and compassion?
McWhorter: I have one more thing to say. I'm not going to take up any more space. Are you saying that psychological theory has nothing to teach us about this? Because you're talking around my question. You're gorgeously articulate. You're smarter than me. Does psychology have anything to teach us or not? Yes or no?
Peterson: I don't think it has anything to offer that I could teach you without––hmmm, let me think––
McWhorter: So it's just too complicated?
Peterson: Well, it is that in part because it's not easy to articulate out the principles, the unerring principles by which you would make such a categorical judgment. Right? Because those are very situation-specific problems.
It's partly the problem of how to make a generic moral truth apply to an individualistic problem. And the problem in the situation you're describing is generally that the devil is in the details, right? You have all these students, they vary in their attitudes to their self-professed gender from the ones who are grandstanding, let's say, to the ones who are very serious, and you have to make a judgment in the moment on the variables that present themselves in a very complex way in that situation. And I understand why you took the pathway you took, it was perfectly reasonable to do so. My point was that you don't minimize all the errors by doing so. It's a fine way of approaching it.
My point was that because of my psychological acumen, I would say, the experience I've derived, I would be comfortable in making the judgment and taking the consequential risk. I'm not saying I would be correct. That's not the same thing at all. I'm willing to suffer the consequences of my error. That's not the same as being right. And so if I feel a student is manipulating me I'm not going to go along with it. I might be wrong about that and hurt someone who is genuinely asking me for something that they need. But I'm also, what would you say, sensitive to the error of allowing manipulation to go unchecked.
McWhorter: Everything you're saying is very well put but it's awfully slippery and I know you can do better.
I agree with McWhorter that Peterson was talking around his question—Peterson neither withdrew the claim that he possessed psychological expertise relevant to the matter at hand, nor clarified its nature in any sort of persuasive manner, nor articulated any reason to conclude that being manipulated into pronoun usage by a student falsely claiming to be trans is a likely or harmful event. Peterson’s posture seems more like misplaced stubbornness than anything else.