Constructing Gender, Subjugating the Body

I read Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” (2018) to better get a perspective on the thinker and why he might be so relevant to pop culture nowadays. I attempted to read “Maps of Meaning” a couple years ago, but I couldn’t absorb what he was saying, as it was written like any other academic book that hides its logic in choppy, at times esoteric language. Luckily, since Peterson gained popularity, his vocabulary has been geared toward normal people rather than niche, self-styled philosophers.

Peterson appears to have had an axe to grind with transgenderism over the years. He has since been banned on Twitter and sculpted the talking points for Peterson-ites I’ve met over the years repeat. His method for criticizing transgenderism is through a mix of North American traditionalism and light logic dissection:

Gender is constructed, but an individual who desires gender re-assignment surgery is to be unarguably considered a man trapped in a woman’s body (or vice versa). The fact that both of these cannot logically be true, simultaneously, is just ignored (or rationalized away with another appalling post-modern claim: that logic itself—along with the techniques of science—is merely part of the oppressive patriarchal system).

Peterson might not understand that he’s speaking about two different types of people when dealing with these two incompatible logical conclusions. The first person believes that gender is constructed, which means that transgenderism is acceptable to their logic because it epitomizes the ability to move between two culturally recognized gender identities.

The second person considering transgender as someone of one gender trapped in the other does not consider gender to be constructed. They fully recognize and believe in the spiritual properties of each gender, and wish that they could change themselves to best express these spiritual properties.

For both the first and second type of logic, there is a singular understanding: That the issue with modern culture surrounding gender is that that “man” should be applied to males and that “woman” should be applied to females. “Gender is constructed” people don’t believe in this imperative, and believe that males and females can be whatever they want. “Gender stuck as another gender” people don’t adhere to this imperative because it prevents them from being able to be what they believe represents them.

I am of the first camp: gender is constructed. But I have my own limits on what is “logical” and what is not. I believe there is a biological imperative: males are males, females are females. I would not be surprised if science would be able to transcend this paradigm, but I would not be terribly supportive because of the millions of man hours and amount of scientific exploitation necessary to achieve a technology to actually change sexes rather than just gender.

The question is: Is it worth it for us to rely on such invasive surgeries and chemicals for the desire of that “perfect identity”? I already have enough obsessive compulsion to deal with in my life. That a surgery will change myself down to the genetic structure appears to be an invite into a meaninglessness of identity—a result of the endless plasticity of identity by biological/physical manipulation.

When I was a teenager, I had dreams about the modularity of limbs and genitalia: “I could wear a penis one day, a vagina another, breasts this day, and black skin the next.” The total composability of the body is the total objectification of it, and its total subjugation under science and technology.

Jordan Peterson is confusing possibly three different levels of identity politics to question the logic of transgenderism. First level: The separation of sex from gender. Second level: The attempt at moving from one gender to another. Third level: The attempt at moving from one sex to another.

The applying logic to transgenderism is like trying to apply logic to why Boy A likes gymnastics and Girl B likes soccer. It’s all preference, because they’re just aesthetics and dynamics for a person to latch on to. It may be likely that Peterson still conflates sex and gender. Remember, the first is biological, the second is cultural. That’s a large concept to ignore when you want to criticize a group of people for how they would like to live. In order to criticize and make an impact, you’ll want to understand how it works and what the stakes truly are.

After reading “12 Rules for Life”, I can theorize the real clincher transgenderism has for Jordan Peterson, who has a strong focus on disaffected young men: “It is already hard enough for estranged young men to deal with the social dynamics between themselves and women; why does modern society make it so much more difficult by now questioning gender itself?”

From my perspective, Peterson uses the word “culture” differently from how many people use it today. For Peterson, “culture” is society’s shared understandings. Take gender for instance: The female and the male are biological facts, but gender arose for a group of people to attend the particular needs of each sex. Essentially, the genders of “man” and “woman” applied to male and female respectively are the windows into which an individual perceives another. We see a female, so wefigure out what kind of societal norms and understandings to apply in order to interact with the “woman”. Then we see a male, so we apply the societal norms and understandings that are relevant to “man”. Culture from this definition is thus a way a member of a society perceives subjects around them so they can interact in an acceptable way.

“Gender is a construction” people think of it differently. From my own perspective, I would rather approach a human being and interact with them in socially acceptable ways despite their sex. Thus, I circumvented the need for gender. This doesn’t mean I do this on a daily basis: I recognize that I am in a society where people actually do identify as these two cultural paradigms, so I interact with men in the way they would want and women in the way they would want. I’ve never had issue with this approach.

I have a sneaking suspicion that by creating the “for” and “against” on gender, people have made it a bigger deal than it ever was the past few millennia. Some people believe that arguing for the “construction of gender” will finally free women or females from oppression. I don’t think so: It’s just an argument about the status of a cultural abstraction. Even if everyone admitted tomorrow that “gender is constructed”, we’ll still have issues of treating each sex differently because there are some biological differences that affect social dynamics. While I have a stance on this topic, I don’t believe it is particularly useful or important to the truly pressing issues we have today, from environmental to spiritual affairs. They are aesthetic arguments, like gymnastics versus soccer.

I believe that Jordan Peterson’s opinion on transgenderism is an organic extension of his general philosophy that there is value to “cultural understanding”: To have gender be recognizable and accepted is a blessing for a group of people, so they are not alienated by increasingly complex and arbitrary social relationships. But I’ll take this last statement to its logical conclusion: When there is a lack of understanding between people and where they want to head in fundamental identities like gender and sex, we must find that there is a lack of Peterson’s “culture”. And when we lack this culture, maybe groups of people will have to split ways and build it back up for themselves.

I wouldn’t be surprised if a presupposition of Peterson is that we are in a national or global society, and thus when groups cause a lack of cultural understanding, they are only creating unnecessary chaos in a land of order. But this can be also be a sign that people have incompatible norms, and would do best to operate separately. While this may look like I’m advocating for the dissolution of institutions, I am recommending to build new ones that truly represent yourself, if you believe your cultural norms require it. Sometimes shoehorning in your norms into another culture is asking for too much.

Even if you have read critical things about Jordan Peterson’s thoughts and work over the years, I still recommend you try reading something of his to fully understand not just the “what” of his philosophy but the “why”; his thoughts on transgender people are flawed, but not knee-jerk reactions. They are developed out of his attempted battle against nihilism and meaninglessness that he has associated with many types of thought nowadays. I believe that it is only a mistake that he turned transgender people into a target of his ire, since he is stuck on conceiving transgenderism as a product of Marxism. While he knows how to reach the spirit of disaffected young men, he still finds women and minorities to be an Other that are at times over-generalized in his writings.

Forgive him for his flaws, because his work can help fuel interesting conversations about many aspects of life, whether you agree or not.