In a germinal transgender studies manifesto, Sandy Stone launched a critique of the discursive force academe enacts on the transexual body. Stone investigates the ways in which the medical and psychological disciplines barr access to sexual reassignment interventions unless trans individuals adhere to a monolithic “trapped-in-the-wrong-body” narrative. By demanding a unitary understanding of transness, academia coercively enforces a reductive identity structure that reifies the gender binary in exchange for a medically sanctioned trans legibility. Published in 1998, Stone’s text emerged at a moment when a strong identity politic was becoming increasingly required for reputable scholarship. Yet, this framework’s legitimizing impact on trans acknowledgement was accompanied by the categorization of trans identity as fixed and containable. Stone argues:
"Bodies are screens on which we see projected the momentary settlements that emerge from ongoing struggles over beliefs and practices within the academic and medical communities. These struggles play themselves out in arenas far removed from the body… each of these accounts is culture speaking with the voice of an individual. The people who have no voice in this theorizing are the transsexuals themselves." (p. 297, emphasis ours)
Fast-forward almost twenty years and trans bodies still serve as the screens for ideological debate. Yet, what we see projected is a new form of erasure.
In late September 2016, University of Toronto Professor of Psychology Jordan B. Peterson’s frustrations about supposed encroachment on free speech by Ontario Bill C-16—legislation that proposes adding gender orientation and identity to the Canadian Human Rights Act—boiled over as an initial three-part YouTube harangue that now contains more than twenty videos. Peterson critiques the Bill’s language around criminalizing the active misgendering of people under the protections already disallowing hate speech, arguing in his videos that:
"[Gender expression] is nonsensical, absurd, it has no scientific-standing, ideologically motivated, dangerous, causes chaos, there’s no upside to it. For every one person that this potential legislation is going to free from oppression, it’s going to deathly confuse one hundred more. I say that as a clinician with some experience in this manner." (“Sept 27/16: 1. Fear and the Law”)
Media coverage of his videos and the subsequent responses by the trans and nonbinary communities at UofT and at large were co-opted to inflate Peterson’s online presence. Since many of Peterson’s 84k Twitter followers financially support him via a Patreon channel that amasses a safetynet of $17,000+ each month, Peterson can claim to effectively disentangle his ‘activism’ from his responsibility to his students as a professor at UofT.
While Professor Peterson’s videos sparked controversy manifesting as protests on campuses across Canada, the debate surrounding his interpretation of Bill C-16 unfolded primarily on YouTube, Twitter, and Reddit—a transnational digital commons where important differences between the Canadian and American legal systems are neglected in favour of a fear of censorship and an anti-PC rhetoric. Peterson’s videos claim evidence-based rationality, which instead couches a conflation of freedom of speech with license to abuse. These videos therefore target and mobilize an online community more aligned with the alt-right than his university classroom. However, the videos are also bolstered by his academic position thus giving rise to a rightist campus culture that perpetuates violence against trans communities.
Returning to Stone’s argument, one can view Peterson as projecting a frightening moral message on the bodies of trans students: “culture speaking with the voice of an individual”. While the specificity of the attack on transness is surely relevant since ideology crystallizes around the most vulnerable, the cultural implications of Peterson’s actions are more pervasive than transphobia alone. Not only can we can see in Peterson the embodiment of a burgeoning alt-right, but his status as professor has additional consequences. Despite Peterson’s attempt to bifurcate his status as an anti-PC activist and psychology professor, he is inherently endowed with institutional power. Accordingly, as long as UofT allows Peterson to continue to teach, the institution is complicit in the violence enacted on its trans and non-binary students. By taking Peterson as a case study a question emerges: How does a professor who leverages the commons in reactionary arguments and ‘activism’ of the far right hinder the call for scholarly activism? As the trans body comes under attack through Peterson’s YouTube projections, bodies emerge as screens once again, this time to theorize a disturbing alt-right ideology.
Stone, Sandy. 1998. "The empire strikes back: a posttranssexual manifesto". The Visible Woman. 285-309.
False “activist” rhetoric
Higher educational institutions and those that make up the academic community are charged with promoting an open, inclusive environment for critical thinking, reflection and conversation with all students. As humanists, academia should promote higher learning and understanding of other ideas and people, and uphold humanity above all else. As such, varying viewpoints and perspectives should be considered, except for those that promote inhumanity. By definition, activism consists of efforts to improve society through humanity, treating all people humanely with common decency and respect. Conflating extreme ideological alt right views with activism is incorrect, because extreme views such as Peterson’s do not embody humanity, and denigrate and objectify a segment of people. He has a right to his personal opinion, but the University of Toronto, by extension, is complicit by continuing to employ him. Just as many have boycotted companies that support inhumanity, so too should they boycott the University of Toronto. There should be no place in an academic setting for false “activist” rhetoric. All universities have an obligation to provide safe environs where all students can pursue higher learning without fear of being served up for someone’s egotistical agenda.
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