Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

Culture wars! Private censorship, transphobia, Jordan Peterson

I’m getting more and more convinced lately that in a few decades Jordan Peterson will mainly be remembered as an inspirer of American fascism (sorry, using the F-word in political discourse is such a cliche). Reacting to ‘breaking news’ is not my format, but this time I cannot abstain from commenting on the strangely controversial and oddly vicious monologue that Peterson published a few days ago after being ‘banned’ from Twitter.

Well, not technically banned, his account is still there (unlike Donald Trump or Milo Yiannopoulos whose entire content was erased). He’s also free to post from another, newly created account. The original tweet was clearly intended to be provocative: it was targeted at Elliot (ex-Ellen) Page and the legitimacy of… Page’s mastectomy. Followed by an intentional faux pas accompanied by a standard set of sins: transphobia, deadnaming, misgendering, using the wrong pronouns. Which was followed by an even more cringy statement that pride is a cardinal sin (repressed Christianity: here we go again). What was really puzzling though is that Peterson called the surgeon performing Page’s mastectomy a criminal. Well… that’s already a bit beyond the borders of standard criticism of ‘progressive’ left-wing absurdities and qualifies as a rather legitimate transphobia. I suspect it to be a deliberate suicide act made to promote the launch of DailyWire+. Who cares about rotten Twitter, when you can switch to a splendid platform managed by Ben Shapiro (sarcasm intended).

Objectively speaking, Peterson is alright. He obviously doesn’t spread any ‘fascist’ ideas on his own: he’s just a boring conservative, a fan-boy of Jung with a repressed love for Christianity. What’s getting a bit concerning though is the extent of exaggeration with which Peterson portrays the threat coming from the ‘progressive’ left.

Fascism is always reactionary. In 1930s Nazism emerged as a reaction against the spreading communism (which was a legitimate threat, no doubt). Are American left-wing activists as threatening as communists in the 30s – or do they mainly have visibility on social media? I’m leaning towards the latter answer. The public discourse in America is certainly hijacked by the left – with media and academia being predominated by left-wing ideas, making it look like libtards are virtually everywhere. There’s indeed a large bias towards Democratic Party across people involved into information industry (journalism, academia, social media, etc) with more than 90% of those who work in big tech donating to Democratic campaigns (as shown here). Such ideological conformity is obviously suboptimal as it promotes bias in the resulting informational output.

But which proportion of population does actually support radical post-modernist ideas typical for the present-day ‘progressive’ left-wing activism? In his recent and rather ill-fated Twitter thread, Noah Smith from Bloomberg has portrayed the degree of alienation that the ‘hashtag resistance spilling offline’ causes in neutral people: for whom both Trump rallies and Pussyhat marches look equally alienating and unappealing. Not too many people are ideological outside of the Internet. As for those ‘extremely online’, I’m genuinely far more concerned about thousands of individuals in the comments under Peterson’s YouTube videos who praise him like God. That looks at least similar, if not even more ideological than any absurdities propagating on Twitter.

Tech monopolies & private censorship

Is banning or suspending someone from social media just when it’s done on the basis of very vague community guidelines or ‘offending someone else’s feelings’? Well, conservatives would say no, seeing it as a political act of censorship targeted at conservative opinions. Libertarians would say private corporations are free to do whatever they want.

What we can agree though is that the response of Twitter was totally expected: first, as we’ve seen, the staff of Twitter consists of 98,7% Democrat supporters. Indeed, Twitter doesn’t care much about removing posts with threats to assassinate Supreme Court members after they’ve canceled Roe or exterminate all Jews (here’re some dismal stats about antisemitism on the platform). But that’s outside of the scope of care of the current-day American Democrat agenda.

Second, it’s naive to think that corporations function based on a sound moral code. Whatever causes outrage of the customer base is unwelcome. If clients become upset by representation of LGBTQ+ couples in company ads, their feelings will be respected too (just like in this case). Well, even this blog offends someone’s feelings on Amazon! (I got over it)

Alas, the problem with tech monopolies is a bit more complex. First of all, social networks are not traditional privately-owned businesses in a classical sense. They’re privately-owned platforms with value generated by users, which is a slightly different thing that creates a few rather new problems not yet addressed by the scope of regulations.

The first problem is network effect. From the technological perspective, a website like Twitter could be programmed in just a few days. What distinguishes it though and gives it an almost monopolistic market share is the network. When the service gains a critical mass of users, its network becomes a monopoly impossible for newcomers to penetrate. The cost of switching the platform becomes too high for a majority of users to leave it (thanks to the comfort, rule of habit, established follower base, etc). Think of a city that has only one farmer marketplace that attracts 99% of all sellers and 99% of all buyers. If some seller is expelled from the marketplace, he’s technically free to go anywhere else and sell his vegetables over there, but would he find any buyers? Similarly, anyone can start a competing marketplace or a platform, but if a major share of users are satisfied with the previous one, it’s not likely to become popular.

The second problem is that the value of a platform depends on the content generated by its users. If Facebook was an empty shell, it would be neither valuable for shareholders nor attractive for investors. The value of a corporation is driven by future cash flows, which in turn are driven by content quality. But the content on social networks is generated by users, not the platform founders. This way, the value of a corporation is also generated by users, not founders. No one would pay a billion dollars to buy a social network without content creators and content consumers. When up and running, the platform no longer belongs to its original owners.

When the two conditions from above are met, a platform becomes something more similar to a utility. Utilities, just as vegetable markets, should give equal opportunity for everyone to trade, as long as they comply with the original rules of use – which requires at least a minimal regulation. The morally questionable outcomes of private censorship that we observe today are driven by the current confusion in terms, though I believe that the future regulatory changes are inevitable.

But let’s now analyze the content of what was actually ‘censored’.

Trans activism & moral panic

The moral panic around trans movement is becoming a bit overblown. It seems to me that the trans activism movement of 21 century is just another instance of gay right movements of the 80s and civil rights movement of the 60s. All are targeted at rehabilitating a formerly oppressed minority: racial, sexual and gender-defined. Of course, the modern-day trans movement comes with a slightly different vocabulary: being predominated by post-modernist jargon and often absurd statements (I wrote about absurdities of post-modernist social justice activism here). But the goal is clear: rehabilitate a formerly marginalized minority group.

How is this goal achieved? Through increased public representation, affirmative action, positive discrimination, and extended media presence. By definition, activism has a temporary nature: as soon as the goal is attained and the formerly marginalized group becomes generally respected and properly represented, the intensity of activism naturally fades off. So trans activism is likely to be a rather temporary phenomenon which we just happen to live through.

The increased public representation invariably irritates some parts of the population. In the worst case, it reaches the state of a full-blown moral panic – especially when it comes to potential impact on children. In the 90s, parents were concerned their children would become gay. Conservatives were worried that the civilization would collapse because people would stop reproducing and everyone would die from AIDS. Obviously, none of these threats happened to materialize.

But the modern-day conservatives would claim that being trans is much more dangerous than being gay. It requires medical intervention. So here comes the debate about ethics of puberty blockers, hormone replacement therapy, sex reassignment surgery, and its effect on children.

Puberty blockers & medical inconsistencies

To begin with, I fully understand the origins of moral panic. Gender non-conformity is indeed a common phenomenon among teenagers – I myself disliked being a girl during my teenage years quite a lot. However, conservative people seem to confuse gender non-conformity with a gender dysphoria: the latter being a serious medical condition that causes significant psychological distress over a prolonged period of time and takes quite a lot of effort to diagnose. Gender non-conformity is common, while gender dysphoria is rare. To obtain a formal diagnosis, a candidate needs to be examined by a committee of doctors, psychologists, and other counselors that have to identify a significant degree of mental distress beyond general gender non-conformity. It’s far from a spontaneous decision and takes time and resilience to go through the entire process. This is the reality that trans people have to go through, especially in less developed countries like Russia. Here’s a good thread about it.

When it comes to puberty blockers, I abstain from making any moral judgement. All I care about is logical consistency – and, as we’ll see, the attitudes towards children vary greatly when it comes to their ability to make serious decisions.

To give some background, the most popular puberty blocker is Lupron – which is a ‘gonadotropin-releasing hormone agonist’ that, simply speaking, inhibits receptors of sex hormones (testosterone and estrogen). It’s important to note that Lupron is casually prescribed in many other medical cases: early puberty, breast and prostate cancer, and other medical conditions where hormones play a role. Puberty blockers can be prescribed from the age 12 until the age of 16, when a person can choose to undergo a hormone replacement therapy (which is already a much more serious treatment that often adversely influences fertility).

From what I’ve seen around myself during teenage years is that approximately half of the girls around were taking oral contraceptives from a relatively young age for the sake of improving their skin condition and curing acne. The birth control pills influence production of estrogen and progesterone and (oh my god) ‘alter menstrual cycle to eliminate ovulation’ (an equally strong candidate for the name of ‘sterilization drug’). They also come with a rich set of side effects: from cardiovascular disease to cancer. And yet, they’re prescribed rather commonly to a rather young age group. If the society is fine with that, we should also be fine with puberty blockers just to be logically consistent.

Needless to say, the conspiracy theory that the Big Pharma pushes children into taking puberty blockers and then ‘transitions’ them for the sake of making profit doesn’t make sense. If the Big Pharma really wanted to maximize profits, it would seek more clients in the long-term – so it probably won’t seek to sterilize them in the short-term.

According to the currently available research, puberty blockers are rather harmless and reversible (more about it here). Hormone replacement therapy is much more serious. Is it fair to let children at the age of 16 make such major life-changing decisions? Well, the age of military recruitment starts at 17. African countries allow consumption of alcohol from the age of 16. Age of consent in Oregon and Virginia is 15, in Brazil and Ecuador – 14. In Massachusetts, girls can get married from the age of 12 (with parental consent!). Each of these decisions can potentially lead to a great harm and abuse of the child. Yet, they’re not questioned.

When morals are contingent, consistency is at least something we should strive for.

Pronouns & private language

What about pronouns and such controversial terms as ‘man’ and ‘woman’? Should pronouns reflect biological sex or social gender identity?

Well, let’s conduct an experiment and take a look at two transgender people: Blaire White and Buck Angel. It’s pretty clear to me that Blaire can be clearly called a woman, while Buck can be clearly called a man. Google their pictures and judge for yourself. The existence of such people clearly indicates impotency of the idea that pronouns should be assigned based on biological reproductive organs, or ‘looking into one’s pants’.

This goes in line with the general purpose of human languages. Language is a common system shared by a population for the sake of obtaining a shared understanding of the world. Normally, the language is supposed to map words to some things in material world or concepts in someone’s head. Then, by using the same word we’re supposed to understand references to similar mental states of each other, and achieve a shared understanding of reality. So when a stranger looks like a woman, it’s absolutely natural to call that person a woman. Similarly it’s fine to call a person wearing a light-colored wig ‘a blonde’, to call someone wearing lenses ‘green-eyed’, a person wearing heels – ‘tall’.

The problem with pronouns arises mostly in case of non-binary or trans-people who choose not to undergo a hormone therapy and generally don’t look conforming to any gender. In such cases, the most natural thing in accordance with the general purpose of language would be to use any pronoun that seems most likely to be applicable. Language cannot be based on private experiences that are in principle inaccessible to others. Making language grounded in unique subjective experiences is antithetical to its purpose of achieving a common shared understanding of the world.

That’s exactly what Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed in his private language argument: he asserted that ‘a language understandable by only a single individual is incoherent’ when it describes solely inner experiences ‘inaccessible to others’. Such private language is unlearnable and untranslatable in principle, with dictionary ‘existing only in imagination’. ‘Language justification always consists in appealing to something independent’. Which is not the case of pronouns, which, as we know all too well from Twitter, are discovered as a result of reflecting upon one’s ‘true inner self’ which is fluid and changeable on a daily basis.

In case of Page, I don’t see how the use of particular pronouns can be prosecuted or enforced, because… well, Page’s case is indeed a bit confusing: given a still rather feminine look and a wide publicity Page attained while identifying as a woman. As I wrote here, subjective experiences such as hurt feelings should never serve as a foundation of real-world punishment or prosecution. But private censorship is not a case of real-world prosecution.

And needless to say that Peterson’s comment about criminality of mastectomy goes against all the liberal principles he has been defending so far. It could be a paradox of creators, but when they attain unlimited support of extremely loyal audience, their content becomes less thoughtful, less filtered, and more provocative. I always saw Peterson as a Christian in disguise. So just give him some time, and he will soon start arguing against abortions.  

Conclusions

Anyway, my conclusions are the following.

Private censorship is certainly unjust when done on platforms holding a monopolistic power. But the spread of an overblown moral panic is dangerous and may have some dismal unintended consequences. Especially when done on not entirely genuine and logically consistent grounds. The medically diagnosed gender dysphoria is rare but real. Pronouns are tricky, and yet Elliot Page is more of a man than not. Pride is not a sin, and you don’t have to agree with Christian ethics, neither to internalize it. Finally, women have a right to cut off their breasts, regardless of what conservative men might consider a right thing for them to do.

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