Sex and Open Jaws: Nostalgic White Masculinity and the assault on Gender

Text Prof. Sarah Bracke
Illustration Rosa van Triest

The day that Jordan Peterson came to campus left us with two or three things to remember. Like the infamous UvA tweet in the wake of the death threats against UvA faculty; a tweet unable to make the condemnation last long enough for the short breath that defines twitter. “At the same time we stand for free speech and diversity of views,” the tweet concluded. (“A threat to the life of a person is not a diverse view point,” Judith Butler commented.) Or like the weaponization of “free speech” that stupefies its audience into believing that the only person whose free speech was guaranteed all along (an invitation, a podium, a mike, no intimidation let alone death threats) needed protection, while mystifying where and how free speech was undermined (by the absence of debate, by intimidation and death threats). And like the profound confusion between free speech and academic speech that informed some collegial and institutional responses.

Of all the things to remember, however, one image is engraved in my mind. I accepted an invitation to speak at an alternative event that evening, and I had done so because, like many of my colleagues, I am deeply committed to two central missions of the university: critical inquiry and education. And while we know that Peterson has made a business model out of seeking attention and controversy, as well as bringing intimidation and violence in his wake, it is difficult, in post-truth times like these, to remain silent: There is something quite intolerable about having pseudoscience fed to our students without critical debate. It would be intolerable if it were about the flatness of the earth, the connection between vaccinations and autism, or the flat-out denial of climate change. And it is equally intolerable when it concerns sex and gender. And so that evening I spoke about what Peterson’s visit to campus is a symptom of and I briefly commented on how he seeks to reinscribe sex as binary when by now we know it isn’t. Several young men who had been captivated by what Peterson said earlier that day were among the audience. After the talk, one young man came up to me and said, “But surely, there are men and women, you can’t deny that!”

His genuine consternation was caught up in certain assumptions: at no point had I denied that men and women exist, yet this is how pointing to the non-binary character of sex is readily understood. It was late, the day had been long, and I needed to go home, and so I rushed the student through a 5-minute crash course on sex. Biologist and Gender Studies scholar Anne Fausto-Sterling has made that easy for us: I quickly covered some of the dimensions of sex (chromosomal, gonadal, hormonal, internal reproductive, external genital), explaining how each is not organized in an exclusively binary manner and that these dimensions do not map onto each other into two discrete categories. When it comes to sex, the result is a wide range of biological variance and complexity. The story I told remained a gross simplification: I didn’t even touch upon the infinite layers of social and cultural signification and disciplining that are usually associated with gender. We are indeed “only beginning to understand gender,” as thousands of scientists state in response to a leaked law proposal from the Drumpf administration that sets out to legally define gender as a binary condition determined at birth, based on genitalia.

As I was talking, the jaw of young man in front of me slowly, and literally, dropped. At the end of my rushed story, he just stood there rather undone, mouth wide open. As he struggled to find words, he stammered: “How do you know these things? Where does one find out these things?” “In Sociology,” I grinned, making it into a disciplinary joke, yet acutely aware of the joke’s limits.

The young man’s bewildered look and open jaw became my iconic image of Peterson’s visit to our campus. I would like to assume, while aware of the audacity of the assumption especially in post-truth times like these, that on a university campus we have some shared knowledge about the earth’s shape and its positionality in relation to the sun, about the historical facts of European colonization and the Holocaust, about the reality of climate change, about the importance of vaccinations and herd immunity. Clearly the depth of what we know and the manner in which we express that knowledge will depend on the different disciplines, intellectual traditions, and methodologies we are trained in. But on a campus, I would hope that most of us know that there aren’t merely “different views” on those matters (as there are in the public debate), but that some perspectives are research-based while others remain ignorant or flat-out denials. This is the distinction between free speech and academic speech. Yet when it comes to sex and gender, too often the scholarly pursuit of truth and knowledge and the insights that come out of that scholarly pursuit are relegated to the realm of a market place of views and opinions. Where all too often screaming, and indeed intimidation and (threats of) violence, decide on questions of truth and meaning, as Humpy Dumpty already knew.

The bewildered look and open jaw have stayed with me as a symptom of an ignorance about sex and gender that gave Peterson the platform he ended up having. An ignorance that is well cultivated. Cultivated by orchestrated anti-gender campaigns, that is to say, campaigns to “biologize” current dominant visions on gender as innate and to dismiss critical knowledge about gender as “ideology”. Cultivated every time an academic institution relativizes gender scholarship as “a different view”. Cultivated by public figures like Peterson, who speaks directly to the confusion, consternation, and fear that young men, mostly white, experience in relation to sex and gender in times when sexism is increasingly questioned (albeit not necessarily dismantled) and the sex binary is increasingly unpacked (albeit not necessarily accepted).

Peterson’s promise is nostalgic: a restauration of a binary, of a hierarchy, to those who feel they have most to lose from a more egalitarian, non-binary future. And the nostalgia he has on offer is cloaked in violence. A kind of violence that, in its more radicalized version, has killed 17 young people and injured 17 more in a high school in Parkland, Florida in February this year. And as I began writing this piece, another attack occurred in a yoga studio in Florida, with 2 women killed and 5 wounded. In between, there was the Toronto attack, with a young man driving a van into as many people, mostly women, as he could, resulting in 10 deaths and 14 severely wounded. When in the aftermath of the massacre in this home town – a massacre that surely would have been called terrorism if it were a young Muslim man driving into human beings with the aim to kill – Peterson was asked to comment. None of this would have happened, he suggested, if there was “enforced monogamy,” to make sure these men had a girlfriend.
His comment merely reflected Incels’ demand for “sexual redistribution”.

Incels, or involuntary celibates, are young men, mostly white, often on campuses, who are organizing themselves in a misogynist subculture, infused with frustration and a sense they are not getting what they feel they are entitled to. The Incel rebellion has been declared. And so they slay – mostly with words, words that dehumanize women (“femoids” in Incel speak) and glorify violence, and then some of them kill. In 2017 Reddit banned the Incel subreddit, with its 40.000 members, because of the level of incitement to physical violence and harm. Coming from Reddit, that means something. Yet Peterson caters to them, mobilizes their affects, literally cries over them (and not over the human beings they dehumanize and kill), and diagnoses the situation as one in which “the masculine spirit is under attack”, proposing the re-establishment of (patriarchal) hierarchies and enforced monogamy as the cure.

What the young man and his open jaw reminds me of, is two-fold. We have more and more young men among us, here on campus, who live a contemporary crisis of white masculinity – ah, that eternal crisis of masculinity – in intense ways and are looking for frames and stories to make sense of what they live. The price of leaving that terrain to someone like Peterson is very high: it means increased misogyny, hate speech, intimidation, and violence – and hence the end of free speech. It implies an assault on critical inquiry into sex and gender – and hence the undermining of academic freedom. It also means a further weaponization of white masculinity, which might stem out of a sense of fragility and being undone in the light of claims for equality, yet forecloses the possibilities for remaking – and not just nostalgic clinging to old models – that comes with being undone. But also, at least on a campus, the open jaw reminds me of the power of education. In the right context, there’s a world to win with critical inquiry and education. We do, however, need to make sure that that context continues to exist, and hence take various kinds of threats to academic speech and freedom seriously.

Prof. Sarah Bracke

Rosa van Triest


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