Showing posts with label gender expression. Show all posts
Showing posts with label gender expression. Show all posts

Monday 10 June 2019

On Reading "The National Inquiry Report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls"

The National Inquiry Report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, and asexual people

Reactions to Reclaiming Power and Place, the title of the National Inquiry Report, have ranged from angry sarcasm to pious platitudes.  I thought there would be lots of room in the middle ground for a reasoned, dispassionate if sympathetic reading.  I had heard numerous declarations that all Canadians should read and educate themselves from this report.  I, therefore, gave myself the task of reading the 1200-page report, the 300-page Quebec supplement, and the 50-page executive summary.

When I was done, my immediate reaction tended toward angry sarcasm.  I had to remind myself of the experience of working on a large research project (though nothing in the order of magnitude of the National Inquiry) where the end result was a hodgepodge which failed to satisfy anyone's vision of what the project was meant to accomplish.

How are the victims served by this report?

It is a bit of a fib (an "exaggeration" if you will) to say I "read" the entire report.  I looked at every page until I understood its general content, stopping to read further when an entry struck me as directly relevant to the fates of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.  With the exception of the testimony of grieving relatives, I was in awe of how infrequently I could see a direct connection between the content of the report and what happened to victimized Indigenous women.  The burning question for me was "How does this report benefit the cohort of Indigenous women who have been and will be victimized?"

Who will read this report?

Despite Prime Minister Trudeau's claim that "this report will not sit on a shelf, gathering dust," my impression was that the report was designed to be ignored.*  Who, other than someone like me (a retired nerd with a PhD who blogs as a hobby), is ever going to read this 1550-page report. On page 199 of Volume 1b, the inquiry calls "on all Canadians to:  [ . . . ] Develop knowledge and read the Final Report."  How seriously can we take the "call to justice" to "read the Final Report" when that "call" appears after we have read 920 pages of the Report we are being called to read?

The purpose of the National Inquiry?

The only part of the Report which attempts to provide comprehensive data on what happened to the victimized women and how the criminal justice system dealt with their cases is Annex 1 of Volume 1b, the "Forensic Document Review Project," which runs from pages 233 to 276--that is, the last 43 pages of the 1550-page report.  In this section of the Report we learn:

Over the course of its review, the FDRP identified the following significant issues: 
1. There is no reliable estimate of the numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA persons in Canada.
2. The two Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) reports dated 2014 and 2015 on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls identify narrow and incomplete causes of homicides of Indigenous women and girls in Canada.
3. The often-cited statistic that Indigenous men are responsible for 70% of murders of Indigenous women and girls is not factually based.
4. Virtually no information was found with respect to either the numbers or causes of missing and murdered Métis and Inuit women and girls and Indigenous 2SLGBTQQIA persons. 
Unfortunately, for me and, I suspect, for most Canadians, the reason for the Inquiry's existence was to find answers to these issues, and obviously these questions remain unanswered.  Instead of a dedicated pursuit of answers to these questions, the Inquiry concluded:

The truths shared in these National Inquiry hearings tell the story – or, more accurately, thousands of stories – of acts of genocide against First Nations, Inuit and Métis women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people.

"Cultural genocide" versus genocide

I think it is reasonable to ask how the inquiry can claim, on one hand, that there is little to no accurate, factual information about what happened to these women and, on the other hand, to conclude that these women were victims of "acts of genocide"?  The obvious answer is that the genocide conclusion has little or nothing to do with the findings of the Inquiry but was simply a foregone conclusion based on the already known 150-year history of the relationship between the government of Canada and its Indigenous peoples.

The 2015 report of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee concluded that
For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Indigenous policy were to eliminate Indigenous governments; ignore Indigenous rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Indigenous peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide.”
Doubtlessly, the National Inquiry was compelled to move beyond this "cultural genocide" accusation in order to avoid the criticism of its harshest critics that its work would be redundant.  There had already been some 40 reports on Canada's Indigenous peoples and certainly the Harper Conservative government had argued that a 41st report would not reach any significantly new conclusions.

Additionally, "cultural genocide" has been debated in and ultimately not recognized by the United Nations. The Inquiry's Chief Commissioner, Marion Buller confirmed, in an interview on Power and Politics, that the claim of genocide was a strategy to compel various levels of government to take emergency measures and supply funding for the Inquiry's recommended projects. So far, the Inquiry's 231 recommendations, most of which require additional government funding, together with the accusation of a Canadian genocide against Indigenous women, seem most likely to engender a populist backlash against government support of First Nations rather than effective leverage.  The sympathy of the Canadian population for missing and murdered Indigenous women has, arguably,  been squandered.

Enfranchisement and assimilation deemed genocide

In his monograph, Indigenous Nationals, Canadian Citizens, Thomas Courchene describes "competing models in play in terms of approaching the relationship of Indigenous peoples to the Canadian state."  According to Courchene, "The first of these models is [. . .]  'enfranchisement,' namely converting Indians to regular Canadians, [ . . .] . At the other end of the spectrum is [. . .] an Indigenous-to-Crown relationship that can be characterized as 'institutionalized parallelism,' e.g., separate parliaments and Indigenous delivery of provincial-type services. Neither of these is acceptable; the first because it is now constitutionally impossible, and the second because, among other reasons, it would be prohibitively expensive."

Seemingly the National Inquiry has decided to label the first model as "genocide" and advocate for the second: greater independence and autonomy for First Nations, together with additional government funding and accommodation from non-native Canadians. The Inquiry's extensive recommendations seem, at first glance, highly impractical--certainly there is no discussion of potential costs.  More striking for me, is that the Report offers little evidence or even theoretical argument that the expenditures they are recommending would specifically and effectively redress the victimization of Indigenous women and girls.

Assumptions of cause and effect

The underlying assumption of Reclaiming Power and Place is that if the problems of poverty, education, health care, culture and identity within native communities, and the lack of understanding of police, health-care providers, social workers and institutions outside native communities were corrected, the fates of the Indigenous victims could have been and can be avoided.  These counterfactual claims may, in fact, be valid, but one would hope that the commissioners would offer something more than an underlying, unquestioned general assumption.  Personally, I remain unconvinced that "culture and identity" (pages 327 to 338 of Vol. 1a)  or the promotion of Indigenous arts and crafts (pages 53 to 74 of Vol. 1b) will address the problems of young women who have been sexually abused and murdered both inside and out of their Indigenous communities.  I remain deeply skeptical that the return of "lost traditions" is a solution for young Indigenous women facing alienation, anomie and abuse in their home communities. (See Be Yourself!  Is This Really Good Advice?)

Gynocentrism:  Pros and cons

I understand the commissioners' perspective that global, large-scale solutions are necessary even though the Inquiry's purpose was understood to be (at least in the popular imagination) the very precise and concrete question of what happened to more than a thousand (if not thousands of) missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.  However, rather than a global approach, the commissioners very deliberately opted for a gynocentric focus, making the inquiry dominantly about women's pursuit of answers to problems being encountered by women, and solutions, including governance, to be found in the empowerment of women.  This approach seems laudatory, except that an obvious source, if not the source, of the problems being faced by Indigenous women is Indigenous men.

Although the Inquiry dismissed the claim "that Indigenous men are responsible for 70% of murders of Indigenous women and girls" as "not factually based," the Report offered no contradictory evidence.  In Annex 1 of Reclaiming Power and Place it is noted that in 100% of the 26 solved homicides of  Indigenous women from 2013-14 "the offender was known to the victim."

The Inquiry's response is:
In our view, the RCMP’s reliance on such a small number of cases creates an unreliable basis upon which to focus policy. A focus on spousal violence, on the basis of flawed statistics, has resulted in an erroneously narrow focus on Indigenous men as the perpetrators of violence against Indigenous women and girls, and neglects other significant patterns in relation to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada.
However, the Inquiry has also adopted a very narrow focus.  The Report only gives a little more than a single page to "some men, who are also former perpetrators, [who] came forward to share their story"  (Vol.1b page 37).  The Inquiry decried negative stereotypes of Indigenous peoples and, clearly, did not want the Report to provide fodder for those stereotypes.  However, truth and transparency cannot be achieved if there is an unwillingness to incisively investigate specific cases.  Much of the Report is about grieving and "healing," compassionate objectives we should all support but, at the same time, we have to acknowledge that the purpose of an inquiry is to inquire rather than console.  Numerous testimonies within the Report are impressionistic accounts of dealings with police and health services.  The failure of police to pursue missing-persons cases, the arresting or threatening of the victims in domestic-abuse complaints, the kidnapping and rape of Indigenous women by police officers are all cases which should be thoroughly and objectively investigated and exposed.  The failure of hospitals to provide death certificates to the families of victims is an egregious failure and should be investigated and reported upon in detail.  However, in these instances, the Inquiry apparently took as its role the support and consoling of the victims and their families, rather than the investigation of the details of each case.  The Inquiry rightly criticized the negative stereotyping of Indigenous peoples but, at the same time, has promulgated negative stereotypes of every police office, teacher, health-care worker,  and social worker who has ever dealt with Indigenous individuals--not to mention branding every Canadian family that has fostered or adopted an Indigenous child as perpetrators of genocide.

Theories of causality

Criminology provides numerous theories and empirical data linking crime, poverty and race.  The Inquiry seems to have taken the general tenor of these theories of causation as a priori fact without much review of the available literature and without specifying a particular theory they were adhering to.  Obviously, there could be no empirical study of causes, if the Inquiry had decided at the outset not to investigate Indigenous perpetrators and, by extension, not to investigate perpetrators period.  It is worth noting that the Inquiry's theory of causation is unique.  Genocide is criminal but, beyond that, it is the underlying theory and conclusion of the Inquiry that genocide caused the crimes without being the crime.  In other words, the Report does not provide a single example of the murderer of an Indigenous woman being motivated by genocide but, nonetheless, concludes that the murders were precipitated by genocide.

Untold stories

Is it heartlessness, a total lack of compassion, to be critical of a Report which was such an outpouring of tragedy and emotion?  I return to my overarching question:  "Will this Report benefit young Indigenous women?"  It is disheartening to read in the Statistics Canada  Report on Homicide that in 2017, when the National Inquiry was at the peak of its activities,  38 Aboriginal women were victims of homicide, an increase of 32% compared to 2016. In 2017, 118 Indigenous males were victims of homicide.  According to the Statistics Canada Report,  18% of Indigenous homicides were considered to be gang related.  Indigenous women were 6 times more likely to be the victims of homicide than non-indigenous women, and Indigenous persons were 12 times more likely to be the accused in a homicide investigation than non-indigenous persons.  In terms of missing-persons reports, according to Statistics Canada, "[t]he proportion of victims reported as being missing prior to the incident being identified as a homicide was similar whether the victim was Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal (9% and 7%, respectively)."  The National Inquiry's concern for the fragility and healing of witnesses, together with the narrow focus and self-fulfilling prophesy of genocide, left many potential avenues of investigation and consideration untouched.

Alternative solutions

Claims of Indigenous perpetrators and criminality in Indigenous communities in no way contradict the indictments of the National Inquiry Report that we must all stand behind and support Indigenous persons and communities as they deal with cycles of violence and incomprehension.   Unfortunately, claims of a Canadian genocide put the question of perpetrators, intentions and motives foremost in Canadian minds. The challenge, which has been recognized since the 1970s  (as opposed to assimilation as the only option in 19th-century thinking), is how to offer Indigenous communities and individuals both independence and support at the same time.  A first step, as Courchene suggests in Indigenous Nationals, Canadian Citizens, is to recognize how the Canadian state systematically undermines the economic development of Indigenous communities.  As Courchene points out, "Canadians tend to lay the blame for the dire straits of most of the reserves at the feet of the Indians"; however, as a matter of "federal policy," Indigenous people do not have property rights over the reservation land where they live.  Consequently, "banks are most reticent in providing loans for capital investment or for mortgages because the Indian Act legally restricts banks from seizing and selling the asset in the event of default."  The possibilities of economic development without venture capital are negligible to nil; hence the endless cycle of government subsidies which always fall short of ending poverty.  Courchene comments:
It is incomprehensible that Canada and Canadians have allowed this federal instrument of mass impoverishment to reign so long over the hundreds of Canada’s First Nations reserves.  (Italics in the original)
Recognizing that smaller reserves have neither the population nor the resources to be financially viable, Courchene proposes a Commonwealth of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, modeled on the existing "Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nation [ . . .] the representative body of the seventy-four First Nations in Saskatchewan."   An Indigenous commonwealth could be provincial or inter-provincial or, ideally, pan-Canadian, and it would give united Indigenous peoples the possibility of economic development.  If poverty and discrimination and lack of independence are the underlying causes of criminality and the deaths of Indigenous women and girls, then here is a large-scale, revolutionary approach worth considering.


*Courchene's comment, in Indigenous Nationals, Canadian Citizens, on the 1991-1996 Royal Commission of Aboriginal Peoples paralleled my thoughts on no-one reading Reclaiming Power and Place:
Entitled People to People, Nation to Nation, RCAP consisted of five volumes, 440 recommendations (over a thousand if one includes sub-recommendations), 80,000 pages of hearings and 250 commissioned research papers.  Intriguingly, because it was so encyclopedic, not only did it defy summarizing, but it also ensured that no core message could emerge.
Consequently, the prevailing view was that the Chrétien government "more or less ignored the RCAP."

Courchene, Thomas J.. Indigenous Nationals, Canadian Citizens (Queen's Policy Studies Series) (p. 6-7). MQUP. Kindle Edition. 

Wednesday 1 May 2019

The Pronoun Wars

Pronouns and antecedents

When I first heard about "the pronoun wars," I assumed the debate was about the old problem of the correct pronoun to use when "everyone" was the antecedent.  This is the related question that I put on the mid-term exam for the course on Applied Grammar I was teaching in 1994.

You have been asked to edit an official government document.  You have to decide what to do about the following sentence: 
"In the future every university student will be required to pay 51% of the cost of their education." 
If you decide to change the sentence (or not to change it), you will have to explain your decision to three people:  Mr. Boyle,  who is a strict grammarian; Ms. Doyle, who is a proud feminist, and Mrs. Murphy, who likes to see problems solved in a practical, common-sense fashion.Explain the problem with the sentence, and give your decision and justifications.  

Traditional grammar versus feminism

The traditional grammarian would insist that the antecedent "every student" was singular, and the pronoun which followed must be the singular "his."  The feminist would not accept that all university students should be identified with the masculine "his." Ultimately I was directing students to the "professional writer's" solution, which was to restructure the sentence to eliminate the problem and impasse. However, unbeknownst to me, in the same year, psycho-linguist Steven Pinker published The Language Instinct in which he argued "that everyone and they ["their" in my example] are not an 'antecedent' and a 'pronoun' referring to the same person in the world, which would force them to agree in number.  They are a 'quantifier' and a 'bound variable'."

Singular they

Consequently, Pinker concludes:  "There is no reason that the vernacular decision to borrow they, their, them for the task is any worse than the prescriptivists' recommendation of he, him, his.  Indeed, they has the advantage of embracing both sexes and feeling right in a wide variety of sentences."  The problem I was teaching my students to correct simply did not exist in terms of linguistics, but it did perhaps persist as a sociological problem at the time.  These days Pinker's solution seems to have gained consensus, and what is known as the "singular they" has certainly become commonplace.

Pronouns in the new millennia

However, my imagining of the "pronoun wars" came nowhere near the complexity and sensitivity of the conflict as it has recently played out online and in the media.  In my 1990s reflections, the proper pronoun to use when referring to "transgender" or  "non-binary" or "non-conforming" individuals never crossed my mind.

It is impossible to research this question without encountering the name Jordan Peterson, the University of Toronto professor of psychology, who has parlayed his fifteen minutes of infamy for refusing to follow the University's transgender pronoun policy into a career as a viral presence on the internet and in the media.  My millennial counselor (my guru on all things post-2000) has strongly advised me against reading Peterson as a waste of my time.  Of course, that injunction has made me all the more curious.

Jordan Peterson:  victim or villain?

The obvious question:  why wouldn't Professor Peterson address his students in their preferred pronouns?   Isn't it just a matter of politeness to address people the way they want to be addressed?  Isn't that what we do with titles, names, nicknames, preferred middle names, etc?  The supreme irony in Peterson's interviews is that, despite the difficult lives (lives Peterson is making more difficult) of people who suffer the dysphoria of feeling or appearing that their genders have been misaligned, he manages to make himself appear the victim.

Peterson frequently refers to two letters he received from the University of Toronto which he manages to make sound quite dire.  Here are the letters in question:

The gist of the letters is "you have been making some people uncomfortable, please stop." However, Peterson is quite right to point out that they invoked "the law." The second letter states, "The law in Ontario, specifically the Ontario Human Rights Code, protects against discrimination based on gender expression and gender identity."  This overkill invocation was an invitation to Peterson to escalate his opposition.

Pronouns for every gender identity?

Peterson typically makes the valid point that the pronoun shifts being proposed by LGBT Resource Centres seem impracticable and awkward.

I am honestly confused by this table from the LGBT Resource Centre. Peterson claims that "in New York there are 31 protected gender identity categories."  I wondered if this was true, and if the number of new genders explained this plethora of pronouns.  There are over 100 pronouns in the English language.  By my count, around 40 of them might be affected by gender (presuming you need new versions of "they" and "you"). The idea of introducing 124 new pronouns into the English language is fantastical--exactly the point the project's detractors take delight in emphasizing.  Is this what advocates want or are asking for?  Do transgender individuals even care about pronouns?

Who's side are you on?

When I watched the TV Ontario episode of The Agenda with Steve Paikin on "Genders, Rights and Freedom of Speech" (which has itself become a source of controversy), I was surprised that the only transgender individual on the forum panel, Theryn Meyer, sided with Jordan Peterson in opposition to the University's pronoun policy (and the Human Rights legislation in both Ontario and Canada intended to prohibit discrimination against transgender individuals).

The Argument against "gender expression"

The intent of the recent changes to the Ontario Human Rights Code seems clear enough--and similar legislation is being proposed at the federal level and in various countries.  "Race, age, sex, and sexual orientation" seem evident categories, but I noted with interest that "The Code does not define creed" even though it is listed as a category to be protected from potential discrimination.  The newly added category of "gender identity and gender expression" is extremely vague and fluid.  It has been suggested (not entirely facetiously) that the legislation would open the door (literally) to the cisgender male using the women's locker room on the grounds that he is "expressing his female gender."

"Gender identity" and "gender expression" remain undefined

"Expression" and "identity" are problematic concepts (see "Be Yourself": Is This Really Good Advice? and "Be Yourself": Part II).  Apparently, the framers of the Code, decided to pass on the problem of definition to "the courts and tribunals," as they have done with "Creed."  Anywhere this subject is discussed, it is noted that "gender" is cultural and "sex" is biological (although some postmodern deconstructionists like to challenge the latter claim--see Deconstruction and "Ways of Talking).  "Gender" could be listed as a proscribed ground of discrimination without any reference to "expression" or "identity."

Is a new law necessary?

Just as sexual discrimination covers both men and women (even though the original impetus was discrimination against women), gender discrimination would cover every possibility from hyper masculinity to extreme femininity and every mix, variation and crossing in between--without necessarily making any reference to sex or identity or expression.  However, while this change might solve legal and discrimination issues, it does not address the question of pronouns.

Do we really need new pronouns?

Do we really need gender neutral pronouns?  Maybe.  In writing I find myself using "s/he" and "his/her" fairly frequently, or sometimes using "her" when the tradition is to use "he"--when talking about God, for example.  However, are transgender persons being served by the pronoun debate?  It seems the public sphere is being dominated by "experts" on the extreme fringes of the issue with little voice being given to the .6 percent of the population who might be personally affected.

Practical matters

I struggle to imagine myself asking someone "What pronouns do you use?"--as is recommended by LGBT Centres and legislators.  Would anyone, including a transgender person, be pleased with or even understand this question? In a personal interaction, it is highly unlikely that I would use a gendered pronoun with someone:  "you" is gender neutral, and we do not address people in the third person in English; i.e., "he/she," when we are speaking to them.

Gender binary is arbitrary (but so is language in general)

As I have commented elsewhere, the gender binary (he/she) is arbitrary and certainly isn't a necessity in the English language (see Falling in Love is Unprofessional).  Third person singular is the only gendered pronoun in English; therefore two pronouns "he/she," which expand morphological to his/her, him/her, herself/himself--a total of eight possibilities.  Not an enormous stumbling block for Anglophones, but French and other Romance languages add gender to every noun and adjective.  Is anyone seriously considering that some of the worlds most widely spoken languages are going to completely restructure themselves to become gender neutral in order to accommodate transgender individuals?

What really matters to the people most affected?

When I ask myself what is the pronoun debate really about, I come away with the conclusion that we are witnessing a variety of agendas--political agendas, academic and professional agendas, self-aggrandizing agendas--but relatively little focus on what might really matter to transgender people.  When Jordan Peterson claimed to fear that he might be accused of "hate speech" if he failed to use the correct pronouns, I thought this counterfactual claim to be farfetched.  Unfortunately his opponent in the debate, Nicolas Matt, a lecturer in Transgender Studies at the University of Toronto, was all too eager to confirm that refusing to use the required pronouns "was hate speech."

Are the pronoun wars helping or hurting LGBT individuals?

As I researched online to confirm Peterson's claim that New York had instituted "31 protected gender categories" what I immediately discovered in print and on Youtube were individuals gleefully mocking the notion of 31 different genders.  Since the point of the legislation is to protect the transgender non-conforming individuals from mockery and intimidation, I couldn't help but recognize that the legislation was providing the opportunity for widespread public mockery and intimidation.  I fault Jordan Peterson for using his authority as a professor and a psychologist, as well as a writer and intellectual, to give license to the willful ignorance of yahoos and trolls.  At the same time, LGBT communities have a lot of work to do to clarify and, I dare say, simplify their positions.  The legislated Orwellian threat of prison sentences for faulty pronouns is the wrong way to go and has encouraged a backlash against exactly the people the legislation was intended to support.

As I researched the claim of "31 protected gender categories," I eventually came across this New York City publication:

The "31 gender categories" are, in fact, an ostensive definition to explain "gender identity" and "gender expression" rather than new categories of gender.  The legislation will doubtlessly be difficult to implement, but perhaps we should all begin by attempting to understand it.

Facebook's 51 Genders

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