Peter Boghossian confronts Portland State students on the issue of gender

May 29, 2022 • 11:30 am

Here’s a video of Peter Boghossian practicing—or trying to practice—”street epistomology” on a group of students from Portland State University.  This is his Socratic method of trying to get students to think about the bases of what they believe in an informal situation. And just as Socrates did, so Boghossian brings up a topic about which there already seems to be settled opinion on the Progressive Left. The issue for debate: “There are only two genders.” That is inflammatory, but Boghossian agrees later in the video to couch it as a question, which could be “Are there only two genders?” or “How many gender are there?”

Here’s the YouTube description:

Following the unexpected cancellation of our Reverse Q&A at Brown University, we created an ad hoc event on the streets of Portland. Here, we are exploring the reasoning behind agreement or disagreement with the claim: “There are only two genders.” We were approached by a group of students and here’s what happened. This video was filmed on May 11, 2022 outside a Portland State University building that houses the department of social work.

The reader who sent me this link was disturbed by the students’ response, and said this:

Forgive my poor description… It’s very late here in [city X] and I don’t have time to write about this video…It’s from the Peter Boghossian… He’s at Portland State University, playing a game asking people about gender….It gets good around 1:12…. Some super ass woke kids show up… One could be a professor…. they’re so cliche…. I can’t believe they cover the full spectrum of wokeness…..they mark off all the wokeness boxes… I can’t believe such people exist….. But I will tell you this… You can get away with this bullshit hiding on campus, but not in real life…. I couldn’t finish watching the video, but will do so this weekend… Ciao.

Now I don’t feel so strongly about the students. Yes, they’re woke, but they’re also young. What bothers me more is that none of the students save one even approaches discussing the question, but even that student mistakes sex for gender, insisting that biological sex is not binary. \\

Further, the students seem to feel that it’s harmful (and taboo) to even ask the question, saying that asking it is “unsafe” and “harmful”. I wish Peter had pressed for their thoughts on the question itself. Now I could give my own answer, which would be this:

There are two biological sexes in humans, but an infinite variety of genders, for gender is the sexual identity that a person assumes, and there are many, many of these.

But this whole 20-minute episode doesn’t even come close to a discussion of the question or my answer above. There is no exchange of ideas, but rather assertions of the students that Peter is doing “harm” (they define that as “furthering oppression”) by even asking the question; he’s “harming society.”

Now I don’t know if the discussion touted by the question would even be possible with these students, but I wished at some point that Peter had pressed them, as Socrates did, to return to the question and explain why there are more than two genders. (I presume that would have been their answer.) Instead, he pursues tangential points like the meaning of “harm”.

That in itself is valuable, as we get to see some of the atmosphere on a liberal campus, and how the students really do consider some questions to be off limits. I disagree with them, but find the video revealing overall but unsatisfying in terms of the issue of gender.  Perhaps asking such questions won’t reveal answers, and perhaps Peter knew that and simply wanted to explicate the thought processes of many “progressive” students. I’ll ask him.

We know what happened to Socrates for asking uncomfortable questions. Boghossian himself was more or less forced to leave Portland State after a decade of teaching philosophy. His teaching ratings were good, but, like Socrates, he simply asked the students uncomfortable questions.

What’s clear is that the Socratic Method won’t work on “woke” students, since they’re unwilling to question or even defend their ideology. Still, I wish there had been a real Socratic-style debate here in which a student or the students took up the challenge. I would like to have seen how Peter handled it. How would he have handled my own answer above, for instance?

68 thoughts on “Peter Boghossian confronts Portland State students on the issue of gender

  1. I suspect this conflation of gender and sex is partly because people don’t understand biology or science in general and there has been a vernacular conflation for many years.

    As for the students not wanting to question their positions this exposes their beliefs as faith and not reason.

    1. And to take you comment further, I would be interested in what subjects those students are studying. How many are majoring in any form of the life sciences?

      1. One said “We are from Social Work” or something to that effect. Not sure if that’s their occupation or the name of their department. Also not sure what proportion of the crowd was encompassed.

    2. I believe there’s more to it than that, though. If you can show that a pretty clear sex binary is not binary, then that somehow justifies that fact that all distinctions between genders or sexes are arbitrary and subjective.

    3. “I suspect this conflation of gender and sex is partly because people don’t understand biology or science in general and there has been a vernacular conflation for many years. I might be mistaken, but I think that in large part the conflation is because USians are reluctant to use the word “sex” in any polite context and that even the preposition “behind” is too much for them hence the use of the phrase “out back”?

      1. From this side of the Atlantic you are correct, Jez. Gender is a grammatical concept that has little to do with sex. “Le clitoris” is my favourite example. Gender is vestigial in English; even the personal pronouns reflect literal or personified human (and sometimes animal) sex, not gender.

        With grammatical gender playing no role in English we were free to use it as a euphemism for sex. “A woman ought not to be barred from the Senate because of her sex,” (“Persons” case) has become “I will ensure gender parity in the Cabinet, because it’s 2015.” Saying sex in public makes a man sound like a pervert, especially when the microphones are on. But it was always understood that the “gender” of a Cabinet minister mapped exactly to his or her stated and obvious sex.

        Weirdly, “gender” the word has taken on a life of its own, now being used not only as a euphemism for sex but also for a whole spectrum of behaviour and personality traits with some tenuous and hypothesized origin in sex but felt when the chips are down to trump sex. Especially when it comes time to go to prison. I suppose that because grammatical gender is a social construct—the word “clitoris” is masculine in French only because all French teachers say it is—it has seemed reasonable to imagine that psychological gender is a social construct as well. I mean, why not? It’s only a euphemism, it’s not a real attribute distinct from personality. What I don’t understand is how we got from there to the obligation to regard men who express their female gender behaviour as being equivalent to or indistinguishable from women, contradicting the evidence of our own eyes, and the eyes of women locked in cages with them.

        Who knows? If European languages had never created gender, transgenderism and gender fluidity might never have become a thing. They’d be non-conforming personalities but they wouldn’t be demanding special rights as genders. If there was no word to describe it, could there have been a thought about It?

        1. Yes, this was my original intent in my comment. Gender is grammatically a stand in for “sex” and there is no distinction in the mind of most people.

          1. Agreed. (I think I didn’t at first get “vernacular conflation.”). But how do we get from “gender” the word being a dainty euphemism for “sex” the word, to the idea that there can be as may be as many genders as one wants, and you can be any particular gender you want, and this is supposed to trump, in the eyes of the law, what sex you actually are? What happened here?

            1. People actually believe that sex (as in M/F) is a social construct and nothing to do with biology because they have equated it with gender. I’ve heard this repeated many times.

              1. Ahhhhh….
                [sound of penny dropping]
                I guess I was finding it hard to believe that people can believe foolish nonsense.


    4. Diana,

      “I suspect this conflation of gender and sex is partly because people don’t understand biology or science in general and there has been a vernacular conflation for many years.”

      Indeed. I’ve just had a fairly length “discussion” with a UK Academic who dogmatically insists that “sex=gender” – good enough for my grand pappies going back to 1474, should be good enough for everyone now.

      Pigheadedly refuses to consider that there may be some merit in redefining “gender” to refer to psychological and behavioural traits that correlate with our sexes while retaining “sex” to refer to reproductive traits and abilities. More or less, the position of the British Medical Journal:

      “Distinction is critical for good healthcare:

      Sex and gender are not synonymous. Sex, unless otherwise specified, relates to biology: the gametes, chromosomes, hormones, and reproductive organs. Gender relates to societal roles, behaviours, and expectations that vary with time and place, historically and geographically. These categories describe different attributes that must be considered depending on the purpose they are intended for. The World Health Organization states, ‘Gender is used to describe the characteristics of women and men that are socially constructed, while sex refers to those that are biologically determined.’ ….”

      (Sex, gender, and medical data; March 19, 2021; Susan Bewley, emeritus professor (honorary) of obstetrics and women’s health1, Margaret McCartney, honorary senior lecturer2, Catherine Meads, professor of health3, Amy Rogers, clinical research fellow)

      Though that conflation causes no end of problems, one of which is that many who subscribe to the sex=gender view will hear those who subscribe to sex !=gender say that gender is a spectrum that is variable and think, “they’re claiming sex is a spectrum and variable (!!11!!)”. Causes no end of unnecessary animosity and grief. Though there are those who do insist that sex is a spectrum which just compounds the problem.

      But quite a decent Wikipedia article on Gender – at least the first sentence or two after which they more or less jump the shark themselves with gender ideology:

      “Gender is the range [AKA, spectrum] of characteristics pertaining to femininity [set of attributes, behaviors, and roles generally associated with women and girls.] and masculinity [set of attributes, behaviors, and roles associated with men and boys] and differentiating between them.”

  2. Quote: Further, the students seem to feel that it’s harmful (and taboo) to even ask the question, saying that asking it is “unsafe” and “harmful”.
    This belief system feeds on itself creating a self reinforcing, feedback loop. They are probably correct that this discussion could be “unsafe” and “harmful”, particularly if their woke peers overheard the discussion. In such circumstances life on campus could become very unpleasant.

    1. Sadly my sons girlfriends have same reaction you can’t discuss trans issues they claim it’s harmful to them.It drives me crazy.

  3. When you can’t even ask the questions, you aren’t dealing with truth but orthodoxy. The questions are heretical.

      1. And Wittgenstein who said, that whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

        Unfortunately, that one cuts both ways, especially when people start applying double standards. In this case, I hope Wittgenstein’s Seventh is interpreted to mean, if no one can ask the question, no one is free to draw conclusions. Unfortunately, the ‘Rules for thee, not for me’ crowd will say that they are the only ones privileged enough to ask questions or draw conclusions. Sigh.

  4. > the Socratic Method won’t work on “woke” students

    Of course not. Socrates is a DWEM, a Dead White European Male.

    1. The dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro on the porch of King Archon, as reported by Plato, has raised doubts in the minds of many.

    2. I don’t know about ‘religious fanatics’, but I know of religious people whose minds were changed over a long time. However, they were intelligent people who understood arguments, and they had close friends who constantly questioned the meanings of religious statements; but I would not call them fanatics, not at all.

      I also know religious people who state at the outset that they shall not change their minds — dogma is their thing and they admit it. However, I would not call them fanatics; that is, they don’t make anyone else’s way of life difficult. As far as I know, religion does not affect their politics, and they would rather one be free to believe in a religion of one’s choice.

  5. “What’s clear is that the Socratic Method won’t work on “woke” students, since they’re unwilling to question or even defend their ideology. “….wrote Dr. Coyne above.

    We can’t forget that we are dealing with religious fundamentalists, of the secular variety. And in the place of exploring, they offer credulity and faith.

  6. Sarah Haider says that she’s a “gender atheist” – she believes that there is only sex and personality. I think that’s right, what we call “gender” is just the part of our personality that is related to sex. Now, sexual personality is not a binary, but it’s related to sex, which is a binary. I need someone to explain me this binary-continuum connection, please. Can’t be that hard.

    1. Gender, as I understand it, is how a person’s sex is expressed through behavior. There are a lot of little details about gender that are culturally specific, and tend to vary from culture to culture and over time. But there are a set of broad basic and universal gender-based behaviors.
      One of the most obvious is girl’s attachment to dolls. Not every girl likes dolls, and obviously some boys do as well. But it holds true as a generalization, and can be observed in other primates. If you raise a girl on a ranch with a bunch of boys, even if you try to treat them exactly the same, there is a very good chance that she is going to make some sort of doll, and she is going to nurture it.
      Boys and girls socialize very differently, and that tends to be reflected in their personalities.

      It is strange that woke people believe that Caucasians are born hard wired to oppress darker skinned people, but male and female behaviors are entirely cultural, and unrelated to biology.

      1. I think that the word “gender” is only useful when we talk about the binary masculine-feminine (+ neutral, like “unisex”), if we’re not talking about that, the we should use the word “personality”. Sex and gender are binaries, and personality, sexual expression and sexual orientation are spectra.

      2. The “woke” seem to have a love-hate relationship with hard-wired male & female behaviors. They reject them, but also need them.

        “Gender” is more or less another word for “sex stereotypes.” While some stereotypes (“girls like dolls”) may have some biological basis, prioritizing gender over sex seemingly entails that girls who don’t like dolls should not be considered to be as genuinely female as those that do — they’re lesser on the multivariate scale of what counts as being a woman. Ironically, those who prioritize gender over sex insist that doing this is the only way to get rid of sex stereotypes.

        Whenever I’ve claimed that “‘gender’ is “sex stereotypes” I’ve run into hot denial from trans rights advocates. “It CAN be, yes — but it’s much, much more.” So give me a list. What are examples of gendered behavior, appearance, attributes, or expression that aren’t stereotypes? Crickets.

        “A woman has a female body and any type of personality” vs “a woman has a woman’s personality and any type of body.” They reject the first, but would rather not admit to the second. Thus, they wheel in Gender Identity, which is divorced from both the body AND the personality. I don’t think it’s clear what that would be.

        1. > Whenever I’ve claimed that “‘gender’ is “sex stereotypes” I’ve run into hot denial from trans rights advocates.

          I’ve had the same dynamic in race-based discussions, where someone was talking about cultural sensitivity for certain ethnic groups in the US; she talked about basic cultural characteristics of the demographic, and how they were different from the characteristics of my ethnic group. I asked if she was just reinforcing racist stereotypes, and watching her attempt to talk her way out of it was sad and funny.

          1. This seeming inability to give examples is one reason why I’m skeptical of the claim that gender ideology is a rational, science-based description of reality. What scientist bristles at the idea of providing instances and illustrations of their theory? A creationist asking what the term “natural selection” would include isn’t met with awkward silences or elaborate assurances that it’s just too, too complicated for anyone to give an example of the kind of natural processes which would select some genes over others. Nor are they told that the question makes evolutionary biologists “feel unsafe.”

        2. Yes and according to these concepts, o should really be calling myself “they” because I don’t for the stereotypes of a female. Can’t I just be a person who has her own likes & dislikes and be allowed, without judgement to like or dislike those things? Andrew Sullivan coined the term “gender slumming” & I feel that is what a lot of people do. It takes away from those who really do identify as trans or who experience gender beyond the binary.

          1. Gender = cultural ideals of masculine & feminine.

            It’s hard to then talk about how we experience “gender.” We could say we all experience gender beyond the binary.

            Or we could say nobody experiences gender at all. It’s just a matter of mentally measuring how we compare to social expectations.

  7. A few aspects of the social dynamic. Just a few of the group Dr. Boghossian interacted with did nearly all the talking. Does their constant repetition of woke buzzwords (“social construct”, “privilege”, “lived experience”, “harm”, “triggered”, etc.) mean that all their generation of Portland students speak and think(sic) in these terms? Moreover, the few speakers (and perhaps the whole group) seemed to be Social Work and maybe Education majors. But doesn’t PSU have engineering students? Chemistry students? Biology majors? Pre-meds? Could it be that the seeming prevalence of wokie superstitions is just the current form of what C.P. Snow long ago named “the two cultures”?

    1. There are ‘thought-termination cliches’ which are intended to end debate. They are typical of cults, but, as we now see, also polarised ideologies.

  8. I did not know that Peter Boghossian was at Portland State U. – ironically, one of the universities that desperately needs someone (or many) like him.

  9. Someone went around using common TERF tactics and you’re surprised few people took the obvious bait? I’m impressed with these kids.

    Anyhow, on the minimal substance of the trolling, the problem isn’t just that they conflate gender and sex, it’s that they have an antiquated view of sex that still defined it entirely based on chromosomes

      1. Boghossian gave many other examples of discussion topics that his method could be used to analyse and repeatedly offered to explain how it worked. None of those present showed any interest in engaging with the experiment.

        Sex is entirely defined by chromosomes, surely?

          1. Amazing! I notice a feeling of ignorance leaving the mind!

            “Female gametes are larger than male gametes. This is not an empirical observation, but a definition: in a system with two markedly different gamete sizes, we define females to be the sex that produces the larger gametes and vice-versa for males (Parker et al. 1972), and the same definition applies to the female and male functions in hermaphrodites.”


            Lehtonen J. (2017) Gamete Size. In: Shackelford T., Weekes-Shackelford V. (eds) Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science. Springer, Cham.


            ^^^ that’s how they want it cited. Wikipedia did not help here.

            1. I like the definition about using gamete size to define sex. Unfortunately some will unfortunately the definition bc it comes from an Evo Psych source.
              I recently brought up defining sex by gamete size (I used biological sex in my definition) over at the Peaceful Science web site, where a similar discussion was going on. The commenters included people with strong biology backgrounds, but none of them could agree with this useful solution of defining biological sex by gametes. They constantly got distracted by secondary sex characteristics and other peripheral details.
              It was too bad since it solved a problem, in my view, while also setting aside well defined territory for defining sex in other contexts.

    1. As I suspect you are well aware Thrawn, TERF has been used for years as a derogatory slur intended to shut down reasoned debate. Funnily enough, I have never seen a gender critical feminist threaten physical violence in response to the hateful misogyny they are frequently subjected to by trans rights activists.

  10. I think the speaker at 2:15 explains a lot :

    “What does it look like ..”

    Mmm, a prioritization on appearance.

    Bravo Mr. (Professor?) Boghossian. This is very awkward to watch except when Boghossian speaks! It is like a boat that rights itself, or something…

    1. ^^^ adding to this so I don’t break my promise !! : (use the convenient “chapter” markers):

      8:37 “are any of you trained professionals… because .. this conversation can bring up a lot of emotions”

      So appearances and emotions take priority here by far. They sound that way, by tone-of-voice, IMO. That is a simple statement of fact, I think what the interlocutors honestly would agree with.

      I too get emotional with science and math – what can I say – if I ask any questions or give any answers live on the spot like that, my heart sometimes leaps into my throat!

      Its exhilarating! Though Boghossian is the model of composure here in this! I wonder how he does it.

      1. I was actually very dismayed with that response. That there had to be trained professionals available. That someone went home because they couldn’t work when they saw that. The world outside university is a lot harsher. People will yell obscenities at you, they will do all sorts of things that are legal but hurtful. I fear there will be no resiliency in the world. Yes you are entitled to your feelings but you can’t make people not express their opinions because they hurt you and the world is a rough place.

        1. I suppose the interlocutors were not “trained professionals” YET because they don’t possess their social work degree YET.

  11. Oh my… then the other speaker says he’s a “representative” of the “white” race… and THEN…

    You just have to listen to this!

    1. There were a lot of assumptions made about PB by the mob and he calls them out on one of them. Also a lot of double standards. The students yell obscenities and give the finger but then tell PB he can’t do something that could hurt the feelings of other people. Shouldn’t you model the behaviour you expect to see in others? And they came down there not to engage in discussion but to “disrupt” as they threatened from the roof top.

      1. You have certainly pointed out a key aspect of woke behavior. One notable example that comes to mind was a young, white, woke protester screaming racial insults at a middle aged Black cop at a protest supposedly about racism. They seem to behave as if they live in a world where rules of any sort only apply to their enemies.
        It is hard for me to believe that they can so completely lack self awareness, and not recognize that they are themselves are the ones engaging in the behavior they claim to abhor.
        I suppose nihilism can be taught, but some form of religious zealotry seems more likely to me.

  12. This is more like musical improvisation, like busking except not with music but with the spoken word – but everyone has the instrument and can all join in, and it is *live*, on the spot – instead of hidebound and hidden discourse in written form – its a great approach!

    I’ll stop commenting now! Promise!

  13. I believe in the importance of viewpoint diversity on campus (I’m a member of the Heterodox Academy and a donor to FIRE) but I don’t find this video impressive. I don’t see Boghossian trying to engage the students in conversation. I see him approaching them in such a way as to more or less guarantee that they’ll be defensive, wary, and unwilling to engage.

    1. I saw it differently. He is asking them probing questions. He’s asking them very good questions like “if I make this a question are your concerns gone”. I’ve asked similar if someone says “oh it’s all X person’s fault”. I ask “if X person goes away is the problem solved”. If no why not? Maybe that’s not the root of the issue. PB is trying to get to the root of the issue. I think he is provocative only because it is difficult to get to the truth.

      1. Agree. One person objected to the two-gender statement, said it should have a question mark and be labeled as a thought experiment. He agreed in principle to add a question mark but wanted to know if that would answer the objection. Pressed, the woman said it wouldn’t (of course) because it would still be harmful and that lived-experience trans people should decide whether it should be permitted. But you couldn’t even ask them unless Boghossian had arranged for counsellors and support people to help them if they were triggered. His enquiry about harm brought them into taboo territory which, by definition, they were not able to question. That’s when they started drifting away.

        While, like Jerry, I would have liked them to engage about sex and gender, the censorious nature of the taboo enforcement made his point well enough.

    2. I had a similar reaction Brian.

      First, apparently they are just standing there with a sign saying “There are only two genders.”

      That seems to me a knowing attempt at “triggering” (by which I mean triggering “woke” students, not “harm”). Given this is essentially the rallying cry of many on the right, and a culture war subject, it would be expected to trigger an assumption and emotional response on that type of student campus.

      Which in of itself leads me to suspect this was a bit more about triggering the wokism of the students for the video vs actually trying to understand them and set up a dialogue that is likely to be fruitful.

      That in itself seems an immediately “fail” of the aims of street epistemology. I agree with the students that it would have been better to have put it as a question, and even better to have a sign saying it’s a thought experiment, would someone like to discuss?

      Second, I didn’t really see Boghossian’s actions and replies there as being effective. Some of it seemed a bit more like baiting than really starting a dialogue on questioning assumptions and epistemology.

      Frankly, though the students started off badly (the ones giving the finger from the roof), and while I certainly DO see them (and the social workers in the video etc) as suffering from bad wokism assumptions that need to be questioned…I thought they handled themselves pretty well. GIVEN where they are coming from. They did at least try to articulate their concerns and position in a generally sensitive and civil manner, vs the harpy-like “shouting down” stuff we have seen in other videos.

    3. With reference to the students, I’m reminded of the fairy tale, “The Princess and the Pea.”

  14. I’m not defending the crowd but one thing that Boghossian did not admit that he was being intentionally provocative. His use of “gender” rather than “sex” was surely deliberate. Although he stated he’d be fine with adding a question mark to his written statement, he could have started with that. Instead, his approach seemed to be in the now popular form of “[state position] Now fight me!”

    1. He said it was a thought experiment. Sure he was being provocative. That’s what thought experiments do: provoke thought. Whether or not he thought about, and decided not to, use a question mark from the get-go, not using one allowed him to show that the student who wanted one wouldn’t actually have been mollified. She didn’t want the question even asked.

  15. I found it ironic that the person explaining gender to PB makes assumptions about him that are wrong, namely that he’s a “boomer” and that he has no idea about gender fluidity. PB is Gen X like me; we are around the same age. There was a lot of ageism in that student’s reply (they say, and I’m paraphrasing, “I have to explain this to the boomer generation” and later “it’s a generational thing”) but you see ageism is still ok.

      1. Hitchens :

        “Although, we have an interesting wealth, very interesting to me, of the profusion of condescending terms we do have for dissent. ”

        I think “than” is missing in between “terms” and “we”.

    1. Ageism is not only OK, it is virtually an axiom of the woke mentality. Since all the evils of the world are due to “dead white men”, it follows that almost-dead white men (and presumably white women of similar age) must be a bad lot too—or in the idiom of the day, they are “complicit” in the “systems of
      oppression” which are doing all the “harm”.

    2. The entire video is filled with the students making bigoted assumptions. About race and gender, then sexual preference, then age.

      My favorite part is the woman who while scolding PB for misgendering the “non-binary” person also misgenders her. (Go watch the video again if you missed it). It’s straight out of a Monty Python skit.

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