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Jordan Peterson and Gender Pronouns

December 15th, 2016

Illustration by Sarah James / The Phoenix News

Illustration by Sarah James / The Phoenix News

Jordan Peterson at the University of Toronto has led the campaign against Bill C-16, arguing, at least from my interpretation, that C-16 will criminalize the refusal to use an individual’s preferred gender pronoun. Peterson is not against using “he” and “she” for transgender people, but is against pronouns like ze, sie, per, etc., which he says are “made-up by radical leftwing ideologues” that believe in the “preposterous” notion of a gender spectrum. Despite receiving nearly two dozen positive letters from trans people and support from transgender YouTubers Theryn Meyer and Blaire White, his comments have put his job at risk at the University, warning him that “the refusal to use the personal pronoun that is the expression of the person’s gender identity can constitute discrimination.” Despite that, he has pledged to continue speaking even if threatened with arrest. Bill C-16 is an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Canadian Criminal Code to add gender identity and gender expression to join race, religion, age, sex, etc. as prohibited grounds of discrimination. C-16 has passed the House and will likely pass the Senate.

Peterson believes the Bill’s inclusion of “gender identity and gender expression” joins broad language that exists in the Ontario Human Rights Code. The OHRC defines discrimination as “when a person experiences negative treatment or impact, intentional or not, because of their gender identity or gender expression.” Peterson believes this allows individuals to decide what is inappropriate, regardless of intention. Harassment is also vague and includes “inappropriate comments, questions, jokes,” etc., “that insults, demeans, harms, or threatens a person in some way.” Under such vague definitions,

Peterson argues that the bill could be used to criminalize pronoun use, saying in a CBC radio interview that C-16 is “loosely written enough that the kinds of things that [Peterson is] talking about could be transformed into hate speech almost immediately.” Peterson argues that such legal strength will infringe on freedom of speech. “There’s a difference between saying that there’s something you can’t say, and saying that there are things that you have to say,” Peterson said in a debate  at U of T. “And I regard these made-up pronouns, all of them, as the neologisms of radical PC authoritarians. . . . I’ve read everything I can get my hands on in the development of authoritarian political systems and I know the literature inside out and backwards, and I am not going to be a mouthpiece for  language that I detest.”

Fellow U of T professor Brenda Cossman, who took part in the debate with Peterson (a debate that I believe was poorly executed and biased), said that “there is nothing in Bill C-16 that comes close to criminalizing the misuse of pronouns.” In an October reply to Peterson’s objections, she argues that C-16 prevents federal government and businesses from discriminating on the basis of gender identity and gender expression. It protects against advocating genocide and the public incitement of hatred, and that offence motivated by bias, prejudice, or hate can be taken into account in court. Cossman stresses that using the wrong pronouns will not fall as hate speech, as Canada only prosecutes extreme cases that need approval of the Attorney General. Cossman does admit, however, that the OHRC believes that refusing to use a person’s self-identified pronoun should be harassment and become actionable, but this is not under C-16.

Peterson’s alarmist stance could be incorrect and I hope it is because I do not want to live in country that criminalizes the accidental misgendering or forced pronoun use of individuals; however, what puts me on his side is his right to free speech. There are people who are against the discussion, arguing that such debates put the psychological and physical safety of trans and non-binary people at risk; however, some counter that universities are meant to be places of discussion and such topics should be open for debate. If Peterson is wrong, then he should be allowed to speak and have his ideas critiqued, because giving controversial opinions exposure to direct criticism helps prevent them from growing unquestioned underground into radical ideologies that become more dangerous than the original assertion. I respect the arguments for and against the legislation, but disrespect the side of censorship, so I encourage others to study the debate themselves.

Although many support Peterson’s stance, we should remember that majority consensus does not indicate correctness. If Cossman is correct and using the incorrect pronoun will not be a criminal offense, then I stand with Mr. Peterson when he says, “I don’t recognize another person’s right to determine what pronouns I use to address them. I won’t do it.”

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