There is a controversy in Canada going on with with regards to the issue of free speech, Bill C-16, and the refusal of a Professor at the U of T to use the alternate pronouns people choose for themselves. This is the video that started it all (1h).
Three viewing options depending on your time frame. A long panel debate (1h), a dual format interview (15m), and a one on one interview with Peterson alone (4m).
Also see the transcript to his interview on CBC radio here, and a look from an alt-right publication here, and from a local Toronto publication. This is by no means a comprehensive list of all the sources available – just a sample and please bear that in mind while thinking about the issues being raised. I’ll quote Peterson describing his position:
“This week, University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson released a video online criticizing political correctness on campus. He also said he doesn’t recognize a person’s right to be addressed using genderless pronouns like “they” instead of “he” or “she.”
Under the proposed Federal law Bill C-16, it will become illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender identity or expression. As It Happens host Carol Off spoke with Peterson about his position.
Carol Off: Professor Peterson, why have you said you don’t recognize another person’s right to determine what pronouns you use to address them?
Jordan Peterson: That’s right. I don’t recognize that. I don’t recognize another person’s right to decide what words I’m going to use, especially when the words they want me to use, first of all, are non-standard elements of the English language and they are constructs of a small coterie of ideologically motivated people. They might have a point but I’m not going to say their words for them.
CO: There are a lot of words that you can’t say even though you may want to, that may be considered, not just offensive, but even illegal. So you’re not entirely free to use whatever words you want in any context…
JP: No, that’s certainly true. I’m not claiming that a person is free to use any words, in any context. But what I’m saying is that I’m not willing to mouth words that I think have been created for ideological purposes.
CO: Even if it’s the law that says you should do that?
JP: Well, I guess we’re going to find out exactly what the law says and it’s one of the reasons that I don’t like Bill C-16. I think that it’s loosely written enough that the kinds of things that I’m talking about could be transformed into hate speech almost immediately.
CO: You have said that you don’t believe that there is enough evidence that non-binary gender identities even exist?
JP: No. I didn’t say that actually. If I’m going to be accused of saying things I have to be accused of exactly what I said. There’s not enough evidence to make the case that gender identity and biological sexuality are independently varying constructs. In fact, all the evidence suggests that they’re not independently varying constructs. I can tell you that transgender people make the same argument. They make the argument that a man can be born in a woman’s body and that’s actually an argument that specifies a biological linkage between gender identity and biological sex. I’m also not objecting to transgender people. I’m objecting to poorly written legislation and the foisting of ideological motivated legislation on a population that’s not ready for it.
CO: Well, transgender people are ready for it and they have been feeling a great deal of discrimination and that’s why they were seeking this type of redress in the law. Do you appreciate that?
JP: I don’t believe that the redress that they’re seeking in the law is going to actually improve their status materially. I think, in fact, it will have the opposite effect. I believe that the principles on which the legislation is predicated are sufficiently incoherent and vague to cause endless legal trouble in a matter that will not benefit transgender people.”
The core of Peterson’s argument is this: “I don’t recognize another person’s right to decide what words I’m going to use, especially when the words they want me to use, first of all, are non-standard elements of the English language and they are constructs of a small coterie of ideologically motivated people.“
An important distinction to be noted here is that Peterson is not arguing against the exclusion of certain words (n*****) for example, but rather the mandatory and legislated inclusion of words.
Here is a conversation gleaned from the comment sections of the article entitled – “Non-Binary Students React to the U of T Prof Who Won’t Acknowledge Their Pronouns”:
The comment thread is some 500 responses long and there are several instances of exchanges between Micheal H and other people. Several of the arguments present mirror how this debate often unfolds and the positions taken on the free-speech/discrimination issue. If you have time, the article and comment section is a worthy use of your time.
Summarizing Micheal H’s position:
“Using someone’s preferred name doesn’t place an obligation on me to deny my appreciation of objective reality and affirm someone else’s.
What I find ‘somewhat wrong’ is someone expecting that his completely subjective, idiosyncratic self-conception should be validated by other people at the expense of their own foundational conception of reality.”
Micheal certainly has the arguments working for him. What seems to be missing is the social realization that each person experiences society differently and that sometimes mere arguments cannot adequately capture all of the nuance of the interactions that take place in society – consider his phrasing here ‘And the hypocrisy here is to conceive of the dynamic between two autonomous individuals […]’
Once in society the phrase ‘two autonomous individuals’ becomes a less useful term because all of the social encumbrances and dynamics at play (race,class,sex,). Not appreciating, or accounting for the ‘societal noise’ makes the arguments seem very clear cut and straightforward. Perhaps a bit too easy.
Let’s take a look at some raw footage at Peterson’s gathering. The interactions are haphazard at best, but the video gives some background onto what both sides are saying in the argument.
Vice – weighs in on the topic essentially saying that the entire Peterson episode is quite like a tempest in a teapot:
“The bill would do nothing to restrict people’s freedom to their own beliefs or to teach their own children,” Garrison told Albrecht during the debate. “What it would do is try to protect the expression of hatred and the kind of discrimination in public that takes place each and every day against transgender Canadians.”
C-16 will also update Canada’s Criminal Code, criminalizing “advocating genocide” and the “public incitement of hatred” based on gender identity or gender expression—adding those two classes to the current list of protected classes: colour, race, religion, national or ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, and mental or physical ability.
“The use of pronouns is not about advocating genocide,” said Cossman.
The bill also means that assault or murder, motivated by bias, prejudice, or hate against people with a certain gender identity or expression, could come with a stricter sentence.
“It’s not creating a new offense,” said Cossman. “It’s saying if there’s a hate crime, if there’s an assault, and you find that it was motivated by hatred on the basis of gender identity and expression, that could affect your sentencing in the same way that race or ethnicity or sexual orientation already do.”
It’s also highly unlikely that the failure to use gender-neutral pronouns will rise to the level of hate speech in Canada, Cossman said.
“The way hate speech has been interpreted by the courts is that it’s only applied to very extreme speech,” she said. “[The misuse of pronouns] is nowhere close.”
Cossman, who says reasonable people can disagree on whether or not hate speech laws are a good thing, says adding one ground to the list of identifiable groups isn’t a major change.
“It’s significant for the trans community, but it’s such a small addition that the idea that this is the most egregious just doesn’t add up.”
I’d have to agree this debate is a tempest for sure – the grist for the mill is how big the teapot happens to be. It would seem, if the Vice analysis is correct, that we have little to worry about with regards to Free Speech. Drawing the line between what is hate speech and what is a difference of opinion, will as always be the next contentious issue.
All members of Canadian society have the right to be free of discrimination. At the very same time though, we all have the right to disagree with people’s opinions and evaluate them on the truth value they carry. As the situation stands, it looks like both camps are still protected under the legislation as it stands.
“Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson