New words trigger an abstract clash
Gag order versus gag reflex.
Distilled to its unacademic essence, that was the vexing pointcounterpoint debate — with much mutual antagonism — of a controversial forum at the University of Toronto on Saturday over the hysterically exaggerated lexicon of disputed gender pronouns. To silence or to rage, to swallow dogma or regurgitate dissent.
Controversial because a rump of faculty and students boycotted the event on the grounds that professor Jordan Peterson should not enjoy freedom of speech at so venerable an establishment of learning, or anywhere else, come to that. “Human rights are not up for debate,” proclaimed an open letter released last week by the Queer Caucus of CUPE 3902, representing lecturers, tutorial assistants and contract instruction staff at the university.
But David Cameron, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, posited that hashing out the matter in a respectful environment was a useful exercise. Peterson, however, had to agree in advance to use genderneutral pronouns in this setting if anyone in attendance asked it of him or there would be no forum. Which is putting the language orthodoxy cart before the horse, surely, since the crux of Peterson’s position is that he will absolutely not be coerced into using gender-neutral or gender-contrived pronouns in his classroom.
A psychology professor and clinical psychologist, Peterson remains defiantly opposed to what he calls compelled speech, an issue on which he extemporized in three YouTube videos. Hence the cascading notoriety and intense quarrels, simultaneously connected to Bill C-16 — passing its third reading in the House on Friday — adding “gender identity or expression” to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination. It will soon be law.
Yet somehow what’s been promoted as a benevolent piece of legislation has become all tangled up in pronoun tyranny, largely because the conversation has been hijacked by academics who don’t live in the real world and activists who reject the real world — both sides, quite frankly, disappearing up their own anuses in fringe dialectics.
“There’s a difference between saying something you can’t say and saying that there are things that you have to say,” Peterson told the audience of 200-plus. “I regard these made-up pronouns, all of them as neologisms of a radical PC authoritarianism. I’m not going to be a mouthpiece for language I detest.”
PC, of course, refers to political correctness, a phrase I’ve long avoided using because its meaning is imprecise. Peterson objects to the menu of gerrymandered pronouns such as “zir” and “ze” spun by a broad non-gender non-binary con- stituency within the LGBTQ community. It is, by all outward indications, a tiny constituency of vocabulary extremists, which obviously doesn’t make their concerns any less legitimate, but it is a minority within a minority within a minority.
It was instructive — or maybe just a reflection of Saturday’s audience, minus the black-ballers — what happened when Peterson launched his opening remarks by asking all the women present to stand, then all the men. Looking around, I saw only a handful that didn’t pick a gender side, regardless of how they outwardly appeared.
A two-to-one ratio favouring men, Peterson noted. Though he then sailed off into the unquantifiable — except maybe among clinical psychologists dancing on the head of a pin — by claiming gender differences in the realm of ideas. “There are pronounced gender differences with openness such that men are higher in intellect, which encompasses an interest in ideas and women are higher in esthetics, which encompasses an interest in art and literature . . . which is in part why men read more non-fiction.”
Taking on Peterson were U of T law professor Brenda Cossman and Mary Bryson, professor in the department of language and literacy and the faculty of education at the University of British Columbia. Both women — dare I identify them as such — expressed fundamental unease at participating in the forum.
“I’d like to start by saying how much I support and respect all those faculty and students who are boycotting today’s event,” Cossman said. “I think that is also a very important form of speech.”
Bryson began by drawing a correlation between Peterson and a 1989 debate at Western University betwixt the late Philippe Rushton and David Suzuki on the subject of race and IQ. Rushton, also a psychology professor, author of Race, Evolution and Behaviour, was roundly slammed for tying intelligence to race on the basis of junk science.
“To borrow David Suzuki’s opening words on that day, ‘I do not want to be here. I do not want to dignify this man and his ideas in public debate,’ ” Bryson said.
Cossman, the legal scholar, emphasized that the Supreme Court of Canada has, in balancing Charter rights of freedom of expression against wilful promotion of hate against an identifiable group, repeatedly set the threshold high. “The court has said it is not disdain, it is not dislike, it is not offence.”
Human rights codes — and this is the area more directly at issue — do not encompass criminal law. They cleave to civil law — “protecting people from being called the n-word or any other racial epithet in the delivery of services like a university classroom.” Cossman pointed out that the Ontario Human Rights Commission just Friday released a statement purportedly clarifying its position in relation to pronouns. Paraphrased: Refusing to refer to a person by their self-identified pronoun could constitute gender-based harassment; refusing to refer to a transgender person by their chosen personal pronoun or purposely misgendering them will likely be discrimination when it takes place in a social arena covered by the Code, including employment, housing and services such as education.
“What it seems to require is the use of he, she or they,” said Cossman, who took keen exception to what she described as Peterson’s use of “post-truth claims” to denounce alleged pronoun fascism.
“I feel we’ve moved into a place now not only of post-truth politics but a kind of post-empathy politics where we no longer seem to care about people. At the end of the day, this is about people. It’s about trans and gender and non-binary people. These are our children, our siblings, our nieces, our nephews, our friends, our neighbours . . . How bloody hard is it to simply treat these people with respect and dignity?”
Bryson, attacking from a different pulpit, ridiculed Peterson for advancing rhetorical claims about identity and expression — i.e. fundamental differences emanating from gender at birth — rather than addressing “scientific evidence” of significant diversity “which exists on a continuum that reveals persistent differences that cannot be explained by sex assigned at birth.”
“Since we can’t remove sexism and misogyny from the production of gender, we can’t actually reach conclusions about what we take to be gender differences . . . It’s really good to keep reading if you’re going to be employed at a great Canadian university.”
Walking along the lovely expanse of the U of T campus afterwards, kicking up autumn leaves, I reflected again on what a privilege it is to indulge in the abstract and the abstruse. Even in the pedantic of pronouns. But I don’t live here. Rosie DiManno usually appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
I reflected again on what a privilege it is to indulge in the abstract and the abstruse. Even in the pedantic of pronouns
Professors Brenda Cossman, centre, and Mary Bryson debated Jordan Peterson at the University of Toronto.