New words trig­ger an ab­stract clash

Toronto Star - - NEWS - Rosie DiManno

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

RICHARD LAUTENS/TORONTO STAR

Pro­fes­sors Brenda Coss­man, cen­tre, and Mary Bryson de­bated Jor­dan Peter­son at the Univer­sity of Toronto.

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