Jordan Peterson is burdened by the impossible oppression of actually having a job.
It turns out that this is a cautionary tale. When his employer requested that he address all students in class with the requisite courtesy customary of students, even if some prefer the singular they, Peterson took profound exception and flipped a proverbial table. Refusing to yield to pressure to extend the same courtesy to others that he presumably expects for himself, Peterson went on a defiant rampage declaring loudly and publicly:
“I’m not going to cede linguistic territory to post-modernist neo-Marxists” .
Peterson is now making a great deal of hay about his interpretation of free speech, our charter of rights, and his dire predictions about the mayhem that now-law trans rights bill C-16 will cause, having gone so far as to testify in the Canadian Senate against the human rights bill whose 2017 passing extended explicit protection against discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression. Peterson testified to Canadian lawmakers that extending exactly the same protection to gender identity or expression as is currently afforded to religion, ethnicity, or aboriginal status would compel them to say things they do not wish to say . Peterson’s hour-long testimony on the matter was in fact so misguided that the Canadian Bar Association called “ ” in a subsequent statement about his testimony .
What we are all in agreement, however, is that the point of human rights law addressing gender identity or expression is, as Sophia Banks put it so well in the Torontonian article,
“Nobody will face criminal charges for the casual or accidental misgendering of a trans person. However, what the legislation will do is enshrine into law that willful, repeated, deliberate misgendering of trans people is potential harassment and worthy of investigation.”
Poor Peterson apparently feels insecure about his right to act like a petulant child towards transgender people whose identities he seems to refuse outright. In fact, Peterson has been making a shocking personal income of over $50,000 per month through online donations for months, all the while upholding his claim that his right to decide to reject someone else’s non-binary gender when interacting with them is somehow driven by fundamental truths he seems to be basing on his peripheral familiarity with biology and deeply held Christian faith. Peterson further claims, in spite of the fact his academic interests have never been questioned, that “Political Correctness” (read common decency) is stifling academic freedom.
Sadly, poor Peterson has it all this wrong.
Peterson’s right-to-be-a-boor demands began because he decided he Simply Could Not™ use gender-neutral pronouns like they, them, or their when performing his teaching duties and speaking about a person who prefers it that way. However, what Peterson “forgets” to take into account is that the context of the situation that he has been playing to great profit is not a matter of research independence. As a tenured professor, he is mostly free to choose his own work as long as he obeys ethical and legal requirements.
Where Peterson is holding fast is in his role as the front line worker delivering the product called education to his paying customers, the students attending his class.
In that context of employed educator in which he interacts with student, his act of publishing videos outlining an intention to refuse to respect people’s gender identity is, on the other hand, a major problem. Promising to create a toxic environment for a minority group is not only forbidden in Ontario it also goes against his terms of employment as a lecturer. Promising to harass students on the basis of their gender expression, gender identity, or any other protected characteristic harms his employer’s reputation profoundly. Further, because the University of Toronto is subject to Ontario’s provincial human rights law, Peterson’s antics expose both him and his employer to civil liability in Ontario, thanks to the human rights law on the books since 2012.
Nevertheless Peterson now suddenly feels strongly enough about the singular they to threaten to disregard his contract. Ironically, Peterson has since been widely expressing himself to sympathetic North American audiences and persists in claiming The Terrible Hurt™ he experienced from being constrained by society’s rules of engagement.
Because rules, as we all know, are only for others…
“I don’t know what the options are if you’re not a man or a woman,” Peterson is reported by the sympathetic and famously non-trans-friendly National Post as saying. Going further, he continues, stating that “It’s not obvious to me how you can be both because those are by definition binary categories.”
His hubris has put his university in a certain bind and they have done a Very Poor Job Indeed™ dealing with his oppressive behaviour towards the trans community.
After some initial communications including an October 8, 2016 letter from the university to Peterson where he is warned that:
“You have continued to state publicly that if a student or colleague or staff member requests that you refer to them using gender-neutral pronouns, you will refuse to do so and that you do not recognize the rights of others to tell you which personal pronoun to use when addressing them.“
And which goes on to remind him that:
“your responsibilities as a faculty member at the University of Toronto include an obligation to uphold the law, including the Ontario Human Rights Code, and to do so as you exercise your academic freedom, or freedom of expression.“
Yet nothing concrete happened. Peterson ignored the warnings and continues selling his particular brand of intolerance from the highest rooftop.
Regrettably and in my eyes significantly more alarmingly, the University of Toronto seems to have failed to act, apparently cowed by Peterson’s egregious behaviour and alt-right support. The university has been slow to follow up on Peterson’s stated intention to misbehave and continued public claims about a field of study he has little expertise in, which has reportedly sparked copycat misbehaviour at the University of Toronto. Even when Peterson started intimidating his fellow faculty with threats to use his significant recent earnings to track down and document faculty at his university which do not hold his beliefs to the point that fellow faculty have escalated to senior management, the University has to date done nothing visible.
Mr Peterson, as an employee of the University of Toronto, is not free to express himself outside of the confines of the terms of his contract. Self-entitled and self-righteous as he may feel to be, He does not get to mouth off at his employer’s customer. In fact, to put it bluntly, he’d better watch his potty mouth or somebody is likely to bring his behaviour to the attention of the boss.
Of course, we must all remain mindful that Peterson enjoys complete agency on his lot and on his employment choices. He does, after all, maintain the option to choose between his core beliefs on naming conventions and the demands of a job which include living up to a code of conduct related to interactions with students. If, as he seems to be preaching from the rooftops, he really does value his grammatical freedom above his over-privileged rank as academic hilltop squatter, Peterson can and should reconsider his employment options. There are plenty of highly qualified, polite replacements more than happy to teach the courses in his place.
The choice is his: hang on to his outrageous petulance or – much like the McDonalds worker wearing a hat or the horrible uniforms many have to wear – suck it in and comply with the demands of employment.
Shoo fly, don’t bother me
If Mr Peterson is unable to stomach using the sentence:
“that person’s laptop colour matches their hair”
because it profoundly disrupts his worldview that can be distilled down to “All People That Are Good And Right Are Masculine or Feminine”, he may find fulfilment with the Christian Life Coalition, the Institute For Ridiculing Trans Identities, or any one of the several workplaces which are aligned with him.
Luckily for Peterson, the Southern Poverty Law Centre conveniently keeps a handy reference of groups that also disagree with gender identity or expression or homosexual identities which I am sure are hungry for like-minded people. Seeking employment in the dark recesses of society will be easy for him considering the associations he has already with the internet troll-sphere.
When presented with the unfamiliar, we sometimes feel as if there is not enough room at the table to accommodate the new. The frustration of having to add an extra chair for an uninvited guest can be oppressive, especially for the pathologically rigid among us. It disturbs the expectations and can even up-end the most carefully-planned dinner-guest patterns. Something changes, stress ensues. However as is often the case, the surprise guests turn out to be a great contributor to the party, there is always enough food and by the end of the night, you wonder why you hadn’t invited them in the first place.
When we adapt to change, it usually turns out to be a stress we can adapt to and ultimately enriches all our lives. In other words, acceptance is the relaxation response to such situations.
This is what is currently happening with Transgender rights in Canada with members of the transgender community taking our rightful place at the table. We are suddenly showing up and living out our lives with the same protections as everyone else. We saw with glee in November 2017 how a handful of transgender US politicians were elected to public office, and how in Canada Julie Lemieux was elected mayor in Quebec.
Persons of all genders have a place in society, and it’s time to grow up and make space for all of us.
When someone puts forward arguments against using another person’s preferred pronouns which disregard the request of the person it affects, they are really just demonstrating their callously boorish nature. Just like racism, homophobia, and sexism, transphobia and Peterson’s particular brand of subtly anti-trans dog whistling is a deleterious behaviour that our children are now learning to recognize and decry thanks in part to the most powerful ripple effect of trans people being elevated to human rights – protected status: the SOGI curriculum being implemented in elementary schools as we speak throughout the country.
As we all know, it is very difficult to successfully reinforce discrimination and bias at home when kids are taught from an early age that we are all unique and valued? This highly effective anti-discrimination approach is already demonstrated to help kids resist racism, misogyny, anti-aboriginal stigma, and homophobia. This is precisely what is needed today to help address transphobia.
Just as today for many of us, uttering a racial or any other epithet rightfully kills a party thanks to the education we benefited from as children, making demeaning statements about how someone likes to be addressed will increasingly be a social faux pas. For now, sadly, we must grit our teeth, smile a shallow smile, and remember that it will pass and that “They Know Not What They Do”.
Soon enough, anti-trans patriarchal bluster or rants about the binary nature of humans and our immutable genetics based on a half-forgotten mid-20th-century grade 8 lesson will offer the same marker of overprivileged irrelevance as the other unacceptable supremely confident ideas on the inherent inferiority of others garner today.
Sadly, the powerful message within K-6 diversity and anti-oppression curriculum including the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) material that makes social conservatives so mad lately is lost on those of us who are already adult and were not afforded the opportunity to benefit from its simple lessons before our minds became fully closed to the latest updates to Canadian core values.
Like for many older people in my own age cohort, Peterson demonstrates how the learning curve for accepting and valuing diversity can be so terribly steep that it is sometimes unscalable. It is a sad fact that those of us who were never taught about the deleterious nature of racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, or any other type of supremacy face a lifelong struggle under it’s enslaving yoke with little hope of emancipation.
Yet the inevitable missteps brought on by our own blind spots to biases be so easily avoided with the slightest bit of love and empathy (or diplomacy and decorum for the sociopaths among us): Treat others as if they are inherently valued and competent, and respond to their personal vagaries with a mindfulness that supports your reciprocal desire to have your own quirks trodden on lightly.
And when asked to be respectful of someone’s identity on the job: remember that thanks to the fact that all employers and service providers are REQUIRED by law to respect gender identity or expression, so are you as an employee.
When hosting a dinner party one of the first things I try to do is ask people if they have any dietary restrictions or allergies. I like to be respectful of my guests when I invite them into my home. Imagine the horror if I served my vegan guest meat or if I served a child with nut allergies peanut butter. And yet this is exactly what some propose is their right to do with transgender Canadians whose concept of gender may not map exactly to theirs, just because they reject extending a courtesy they would demand in return.
On the one hand some say that language doesn’t matter and Peterson specifically argues that pronouns are unimportant and yet his very argument protecting his right to refuse to act courteously is based on the idea that pronouns do, in fact, matter but only the ones that he is comfortable with. He speaks like an over-privileged pedant clinging to his human right to dislike “Those People” for their difference yet rejects “Their” equal right to be protected from him.
To refuse to acknowledge how an individual prefers to be addressed is akin to the offering pork to a vegan. It’s downright disrespectful and arrogant. In fact, it shows a total lack of understanding that each of us has the right to define our own choices and have them respected. This is especially true when their choice has no negative impact on the lives of others. In this instance, my friend’s vegan diet has no real impact on my wanting to eat meat.
The preference of some of my friends to be referred to as “they” or, any other pronoun for that matter, may at first require me to do such a small amount of mental gymnastics, but in the real world it stings no more than needing to provide a gluten-free or nut-free alternative to a guest. It seems a small price to pay to be polite and as a transgender woman, I fully appreciate the real pain having the wrong pronouns applied causes me.
Not so long ago other pedantic windbags put up a fight against Sheila Michaels
as she pushed for the adoption of the neologistic honorific “Ms” as a feminist alternative to the binary choice between the infantilizing “Miss” and the mandatorily married-to-a-man “Mrs”.
In a similar light, unless you have been in the shoes of a transgender person you simply do not understand the powerfully erasing and damaging effect it has on the well-being of that individual to be denied their existence. What Mr Peterson fails to understand as he basks in the limelight of his own private pronoun party is that he has created false equivalencies between freedom of speech and pronouns. Flipping his script back onto himself, let’s ask – how would this man feel if the world refused to refer to him as “he” because we question the validity of his asserted gender?
What gives him that power to enforce his views of gender on others and why should he have it? In his overzealous Peterson seems to act more like an angry child who doesn’t want his mother to take away his toys because it’s naptime than a thoughtful adult reflecting on how to best get along with others. Surely, if he is unprepared to make the simple adjustment to preferred pronouns he can find another way to address the students without causing harm. If not, perhaps Peterson needs a safe space where he isn’t confronted by the diversity that exists all around him. If teaching a diverse community of students as a lecturer is too unsafe for him, there are plenty of places he can work without risking to deal with many people. Sadly, he chose to work with students (the paying customer) and be remunerated by his employer to provide a service based on the norms expected for the task, which includes correctly applying pronouns in a respectful way. I empathize that he had not foreseen that in his lifetime he would be expected to be courteous to people whose gender is not exactly the same as his, but one expects that a professor has SOME adaptability skills.
True freedom comes from acceptance, rather than from fear about that which changes our expectations. While Peterson in no way faces any danger in his life by using the pronouns persons hope he will use, transgender people, on the other hand, do face real danger every day and harm. Enabling the diversification of pronouns in language is a lasting way in which to create visibility and safety for transgender people in Canada.
And after all, we are Canadians. It is simply good manners.
Jan 2022 update:
Jordan Peterson’s had a tumultuous few years. In 2022, he announced he resigned from University of Toronto as a tenured professor. It’s sad to see Jordan Peterson has not given up on his ridiculous posturing, but it’s also so good to see he’s no longer creating a toxic environment at the University of Toronto.
I write about inclusion and political issues while working to narrow the gap between the laws we took great pains to create and their real-world implementation.