News

How One Academic's View on Gender Pronouns Sparked a Citywide Debate

In short: his perspective caused a bit of a shitshow.

av Jake Kivanc
2016 11 21, 11:23am

Students watched from outside the overflowing debate hall. Photo by Jake Kivanc

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada

Jordan Peterson, the Toronto professor who became infamous earlier this fall for his fiery remarks on political correctness and gender identity, found himself at the centre of a long-anticipated debate Saturday morning around Bill C-16—legislation which, in his eyes, criminalizes free speech.

The debate, which took place at the University of Toronto, featured Peterson in discussion with U of T law professor Brenda Cossman, and University of British Columbia professor of education Mary Bryson.

The two professors mainly clashed with Peterson over the ethics of his refusal to address people by a preferred pronoun, as opposed to what he visually identifies as the person's sex.

"I am not going to be a mouthpiece for language I detest," Peterson told the audience, in response to a comparison made by the professors between racial hate speech and failing to respect someone's gender identity.

"This is not an issue of what we can't say, it's about what we must say," he said.

Bryson argued that Peterson was being "unethical" in his claims that he had properly researched gender science—further adding that Peterson's YouTube videos reinforced hate speech against transgender people, who are a minority at large.

In the past, Peterson told VICE that he had not actually encountered a situation in which a student or staff member had asked him to address by a different pronoun than the one he identified them by. When asked whether he would comply with someone who requested that he do so, Peterson declined to give a straight answer.

"It would depend on how they asked me," he told VICE in September. "If I could detect that there was a chip on their shoulder, or that they were [asking me] with political motives, then I would probably say no...If I could have a conversation like the one we're having now, I could probably meet them on an equal level."

Outside of the debate, supporters of Peterson—most of whom were unable to secure a seat inside the packed auditorium—watched the discussion via a livestream website set up by the school.

"This is bullshit," one man, who declined to give VICE his name, said while watching a portion of the debate where Bryson compared Peterson's denial of "current gender science" ignoring the science behind causes of cancer.

"Safe space! More safe space," he later yelled as the debate ended.

A pair of woman standing outside of the venue with a group of pro-Peterson, Christian-leaning supporters who were singing O Canada, told VICE that they came to support the professor in order to "save the future of the country."

"My father was a soldier in World War II... I'm here so the children of tomorrow can inherit a free society," a spokesperson for Suffragettes Against Silence, who only wanted to be identified as Lynn, told VICE.

"Any encroachments on freedom of speech are dangerous to a free democracy."

Peterson supporters sang 'O Canada' outside the debate. Photo by Jake Kivanc

Cossman, who had said earlier in the debate that Peterson's understanding of the law was flawed—particularly his belief that he would be jailed or punished for not using someone's preferred pronoun under the new law—was not present when the professor was ushered out of the building, surrounded by friends and supporters, but was still on the mind of some people who had watched the debate.

Lisa, a trans woman who spoke to VICE after the discussion, said that she had watched the video remotely and felt "seriously threatened" by how "angry and hateful" Peterson came off to her, but was relieved that Cossman and Bryson "took him to task."

"As a student—well, a former student—I'm very scared for [future students] who might have him as a teacher," she told VICE. "I could not imagine having someone show such blatant disrespect to someone who is paying their salary."

During the debate, Peterson argued that pronouns were "not a mark of respect," but deflected the idea that someone who referred to him by an improper pronoun or declined to use his title was a fair comparison.

VICE also asked Peterson in September how he would deal with somebody who used a female pronoun on him, or refused to refer to him by his title, but would not comment on "a theoretical scenario."

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