University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson has made headlines recently for refusing to use gender-neutral pronouns in the classroom. Students at U of T have been protesting Peterson’s stance ever since late September, when he released several videos on the subjects of political correctness, the Ontario Human Rights Code (OHRC) and Bill C-16. However, the debate over his refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns detracts from the most important part of Peterson’s thesis. Peterson’s point is not just about pronouns, it’s about the impact of political correctness informing legal and university institutions.
While Peterson has identified important issues with Ontario legislative reforms, he is still primarily being identified for his stance on pronouns. Unfortunately, this position has created a strawman for activists to use to dismiss him as a bigot. The Queer Caucus of the union representing U of T’s sessional lecturers and TAs denounced Peterson’s arguments as unacademic, and the university administration sent him a letter implying that his refusal to use individuals’ desired pronouns may be illegal and warning legal action may be imminent. Focusing the discussion on gender pronouns obscures Peterson’s arguments about how freedom of speech and legislative reforms are being affected by political correctness.
For example, Peterson’s issue with the recent changes to the OHRC are valuable, yet haven’t received the attention they deserve. Peterson has pointed out that the Ontario government has reformed the OHRC to adopt policies to make discrimination based on “gender expression and identity” a human rights violation. While that seems fine, Peterson’s issue is with the broad definition the OHRC now gives discrimination. According to the OHRC, discrimination on the basis of gender “happens when a person experiences negative treatment or impact, intentional or not, because of their gender identity or gender expression.” Peterson argues that “negative impact” could mean anything from having one’s feelings hurt during a discussion about gender, to receiving hateful treatment based on gender. With such a broad definition, individuals may be accused of discrimination for merely discussing gender pronouns, as this might cause someone to experience a negative impact. It is noteworthy that the definition in the Canadian Human Rights Act, which emphasizes disparity of treatment, is vastly different from that of the OHRC’s definition. The crux of Peterson’s thesis is that this reformed definition of discrimination in the OHRC is so broad it becomes poorly defined and curtails everyone’s freedom of speech to by requiring them to use new gender pronouns. Further, the lack of consideration for motive is worrying, since it could result in well-meaning individuals getting in trouble for accidental slights. Peterson argues this lack of nuance written into the OHRC is the result of a politically informed political correctness.
Not only has the focus been taken away from Peterson’s legal arguments, his extensive research into the correlation between political correctness and left-wing authoritarianism have also been largely ignored. His research could contribute to a more informed academic debate, and would be especially important given that political correctness has now been enshrined in the OHRC and is being adopted by universities.
Peterson’s positions on political correctness are especially important given the current deferral to political correctness on campus. The hostile treatment that Peterson has received for expressing his view in itself demonstrates the uncritical institutionalization of politically correct thinking in universities. Academic discussion at U of T is already being limited as the university was reluctant to even hold a debate on Peterson’s ideas. When U of T finally scheduled a debate, it was accused of providing a platform for hate. This is the wrong approach, as academic freedom and open debate are values social justice activists ought to relish if they truly want to transform society. Despite being well intentioned, social justice advocates need to remember to respect the freedoms of others. Theodore Levitt crystallized the issue perfectly: “There is nothing more corrupting than self-righteousness and nothing more intolerant than an ardent man who is convinced he is on the side of the angels.”