Commentary, Opinion

Jordan Peterson’s real thesis lost in U of T pronoun debate

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.




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.”






  1. “Draining the swamp” might be a good idea in Canada.

  2. Bravo Gabriel! Excellent article!

  3. I have great respect for Jordan Peterson.

  4. This is similar to the Ezra Levant video where he destroys OHRC over his freedom of speech rights.

    The OHRC and even above that, the government does not have a right to tell people what they can and cannot say. The only thing that freedom speech does not protect you from is encouraging violence against people. I wish Ezra would have gotten sent to a panel, because that would have been the end of this organization. They saw the writing on the wall and didn’t pursue him because they knew they would lose all their powers with the supreme court.

    It is unbelievable that after what our ancestors had fought for for so long can be destroyed by a few Marxists who have no idea and have no clue as to what freedom of speech has granted them. It’s literally cutting your nose to spite your face.

    • Patriarchy Pete

      Ezra made a very compelling case, but he recently lost his fight and is out approximately $200,000. He’s taking it to the Supreme Court.

  5. Jacob Russell

    Nice job. I find Jordan Peterson’s arguments very compelling and utterly academic (despite what The Queer Caucus claims). Personally I think that his theories on religion and the history of morality and metaphysics to be his most important work and the entire thing is completely overshadowed by these debates. I like the angle this article takes but I feel, personally, that outside of the ivory tower of academia these issues aren’t as important to the public at large. Although granted that may be coming in time. I encourage anyone interested to listen to his podcast for a refreshing take on what religious thought can do for us.

    • I am an atheist yet agree that Peterson’s work on religion is stunning. I never thought I would be able to see bible stories (and mythology generally) with such fresh eyes.

      One could say the pronoun furore has overshadowed this work, but it has also shone a light on it. I would not encountered it otherwise.

      I also recommend his podcast and he is on Sam Harris’ podcast too on Jan 16. Should be epic.

      • Jacob Russell

        I’m a .. conflicted Theist I suppose. In all honesty I believe we all play around with various philosophies even if we’re not always aware of it. My thoughts jump around from one stance to another constantly but I like Sam Harris and am very much looking forward to that podcast. I’ve been waiting a long time to hear Sam, or Richard or Hitch (if only he was still with us) debate an actual intelligent Theist. In University I studied Theology and I meet many brilliant Theists that had a huge impact on my life but outside of school I noticed that the people who represented Atheism always seemed more educated and intellectual. It became embarrassing to even admit that I had metaphysical thoughts and feelings. I’m incredibly happy that Dr. Peterson is getting a wider audience now and we can look forward to a discussion about metaphysics that actually matters where both sides of the discussion are properly represented. It allows for us, as a culture, to have the higher level of discourse in general. So, perhaps you’re right, maybe this pronoun discussion had to happen.

        • I agree. Not hearing an intellectual metaphysical argument perhaps deprived me of learning about the religious traditions of the world in a deeper manner. I have read about many religions to a fair depth, but I always approached them from a shared wisdom and cultural perspective as I did not engage at all with any metaphysics. I cannot speak to how accurate Peterson’s ideas are, but I do know that they have enabled me to return to religious texts with a fresh eye. While I support a sceptical perspective on religion generally, it is true that most of the “New Atheists” tend to attack the more simplistic aspects of religion. I feel that although the Dawkins, Hitchins, et al. were needed and served a purpose, having a theist and atheist up on stage arguing about the existence of god now seems quite quaint. It is time to move beyond that I think. Peterson could have a role to play there.

          • The reason they attack the more “simple” aspects of religion is because this is the type of dogmatic, ideological religious practice that permeates our society and that is acted out daily. This type of religion maliciously lies to children, which I think Peterson conveniently ignores given his positions on ideology, lying, and authoritarianism, and destroys families and other interpersonal relationships. The people I am surrounded by literally believe their loved ones are going to burn in eternal hellfire if their neighbors happen to poison their minds with any question or even the slightest dangerous ideas challenging “God’s Word”. Christianity in practice in America is so, so very similar to authoritarianism and Stalinism in its desire to purge or police its members’ thoughts and dogmatically enforce its closed system…..and I find Peterson basically ignores reality on this front. If all the “religious” people in America where I live were walking around espousing the completely metaphorical, philosophical interpretations of religious myths and thoughts that Peterson lectures on……then there would be no need for Sam Harris or for atheists like me to be upset. However, the reality is Mr. Peterson is an extremely high IQ academic who taught at Harvard for God’s sake (pardon the pun). And he seems to ignore the fact that most humans in America literally believe that a man like deity is constantly evaluating and observing them and all the humans around them, while also believing deeply that they have knowledge of what this god being desires from these other humans. Most importantly, they are willing to enforce dogmatism and strict behavioral rules on other people, or even disown their own children based on these beliefs that a god being will disapprove of them and harshly punish them.

          • Actually I have found that he adresses the issue but considers it irrelevant for a broad religious discussion, because autoritarianism is not directly linked to religion, though it does tend to be used by autoritarians as a tool for thier propuses (as you point out the URSS under Stalin was authoritarian but most certainly not religious).

          • Rafael Baidanshin

            After listening to a couple of his courses i am coming to a conclusion that perhaps we’re seeing this hard move to a more fundamental right as a counter response to the nihilism (explosion of science, thanks to the recent technological advancements) and to the political correctness movement with all of it enforcements of “immoral” or “improper” behaviors and lifestyles. Heck, we saw this religious “insurgence” back when we adopted “in god we trust” as our official motto, at the beginning of the cold war.
            Therefore, i don’t think he’s conveniently ignoring it, as you put it.

          • I completely support Peterson for ignoring the issues about religion that you bring up not because they aren’t important, they are very important, but because I’ve heard it a thousand times. He doesn’t ‘ignore’ them in my opinion anyway. He instead does something more interesting… he offers an alternate way of looking at things. The issues you are having with religion (and probably specifically Christianity) are ones that there a dozens of intellectuals addressing on a daily basis… why would Peterson waste his time on that? It offers nothing to us. He is instead using his small amount of fame to present something very unique. I studied theology at UofA for a long time and I encountered lots of opinions on religion during that time, some pro and against but nothing quite like Peterson’s bizarre combination of theology mixed with psychology, evolutionary biology, philosophy… it’s a very compelling view and while I don’t buy it 100% that’s hardly relevant. I’m sure if anyone in this comment section offered their own personal view I wouldn’t buy that 100% either. That’s not important to me, what’s important to me is new cerebral food (if you’ll allow a clumsy saying) for me to work with. We’ve all read Sam Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens… we, hopefully, are aware of those opinions. I honestly doubt very much that his audience is the fundamentalists we should all be concerned with. They would probably be completely disgusted by Peterson’s views anyway, especially because he embraces evolutionary thinking (wouldn’t it be ‘intelligent deisgn’ thinking for them 😉 ). So while I share many of your concerns I’m happy Peterson ignores them.

    • plasmacutter

      I feel, personally, that outside of the ivory tower of academia these issues aren’t as important to the public at large.

      Given these people are openly censoring the internet, there are growing numbers of netizens who are waking up fast. There’s a reason Trump owned the internet despite efforts at the highest levels of social media companies to strangle his support.

      • Jacob Russell

        You quote me but for some reason skip the next line: “Although granted that may be coming in time.” which does hint at what you’re talking about. It’s true that this issue, as it relates to free speech, could end up being crucially important. I don’t see it right now personally, but it’s entirely possible. However I would say that, at least for me but arguably for our species as a whole, struggling with existential issues and asking the big metaphysical questions will always be important to who we are. It’s not just a modern topic du jour, it’s THE universal topic. I might have trouble relating to Greek philosophers from thousands of years ago because our cultures are so different but as soon as they begin to talk about the meaning of existence I’m on board and I think we all are. Those issues are hugely important and will never go away. It’s central to our being. That said I don’t claim to have absolute answers and completely accept that I may be wrong.

    • It’s astonishing how Peterson’s writing on religion, morality and metaphysics leave you thinking he must be authoritative on legal and societal issues.
      Worse yet, his background is in neither philosophy nor theology. His background is psychology. The rational conclusion to reach is that Peterson is a dilettante, and even that gives him too much credit.

      • Jacob Russell

        My background is in theology and based on my experience with the subject I can promise you he has several ideas that are original, very grounded in theological history and are very compelling to many professional theologians. With philosophy I’m less knowledgeable but several people with philosophy degrees take him very seriously. Incidentally, he’s studied more than just psychology and appeals to authority are not the be all end all of thinking people.

  6. Dan Nemrodov

    I think Gabriel should have used “deference” instead of “deferral”, which means “postponement” and not “compliance”. Otherwise, he is quite correct.

  7. “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.”

    I don’t think you understand. PC Authoritarians believe that it is wrong to be ‘tolerant of intolerance’. Reminding them not to be intolerant without addressing that philosophy will not get you anywhere.

    • plasmacutter

      PC Authoritarians believe that it is wrong to be ‘tolerant of intolerance’

      If this were true they’d be committing suicide in droves, as they’re the most intolerant people on the planet save sunni militants.

  8. Very nice article, Mr. Rincon.

  9. His legal arguments have been dismissed by the majority of those who reviewed them. That said, I’m largely on his side, but yeah he talks a game he can’t quite play.

    • Patriarchy Pete

      Partially correct. You can’t play a game with an unwilling opponent.

      • I meant the role of an onlooker commenting on a sport he can’t compete in. Peterson cannot ‘play’ the role of a lawyer, which is what he demonstrates every time he deals with the legal aspects of this issue.

        • Patriarchy Pete

          You clearly haven’t been listening to Peterson.

          He doesn’t claim to be chiming in on the legal aspect of the argument; his argument is moral and cultural. He has legal advisors for that aspect of it. He’s a psychologist with expertise in the nature and rise of authoritarianism and his angle is the compelled speech aspect of the legislation which he finds parallels in history of how authoritarian-driven cultures spawn.

          Peterson is suggesting that laws like C-16 are virus-like trojan horses with the payload being the Marxist doctrine he takes issue with. His message is the precedent laws like this set to basically open the floodgates for an even greater influence on Marxist/postmodernist-based lawmaking, which he says will ultimately curtail the rights of everyone.

          • Well as someone who was following him on twitter before this all happened, I’d like to think that I am very much listening to him.

            I’m well aware that he’s a psychologist and I suspect if he’s followed anything I’ve said directed towards him, he’s well aware I’m a lawyer with experience before the OHRT.

            You also have no idea at all what you’re writing about because he has EXPRESSLY remarked on both legal issues both in terms of knock on impact on policy and workplace cultures and in terms of potential sentencing outcomes.

      • I imagine he’ll hire a lawyer should anything go to court…

  10. Some fringe leftists radicals are misconstruing his message on purpose. This was always about freedom of speech, and pronoun use is a peripheral issue. Dr. Peterson is a. Brilliant and brave academic.

    • Patriarchy Pete

      The radicals even have trouble saying “free speech,” you’ll find. It’s like holy water to demons. They’ve mangled the phrase to “freeze peach.”

  11. This is why a moron like Trump won, people are sick of the social justice warrior agenda. Maybe, we should learn a lesson from our neighbors. I agree, university of Toronto reluctantly agreed to host the debate. The co-panelists referred to Dr. Peterson’s comment as ” hate-speech” . This type of hyperbolic leftist extremism should concern us all. Sarina

    • plasmacutter

      Morons don’t amass personal empires the size of Trump’s.

      Trump is a troll, and a wiley one, which is why I elected him.

      I’m looking forward to 4-8 years in which every day is like yesterday’s presser where he puts PC prudes over his knee and spanks them.

      Results-oriented people are too busy making society functional to suffer PC nonsense.

    • Jacob Russell

      He’s answered this before. It does not prove he’s wrong at all. Even if it did prove he was wrong about the legal issue (which is deeper than this article gets at) there is still a larger point at play that the article doesn’t even touch.

      • Patriarchy Pete

        Not only that, but Peterson has legal advisors who have argued from several angles why Peterson’s concerns are valid. Every now and then he posts those advisors’ thoughts to his Twitter feed.

      • I tell you what, why don’t you see if you can carry out a civil disobedience against Bill C-16? See if you and several others can get arrested over pronoun use and flood the jails, in order to force a Charter challenge.

        ‘Cause somehow I suspect that if someone attempted to do just that, we’ll find out that Peterson has been talking hyperbole and conspiracy theories. That the legal opinion of someone who teaches law (Crossman) should carry more weight than that of a psychologist (Peterson).

    • Hi Gavin,

      This is not true. Peterson’s thesis was that this is the first time government has criminalized and imposed sanctions against those who fail to use certain words, rather than criminalizing the use of words. The difference is coerced speech versus prohibited speech, which is dangerous according to Peterson.

      This argument isn’t addressed by Ms. Crossman; she reframes the issue as whether the Bill is “about criminalizing pronoun use”. This is a misinterpretation of an argument presented by Peterson in defence of his thesis, that Bill C-16 will subject those to sanctions for the use of Pronouns. He is correct. The OHRC’s Policy on Preventing Discrimination Because of Gender Identity and Expression states that gender harassment should include “Refusing to refer to a person by their self-identified name and proper personal pronoun”.

      While I agree the potential for imprisonment is nearly zero for failing to use a particular pronoun, this is besides Peterson’s point. You can be fined tens of thousands of dollars by the OHRT and will 100% need to pay your own legal fees whether you win or lose, based solely on the filing of a complaint.

      Does coerced pronoun use contribute to a more gender-equal society? If not, is this the most effective bill in contributing to gender equality?

      The question isn’t what the Bill is about, the question is what it does, and whether it is effective in accomplishing its purpose.

      • Uh-uh. Sure.

        Tell you what. If you are really convinced that Peterson is right, then find someone sympathetic to your plight. Who will hide you in their basement or their attic so that the police do not arrest you over pronoun use.
        And you have to stay very, very quiet so that the great horde of SJW’s and cultural Marxists don’t hear you. We’ll let you know when it’s safe to come out.

  12. bassrecorder1

    Excellent! Automatic share!

  13. Fantastic article. Love from America!

  14. His work and ideas are being ignored in favour of his “hate” and “desire to misgender people” because this isn’t an academic debate. It is on Peterson’s side. To his detractors, this is a war. A hostile takeover of the academy as a seat of power in a cultural guerilla war for the mindset of the pliable masses.

    In the technological, mass anonymous “Democratic” society, in a globalizing world, we unimportant many come to essentially need propaganda to fill in the gaps of what we can possibly know, keep track of, and understand about our total situation. The scale and complexity of the modern world must be managed by human systems, not individuals, we’re just not up to the task, as organisms, any more. We know about too much to know all of it.

    And this need, for a story which provides ready-made responses and “common sense” views to us, is like coveted gold to any forces seeking to influence people’s beliefs. The few who can afford the resource expenditure and have the skills to craft and spread a story can use seats of power which provide propaganda to the masses, like a general uses high ground and choke points. The story that’s so many are believing today, about oppressors/the oppressed, follows an easy path through human passions and prejudices (base vices of wrath, envy, conceit, pleasure/impulse worship), so it’s one that’s easy to sell.

    Peterson is on the side of the angels, here.

  15. Tamuno-Opubo Cookey-Gam

    I always thought Peterson tried to state the bigger picture other than the narrow issue of pronouns. However, this pronoun issue is the main reason for the extensive publicity he has had and sort of proves his point.

  16. Good old Tribune.

  17. Jonathan Ringer

    Quite hilarious how most commenters blindly follow him by mere ideological adherences, not logical agreement. There is no argument. You refuse to call someone by their pronoun, you’re an ass. End of discussion. Would it be OK to insist on calling a woman by “he” or “him” or calling a man “she” or “her”? If you say yes, you’re lying. Because most of you would not want everyone referring to you by the wrong pronouns. It’s insulting and irritating. Should it be illegal? No. But does it show that Peterson is an insufferable brat? Yes. It’s sad we’ve come to an era where disrespect is being equated to “freedom.”

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