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Higher Education

Pronouns and Provocateurs: Wilfrid Laurier University’s Free Speech Controversy

By Jean Kazez
30 Nov 2017

At the beginning of November, Lindsay Shepherd, a graduate student at Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University,  made the fateful decision to show a video clip of a debate about pronouns to her tutorial for students in a large first-year writing class. The debate, which aired on Canadian public television a year ago, featured firebrand Jordan Peterson, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Toronto and a crusader against political correctness.

In the debate, Peterson argued that he shouldn’t be legally required to comply with gender-nonconforming students’ preferences about “their pronouns,” while several other academics and pundits took other positions just as vehemently. Shepherd is still dealing with the fallout from showing the clip.

First, a student in the class filed a complaint with Wilfrid Laurier administrators about being subjected to Peterson’s argument, which the student saw as transphobic. Then Shepherd was interrogated by the professor in charge of the class—Nathan Rambukkana—and two other Wilfrid Laurier administrators, in a 43-minute-long session she secretly recorded.

Rambukkana suggested that, by airing Peterson’s argument, Shepherd may have violated an Ontario human rights ordinance, which was recently amended by Bill C-16 so that gender identity and gender expression are now prohibited grounds of discrimination. One of the administrators proposed that she had violated campus anti-discrimination policies, and another said Peterson was a non-credible troll whose tirades about political correctness have no place in a classroom.  Shepherd countered that she covered the debate neutrally, and therefore shouldn’t be treated as if she had endorsed Peterson’s views.

The session ended with Rambukkana telling Shepherd to stick with traditional grammar and writing topics in the future and requiring her to submit lesson plans for his approval. However, soon the tide turned. Shepherd shared the recording on social media and there was an outpouring of support for her in Canada, the US, and beyond. The administration at Wilfrid Laurie issued an apology to Shepherd, as did Rambukkana, though the university says the whole matter will be further investigated.

If Rambukkana had simply told Shepherd the Peterson debate wasn’t relevant to his writing class, and for that reason alone she shouldn’t have shown it, the recording wouldn’t have generated any controversy. However, all three interrogators took an ethical stance against covering Peterson in a classroom, and much of their reasoning would appear to pertain to any classroom at all.  Critics were aghast at the notion that academics are restricted in what they can cover in their classrooms.

Peterson is better known to Canadians than to Americans like me, so I recently spent a morning listening to his YouTube discussions of political correctness (the series begins with Professor Against Political Correctness) as well as the public television debate about pronouns.  My impression is that many of the charges against him are sound. For instance, it does seem transphobic to be as exercised as he is about Bill C-16, but completely oblivious of the kinds of mistreatment that gave rise to it. In all his lengthy discussions of the bill, he never once discusses a single victim of anti-trans discrimination or violence. In his political correctness videos, he comes across more as a paranoid provocateur than as a careful academic.

In light of Peterson’s flaws and offenses, I’d certainly look for a better messenger, if I wanted to cover any of his ideas.  But what if there weren’t one? I don’t know of another spokesperson for the idea that it’s problematic to be required to use non-standard pronouns, and that does strike me as an interesting claim. The debate clip seems like the perfect way to present Peterson: in the company of his many critics. And the 4-5 critics who appeared on the same show clearly didn’t share the interrogators’ opinion that he ought to be shunned.

But let’s get to the substance of the pronoun debate. In his political correctness series (part 1, 41:30), Peterson maintains that he shouldn’t be legally required to use the pronouns preferred by students, because being required to do so would make him a “tool” of someone else’s ideology. The ideology he doesn’t want to be a tool of comprises the New View of Gender: that people have gender identities and gender expressions, that these are distinct from biological sex, that there are a multiplicity of genders/sexes, not just two, and so on.  

Does Peterson want to refer to trans women as “he” and trans men as “she”? It sounds like it, but perhaps not. In the debate on public television, a trans woman asked Peterson what pronoun he would use to refer to her, and—surprise!— he said “she”. His reply reveals a problem with the tool objection.  Sometimes a choice of words is clearly just a matter of accommodation or politeness. I heard Peterson as merely polite when he said “she,” not as an advocate for the New View of Gender.  Which means he overstated the worry about being turned into a tool for other people’s ideologies.

Peterson is particularly disturbed by gender inclusive pronouns like “zie” (zim, zir, zis). In his political correctness series, he is never more angry and adamant than when he says he refuses to give in to any student who wants to be called “zie”. Perhaps because of their newness, I agree that such pronouns do especially convey advocacy, and not just accommodation or politeness. And then, there is something to the thought that we can’t be required to come across as advocates for theories we may not accept. (Singular “they” doesn’t scream advocacy as much; to Peterson I would say, in honor of the old Alka-Seltzer commercial, “Try it, you’ll like it!”)

Do people like Peterson get to prioritize their concerns about unwilling advocacy over the wishes of students who feel misrepresented by the usual binary pronouns? Who has freedom of choice when it comes to pronouns—the speaker or the person they’re trying to refer to? It seems worth discussing these issues, even if Peterson isn’t the best spokesperson for their importance.

Jean Kazez teaches philosophy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. She is the author of The Philosophical Parent: Asking the Hard Questions about Having and Raising Children (Oxford University Press) and two previous books. Find out more at kazez.blogspot.com.
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