U of T professor Jordan Peterson is facing criticism regarding his comments about non-binary gender identities and political correctness after his YouTube video “Fear and the Law” went viral last week.

The tenured psychology professor at U of T became the subject of national media attention after The Varsity reported on the first part of his YouTube lecture series called Professor against political correctness.

In an hour-long video, Peterson criticizes Bill C-16 — which would amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code to criminalize harassment and discrimination based on gender identity — and the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s policies on gender identity-based harassment and discrimination.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission defines gender identity as “each person’s internal and individual experience of gender. It is their sense of being a woman, a man, both, neither, or anywhere along the gender spectrum.”

“I don’t know what ‘neither’ means because I don’t know what the options are if you’re not a man or a woman,” Peterson states in his YouTube lecture. “It’s not obvious to me how you can be both because those are by definition binary categories.”

In an interview with The Varsity, Peterson insisted that he “wasn’t denying the existence of people who do not fit neatly into binary gender categories.”

Peterson asserts that the aforementioned government policies go too far in terms of accommodation for non-binary people and transgender people.

“What should you ask of the collective if you deviate in some manner? And you might say, ‘You should ask the collective to welcome you with open arms,’” he said. “And I would say, ‘That’s probably asking too much.’ I think what you should ask the collective is [that] they tolerate your deviance without too much aggression.”

A number of U of T professors have contested the claims Peterson makes in the video.

A. W. Peet, a physics professor who identifies as non-binary and uses the pronoun ‘they,’ expressed disappointment with Peterson’s comments.

“It doesn’t really matter whether he thinks we exist or not because we do. I just wanted to say, ‘Excuse me, I exist. I’m non-binary and I’m also a full professor with the University of Toronto with tenure,” said Peet. “So this is me standing up saying I don’t think this is good enough.”

Nicholas Matte, who teaches at the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity studies, disputed Peterson’s interpretations on gender.

“Unfortunately, there still are many branches of academia where new research has not been done in a way that would allow trans-positive information to be known,” said Matte. “Our academic field… can be used to justify the arguments that he is making, but that research is extremely questionable and also is not good research.”

He continued: “However, there is an extremely large body of excellent research that has been underway for many years — depending on how you measure it, up 60 years — to create more trans-positive research.”

Ronald de Sousa, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, released a 30-minute response video on YouTube last Saturday, in which he addressed Peterson directly: “Your apparent ignorance of the vast literature attesting to the reality and the diversity of non-standard forms of sex, gender, and sexual expression and orientation is really distressing.”

The ‘radical left’

Peterson’s video makes frequent references to what he perceives as a radical left-wing fringe movement.

“One of the things I’m afraid of with regards to all of the continual radical activism on the left is that they’re waking up the right,” he told The Varsity. “And all you have to do is look around. There’s a huge resurgence in right-wing parties in Europe.”

In the video, Peterson said he suspected that Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s sexual orientation and “social justice warrior-type activists [being] over-represented in the current provincial government” were factors in the state of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

“I can’t help but manifest the suspicion that that’s partly because our current Premier is lesbian in her sexual preference and that in itself doesn’t bother me one way or another,” said Peterson in the video. “I don’t think it’s relevant to the political discussion except insofar as the LBGT [sic] community has become extraordinary good at organizing themselves and has a fairly pronounced and very, very sophisticated radical fringe.”

Peterson stood by this speculation: “It’s perfectly reasonable to question the company that they keep. If you’re a trade union leader, I presume you’re going to surround yourself with left-wing activists. If you’re a gay politician, I think it’s reasonable to assume that some of the people in your political surrounds are going to be relatively radical LBGT [sic] activists.”

Peterson’s video lecture also calls gender-neutral pronouns “connected to… an entire underground apparatus of… radical left political motivations.”

Laying out a hypothetical situation in which a student asks to be addressed by a different pronoun, Peterson said, “If someone just came up to me and said that, I would definitely just tell them to go away. They have to have a reason to have a conversation with me.”

Being non-binary at U of T

Peet noted that the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s policies prohibit gender-based harassment, which include pronoun usage.

“Under paragraph 7.4, it defines the forms of gender-based harassment. One of them is refusing to refer to a person by their self-identified name and proper personal pronoun,” said Peet. “So, if he were to do that to an individual student, he would be contravening Ontario human rights law and the person affected could bring a complaint.”

Peet continued: “If he chooses to not use my they-them pronouns, for example if he meets me, or refused to call me by the name I choose, I could call Jordan ‘Julie’. I can call him every time I speak about him ‘Julie Peterson.’ He would not like that. That would be disrespectful to him. I’d be getting his name wrong and he would be justifiably angry.”

Peterson also suggested that his statements could be illegal.

“I think the legislation is written in such an incoherent way, the fact that I’m having this discussion with you could be construed to be illegal,” he said.

“And it might even be construed to be a hate crime because I’m daring to question the proposition that gender identity isn’t a free-floating construct above biological sex. And we don’t know enough about these things to take them off the table.”

On Twitter, Peterson challenged Peet to a debate, to which Peet declined. Of this exchange, Peet  said, “Gender identity of real life people is actually not up for debate. That’s one of the primary reasons why I refused to debate him in the format that he requested.”

When asked to describe their experience as a non-binary professor at U of T, Peet said, “I have been, in the large, very well supported by U of T. In particular, by the people in the university administration [and] people in the equity offices.”

Peet praised the Sexual and Gender Diversity Office on campus, saying, “They’ve been doing fabulous work. I have received personally a great deal of support from the SGDO, from all of the people there. And when I’ve gone through certain issues, sometimes colleagues doing things, saying clumsy things, that kind of thing, they’ve helped my… individual issues, departmental things.”

Going forward

U of T Media Relations Coordinator Althea Blackburn-Evans said that no formal complaints have been lodged against Peterson and noted that all members of the U of T community are bound by U of T’s polices and federal and provincial law.

Similar sentiments were echoed in a statement released by Vice-President, Human Resource & Equity Angela Hildyard and Vice-President & Provost Cheryl Regehr.

“We want to make sure that everyone here in our community feels respected and welcome and supported and we expect [that] all members of our community, including Professor Peterson, comply with U of T’s policies and guidelines,” said Blackburn-Evans.

“Students have a learning environment free from discrimination and harassment on any of the prohibited grounds of the Ontario Human Rights Code,“ she added.

Matte feels that the university’s statement “did not do anything to address safety,” as it did not direct students and faculty on how to make a formal complaint. He published a blog post on the Bonham Centre website “to make something available to people online” seeking support.

Peterson says that the second part of his YouTube series, which he hopes to have up by October 3, will focus on U of T’s Human Resources Department requirement for mandatory anti-racist training.

“I take exception to that for a variety of reasons. One is, it isn’t obvious that there is a racism problem on the U of T campus. Second is, it isn’t obvious to me that it’s reasonable to term people sufficiently racist when they haven’t done anything to deserve that epithet so you have to retrain them. Third, it isn’t obvious to me that you should make it mandatory,” Peterson said.

“And fourth, I don’t think the people who have been put in charge of the education program have the credentials or the ability to deliver what they claim to be able to deliver. And finally, I don’t believe that there’s any evidence that these anti-racist training programs actually produce a decrement in racism. In fact, they might make people worse,” continued Peterson.

Although Peet declined Peterson’s request for a debate, they offered to have a cup of tea with him to discuss their experience as a non-binary person.

“Somebody who’s as smart as Peterson could sit down and in a week, learn a great deal about gender identity and gender expression,” said Peet. “He could look in the places he’s been willfully refusing to look.”

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