Members of the U of T administration sent a letter to Professor of Psychology Jordan Peterson on October 18, which expressed issue with the embattled professor’s stance on pronouns.
Peterson became the subject of international media attention after The Varsity reported on his YouTube lecture series, in which he criticizes “political correctness” and states that if a student requests to be referred to by pronouns other than ‘he’ or ‘she’, he would refuse the request.
The letter was provided to The Varsity by Peterson. Signed by Faculty of Arts and Science Dean David Cameron and Vice-Provost, Faculty & Academic Life Sioban Nelson, it warns that Peterson’s refusal is “contrary to the rights of those persons to equal treatment without discrimination based on their ‘gender identity’ and ‘gender expression.’”
“Depending on the context, if personal pronouns are being used, the refusal by a teacher or colleague to use the personal pronoun that is an expression of the person’s gender identity can constitute discrimination,” reads a portion of the letter. “In many situations it is not necessary to use personal pronouns at all, but where it is, the personal pronoun that is chosen as the person’s gender identity-related and gender expression-related identifier should be used.”
In addition, Cameron and Nelson’s letter discusses complaints from students, employees, and other individuals calling Peterson’s comments “unacceptable, emotionally disturbing and painful.” The letter further states that some members of the U of T community have expressed fears for their safety in wake of the uproar on campus that followed the release of Peterson’s YouTube videos. Toronto Police Services is also investigating threats made on social media against members of the trans community on campus.
“We trust that these impacts on students and others were not your intention in making these remarks,” the letter states. “However, in view of these impacts, as well as the requirements of the Ontario Human Rights Code, we urge you to stop repeating these statements”
Peterson told The Varsity that the letter “contains a number of lies” and “willful blindness” for not mentioning the positive feedback he has received. He suspects that the university only issued the letter to protect themselves legally.
“I think there’s absolutely no excuse for the letter. Except this, there is one excuse: see the university may have been talking to its lawyers… I think the university got legal advice and the lawyers said, ‘Hey, it may be that what he’s doing is illegal, just like he said, and also the policy statements on the Ontario Human Rights Commission website says that if you have an employee that makes, let’s say, illegally discriminatory or hateful statements, then you’re also liable for his or her actions.’ That’s part of the whole package of legislation. So, that’s really cute. So, I think the university figured out that if they didn’t silence me or attempt to, then they’re also liable for discriminatory practices or potentially hate speech,” he explained.
U of T Media Relations Director Althea Blackburn-Evans told The Varsity, “Essentially, what we’re saying is, first of all, his views are his own. He’s entitled to those views. He, like all members of our community, like all faculty members, he has a right to academic freedom too. He has a right to express his views on the law, on U of T policies, but he also has a responsibility to follow the law and follow U of T policies.”
Blackburn-Evans was unable to speculate on what the consequences for Peterson may be if he does not heed the advice of the letter: “It would depend on what might occur, what complaint might arise as a result of that. We can’t speculate on consequences on something that hasn’t occurred.”
This is not the first time Peterson has received a letter of concern from the university. On October 3, Department of Psychology Chair Susanne Ferber sent him a similar letter, stressing commitment to free speech in accordance with legislation protecting against discrimination and legislation on the basis of gender identity and expression.
— With files from Jack O. Denton.