In what David Cameron, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science, referred to as an attempt to “permit — in an academic setting — the rational examination of the various views,” the university hosted a forum on November 19 about Bill C-16, which adds gender identity and expression to the list of “prohibited grounds of discrimination” in Canadian legislation. The bill passed in the House of Commons on November 18.
The topic became the centre of heated exchanges at U of T after Psychology Professor Jordan Peterson published a YouTube lecture criticizing the bill, and “political correctness” in late September. A major point of contention has been Peterson’s statements of how he would refuse to use gender neutral pronouns, if asked to do so.
Two rallies were subsequently held on campus in opposition and in support of Peterson’s remarks. Cameron and Vice-Provost Academic Programs Sioban Nelson also sent Peterson a letter, imploring him to use the pronouns as requested by his students and refrain from making public statements on this topic.
Following a meeting between Cameron and Peterson, the university had agreed to hold a debate on Bill C-16 as per Peterson’s suggestion.
The “polarized circumstances” that followed Peterson’s statements were the motivation for hosting the event, Cameron said in a previous interview with U of T News.
Moderated by Mayo Moran, a U of T Law Professor who also serves as the Provost of Trinity College, Peterson spoke at the forum alongside U of T Law Professor and Director of the Bonham Centre of Sexual Diversity at University College Brenda Cossman, and University of British Columbia (UBC) Professor of Education and Senior Associate Dean, Administration, Faculty Affairs & Innovation Mary Bryson.
Tickets to the forum made available on November 14 were offered for free and quickly ran out. Attendees who were unable to obtain a ticket were able to watch a livestream of the event on a laptop just outside the lecture hall.
Peterson began his remarks by asking the men and women attending to stand up separately in order to highlight gender differences.
“There are pronounced gender differences in openness such as men are higher in intellect, which encompasses interests in ideas, and women are higher in aesthetics, which encompasses interests in art and literature and that sort of thing,” he said. “There is a natural gender divide that occurs automatically and without compulsion in this particular case.”
Peterson also drew attention to the issue of free speech, calling it “not just another principle.”
“We have to be unbelievably careful about infringing upon that because we’re infringing upon the process in which we keep chaos and order balanced,” he argued.
Cossman contested the assertions Peterson made in his videos of how he could be criminally liable for not using gender-neutral pronouns after Bill C-16.
“So, how might these provisions affect the use of pronouns? And do these provisions in anyway criminalize the use or misuse of pronouns? Not even close,” she said.
Bryson called Peterson’s videos “amateurish” and likened them to Breitbart.com, an American right-wing news site, for their apparent lack of scholarly basis.
“Although this man is making these claims as Dr. Jordan Peterson, as a professor, as a clinical psychologist employed at a great Canadian university, the claims are not being made in relations to any publicly accessible peer-reviewed scholarship,” Bryson said.
Speaking with The Varsity after the forum, Peterson emphasized the significance of the university hosting such an event: “I suggested to the Dean that perhaps the university could host a debate and that these issues that are obviously important to many people could be discussed in an appropriate academic matter and the university went off and thought about it for a while and decided that that was a good idea so then they put a lot of time and effort into making this happen,” he explained.
At the same time of the forum, non-binary activists Lane Patriquin and Qaiser Ali, who were involved in organizing the anti-Peterson rally last month, organized a breakfast event called the “Trans Day of Celebration” at the University College Commuter Student Centre. New Democratic MPP Cheri DiNovo was among those who attended the breakfast and boycotted the forum.
“We were organizing this because we wanted transgender and racialized students who have been affected by the recent events on campus to have a safe space where they are able to celebrate their identities and come together,” said Patriquin. “It’s supposed to be a positive event.”
Patriquin and Ali drew attention to the timing of the event, which was a day after Bill C-16 had passed the final reading in the House of Commons and a day before the Transgender Day of Remembrance.
Patriquin and Ali also helped spearhead the #NotUpForDebate campaign on social media, which called for the boycott of the forum.
“This sort of goes to the point… that these are facts that we’re working with,” said Ali. “These are not ideological points. These are not inventions of certain political philosophies. They’re the facts of our lives.”
When asked to comment on the #NotUpForDebate campaign, Peterson brought up the issue of free speech.
“There’s any number of groups on every part of the political spectrum that can object to any number of discussions and will,” he told The Varsity. “So, the only things worth discussing are contentious things. Everyone agrees with everything else. If we can’t discuss contentious things, we might as well pack up the university and go home.”
Although she participated in the forum, Cossman told The Varsity that she “didn’t think this forum was a good idea” and expressed support for those who boycotted the event.
“I have serious reservations about giving Professor Peterson a platform to say many of the things he did say, in fact, here today,” she explained. “But, once the debate was going forward and because legal issues were involved, I felt that someone had to stand here and try to correct all of the misunderstandings about the law.”
Bryson echoed similar sentiments: “I specifically used that ‘not up for debate’ [phrase] as many times as I was able to fit it in to what I was talking about because it was really important for me to both be here today and to support anyone who chooses to boycott the event and to reiterate that human rights are not up for debate generally, and specifically not rights on the basis of gender identity and expression.”
Cameron told U of T News that he believed the debate could bring about a positive outcome.
“Many who disagree with the holding of such a forum believe it will increase the temperature and further worsen what is already a bad situation,” he said. “It is my hope that it will do the reverse: by exposing claims and arguments on all sides to the cold light of reason and analysis, the forum, if successful, will lower the temperature and assist the University community, and the society at large, to reflect on the issues in a calmer and more considered fashion. That, at least, is my hope.”