On November 19, Professor Jordan Peterson participated in a debate on campus on the topic of Bill C-16, which aims to protect Canadians from discrimination on the basis of “gender identity or expression.” To Professor Peterson, that means the legally mandated use of pronouns that go beyond the ‘male’ or ‘female’ binary, with associated criminal penalties for non-compliance.
Yet, Professor Brenda Cossman, the University of Toronto Law Professor who spoke in opposition to Peterson at last Saturday’s forum, disagrees that criminalization of the refusal to use one’s preferred pronouns is a consequence of the legislation. Speaking about the functionality of C-16 from a legal perspective, she firmly rejected Peterson’s statements that the official establishment of Canada’s language policy is imminent, saying, “Do these provisions criminalize the misuse of pronouns? Not even close.”
While legal debates may continue on this topic, any issue regarding the constitutionality of Bill C-16 is in fact only the second most important question that Peterson has raised over the past several weeks. Though Peterson’s concerns about enforced speech must be taken seriously, he should also be required to explain why he would so adamantly refuse to address a person by their preferred pronouns in the first place, regardless of the associated legal implications.
Clearly, Peterson is in disbelief of theories of gender that diverge from the male-female dichotomy. This shouldn’t be surprising, given some of his other views; for example, Peterson began Saturday’s forum by asking all the men in the room to stand and then claiming that they were “higher in intellect” compared to women. This is clearly an archaic view.
With respect to pronoun use, Professor Peterson has made his point repeatedly; in an article he wrote for the Toronto Sun last month, he declares “[his] refusal to apply what have been known as ‘preferred pronouns’ to people who do not fit easily into traditional gender categories.”
What is crucial to take away from the controversy stirred by Peterson’s statements is that refusing to utilize pronouns simply because one ‘disagrees’ is a direct threat to the dignity and respect of trans and non-binary people. Addressing someone the way they would like to be addressed is perhaps the most basic decency and respect that can be afforded to them. For instance, every time we introduce ourselves to someone new, we immediately inform them of one preferred way of being addressed: our name.
This convention is so fundamental to our conversation and to our language that we rarely take note of it consciously. It would be an incredible display of disrespect to refuse to ‘recognize’ someone’s name and insist on referring to him or her by another. It isn’t acceptable to simply respond that you are not familiar with that name, that the name isn’t in the common vernacular, or that the English language wasn’t syntactically designed to accommodate that name.
In many ways, pronouns are no different; to refuse to address someone in the manner they would like to be addressed is an egregious sign of disrespect. Furthermore, considering the stress, harassment, discrimination, and violence that trans communities deal with on a daily basis, using a pronoun that does not match an individual’s gender identity constitutes a denial of that identity altogether — not just a trivial matter, as Peterson seems to think.
Whether or not such a sign of disrespect merits legal punishment is another issue entirely. Before this is a question of legality, it is a question of decency; even more fundamental than the language of Bill C-16 is the issue of human dignity and respect.
According to the National Centre for Transgender Equality, 90 per cent of transgender individuals surveyed “reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment, and discrimination” while at work. An astonishing 41 per cent of respondents had attempted suicide. The added difficulty of remembering non-binary pronouns with which one may not be intimately familiar surely pales in comparison to these daily struggles.
We should not be in the business of making the daily lives of transgender people even more difficult — using the appropriate pronouns is the least we can do.
In his article in the Sun, Peterson went on to write, “The demand for use of preferred pronouns is not an issue of equality, inclusion or respect for others. It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s a purposeful assault on the structure of language. It’s a dangerous incursion into the domain of free speech. It’s narcissistic self-centeredness. It’s part and parcel of the PC madness that threatens to engulf our culture.”
What Professor Peterson fails to understand is that the existence of transgender and non-binary people is not new. It is not the product of a tyrannical crusade by “social justice warriors” or politically correct madness; nor is it the result of a society that treats its citizens, as Peterson said on Saturday, like a “devouring mother.” Transgender people have always existed. The fact that they now feel comfortable and accepted enough to demand respect is not self-centered, and it is not an infringement on the liberties of others — it simply the realization of theirs.
As Professor Cossman eloquently put it, “How bloody hard is it to simply treat these people with respect and dignity?”
Zach Rosen is a first-year student at Trinity College studying History.