Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act will not be revised despite its vague over-inclusiveness. The left is preying on compassionate and empathetic Australians to further its efforts to stifle free speech. It’s also happening in Canada and will continue to happen here.
Rather than kick back and cruise through life, as would most men in their mid-50s, Jordan B. Peterson, a practicing psychologist and tenured professor at the University of Toronto has embarked on a spare time crusade against political correctness. In September 2016 Peterson released “professor against political correctness”, followed by “Compulsory Political Education: A Real World Case Study at the U of Toronto”.
The first video makes the case against political correctness in general, with specific reference to Bill C-16 amending the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code by adding “gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination.” The second is a dissection of mandatory unconscious racial bias training at the University of Toronto. The total run time for both is just shy of 115 minutes.
In the first video, Peterson objects to C-16’s requirement that anyone addressing a transgender person must use the non-gendered pronoun specified by that person. The way Peterson sees it, laws that prohibit hateful speech and the like are acceptable, whereas laws that mandate the use of nominated words are an unacceptable infringement of free speech. Even though fewer than three minutes of the 57 minute video are devoted to Peterson’s refusal to use prescribed pronouns, the left went into meltdown – Peterson effectively shouted down at a speaking engagement, university protestors occupying the venue, chanting “transphobic piece of shit”.
U of T English instructor Ira Wells, in an essay, The Age of Offence in the April 2017 magazine of the Literary Review of Canada, aims to discredit Peterson by portraying him as an attention-seeking, much-ado-about-nothing, offence taker.
In the late stages of the U.S. presidential election, the simmering conflict between the opposing sides of offence culture came to a head at the University of Toronto. On September 27, psychology professor Jordan Peterson posted a YouTube video called “Professor Against Political Correctness.” The video was an hour-long diatribe against Bill C-16, an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code to add gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination. What really provoked the ire of his opponents, however—and turned the incident into a cause célèbre—was Peterson’s stated refusal to address his students by their preferred gender pronouns:
I don’t recognize another person’s right to determine what pronouns I use to address them … I think [gender-neutral pronouns] are connected to an underground apparatus of radical left political motivations. I think uttering those words makes me a tool of those motivations. And I’m going to try and be a tool of my own motivations as clearly as I can articulate them and not the mouthpiece of some murderous ideology.
Wells isolates “murderous ideology” from context, seeking to make Peterson appear paranoid or hysterical, or both. But in the video, which Wells does not link, Peterson makes it abundantly clear that he sees political correctness as emanating from Marxist ideology. Peterson sees it that way, and knows what he’s talking about, having taken up psychology specifically to study political ideologies after touring around Europe in the 1980s.
Back to Wells:
It was characteristic of arguments against “political correctness” that Peterson’s most urgent case study—the coercion to use ze, hir, zhe, em and so on—existed in the realm of pure fantasy. No student had ever actually asked him to use those pronouns; no administrator had instructed him to do so. No matter: he would courageously refuse a request that had never been made.
With fewer than three minutes of a one hour video devoted to pronouns, they are not addressed as “urgent”.
In the course of the various protests and debates that followed, Peterson exposed himself as ignorant of many of the finer legal and scholarly facts upon which his case rested: Bill C-16 does not make it a hate crime to misuse a pronoun; there was not a “remote” chance that his infringement of the Ontario Human Rights Code could land him in prison, a Solzhenitsyn of our times; and there is a large body of scholarly literature recognizing the existence of non-binary sexual expression and orientation.
Peterson has stated his concerns during debates with academics and legal experts who have not bested him. Wells should expose Peterson as “ignorant” by challenging him to a public debate. (Even though a leftist, Wells will do nothing so stupid.)
But despite the imprecision and falseness of much of what he spoke, Peterson could always revert to the fallback position that he was, after all, speaking, and should be free to do so. His basic message—that you could oppose a “murderous” radical-left ideology through boorish behaviour directed toward sexual minorities—was a message that some people were perfectly attuned to hear in the fall of 2016. Peterson was at his most persuasive when defending his argument in free speech terms—a defence that had nothing to do with gender, the law or the linguistic evolution of singular versus plural pronouns, and everything to do with the claim that his opponents wanted him silenced.
“Boorish behaviour” should presumably be illegal.
This claim was persuasive because it was true. Peterson’s adversaries were quite open about the fact that they wanted him fired or otherwise muzzled. In some cases, such as when protesters brought a white-noise machine to a rally, this silencing was literal. When the U of T agreed to host a forum about the debate, the Queer Caucus of CUPE 3902, a trade union representing 7,000 U of T sessional and contract staff, called for a boycott of an event that they claimed “questions the legitimacy of trans rights.”
So even though Peterson’s pronoun refusal existed in “the realm of pure fantasy” leftists wanted him “fired” or “muzzled”.
In agreeing to hold the forum in the first place, the U of T had struck an uneasy middle ground between the two cultures of offence. On the one hand, the university allowed Peterson to undercut his own argument (that he was being silenced) by handing him a megaphone. Free speech was given its due. On the other, by “arranging for support” just outside the auditorium for those who felt overwhelmed by Peterson’s speech, the university gave credence to the suggestion that Peterson’s views really were psychologically harmful. And if that were the case—if Peterson’s speech did cross the line from speech into harmful action, if it constituted “hate speech,” as Professor Mary Bryson explicitly alleged during the forum—then the university had indeed provided a platform to a hate-monger.
Wells is lying by omission: he knows that U of T twice warned Peterson to cease and desist, the university reconsidering its position only after a huge surge of public support for Peterson. U of T would not have offered a debate were it not for the interest shown by everyday Canadians.
Where do we go from here? Some will see the popular legitimation of Trumpist macroaggression (alongside the rise of right-wing media: Breitbart and Drudge in the United States, Rebel Media in Canada) as further evidence that now, more than ever, the university needs to be inclusive and respectful of difference—a safe space where diversity is valued and students are sheltered from the atavistic forces ascendant in the wider political culture. On our increasingly cosmopolitan, diverse and globalized campuses, we must remain ever vigilant against naturalizing our own assumptions and cognizant of the minor yet morally important ways in which offensive speech can be an impediment to learning.
An even greater impediment to learning is hearing only what you want to hear.