On Saturday November 19th, University of Toronto professor, Ms. Jordan Peterson will participate in a debate surrounding gender identity and free speech. Her general argument is that there should be no legislation that enforces another person’s right to determine what pronouns you use to address them.
Ms. Peterson’s ultimate point is that this type of legislation is qualitatively different from current restrictions of free speech. Whereas there are certain contexts where certain words should not be used, the current proposal is to enforce types of words that must be used. While I agree with her with respect to the legal issues, I think both sides here are taking this problem to an extreme.
You may have noticed that I used the wrong pronouns in the opening two paragraphs, referring to Jordan as she, her, and Ms. If Dr. Peterson had read that paragraph, I’m sure he would have been annoyed. While he may have acknowledged my right to do it, he wouldn’t be happy with it. If I was applying to be a graduate student of his and continuously called him by the wrong pronoun, I’m sure it would be a strike against me.
Two things must be acknowledged at this point.
The first is that my use of the wrong pronouns here is not illegal, but it is disrespectful. By failing to call Dr. Peterson by his preferred pronoun, I am, at-best, being rude. People are well within their right to ask others to call them by a preferred pronoun and dislike those that don’t. Of course, mutual respect should be granted on both sides. Mistakenly calling someone the wrong pronoun need not be grounds for immediate condemnation. Just as I would expect someone to politely correct me if I pronounced their name imperfectly, I would expect the same for erroneously using the wrong pronoun. We should strive to be respectful of one another and purposefully using the wrong pronoun or refusing to learn the correct one is the antithesis of that. Ultimately, people are well within their right to want the use of proper pronouns – but they are not well within their right to demand it.
However, although we should strive to be respectful of one another, there is a difference between correctly categorizing people and creating a variety of new categories; especially when it seems that the plethora of growing gender pronouns does not map onto any sense of reality. The use of multiple types of non-binary gender pronouns appears to be the product of different linguists, Campuses, Newspapers, or Countries, all proposing their own versions and then never settling on one
While there is some research that suggests that some people do not identify strongly with either male or female and therefore identifying as not male nor female is as psychologically valid as identifying as either of them. Lucky for us, English has already invented a pronoun for just this occasion: They, them, their, themself. However, I recognize that they may be less than ideal because it has other connotations (e.g. referring to multiple people) and thus the creation of one new set of pronouns may be in order.
And yet a list of dozen iterations have been proposed. If you prefer an academic piece see here or for a proposal by a University see here
Preference of one set of pronouns such as e/ey, ve, xe, ze, or the overabundance of others seems to be the product of personal choice and not due to some real concern over mental health. Demanding others learn and use your specific pronoun then corresponds with selfishness and self-absorption. Can I make up my own pronouns and demand to be called by that? To draw this ridiculousness to an extreme, what if I want my pronoun to be Lord God Savior King of the Seven seas. I can’t demand to be called whatever I want, can I?
The fight now has seemingly been taken to an extreme where very few are actually planting a flag. On the one side, you have people like Peterson who seemingly refuse to call people by the pronoun they want, even if it is a standard he, she, or they. As noted, I can agree with the legal argument, but who really is fighting for the right to be offensive? When we know that certain people do not identify with their biological sex, isn’t this just common courtesy and basic respect?
However, on the other hand, you have some people who are seeking the legal enforcement of being called by their proper gender pronouns. Further, they are seemingly seeking not just the addition of a single non-binary category but many, despite there not being any real difference between them. It is fair to ask to be treated with respect, but to make it not only difficult, but illegal to not do so, is clearly overkill.
Peterson’s push-back on the legal and functional issues are completely justified but unfortunately it swings the pendulum too far. It positions the response as an over-correction, in which it is not just legal to use the wrong pronouns, but also completely appropriate. I imagine that Peterson would have been very content calling people by their preferred pronoun of he, she, or they – if it was just a friendly request and not a legal threat.
I’d wager that most people fall in the middle and would agree with a simple solution: Choose a single set of non-binary pronouns, treat everyone with respect, don’t legislate it.
Giving voice to those most extreme causes everyone to drift into their own respective corner. By allowing those with the most extreme views to shape the debate, we unnecessarily divide ourselves.
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. As far as I can tell. I’m open to learning that there are psychological differences between them, but currently that doesn’t seem to be the case. Further, while not trying to learn someone’s preferred pronouns can be viewed as similarly selfish, it is unclear whether reinforcing this sense of extreme individuation is healthy for a person. Lastly, while learning one set of pronouns for one person may be doable, the problem becomes much more difficult if one engages with dozens of non-binary individuals, each with their own preferred set of pronouns.
 It’s actually hard to know exactly where Peterson stands on this issue. More often than not he seems quite reasonable, but occasionally he presents himself as an ideologue. Does Peterson categorically reject calling people their preferred pronoun – even if it just a switch of he to she? or is his concern more about the legal and functional aspects? I’ve read a few interviews and it is still not entirely clear. In an interview with the CBC, Peterson was asked: “Professor Peet would like to be addressed by the pronoun “they” — do you accept that?” to which he replied: “The mere fact that professor Peet would like to be addressed by a particular pronoun does not mean that I am required to address him by that pronoun. That doesn’t mean that I deny his existence or the existence of people who don’t fit neatly in binary gender categories. I reserve the right to use my own language and I’m perfectly willing to take that to its conclusion. If it’s the case that I can’t use my language the way that I see fit, because I’m using my language to formulate and articulate the truth in the clearest manner I can possibly manage and if that lands me in legal trouble — well, so be it.” It’s unclear whether Peterson is arguing solely against the legal aspects, or against the functional aspects. What’s odd is that although Peterson admits to the existence of ‘people who don’t fit neatly in binary gender categories’, minutes later he responds with “I don’t believe that it’s reasonable for our society to undermine the entire concept of binary gender in order to hypothetically accommodate a tiny minority of people.”