Professorship versus censorship: Should Jordan Peterson continue to be given a platform on trans rights?

Peterson flaunts his academic credentials to present himself as an expert on law, gender and human rights, but his speculations on the subject are not based on evidence – is he simply misinformed or being malicious?

I recently noticed a tweet responding to a video of Professor Rinaldo Walcott, the Director of Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto. In the video, Walcott suggests that his U of T colleague Jordan Peterson shouldn’t be debating issues about which he has no expertise, in particular Peterson’s well-publicized antagonism toward the use of non-gender pronouns. The tweet pointed out that it would be ridiculous not to be allowed to criticize or discuss issues for which we don’t have academic credentials.

I agree that it is regressive and elitist to require a degree in order to have your voice included. Nevertheless, Walcott is right. To quote Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Professors aren’t average people. Academia maintains a rigorous peer-driven hierarchy that bestows upon professors significant authority. When professors make claims, we reasonably expect those claims to be backed by evidence and argument of a quality befitting a scholar. So long as Peterson carries with him the title of professor and draws his platform and authority from it, we should expect a degree of rigour from his political work.

In an article by Peterson published by the National Post on November 8, 2016, he is identified as “a tenured research and clinical PhD psychologist who teaches at the University of Toronto.” The body of the text even uses the words “in my professional opinion,” lending the piece an air of credibility, even though his real area of expertise is religious mythology and ideology, not gender-neutral pronouns and Bill C-16, which enshrines gender identity and gender expression protections in the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code.

Peterson seemingly intentionally identifies himself as a professor, and this identification has most certainly given credence to his words by the general public. When he states his opinion on law, gender and human rights, we expect his claims to be grounded in adequate knowledge of the relevant academic literature and sociological context. If he represents himself as a professor and as an expert on a topic, we quite reasonably expect him to engage with the topic in a scholarly manner.

But his views on C-16 do not satisfy the standards of scholarly engagement.

Referring to similar human rights legislation adopted by New York City, Peterson claimed in an October 2016 op-ed for The Hill that big corporations could be fined $250,000 for what he terms the “novel crime of ‘misgendering’” employees. But the law to which he refers is not new – it is a continuation of a long history of employment law protections against harassment.

He seems to misunderstand the operation of Bill C-16.

In an interview on CBC Radio, for example, he suggests that Bill C-16 could transform misgendering into hate speech “almost immediately.” This is false. Bill C-16 cannot be interpreted in a vacuum and absent long-standing jurisprudence on hate speech. Nor can charges be laid without approval by the Attorney General. Overall, hate speech provisions apply only for the most vicious of speech, and few acquainted with Canadian law would make the mistake of suggesting such an impact for Bill C-16. His absolutist view that Bill C-16 poses a threat to free speech flies in the face of Canada’s well-entrenched approach to human rights.  Is he simply misinformed or being malicious?

His speculations on why people adopt gender-neutral pronouns are not based on evidence. He also fails to fully recognize that misgendering is not only disrespectful but has a negative impact on the well-being of non-binary people and on their inclusion in public spaces. Although little data specific to the use of gender-neutral pronouns exists, qualitative and anecdotal evidence suggests a correlation with perceived social inclusion, as well as between harassment and school dropout rates.

Walcott is right about Peterson. Refusing to give him a platform would be justified. If the professor wishes to continue discussing gender-neutral pronouns in the public eye, he must engage with the relevant scholarly literature on the topic. Or he should stop flaunting his academic credentials. 

Florence Ashley is a transfeminine scholar and LL.M. Candidate at McGill University, Faculty of Law. She is a 2017-2018 O’Brien Fellow in Human Rights and Legal Pluralism. | @nowtoronto

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