Spoiler: non-binary people are real!
Let’s be real. Writing this is a trap. There’s no winning when critiquing U of T professor Dr. Jordan Peterson plays into what he wants: proof that “political correctness” is something insidious and the “social justice warriors” are out to get him.
It might be a lost cause to convince Peterson otherwise. After all, he’s a tenured and very popular University of Toronto psychology professor who went viral for saying non-binary identities are not valid and that he would refuse to use gender-neutral pronouns requested by a hypothetical non-binary student.
First reported by the Varsity, the scholar made his comments in the first of three video lectures, a series inspired by how he felt towards an HR memo that informed him about mandatory anti-racism training. Since then, he’s done various media interviews espousing his points and tweeted at a fellow colleague who is very real and very non-binary, physics professor A.W. Peet.
Jordan Peterson thinks my gender identity is up for debate. That’s a big NOPE.
— binary smasher (@kiwinerd) September 30, 2016
The professor claims non-binary identities aren’t valid because there’s no scientific justification for them. Understandable, since most studies only ask for male and female respondents. The few times they are sought for, like in a study published by Harvard University (where Peterson once taught), the quantified population was found to faces high rates of suicide and unemployment.
Non-binary researcher Dr. Joshua M. Ferguson can attest to this. A recent University of British Columbia graduate, Ferguson has dealt with transphobic violence and harassment their whole life. “The term ‘political correctness’ has emerged as an unfortunate strategy to espouse a bigoted perspective,” Ferguson says. “His privileged position as a tenured faculty-member of a high-profile university does not give him permission to target our marginalized and oppressed trans community in order to make a problematic theoretical point.”
I don’t know if he’s formed his hypothetical refusal based on pure theory or possible past encounters with non-binary people. Responding to a Torontoist email asking to clarify his views, Peterson wrote, “I am not questioning the existence of people who don’t fit neatly into categories, sexual or otherwise. I’m questioning the wisdom of making law to enshrine very recent categories of conceptualization such as ‘gender identity’ and ‘gender expression’ and their relationship to biological sexuality before we understand any of it properly.”
Peterson lists his honourary membership with Kwakwaka’wakw nation and Indigenous art collection on his personal website. We also asked him about 2-Spirit people and their pronouns. He replied, “I am also very skeptical of claims like ‘Native Americans’ had ‘two-spirits’ as a category. There were hundreds of separate Native American traditions, with greatly divergent beliefs and cultures. The idea that a single entity of ‘Native American’ can be extracted out of that mix, ‘two-spirited’ formalized as a concept, and that applied simply to the modern context is, in my estimation, absurd.”
Peterson did not answer whether or not he has met a non-binary person. We reached out to some non-binary U of T students (and alumni) who Peterson refuses to refer to respectfully (but has no problem using singular they pronouns in an interview with Vice) to speak out. Here’s what they hope to teach Peterson about themselves.
First-year journalism masters student at Ryerson University “While I don’t think it would classify as criminal hate speech, it’s not pleasant to hear he’s not accepting of the fact that I exist. I could walk up to him and be like ‘Hi, I’m real.’ But he probably wouldn’t accept that. For people like Peterson, it’s important to understand why they believe these things and if they’re willing to engage in a dialogue. People had different systems of identifying before colonialism came in and imposed these really rigid binaries. Language is constantly evolving. We used to refer to people as ‘thou.’ Every single time someone says ‘I really object to singular they grammatically,’ I’m just like, I want to send you this rant written by someone in the 17th century who thought the pronoun ‘you’ was ridiculous. This is what you sound like right now.”
If Robin was Peterson’s hypothetical student:
“Realistically, I would be too intimidated to say anything and I would drop the course or try to find an alternative. In a theoretical world where I feel like I have the courage and agency to do anything I want, I would try to have a conversation with him and say ‘Look, this is a really important aspect of who I am and it will impact the way I interact with you and your class. I would really appreciate if you used my pronouns or my name.’
If he still refused, I think I would probably seek out help from the office of gender and sexual diversity, supportive professors and talk to other trans students. There are avenues.”
Fourth-year mechanical engineering student at U of T
“As an academic, Peterson has failed in his own education. With the latest edition of DSM-5 [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition], gender dysphoria is described to be manifested in a variety of ways. Not only that, anthropologic evidence has shown many cultures that accept more than the identifications of male and female … I thought academics were supposed to keep pushing boundaries, or has he given up the fight because he personally has not experienced discrimination?
Secondly, I am upset that a person who is responsible for education at a post-secondary [institution], who is in a position of power, is openly targeting a group of people … At the moment, this just seems like an excuse to discriminate against people he does not understand.”
If C was Peterson’s hypothetical student:
“If I were in his class, I’d drop it. I would honestly be too scared that he would have it out for me [and] I may fail the class for this reason. If I didn’t drop the class, I would feel extremely uncomfortable and sit in the back. I would not ask any questions, because I would be nervous and stressed every time he spoke to me, as if I had to brace for an ice storm, wondering if today is the day I get called out and misgendered.
This does not make for a good learning environment. Peterson is allowed to have his own opinions, but not when it affects the students he is teaching. We are all just trying to learn at U of T, and a comfortable environment is all we’re asking for.”
Third-year sexual diversity studies and sociology student at U of T, minoring in women and gender studies
“You would think that someone who educates others, and someone who is a psychologist, would be more understanding and knowledgeable in… well, dealing with a diverse group of people, especially students.”
If Namaste-Maiato was Peterson’s hypothetical student:
“I would one, be disgusted and livid, and two, call him out on it, no questions asked … I think of it like this. Our identities are something that we had to build for ourselves in order to survive our personal everyday lives. Being a student is stressful enough as it is. I can’t afford to not feel welcomed or not be recognized in a space that I frequent, in a space where students are supposed to feel welcomed and safe. It takes so much time, effort, and a whole lot of bravery to come to terms with yourself. And honestly, I’ll be damned if I let someone try to ruin that for me.”
Third-year law student at U of T, and co-president of Out in Law
“My reaction when I heard his stance was, if a U of T professor holds such an adversarial and misinformed opinion of gender diverse people, then my concern is what other forms of erasure and negative impact are gender diverse people experiencing outside the classroom across the country.” This is exactly why positive recognition of gender identity and gender expression as prohibited grounds of discrimination are needed in federal legislation in both the Criminal Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act.
Professor Peterson’s refusal to recognize the pronouns of non-binary people in everyday conversation—let’s put it in perspective, we are talking about at most a handful of classroom interactions over a couple of hours per week—demonstrates that some in our society are far from offering basic dignity to gender diverse people in the same way that it is offered to cisgender people. Comparably, if a stranger introduced themselves with a specific suffix, such as ‘Dr.,’ and you intentionally and maliciously failed to call them by that suffix, or just refused to call them by their name, this would be seen by most as inappropriate and disrespectful to that person.”
If Fonarev was Peterson’s hypothetical student:
“If I were a student faced with that refusal, I would do three things: re-assert what my pronouns are to the professor, file a formal complaint to the faculty administration, and leave a bad review of that professor on Rate My Professors, Twitter, and whatever other feedback system is available.”
Third-year sexual diversity studies and english student at U of T
“Professor Peterson’s comments have tangible effects on trans students. Trans students, including myself, often already feel unsafe asking professors to use correct pronouns. Knowing that there are professors who are overtly unsafe decrease the chance that a trans student will even request correct pronouns. A professor not knowing correct pronouns makes it extremely unlikely that a trans student will participate in classes for fear of the discomfort associated with misgendering. In this way, Professor Peterson has already impeded trans students’ functional access to education at University of Toronto. The constant burden of forging a path through systems not designed for you is not only emotionally draining, but is time consuming and tangible barrier to education.”
If Johnson was Peterson’s hypothetical student:
“While it’s always unpleasant to hear that someone holds dear the belief that I am intrinsically wrong in my own sense of myself, Professor Peterson’s views are far from uncommon. The worrying thing about him expressing these views is the power structure in which he says them.”
[Correction: A version of this story incorrectly referred to Johnson as Namaste-Maito. It has been corrected.]
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