Peterson vs Pardy: Fighting the Regressive Left with an Imperfect Advocate
Should people have the right to decide the gender pronoun by which they are addressed?
Professor Bruce Pardy of Queen’s Law and Professor Jordan Peterson – the beleaguered and controversial figure at the centre of a controversy surrounding Bill C-16 – sparred on that question at the Runnymede Society’s inaugural debate.
Bill C-16 is a proposed federal law that would include “gender expression” as a protected ground in the Canadian Human Rights Act; a ground presently enumerated in its Ontario counterpart.
Professor Peterson’s vociferous criticism of the law and his declared refusal to use gender neutral pronouns caused a fire storm of outrage and complaints at the University of Toronto last year.
While the debate itself was wide-ranging – from the proliferation of pronouns, to privacy of the individual, to the limitations on free speech – a common theme emerged: the enforcement of normative values by the state.
Enforcement in this instance is not about socially negotiated basic manners and modes of conduct; or the natural method of societal change. Rather, it is the use of the awesome power of the state to bypass social negotiation altogether and compel change through legislative diktat.
And on that point, I agree with Professor Peterson.
The Code, and the statutory regime devoted to its enforcement, is dedicated to forcing people to adopt norms and values that they do not agree with.
As I said in my earlier piece on this topic, there is no issue with the actual use of gender pronouns. As long as the request is reasonably made, there is no value in unnecessarily antagonizing a fellow person by refusing to use an alternate pronoun.
But unfortunately, there is a significant segment on the left that is increasingly not interested in negotiating.
One name for this segment is the ‘regressive left’.
Traditionally, we have associated the left with ‘liberalism’ and ‘progressivism’. And for a time, it was an accurate reflection of the values of the left. But the trend has shifted. Now, many on the left are willing to use illiberal and authoritarian means to enforce their values on others.
This is a marked shift away from the traditional banner of liberalism: to debate, to convince, to reform. This new creed is: to silence, to delegitimize, and to direct.
These regressive groups have popularized oppressive tactics like labelling contrary views as ‘micro-aggressions’ (a belief that debating controversial issues is a casual form of racism and bigotry) and ‘de-platforming’ (a practice of shutting down debates that trigger ‘micro-aggressions’ or violate ‘safe spaces’).
Professor Peterson believes that Bill C-16 is the government effectively adopting the cause of the regressive left. This is a valid and immediate concern, especially on university campuses where the regressive voices are loudest.
But Professor Peterson stumbles on three points. First, he misdirects his ire at the expansion of the enumerated grounds when he should in fact focus on the problematic hate speech provisions, which are improperly interpreted and applied.
Focusing instead on gender pronouns derails the conversation towards the evolving nature of language and the differences between the questionable binaries of biological sex and socially constructed gender identities – all of which is irrelevant to the core issue.
Secondly, he places the blame on the Human Rights regime in its entirety. This alienates the significant majority that applauds the prohibition against discrimination on the basis of race or sex or gender. Instead, his focus should have been on the Human Rights Commission, which has in recent years taken on a public policy and advocacy role, and has followed a regressive-left agenda.
Finally, Professor Peterson is unnecessarily blustery and forceful in his presentation. This flaw came into sharp relief when juxtaposed with the calm, logical, and surgical precision with which Professor Pardy presented the proposition’s case. Perhaps a toning down of the ostentatious rhetoric is in order.
Ultimately, while I agreed with the crux of his concern, Professor Peterson’s greatest opponent was Professor Peterson. His critique is disrupted by his own imprecision and needless roughness.
Illiberalism and regressivism is on the rise.
Too many on the left are not willing to talk or debate or reason with others. They have forgotten the true values of liberal openness and broad-mindedness. The fact that Professor Pardy had to play devil’s advocate on Monday because no professor who genuinely agreed with the proposition was willing to debate Dr. Peterson, is an indictment of this new ideology.
We must stand for progressivism. We must stand for liberalism. We must stand for free and open debate.
Professor Peterson is not the greatest spokesperson for this cause, but on Monday a crowd of law students packed the room and a respectful, yet determined, conversation was sparked.
Let us keep talking.
Editor’s Note: Vlad Krasner presents a piece critical of Jordan Peterson. Find it here.
Adnan Subzwari (3L) is Co-Editor-in-Chief of Juris Diction.
Disclosure: Adnan Subzwari is a member of the Runnymede Society.