QL Speaks: Peterson vs Pardy, Free Speech & Bill C–16
On Monday January 23, the Queen’s Law Runnymede Society hosted a debate between Professor Jordan Peterson and Professor Bruce Pardy about “Free Speech, Human Rights Legislation, and Bill C-16”. Jordan Peterson is a professor of psychology at University of Toronto and an outspoken critic of what he categorizes as “forced speech”. Bruce Pardy is a professor at Queen’s University Faculty of Law and teaches in the areas of environmental law, property law and torts. He is well known throughout the law school for his participation in the annual debate on positive rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Juris Diction live-tweeted the debate (@QLJurisDiction) and then asked the Queen’s Law student body its opinion on the following remarks made by Peterson and Pardy:
Pardy: “People have the right to decide pronouns…free speech is established in the Charter, and then there are limits…The question is not so broad that anyone can demand to be called by whatever name they like. It is a narrow Q[uestion] of gender.”
Peterson: “law suggests that biological sex and gender identity are completely independent. It is wrong…the proposition is false and the law is ridiculous and dangerous…this constitutes forced speech…Your identity is part of the public commons. To claim ownership over it is wrong”.
Here is what five student contributors had to say.
None of Us Has a Monopoly on Truth, So Society Must Be Premised on Respect
It is important to recognize that none of us has monopoly on the meaning of words: different words mean different things to different people in different contexts.
Peterson’s problem flows from the fact that he imagines that he has such a monopoly. He claims that “most people” don’t understand “gender,” or “human nature” or “identity.” “Most people,” he claims, “can’t think”. Anyone can accuse everyone of, simply, not understanding. What is incumbent on us, as thinking people, is to explain why. Peterson never explained why his views about gender more right than other people’s views. Nor is it obvious why. Peterson has not, for example, done empirical research on the subject.
The uncertainty inherent in identity can be frustrating. I sympathize. But I maintain that we can be sensitive without being overwhelmed by uncertainty. How? How can know what things mean, without pretending to have a monopoly on insight? My advice is to go with what’s useful.
For example, one could define “gender” to mean the same thing as “sex.” Or, one could define them differently. Careful distinctions often prove useful. They often facilitate greater nuance in complex discussions.
With respect to personal pronouns, while different strategies may prove useful in different contexts, the important thing to remember is simple: unmerited disrespect is costly and wasteful. (That is why societies, like ours, premised on a robust respect for pluralism and human difference do much better in the long run). Therefore, if someone identifies as “s/h/z/e,” it’s probably best to just go with that. (I doubt that Peterson disagrees, in practice.)
One could define the Human Rights Code, as Petersen does, as a tyrannical document and a one-way ticket to mass incarceration. (Indeed, to an unscrupulous academic longing for a spotlight, such a sensationalist stance might seem most appealing). Lawyers, however, will find it more useful to recognize that adding the words “identity” and “expression” to the Human Rights Code hardly constitutes radical expansion of our anti-harassment law and, moreover, that such laws are indispensable to freedom and functional society.
Andrew Bala (3L)
Hard to See How Bill C-16 Affects Freedom
I think Vlad in his article “Peterson v Pardy: Dangerous and Misleading Rhetoric” was right to point out that the law itself doesn’t create a requirement to use correct pronouns. It adds a category of prohibited discrimination to the Canadian Human Rights Act and extends the protection against hate propaganda and the consideration of bias, prejudice or hate in sentencing. Unless you were planning on committing a hate crime or discriminating against people for their gender identity with regards to employment, service provision, etc., it’s hard to see how this could affect your freedom. Maybe when we go about choosing how to refer to the people we interact with – particularly trans people – we could just try to use basic decency and kindness as our guide. Why is not being an asshole so controversial?
Caileigh Gruner (3L)
Peterson’s Argument is Free From Hate and Grounded in Empirical Facts
Mr. Krasner, in his (generally reasonable and thoughtful) Juris Diction article, characterized Dr. Peterson’s arguments as misleading and dangerous. Many, I think, would agree. He nevertheless welcomes Peterson’s debate; I suspect others would be less open to speech they consider dangerous.
I fail to see why Peterson’s statement that the law is wrong to suggest that “biological sex and gender are completely independent” should be seen as a threat. He pointed out that, statistically speaking, the vast majority of people have a gender identity matching the biological sex with which they were born. Why should we not state this fact?
Dr. Peterson did not question the authenticity of the way transgender people feel; he did not say anything overtly disrespectful (recall, we live in an age when rudeness is admired by a sizeable chunk of the American population). Peterson reiterated that if a student were to ask him to be addressed by a different pronoun, he would be willing to consider it. He did not imply that transgender people were like two-year-olds; rather, that if they or anyone else demands to be treated in accordance with a purely subjective identity, they are literally acting like two-year-olds. This was not a rhetorical jab, but a statement based on his professional knowledge of developmental psychology.
If reasonable people consider even so moderate an argument as Dr. Peterson’s to be dangerous – one free from hate and grounded in empirical facts and rational argument – then free speech really is under threat.
Rafe Redmond Fernandes (2L)
Don’t Be an Ass
I don’t understand how this is so hard for people. Call someone by the pronoun they wish to be called by; don’t be an ass.
Sakshi Sharma (2L)
I am Arguably the Best Authority on Myself
Peterson stated: “…Your identity is part of the public commons. To claim ownership over it is wrong…”
It seems that Professor Peterson is suggesting that a person’s identity is not what they themselves define it as, but what everyone else says it is. I find this particularly amusing because of my personal circumstances.
I am visually Asian.
I have enough of an accent to denote me as not entirely Canadian-grown.
If I were to stand before the public commons, the chance that it could properly label me is microscopic.
Yet, Professor Peterson believes that I – arguably the best authority on myself – am wrong when I claim ownership over my identity when I tell people “no, actually I’m from New Zealand.”
Max Xiao (3L)