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Pronoun Wars: Gender Theorists go Head-to-Head with Jordan Peterson

Cossman consistently minimised the scope and power of C-16, using qualifying words and phrases like only, most extreme and high threshold.

· 5 min read
Pronoun Wars: Gender Theorists go Head-to-Head with Jordan Peterson

Canada’s new Bill C-16 has free speech advocates worried. At issue is the introduction of social construct definitions of gender identity and gender expression into our country’s Human Rights code. The bill makes it illegal to target those who identify or express themselves differently from their biological gender. Specifically, it protects against genocide and the public or willful incitements of hatred.

It’s troubling that those last two offences, which are closely related, have also been added to Canada’s criminal code. They compel speech when it comes to gendered pronouns, and do so with imprecise language, creating the potential for multiple interpretations. Disregarded also is the semantic chill surrounding the pronoun issue, a chill that far exceeds the defined acreage of the written law. As Jordan Peterson, the embattled University of Toronto professor believes, “the PC police are already living in [our] heads.” It’s an opinion he successfully argued in a debate held at the University of Toronto last Saturday.

Less successful were the two women who went up against Peterson. First was Law Professor Brenda Cossman, director of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto; second was Professor Mary Bryson, from the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia. I dislike faddish terms, but both Cossman’s and Bryson’s emotional rhetoric made for the worst femsplaining I’ve seen in a long time and reminded me why I could not complete a minor in Women’s Studies at the University of Toronto. Below is a summary of their worst offences.


Both women opened their talks by stating they did not want to be there, acting like petulant children who wanted to take their toys and go home. They also closed with that staple of women studies courses, a booming crescendo of we-are-the-world bravado. In case you’ve never sat through one, women’s studies classes owe more to pep rallies than academics and the highest grades often go to the most indoctrinated. That that self-referential reward system is a problem was made evident by the fact that neither Cossman or Bryson was equal to the task of debating Peterson. They weren’t even close.

Cossman consistently minimised the scope and power of C-16, using qualifying words and phrases like only, most extreme and high threshold. The point was to steer the definition of the bill towards its most benign interpretations and away from its potentially abusive ones. A concordance analysis would find that Cossman used minimising phrases lavishly. If the bill is fair, why was that necessary?

Bryson conjured up Philippe Rushton, the University of Western Ontario psychology professor who was vilified in the late 80s after publishing Race, Evolution, and Behavior, a book that explored race as a biological concept that offered different advantages to whites, blacks and Asians. It was a misleading comparison since nothing in Peterson’s argument concerns race. Bryson soldiered on regardless, describing the 1989 debate where David Suzuki, a scientist and Canadian media personality (emphasis on the latter), challenged him. Suzuki also started that debate with Rushton by saying he didn’t want to be there, a moment that Bryson apparently believes was historic. However, Suzuki is no hero and has issues of his own when it comes to credibility; facts Bryson may have discovered had she taken a step outside the academy. As Canada’s (supposedly) leading environmentalist, he’s known for not adopting his own green strategies and telling critics to fuck off, especially when his funding is questioned.

After conjuring Rushton and Suzuki, Bryson then conjured Stanford professor Robert Proctor, referencing his battle with the tobacco industry. By comparing Peterson’s position to the tobacco industry’s, Bryson again made a wildly inaccurate comparison. From there, she segued into an attack on Peterson’s assertion that sex is biological in nature — an assertion unanimously supported outside gender studies — by saying it was bad science. Bryson offered no data to counter Peterson and seems to be confusing social science with health science. Of course, naming specific studies would have helped her argument, but would also leave those studies open to criticism, a problem she deflected by referring to them only as a “body of work.” It’s a strategy other gender-studies professors have also used when challenging Peterson.

Nasty ad hominem attacks on Peterson, made directly by Bryson and inferentially by Cossman (whose hair tossing and aggrieved voice made her contempt clear), whipped up feeling, but also took valuable time. Despite this, both made time to reference the many individuals they felt would be hurt by Peterson’s actions. So if they are aware of numbers, then surely, as part of their social justice remit, they are also aware of the success special interest groups have had in Canada, especially when it comes to changing laws. In that sense, they had the option of putting Peterson’s argument into a broader context and addressing his fears more objectively and perhaps more kindly. They treated him like a bigot instead.

Jordan Peterson

The difference between the specifics of BillC-16 and the actual sweep of control it exerts over language is worrisome, especially now, when subjectivity rules and the definition of a hate crime can be decided by anyone who says they are a victim. If the past is any indication of the future, special interest groups — like those Cossman and Bryson support — will use that sweep, and the mob power behind it, either to expand the scope of the law or to make its words mean exactly what they want. This is what Peterson has been saying: not using the correct gender pronouns, especially in a government run institution like a university, can (and likely will) be classified as a hate crime, whether that crime is handled by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which is expensive and can result in financial ruin, or the criminal courts, which can result in a criminal record and jail time.

Cossman’s dissembling over these dangers is part of an established pattern of dissembling that many professors of Women Studies believe is necessary. For them, creative lying is compensation for the injustices women have endured for centuries. It’s a shady brand of feminism that gained momentum in the late 80s and receded in the 90s. However, judging by the vigour and confusion of the protesters supporting it now, it’s made a very successful, if malignant, comeback.

The real tragedy? Minority rights are worth protecting, but the configuration of suffering put forth by professors Cossman and Bryson is idiosyncratic, belonging to an incestuous academic sphere spinning on its own nepotism. When Bryson tries to refute decades of empirical data with her unfalsifiable social-constructionist theories it is a sign the incest has gone too far. A “body of work” may indeed suggest that biological sex isn’t an accurate reflection of everyone’s reality. But the real question is, is this body of work actually worth anything?

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