Canada, Features, Feminism

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 onlymost 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 Behaviora 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?


Irene Ogrizek is a writer, teacher, and editor based in Montreal, Québec, Canada. Visit her website here and follow her on Twitter @ireneogrizek.

Filed under: Canada, Features, Feminism


Irene Ogrizek is a writer, teacher, and editor based in Montreal, Québec, Canada. Visit her website here:


  1. Pingback: The Pronoun Debate: Who Won? | Irene Ogrizek

  2. Nigel Osborne says

    Very interesting article. I do believe some inclusions like “social construct definitions” as cited in this article, can and do, have a chilling effect on free speech. I’m even trying to be very careful as to what I’m typing right now out of fear that if someone reads this, they could take it the wrong way and label me as, at best, insensitive, or at worst, intolerant.

    While I absolutely believe that fundamental protections for minority and marginalized groups need to be enshrined in law, I fear that Bill C-16 goes too far as it relates to the notion that using the wrong pronoun could land someone in hot water. While language is important and we all have a moral obligation to address and treat others respectfully and with dignity, sometimes people can say things (or refuse to say things for that matter) that actually makes them insensitive. But what this bill might do is turn someone who is thoughtless or insensitive (which is very different than being a promoter of hate) into a criminal and I’m not sure that will truly advance the cause of genuine equality and inclusion.

    It is, in part, the fault of political correctness run amok and those in our society who are hyper-sensitive to any perceived grievance, no matter how small, that has helped to provide considerable momentum to the backlash that has propelled a know-nothing, serial liar and xenophobic demagogue like Donald Trump to the highest office in the United States. Liberals and progressives in America who are doing a postmortem right now would be wise to recognize that a faction of their own clique had a part to play in the rise of Trumpism. While I consider myself a small “l” liberal and a progressive, I prefer we help move our society to a more just one in a more thoughtful, balanced and genuine way.

  3. Jake J says

    Could you post a link to a straight news story about the legislation? I’m interested in the issue but do not know the background.

  4. GoodbyeHumans says

    This planet has no future.
    This species is already dead.

  5. Peter says

    It looks like it is me that has to be afraid of the gender-confused weirdos. Where did society go wrong? So much hate from a minority because they don’t feel male or female. Believe me there will be a backlash and we the normal-oppressed will defend ourselves.

    • It started when philosophers dropped realism and adopted idealism. – We the normal-oppresed will certainly have to defend ourselves. The regressives will keep going until we stop them

  6. sarina singh says

    A very well written article. A great analysis of a very important issue facing our generation – freedom of speech is in grave peril from the pressures from sjw’s.

  7. Dr Bryson epitomizes everything Dr Peterson has been saying is wrong with Gender Studies.

    Gender Studies has been around for so long now that it has developed its own peer reviewed academic journals, conferences and awards, and the people in the field now believe quite honestly that they deserve the same respect as people from other disciplines that also have conferences, peer reviewed journals, and awards. Dr Bryson was distinctly miffed that her qualifications were not being taken seriously. She seemed to be saying: “I’m the expert on gender here! You should all listen to me!”

    Professors in Gender Studies teach and believe that gender is a social construct. According to Dr Bryson, Gender Studies has produced research, peer reviewed by other gender studies experts, that says “There is no definitive proof that biological sex has any impact on gender.” So, they conclude, it’s OK to continue believing and teaching that gender is a social construct.

    We can also say there is no definitive proof that fairies don’t exist. That doesn’t mean we all have to believe in them.

    The old fashioned term for this is “apologetics”. An institution (e.g. the Catholic Church) sets itself up as an orthodoxy and then defends itself by standing high on the ramparts and declaring heretical challenges “not proven”.

    It’s now well understood that no hypothesis is ever proven to be true. You can only prove something false. The notion that gender is entirely a social construct has been proven false – most tellingly by the Baron-Cohen experiments showing different interests between boy and girl babies who are only days old. The Scandinavian occupational segregation data that Jordan refers to is further evidence, and there is more.

    My favorite line about all this comes from Steven Pinker, although it may not be his. (I’m old – I don’t remember the reference and I have to paraphrase.) “There is a word for those people who still believe that we are born a blank slate and that culture accounts for all that we are. The word is “childless”.”

    Another (also paraphrased) line from the same source: “If you think that everyone should be treated the same because deep down inside everyone really is the same, then you are putting your normative beliefs into a position where they might be contradicted by the facts.”

    What follows from the academic left is a massive attempt to deny the facts about male female differences, all so that a (noble) normative position can be maintained.

    People should be treated the same. Period. That’s a normative position. You might agree or disagree, but your position cannot be supported or refuted by an appeal to the facts.

    Knowledge of the facts is essential, of course, but it comes in at the next stage. This is where we begin to design policies to help achieve our normative goals, and how we decide to measure our success. To deny the facts at this stage is to make success impossible.

  8. Darwin T of BC Humanists says

    The Social Justice Warriors could perhaps benefit from formal rules of debate being adopted for their future encounters.

    It is never enough to allow dissembling and creative fibbing to make a society a more harmonious place.

    Professor Peterson can project negatively in his tone as he is no kindly Bertrand Russell after all. Dr. Peterson though is on point and thorough in his debate skills. Quality shows itself.

    To my mind which is coming from a Humanist perspective the SJW professors arguing for new pronoun usage, well they came off with a distinct whiff of a faith based initiative. Religious dogma comes in many forms and you are seeing it here. No evidence. No problem. Just believe and will something hard enough and we can make others fall in line.

    Thanks for this article!

  9. Pingback: “Pronoun Wars: Gender Theorists go Head-to-Head with Jordan Peterson” | inversionsuicide

  10. Whyaxye says

    “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”

    I don’t know the specific details here, and am partly relying on other sources: videos and websites in which Professor Peterson and his supporters make their case. They seem to be saying that the law will compel someone to use the pronouns favoured or selected by the person or people to whom those pronouns apply. If a person states that they wish to be referred to as “ze”, “hir”, etc., then I will be breaking the law unless I do exactly that, or refer to them using another pronoun.

    If that’s not the case, then I have misunderstood, and I apologise. If someone wants to put me right, I will be happy to be corrected.

    If I’m basically right, though, then this proposed law is deeply worrying and should be resisted. Professor Peterson deserves our support and our thanks. I’m unhappy with the law telling me that there are certain words that I must refrain from using. But I reluctantly go along with it, partly out of expediency, and partly because people can use some foul and hurtful terms about racial and sexual minorities which I think ought to be discouraged. I won’t, though, accept the state or anyone else telling me that there are words that I have to use. That’s positive thought-control. I’ll decide what I say, and someone wants me to call them “xe” or somesuch nonsense, then he or she better prepare for a disappointment.

    I can afford to do that, because I’m retired. Heaven help those who work for the state or in organisations where pressure will be exerted.

    • certified says

      i believe you’ve summed up what has happened, not only is refusing to use their ‘preferred pronouns’ illegal, these people assert that the act of doing so is violence. so consider that, in their eyes you are a violent perpetrator abusing people, it is not a stretch of the imagination, to predict they’ll justify violence against you to stop your ‘violent’ actions… these are very dangerous individuals indeed.

  11. Graham Palmer says

    It is 11:59 pm – 31 December 1983, and there will be no safe spaces for free minds.

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