Of Pronouns And Men: Individual Rights Vs. Asshole Behavior

Last week I watched two strangers scream at each other in the grocery store. He had bumped her with his cart, and when she told him he had, he took offense. Their argument quickly devolved into him screaming that ‘he had just as much of a right to be here as she did,' with her screaming that ‘people like him were why the world was going to shit.’ Who’s wrong in this situation?

You probably haven’t heard of Jordan Peterson. He’s a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto who, until September of this year, had been quietly going about his academic life. That quiet was disrupted when he published a series of videos on Youtube decrying Canada’s Bill C-16.

The bill, ratified by the House of Commons last Friday, extends among other things protection from hate speech and propaganda to the transgendered community. In Peterson’s view, the law is an Orwellian extension of politically correct, bleeding heart gobbledygook designed to force the lay person into using non-gendered pronouns. But he won’t go quietly. In his video series, he makes it plain that he will not be using any gender neutral pronouns in his classes and that he resents a system of laws that compels him to do so.

For those not up on your LGBT jargon, many trans or non-binary members of that community do not choose to identify as a “he” or a “she” but instead prefer a singular “they.” There are also variant pronouns such as “zer,” “zhe” and “xu,” among many others. Professor Peterson dismisses these as neologisms and says that he sees no compelling evidence for the use of non-gendered pronouns. He is quoted as saying, “I don’t recognize a person’s right to determine what pronoun I use to address them.” And went on to say, “I don’t know what the options are if you’re not a man or a woman.”

According to Professor Peterson, this is an issue of free speech. He cannot be compelled by the government to speak in a certain way, and he is willing to stake his career and reputation on that assertion. Which he may well have to, as students continue to protest his tenure at the university, and the faculty, dean, and local union representative have all condemned his statements.

Peterson, for his part, has begun to paint himself as a martyr – awash in a sea of political correctness and leftism gone mad. He told the Toronto Star “I think where I’m most vulnerable in this entire debate, and I expect this will happen, and there’s already been noise about this on the Ontario Psychological Association website, is they’ll probably come after my clinical license.”

Here's the problem, there is no charge against Peterson. He has merely declared his intention not to use these pronouns, and under current Canadian law, that isn’t a crime. In fact, neither the government nor university has compelled him to retract anything he has said, issue any sort of apology or resign his position. The backlash that Peterson is facing is not the Orwellian kind he imagines – people are just mad that he’s an asshole.

Refusing to call someone by their pronoun of choice is absolutely within an individual’s freedom of expression, but it does make that individual a jackass. If I meet someone named Dave but insist that it is my right to call him Paul, that doesn’t make me a righteous defender of civil liberties; it makes me someone who thinks making a political point is more important than a meaningless gesture of identity validation.

Let me make myself clear on this point – I understand that to people who choose to use non-binary pronouns this is a very big deal. Their whole identities are a constant struggle to justify who they are to a largely bewildered majority of binary folks; I have no way of imagining what it must feel like to explain who you are to everyone you meet. And because I can’t imagine it, I think I owe it to the person living it just to shut up and use whatever pronoun they ask me to. It costs me nothing. I get to continue blundering through my life, with everyone seeing me as a man and agreeing with that assessment.

There are those who say that Bill C-16 is a slippery slope to thoughtcrime and policing language, but those are realities that we already inhabit. In Canada, all packaging must feature both French and English, hate-speech is illegal, as is the harassment of any person based on their race, gender or sexual orientation. The key word there is harassment. You can hold all the racist, misogynist, homophobic or heterophobic beliefs you want; you just can’t take those beliefs out in the community and use them to hurt people. That’s the reasonable restriction of hate-speech.

I am not accusing Professor Peterson of hate speech. He is wrong; there is no doubt, but I do not think this qualifies him for hate. He thinks he is defending one of the most important aspects of democracy, and I applaud his pigheaded bullshit. He is exercising the very right he claims is being denied to him, and that irony is sweet-as-hell.

One final dig I can’t resist: if I went back and changed every ‘he’ in this article to a ‘they’ or a ‘ze,' would it change the meaning? Really at all? Or would your reaction be entirely your own problem to deal with?

Almost forgot – in the grocery store analogy, the guy with the cart is wrong. Just because they both escalated things to hysterics doesn’t change the fact that he fucked up. Instead of defending his right to be there, he could have just apologized and kept moving. Wouldn’t that have made the world a tiny bit better?

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