The problem with trying to protect pronouns

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinion/Editorials
Nov. 21, 2017.   Editorial

The controversy at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., continues to grow.

Lindsay Shepherd, a graduate student and teaching assistant at Laurier, has made public a recording of the meeting with two professors and a university official at which she was disciplined for daring to expose students to both sides of a contentious issue.

In the recording, her professors condemn her for showing her tutorial students a clip from TVOntario in which two University of Toronto professors argue about gender and pronoun use.

One of the professors, Jordan Peterson, is stridently opposed to using the preferred pronoun of someone who doesn’t identify along traditional gender lines.

His opposition to saying “ze,” “zer” and other newly minted pronouns on demand has made him a hero to some and a pariah to others. His polarizing opinions appear to be the reason her accusers told Ms. Shepherd that showing the TV clip was “threatening,” “transphobic,” and the equivalent of “neutrally playing a speech by Hitler.”

The condemnation of Laurier’s handling of the incident has been near-universal. There is no need to restate how off-base Ms. Shepherd’s accusers were, or how their position that students must be isolated from ideas that are unpleasant to them is a dangerous attack on the critical role of universities as defenders of free speech and freedom of inquiry.

The school has since announced it will ask a neutral third party to examine what happened. It will also strike a committee to look into how to best balance the “important principles of academic freedom, diversity of opinion, critical thought, the civil debate of competing ideas, free speech, and freedom of expression” with the ascendent imperative of making a diverse student body feel welcome and safe.

What is slightly lost in this affair is the question of whether or not someone can in fact be sanctioned by the state for refusing to use someone’s preferred pronoun.

Prof. Peterson was among a group of critics who staunchly opposed Bill C-16. Enacted in June, it’s a federal law that does two main things: amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to add gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds for discrimination, along with race, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation and so on; and amend the Criminal Code to add gender identity and gender expression as identifiable groups that are protected against hate speech.

Bill C-16 was a belated response to similar laws passed by many provinces, including Ontario. It extends gender-identity protections to federally regulated bodies, such as banks, airports and the military.

Prof. Peterson and others say Bill C-16 and laws like it amount to compelled speech when it comes to pronouns; that someone who refuses to use words put in their mouths by other people will be forced to use those words anyway, or face legal sanction under the Canadian Human Rights Act or the applicable provincial code (Ontario’s, in his case).

He has also said that he worries that merely raising the pronoun debate in class could be considered hate speech.

On the latter question, he is wrong. The threshold for hate speech is the promotion of genocide or the willful incitement of hatred against an identifiable group. Refusing to say “zer” hardly comes close.

The concerns about human-rights legislation are more justified. The Ontario Human Rights Commission states clearly on its website that refusing to refer to a person by their preferred name and pronoun “will likely be discrimination when it takes place in a social area covered by the Code, including employment, housing and services like education.”

This make sense, in the right context. People who don’t meet traditional gender expectations should not be humiliated by employers, teachers or landlords, among others, who refuse to acknowledge their chosen name or preferred pronoun as a means of deliberate harassment.

But what about a teacher who honestly believes he or she is being forced to use compelled speech? It seems the Ontario code could apply to him or her, too, at least in the context of personal exchanges; failure to comply could lead to a fine or other punishment – albeit only if there is no reasonable attempt at accommodation by both parties. The OHRC says, unhelpfully, that “the law is unsettled” about whether or not a person can insist on their own particular pronoun, or must settle for a generic compromise, such as “they.”

The OHRC also acknowledges that universities and the media have great leeway when addressing the issue as part of a public debate, as Ms. Shepherd was doing and Mr. Peterson has done. It’s a reasonably safe bet that no human rights commission would rule that Ms. Shepherd acted in a discriminatory fashion simply by raising the subject in class, as one of the professors implies menacingly in the recording of their meeting.

But no one knows for certain. During the Parliamentary debate on Bill C-16, senators rejected an amendment that would have made it clear that pronouns weren’t protected. From that, it is logical to conclude that pronouns are an important part of the new federal law, just as they are with the Ontario Human Rights Code, under certain circumstances.

This is tricky new territory, and it needs to be watched closely. The good news is we can have a debate about it. Laurier is welcome to join in.

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/editorials/globe-editorial-the-problem-with-trying-to-protect-pronouns/article37034495/

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