On educating professors with respect to gender-neutral pronouns

I am frequently blinded by my own white male hetero privilege, but Rex Murphy’s recent beatification of the University of Toronto’s gender-neutral-pronoun-refusenik psychology professor Jordan Peterson took my breath away.

Peterson, as much of the world knows by now, made a series of YouTube videos in which xe sanctimoniously refused to bend the knee to “political correctness” and refer to students by anything other than stock male or female pronouns. UofT administrators wrote Peterson a letter drawing xer attention to the fact that xer very public stance on the matter had encouraged trolling of transgender students, noting that xer policy violated the Ontario Human Rights Code’s protection against “discrimination based on gender expression and gender identity,” and urging xer to “stop repeating” inflammatory statements.

Murphy disses “urging” as a “weasel word” signaling a “lack of courage to command,” dismissing, in a breathtaking due-diligence-free presumption, that trans students’ fears of bodily harm in the face of actual written threats of violence are “unreal.” It takes no special skill to understand Murphy’s disdain as the knee-jerk reaction of a social conservative unhappy with trends in the zeitgeist.

But while Murphy may be forgiven for a certain lack of depth and insight, given xer public role as a professional curmudgeon, Peterson earns no such slack. Xe is a university professor, and therefore committed to the open-minded pursuit of truth.

In xer videos and subsequent public commentary, Peterson slides back and forth between a number of different claims, but two stand out. The first is that if we accede to a request to accommodate people’s pronoun preferences, it will be a matter of time before we find ourselves in Stalin’s Soviet Union. This is because, on Peterson’s view, gender-neutral pronouns are a stalking horse for a thoroughgoing radical Marxist political agenda. I do not know whether xe actually believes these claims, but they are patently silly. Canada has had human rights codes since 1962 and is demonstrably more tolerant, more protective of personal liberty, and even further from electing a single Marxist to parliament than it has ever been before.


The second claim—and Peterson is very careful never to say this explicitly—is that people who think their gender is unconnected to their biological sex are maladjusted. Xe trumpets the rarity of gender non-conformity in a way that strongly implies not only that it is abnormal in a statistical sense, but abnormal also in a diagnostic sense. In one video, for example, when challenged with the observation that xe was not using people’s preferred pronouns, Peterson responded with the shockingly paternalistic giveaway, “I don’t believe that using your pronouns is going to do you any good.”

These are astonishing views. As a psychologist with clinical experience, Peterson of all people should know that gender identity varies, and that it is psychologically important. Self-esteem and social approval are basic human needs. When people are systematically and unthinkingly told on a daily basis, either through word or deed, that they should be someone other than who they are, the inevitable result is intense psychological pain—the kind of pain that privileged white hetero males like xe and I are never made to feel.

In point of fact, no one is asking—let alone forcing—Peterson to use gender-neutral pronouns. If xe doesn’t like them, xe can just avoid them. In direct address, second-person pronouns are already gender-neutral (you, your, yours, yourself). For indirect address, one can easily avoid pronouns entirely by referring to people by name, by “your classmate,” by “the person over there,” and so on. The only thing anyone is asking Peterson to do is to avoid referring indirectly, and encouraging others to refer indirectly, to someone by a pronoun that they strongly feel is inappropriate, demeaning, or implicitly censorious.

At the end of the day, the real problem with Peterson’s view is that it is unkind. It takes only a little practice, and not much effort, to avoid making people feel demeaned by addressing them in ways that cause them pain.

I have no reason to suspect that Professor Peterson’s unkindness is dispositional. I suspect that it simply reflects a privileged white hetero male difficulty to empathize. I have been there; it took time for me to cultivate the empathy and appreciate the importance of the effort. I look back with embarrassment at the fact that my learning curve was so slow. But I am glad to have climbed it. My life, and others’, is better as a result.

So in a kindly effort to support the edification of a fellow privileged white hetero male, I propose that we all simply address Professor Peterson by pronouns with which xe does not identify until xe gets the message. Perhaps this would help xer appreciate how belittling, how mocking, and how humiliating the practice is. And perhaps thereby xe would also come to understand that exalting such deliberately unkind obtuseness as standing on a matter of high moral principle adds insult to injury—and represents an abuse of privilege.