Background: What Happened
Jordan Peterson, a tenured faculty member of psychology at the University of Toronto, is a self-proclaimed “Professor against Political Correctness*”. On 27th September 2016, Peterson uploaded the first of a three-part lecture series on his YouTube channel. The videos, coupled with Peterson’s subsequent remarks around his expressed views, have generated heated discussions pertaining to social justice issues. Here, we will unpack the content of his lecture series, including but not limited to his arbitrary logic against the use of gender-neutral pronouns.
*Political Correctness – Definition (noun): conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated – from the Merriam Webster dictionary.
In the first video titled “Fear and the Law”, Peterson outlines his concerns around the rise of political correctness by describing “the fear that PC types are producing, and the profound legal ramifications of their continual activism”.
- He is particularly incensed by the newly legislated Bill C-16, and other proposed amendments being adopted by various national and provincial human rights codes, repeatedly expressing concern around “poorly written… messy language” of the laws and the definitions provided by these structures, including definitions he does not agree with – more on this later. (Click here to find out more about legal language in this case)
- These new laws, aimed to protect people against harassment and discrimination on the grounds of gender expression and identity, are in Peterson’s simplistic view, motivated by radical left ideologies. Arguing that adopting these ideologies at the administrative level only encourages the development of “totalitarian and authoritarian states”, he pinpoints “social justice warrior type activists” as the ones to blame for these changes.
- Peterson declares that he is “nervous” about the new laws and that the doctrines behind them “scares” him, with a particularly heightened concern that the things he says and teaches could soon be legally constituted as hate speech. It is important to note that his concern lies not so much in what he says, but his supposed need to soon self-censor and their legal consequences. He concludes his video with the following blanket statement:
“For every one person that this potential transformation of legislation is going to free from oppression, it’s going to deathly confuse a hundred more” (Peterson, Sep 27 2016).
It seems, in Peterson’s perspective, confusing people is exactly the same as oppressing them.
His second video, “Compulsory Political Education: A Real World Case Study at the U of Toronto”, addresses the issue of mandatory sensitivity training for the Human Resources department at the University.
- Peterson calls the implementation of anti-racist and anti-bias training a “PC-ification of the University of Toronto’s HR department” that he claims unfairly politicizes the workplace and university campus.
- He highlights 8 perceived problems with this policy, including but not limited to: equating the agreement to undergo this training as agreeing to the assumption that racism and bias even exists at UoT. (1) He valorizes Canada’s supposed national tolerance and Toronto’s multicultural demographic as evidence that racism can’t possibly exist; (2) the difficulty of ‘measuring’ racism when racism is a systemic and structural issue, not an individualised one; (3) that the enforcement of political training and its language is an “indoctrination” associated with the (far) left, and that agreeing to this training ‘convicts’ staff of their putative racism and bias.
Peterson aims to pressure the university into dropping the requirement, or to remove the mandatory element, writing in the video description that he preferred the former.
In the third and final part, “The PC Game (and some tactics to counter it)”, Peterson claims that such radicalisation has supposedly ‘gone too far’.
- He argues that political correctness is used by activists to identify and construe ourselves as victims, resulting in a radical yet overly simplistic world-view that allows us to “revel in moral superiority”.
- He claims that “PC types” have no actual expertise and no real desire to make a positive change in the world (we respectfully disagree, Peterson)
- Peterson decides to expand on “what can be done at the individual level to oppose political correctness and its dangerously totalitarian aspirations”. In what he considers a “tongue in cheek” practical tactic, he encourages his followers to keep a look out for “PC propaganda” (namely posters that advertise equity and inclusion) in educational institutions and other organizations, and apply anti-PC stickers (sold in packs of 50 or 100 on ebay) for ‘as long as necessary’.
Expanding on the above, most of the backlash has centred on statements made during the first video. In the lecture, Peterson outlines a hypothetical scenario in which a student or colleague requests (he uses the word ‘insists’) that he address them using gender-neutral pronouns such as zhe, or zir:
“I’m not doing that. I’m not doing that. I think it’s manipulative, and I don’t recognize another person’s right to determine what pronouns I use to address them. I won’t do it. Because of these new laws, my decision may be illegal, maybe it’s a decision of hate. But I’m not doing it” (Peterson, Sep 27 2016).
He goes on to assert his perspective that gender-neutral pronouns are politically and ideologically motivated, therefore to use them would make him “a tool of [radical left] motivations” (Peterson, Sep 27 2016).
Peterson has, with good reason, sparked fire and controversy over the past three months for these statements. Above all, he decries the language of political correctness as “an attack on free speech”. But whose speech is Peterson trying to protect? And what is he really saying in his refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns?
Read on to find out more on the fallacy of Peterson’s arguments.
Peterson, J. (2016, September 27). Fear and the Law. [Youtube Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvPgjg201w0.
Peterson, J. (2016, October 3). Compulsory Political Education: A Real World Case Study at the U of Toronto. [Youtube Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-7YGGCE9es.
Peterson, J. (2016, October 5). The PC Game (and some tactics to counter it). [Youtube Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2u62u4entc&t=1s.
Toles, Tom. (2016). What does it actually mean when somebody complains about political correctness?” [Online Image]. Retrieved from