Jordan Peterson’s underlying justification for his refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns can be summed up in one sentence: he does not believe that non-binary gender identities exist.
Reciting the working definition of gender identities from Bill C-16, he says:
“‘It is their sense of being a woman, a man, both, neither, or anywhere along the gender spectrum’… from my perspective, that sentence is entirely nonsensical” (Peterson, Sep 27 2016).
His follow-up reasons are flimsy at best: “I think it has no scientific standing, I think it’s ideologically motivated, I think it’s divisive, I think it’s dangerous, it causes chaos, it confuses people, there’s no upside to it” (Peterson, Sep 27 2016). If you were hoping to get some insight on how it is supposedly dangerous, chaotic, or confusing to refer to non-binary and trans people with their preferred neutral pronouns, Peterson offers no answers.
He elaborates only on the lack of scientific basis:
“I don’t know what neither means. Because I don’t know what the options are if you’re not a man or a woman. It’s not obvious to me how you can be both because those are by definition binary categories. There’s an idea that there’s a gender spectrum, but I don’t think that’s a valid idea, I don’t think there’s any evidence for it.”(Peterson, Sep 27 2016).
He continues, “Biological sexuality is ancient, it’s hundreds of millions of years old. And it’s binary because there’s two forms of biological sex. Of course this is predicated on the idea that your gender is somehow independent from your biological sex but that’s a proposition, not a fact… If you ran a correlation analysis between gender identity and sexual orientation, the correlation is going to be something like .95, which indicates almost perfect correlation for the vast majority of people.” (Peterson, Sep 27 2016).
In later interviews, Peterson insisted that he “wasn’t denying the existence of people who do not fit neatly into binary gender categories” (Yun, 2016). Instead, he avows that “all the evidence suggests that [gender identity and biological sexuality] are not independently varying constructs” (Off, 2016), citing that they align in up to “98% of cases” (Davidson, 2016).
In summary, he believes that non-binary gender identities oppose “[natural] pronounced and deep differences between the genders” and by extension, the request for inclusion and recognition of gender-neutral pronouns becomes an “assault on the idea of biology itself” (Sutcliffe, 2016).
Not only does Peterson rely heavily on biological essentialism1 to discredit gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine, but his attempt to simplify the incredibly personal relationship of one’s gender identity and sexual orientation into mere statistics is highly cis- heteronormative2.
1Biological Essentialism (also Biological Determinism) – Definition: The belief that ‘human nature’, an individual’s personality, or some specific quality (such masculinity, femininity) is an innate and natural ‘essence’ (rather than a product of circumstances, upbringing, and culture) – from the Oxford Reference.
2Cisgender/cis – Definition: term for someone who exclusively identifies as their sex assigned at birth – from Trans Student Educational Resources;
Heteronormativity – Definition: of, relating to, or based on the attitude that heterosexuality is the only normal and natural expression of sexuality – from Merriam Webster
Several academics have since publicly disputed and berated Peterson’s irrational arguments. Ronald de Sousa, an Emeritus Professor from Peterson’s very own department of Philosophy has called the latter’s ignorance around the “reality and the diversity of non-standard forms of sex, gender, and sexual expression and orientation [really] distressing” (Yun, 2016), particularly given the vast existing literature on the subject. Closer to home, Mary Bryson from the GRSJ and Critical Studies in Sexuality departments here at UBC warns against the lack of scholarly basis of Peterson’s claims: “[they] are not being made in relation to any publicly accessible body of peer-reviewed scholarship. Bad science is deadly” (Sutcliffe, 2016), alluding to the harm that such statements could potentially cause in terms of perpetuating already existing violence and prejudice towards non-binary and trans students.
Read on for evidence on the social construction of gender, and a brief historical look into the colonial imposition of the binary gender system.
[Click here to read how Peterson’s positionality affects his influence]
Off, C. (Host), & Douglas, J (Host). (2016, September 30). ‘I’m not a bigot’ Meet the U of T prof who refuses to use genderless pronouns. As It Happens, Toronto: CBC Radio. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-friday-edition-1.3786140/i-m-not-a-bigot-meet-the-u-of-t-prof-who-refuses-to-use-genderless-pronouns-1.3786144.
Davidson, T. (2016, September 29). U of T prof rips bill outlawing gender identity discrimination. Toronto Sun. Retrieved from http://www.torontosun.com/2016/09/29/u-of-t-prof-rips-bill-outlawing-gender-identity-discrimination.
Peterson, J. (2016, September 27). Fear and the Law. [Youtube Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvPgjg201w0
Sutcliffe, S. (2016, November 24). U of T Professor doesn’t believe in gender neutral pronouns, criticized by UBC professor in debate. The Ubyssey. Retrieved from http://www.ubyssey.ca/news/ubc-professor-participates-in-forum-on-bill-c-16/
Yun, T. (2016, October 3). U of T Community responds to Jordan Peterson on gender identities. The Varsity. Retrieved from http://thevarsity.ca/2016/10/03/u-of-t-community-responds-to-jordan-peterson-on-gender-identities/
Toggles, T. (2013). “Fuck the Gender Binary” [Online Image]. Retrieved from http://tonytoggles.tumblr.com/post/48203145317/fuck-the-gender-binary