Jordan Peterson: The man who reignited Canada’s culture war

By: on December 1, 2016 |

(Image: Strategic Communications/University of Toronto)

(Image: Strategic Communications/University of Toronto)

Jordan Peterson knows what he believes, and he’s not afraid to tell you. What does he think about gender-neutral pronouns, such as “ze” or “zhe”, preferred by many transgender people? Those are the “vanguard of a post-modern, radical leftist ideology.” How about Bill C-16, the federal legislation that proposes to amend “the Canadian Human Rights Act to add gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination”? It’s an “assault on biology and an implicit assault on the idea of the objective world.” And what about the Ontario Human Rights Commission? According to Peterson, it’s the “most dangerous organization in Canada.”

For some, Jordan Peterson is a brave defender of the traditional values and moral certitude of Western civilization, standing up to those who would sacrifice them on the altar of political correctness and hurt feelings. For others, he is a villain, whose opposition to further government protection of transgender people threatens one of society’s most marginalized groups. Whatever the case, Peterson, the University of Toronto psychology professor who shot to fame this fall after giving public notice via YouTube of his refusal to use gender neutral pronouns for transgender students, is now at the heart of a revived Canadian culture war.

The great debates over abortion, divorce, gay rights, aboriginal entitlement and the environment that erupted in the mid-20th century have waxed and waned ever since, but rarely have they burned with the intensity evident today. And Jordan Peterson is doing a singularly impressive job of stoking the fire. His vocal resistance to the progression of transgender recognition and rights in Canadian society is, according to him, rooted in a firm belief in the importance of freedom of speech to democracy. He passionately opposes the idea that gender is a social construct unrelated to biological sex, arguing that the connection between the two is clear and universal, and that the widespread acceptance of transgender and gender fluid people is simply ignorant kowtowing to political correctness and bogus relativism. The endorsement of gender neutral pronouns by Canadian governments and the idea that refusing to use those pronouns constitutes discrimination against transgender people that is punishable under the law is something that Peterson vehemently rejects as a left-wing attack on free speech. When Bill C-16 was introduced in Parliament, therefore, he decided to publicize his opposition to the proposed legislation as widely as possible.

It’s safe to say he succeeded. In the two months since posting the first of a series of controversial videos attacking Bill C-16 and the Ontario Human Rights Code, Peterson has given dozens of interviews, been the subject of hundreds of news stories, and collected millions of views on his YouTube channel. In the process, he sparked a furious debate on the University of Toronto campus and across the country about the role of government in restricting and compelling speech.

Jordan Peterson, a University of Toronto professor who refuses to use gender neutral pronouns during a heated discussion with some students in the downtown campus, Toronto, Tuesday, October 11, 2016. (Image: Eduardo Lima / Metro News)

Professor Jordan Peterson refuses to use gender neutral pronouns during a heated discussion with some students in the downtown campus, Toronto. (Image: Eduardo Lima / Metro News)

Peterson’s criticism of Bill C-16 and the Ontario Human Rights Code have not gone unchallenged. In a recent debate at the university, U of T law professor Brenda Cossman argued that Bill C-16 would not come close to criminalizing Peterson’s refusal to use gender neutral pronouns, and that the bill was simply designed to ensure that violence and overt acts of hatred directed at transgender people based on their gender identity and expression are not permitted in Canada. And while Cossman conceded that Peterson, as a professor at a public university, would likely be found guilty of violating human rights codes for refusing to use students’ preferred pronouns, she argued that he could avoid this by simply addressing transgender students by name rather than using pronouns. Needless to say, Peterson, who has received a series of letters from the university administration advising him to end his opposition to Bill C-16 and who has been the focus of a number of protests against and for him on the university campus, disagrees.

Regardless of whether Peterson’s refusal to use gender neutral pronouns will actually land him in legal trouble, it seems he has tapped into something much bigger. At first glance, his fight with his employer and his animus towards Bill C-16 and the Ontario Human Rights Code seems just another skirmish in a decades’ long war over free speech on campus. He’s unusual, though not unique, as a tenured academic challenging progressive orthodoxy, although he’s more passionate and persistent than most. But that doesn’t explain the extraordinary national and even international interest in his arguments and his manifestly unprofessional YouTube videos – which he himself describes as having “no production quality”.

His fight against Bill C-16 and his refusal to use gender neutral pronouns matches the mood of millions of people unhappy with much of the socio-economic agenda currently favoured by the so-called political and intellectual “elites” in Western society. 2016 has been a banner year for this discontent. The United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union this spring, the rise of anti-establishment political parties in virtually every European country, and the election of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States: all these seemingly represent a backlash against the march of progressivism, feminism, environmentalism, and globalism, which for so long seemed inevitable and unstoppable. In the midst of the British Brexit debate this spring, Michael Gove, one of the leaders of the campaign to leave the European Union, famously said that “people in this country have had enough of experts.” This is happening around the world: a rejection of experts and their opinions on topics as diverse as trade, immigration, and climate change. The ivory towers are out; the common sense of the people is in.

Until Peterson, Canada has seemed largely immune to these reactionary populist forces. They briefly erupted in Toronto during the chaotic reign of former mayor Rob Ford, but seemed discredited by his drug-addled fall from grace. Over the last year, even as Donald Trump was gaining steam in the Republican primaries, Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was consolidating power in an avowedly progressive government that explicitly put feminism, environmentalism, and aboriginal rights at the top of its agenda. As Britain prepares to leave the EU and as President-elect Trump gives notice of his intention to remove the United States from international trade agreements and withdraw from the Paris climate accord, the government of Canada is welcoming refugees, liberalizing international trade, and introducing a national carbon tax.

So far, Canada’s Conservative opposition party has shown little interest in Peterson, or anything related to the new culture war. Interim leader Rona Ambrose called Trump’s ideas “off the spectrum” a year ago and said they would not be welcome in her party. She and over half of her caucus voted in favour of Bill C-16. They remain ardent cheerleaders for globalized trade, and at least outwardly believers in anthropogenic climate change. Small wonder then that this fall the Economist magazine called Canada a “beacon of liberalism” in a world turning quickly towards reactionary populism.

It may be, however, that Canadian conservatives are simply slow to recover their confidence following their emphatic defeat in the 2015 federal and Alberta elections. Events like the success of Trump, the Brexit vote, the lurch to the political right in France and elsewhere in Europe, and the lightning rod that is Jordan Peterson here in Canada, will eventually likely embolden some imitation among conservative politicians.

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC in Washington, D.C. (Image: Gage Skidmore)

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC in Washington, D.C. (Image: Gage Skidmore)

Indeed, there are already signs of it in the federal Conservative leadership race. Two of the nine MPs seeking to lead the party (Andrew Scheer and Brad Trost) voted against Bill C-16. Kellie Leitch, the Tory MP and leadership candidate best known for proposing that the federal government create a tip line to report barbaric cultural practices (and then tearfully apologizing for that proposal after the Tories lost the election), has become a contender by arguing that immigrants need to be screened to ensure they possess “Canadian values”.

Potential evidence of a rebellion against progressive dogma has also surfaced in provincial politics. Following years of debate over the Ontario Liberal government’s contentious sex-ed program, among other controversial initiatives related to gender and sexuality, this fall provincial Tories in the Niagara region selected 19-year-old home-schooled social conservative Sam Oosterhoff over their party’s president to represent them in a by-election – which he went on to win with over 50 percent of the vote.

In Alberta, former federal Conservative MP Jason Kenney, a devout Catholic with strong ties to the pro-life movement, is being vilified by progressives in his campaign for the leadership of the provincial PC party. Yet he is still winning most of the delegate selection votes leading up to a convention in Calgary next March. Against a backdrop of controversy over a proposed new transgender teaching unit for public schools that mandates replacing the word parent with “caretaker” and boys and girls with “comrades”, so far Kenney has scrupulously avoided being baited into responding to allegations of misogyny and homophobia.

That sets him distinctly apart from Jordan Peterson, who welcomes and encourages any and all debate over his refusal to speak the language of gender neutrality. Peterson says he is merely expressing a widespread resistance to political correctness that people have up till now been afraid to voice. As he puts it, “The political correctness police are already in your heads,” and he’s taken it upon himself to get them out by loudly defending “freedom of speech and classical enlightenment values.”

Whether or not Bill C-16, the primary target of Peterson’s hostility, proves as dire a threat to democratic freedom of speech as he says it is matters less to his supporters than the fact that he is willing to voice opposition to it in the first place. It’s not about what Bill C-16 says; it’s about what it represents.

In the recent debate at U of T, University of British Columbia education professor Mary Bryson accused Peterson of using the populist conservative rhetoric of the American Breitbart News Network, rather than the reasoned language and logic of an academic. Peterson, who forcefully denied the charge, insists he is a reasonable man and a careful researcher who cares deeply for people and fears that his country and his culture are at risk of succumbing to a malevolent authoritarian ideology disguised as minority rights. But his raised voice and palpable anger at what he identifies as political correctness is a hallmark of his YouTube videos, his debate performances, and his exclusive interview with C2C Journal. Media and communications professionals would describe his unpolished and often unconstrained delivery as too hot for the video medium he uses, but his authentic anger and frustration with a society moving ever more swiftly away from its traditions and roots is what makes his voice resonate.

As the drama at the University of Toronto continues to unfold in the coming weeks and months, the balance of human rights and free speech in Canada will be tested. Peterson – who fears losing both his license to practice clinical psychology and his clearance to teach classes at the university – may become a martyr for his cause. If that happens, the backlash against transgender rights and the related tenets of progressivism will only be further inflamed.  “Canada’s back,” proclaims the most progressive prime minister the country has ever had. So too, apparently, are the culture wars.

For more on this subject, see Jason VandenBeukel and Jason Tucker’s interview with Jordan Peterson, which is also in this edition of C2C Journal: ‘We’re teaching university students lies’ – An interview with Dr Jordan Peterson


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About Jason VandenBeukel

Jason VandenBeukel is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto.