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Attack on political correctness: The not so blurry line between academic freedom and discrimination

Attacking or defending political correctness, somehow, has become a central concern of our political and civil discourse. We see it in Canadian politics, and even more so in American politics, where Donald Trump symbolizes and spearheads a movement — groups of people — who feel disenfranchised by political correctness and see the very concept as an assault to their identity and their right to free speech.

The debate over political correctness has seeped its way into academia on college and university campuses across North America — including Ontario. The debate is one worth having, but the very nature in which it’s conducted is polarizing and toxic — which both the left and the right have some responsibility to bear for. The left calls those who oppose political correctness “privileged bigots,” and those in the right call those in the left “over-sensitive, whining, radical communists.” The choice in rhetoric that often dominates the debate is simply not productive.

The nature of this debate was recently illustrated at the University of Toronto, where Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and psychology professor, made headlines after posting a lecture on his YouTube channel, where he explains his refusal to use genderless pronouns. He spoke in opposition to Bill C-16, which looks to protect Transgender persons by making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender identity or expression, under the Canadian Human Rights Code.

“I don’t believe that it’s intelligent and appropriate for the government to mandate the words that its citizens should speak,” Peterson said. “It’s one thing to tell people that there’s certain words they can’t say, but it’s an entirely different thing to tell them there are words that they have to say.” 

The problem with Peterson’s claims is that his defense of his views extends beyond the issue of freedom of speech or academic freedom. It is well within his right to write academic papers, and explain on his personal YouTube channel why he disagrees with the regulated, legally entrenched use of non-binary, gender pronouns. However, he crosses the line between academic freedom and discrimination when he implements these views in lecture procedures and interactions with his students. He crosses the line when he refuses to partake in anti-discrimination and anti-bias training, which the University of Toronto’s Human Resources and Student Life Departments are implementing to recognize the need for safe spaces for marginalized students to succeed in post-secondary education.

By rejecting to use genderless pronouns and refusing to partake in the anti-discrimination training, Peterson is essentially denying the existence of those students in his classroom who don’t identify within the heteronomative, binary definition of gender. It illustrates a case where a male, heterosexual professor uses his position and identity of power to impose his own views on those he believes don’t deserve to have their identities recognized in our language and in our laws. 

“It’s self-aggrandizing and narcissistic to demand that other people use a special form of address when they only want to have an initial conversation with you,” Peterson said.

This is dangerous because it legitimizes the fallacy that others’ quest to equality and equity are a threat to their own identity and position in society. They are the group of people who feel disenfranchised by political correctness — which tries to challenge the language and laws, formed and constructed by a privileged few — that normalizes the exclusion of marginalized minorities.

I think it’s “self-aggrandizing and narcissistic to demand” students who pay thousands of dollars a term to get a quality post-secondary education, not to be respected and told that their identity does not exist, due to his inability to empathize with lived experiences that his privileged identity doesn’t experience on a daily basis. Just because he doesn’t experience it, or the changes in language and laws looking to protect marginalized individuals don’t affect him, does not mean they’re not legitimate and necessary.

Now, I’m not about to call Dr. Peterson a bigot. I think that’s one of the challenges progressive, social justice movements face: how to get those onboard, who are having their privileged position in society challenged by progressive, social movements seeking equality and equity, without calling them bigots. If academia —focusing on systems of oppression that work to marginalize minority identities — can identify ways to do this, the debate will turn from toxic to productive. Although I think it’s legitimate and well within the prerogative of the University of Toronto, as an institution, to fire Dr. Peterson for discrimination, I also think, this may run counterintuitive to the main goal highlighted above.

Once we figure out how to stop insulting and empathizing with those uncomfortable with change, and vice-versa, maybe we can have a debate that doesn’t put in jeopardy the safe spaces that have been created — over the span of decades — to protect marginalized identities.