U of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson on preferred pronouns: idiot, or troll genius?

I’ve been meaning to write a post about pronouns and gender issues in language, because there’s a wide range of interesting phenomena to discuss and I think that much of the current discussion around gender in language, and especially “preferred pronouns” boils down to people not really knowing much about how language works. For instance, does gender in your language shape how you think about sexuality? What if your language has two genders, but they’re “neuter” and “common”? What if your language has 17 genders, that fall into categories like “humans,” “animals,” “plants,” “long objects,” and “abstract concepts”?

But…this is not that post.

Instead, I want to talk about what happens when, people try to legitimize prejudice using flimsy linguistic pretexts, but know so little about language that the result is hilarious.

Enter: Jordan Peterson.

Jordan Peterson is a professor who is stirring up controversy at my alma mater, the University of Toronto. The National Post ran an article about him entitled “U of T professor attacks political correctness, says he refuses to use genderless pronouns.” I highly recommend reading the article. The gist is that Canada is considering banning discriminating against people based on their gender expression, and the professor is against this, and thinks that it’s political correctness, and that political correctness is a Bad Thing. Now, here’s the kicker. Jordan Peterson actually said the following, and the National Post published this absolute gem of a paragraph:

Peterson said that if a student asked him to be referred to by a non-binary pronoun, he would not recognize their request: “I don’t recognize another person’s right to determine what pronouns I use to address them. I won’t do it.”

Did you catch it? I’m not talking about the obvious fact that all the pronouns he uses are determined by other people — he didn’t emerge from the womb and declare “wumpus shall only call all of tharblewiggle-waggle’,” using pronouns of his own invention. No, let’s try again:

Peterson said that if a student asked him to be referred to by a NON-BINARY PRONOUN, he would not recognize their request: “I don’t recognize another person’s right to determine what pronouns I use to address THEM. I won’t do it.”

Did you catch it this time? He used a gender neutral third person pronoun (they/them/their), derived from the third person plural in English. It is clear from the context that he is referring to a single, hypothetical person, of unknown (or unstated) gender. And he did this fluently, fluidly, naturally, and evidently without conscious awareness.

He didn’t say “I don’t recognize another person’s right to determine what pronouns I use to address him or her.” Not only that, but he correctly declined it for case. That is, he didn’t say “I don’t recognize another person’s right to determine what pronouns I use to address they.”

Now, as someone who occasionally indulges in Recreational Feigning of Extreme Stupidity for Personal Entertainment (RecFeESFPE, pronounced “reckfessfapee”), I am willing to entertain that this is all a hilarious ruse. For instance, an acquaintance told me once that they were planning a stay-cation and I enthusiastically asked “Where to?” But this. This is spectacular. Next level. Really brilliant stuff. If anyone asks me about Jordan Peterson, I have no choice but to respond “they’re a comedic genius.”

The rest of the article is also hilarious, and I’m not entirely convinced Jordan Peterson isn’t actually Andy Kaufman. For instance he goes on to say, “if someone asked me to take anti-bias training, I think I am agreeing that I am sufficiently racist or biased to need training.” That logic is unassailable, which is why I never wear a seatbelt, because wearing one is conceding that I drive poorly enough to need one. Keep fighting the good fight against “over-inclusive” (his words) legislation, Jordan Peterson! We (weird how everything but 3rd person is gender neutral, isn’t it?)…where was I…oh yeah: We salute you!

[EDIT: In the comments, a colleague pointed out that singular they has existed in English for hundreds of years when discussing referents of unknown gender, but argued that using singular they for a known referent is uncommon — and made claims about what most people would find ungrammatical. The morning I wrote this piece, I had an entire conversation with a friend about a known third friend, in which we both referred to that friend using they — not out of gender considerations, but for the sake of plausible deniability. I really do not believe it is as hard to parse as some are claiming, and think that it boils down to whether Professor Peterson is willing to accept that people can “be” different “genders” than he chooses to assign them in his head. That is, the whole point is that it is not inherently linguistic, as it would be if, for instance, they insisted on having pronouns that have the same declensions as English, but also an ablative (“My pronouns are “Ze, Zim, Zis, and when the conversation involves motion toward me, Zab.” Jordan Peterson is making a “linguistic” argument to justify non-linguistic behavior, and I argue it doesn’t hold up.]

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©Taylor Jones 2016

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Originally published at www.languagejones.com.

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