Prof. Jordan Peterson paces in front of 200 students in a packed lecture hall, back in his psychology class at the University of Toronto this past week.
A month ago, Peterson wasn’t so sure he’d be here.
The 54-year-old has been at the centre of a debate about gender and free speech ever since he posted videos to YouTube last fall in which he said he would not use the preferred, gender-neutral pronouns of some students and faculty.
The videos drew fire from trans activists, faculty and student and labour unions. Critics accused Peterson of helping to foster a climate for hate to thrive. Protests, sometimes violent, broke out on campus, and the controversy attracted international media coverage.
“A lot of trans students, as a result of not only the climate but direct death threats they were receiving, stopped going to class,” said Cassandra Williams, a 21-year-old trans student who is the vice-president of university affairs for the U of T students’ union.
It was a “chaotic situation,” said Peterson who wasn’t teaching in the fall because he normally spends first term researching.
“It was particularly stressful for the first two weeks, because … the controversy was generating a lot of flak. I got two letters from the university,” he said of the warnings, one reminding him that free speech had to be made in accordance with human rights legislation and the other noting that his refusal to use personal pronouns upon request could constitute discrimination.
Peterson said he was spurred to make the videos by two events: Bill C-16, introduced last May to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of “gender identity” and “gender expression;” and a new human resources initiative by U of T.
In the wake of reaction to the videos, Peterson has at times portrayed himself as a martyr, risking his job to protect free speech. He thought the letters from the university administration were the start of disciplinary action. But in December, the university assured him he would be teaching in the new year.
“They’re permitting him to continue teaching despite his intention to discriminate,” said Williams, who argues “the university has a responsibility … to ensure that they have an environment which is safe.”
Just as class began last Tuesday, a videographer attached a mike to Peterson’s shirt. Peterson, who has previously posted his lectures to YouTube, has been able to hire a professional production team as a result of the financial backing he has received from crowd-funding website Patreon. Peterson has asked Patreon subscribers to support several initiatives. Since posting the videos, Peterson’s account has grown from a couple of thousand dollars to more than $14,000 a month.
“I tend to roam rather widely in my lectures,” he told students at the start of class, “which means you have to attend to the lectures and the readings.” His teaching style, he noted, is “not precisely linear” or “predictable.”
Liam Duignan was one of the first to find a seat in the lecture hall — even though he’s not even enrolled in the course.
The 21-year-old student said he only started to enjoy education after watching a video by Peterson on Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Later, when he read about the debate over pronouns, he thought, “Oh my God. That’s that guy I was watching on YouTube. I realized I had to go in person to see him.
“You always hear about these controversies happening in the States,” said Duignan. “And it was a controversy that had two sides and both were saying things that I thought were necessary.”
The university said Peterson, a tenured professor, has long been scheduled to teach this term and his classes are full.
“I can’t speculate on what may or may not happen in his class,” said U of T spokesperson Althea Blackburn-Evans. “He’s talked about what he may do if he’s asked to [use a gender-neutral pronoun], but he hasn’t actually done that.”
U of T has received one formal complaint about Peterson relating to the controversy, which is being handled by the school’s human resources department. Blackburn-Evans said the complaint didn’t involve a student, but wouldn’t elaborate.
“Like with all faculty members at the university, freedom of speech is a core principle,” said Blackburn-Evans, “and so we absolutely acknowledge the right for any faculty member to hold their views, to share their views, but we also expect them to foster a learning environment, ultimately, that’s free from discrimination.”
Peterson has continued to state publicly he won’t use non-gendered pronouns — especially ones that have been created like “ze” and “zir” — which he said “compel the use of a particular kind of ideological language.”
“For me, personally, that’s the sticking point,” Peterson told the Star in a December interview in his west-end home. “I think that’s dangerous language. I don’t trust the people who formulated it. And I’m not going to be their mouthpiece because I know what they’re like.
“They’re power-mad people who use compassion as a disguise.”
When asked who those “people” are, he points the finger at U of T’s human resources and equity vice-president.
Prof. Kelly Hannah-Moffat was new to the equity job when the controversy broke out in September. Her office’s implementation of mandatory anti-racist and anti-bias training for HR staff — which was created after consultation with many parties including the university’s Black Liberation Collective, an activist group — also set Peterson off. The university declined to comment about Peterson’s accusations.
“She’s taking advice from the Black Liberation Collective, even though they’re perfectly willing to push violence as a solution to social problems,” said Peterson. “And even though their leader believes that white people are inferior because they don’t have enough melanin in their skin.”
The melanin reference is to a poem by Yusra Khogali — a U of T student who belongs to the collective — posted to Reddit last summer. The collective couldn’t be reached for comment.
Peterson made the first of his three controversial videos, “Professor against political correctness: Part 1,” in his home office and uploaded it to YouTube last September.
In it, he blames “radical left” members of the LGBTQ community for Bill C-16, which passed in the House and is now at the Senate. Peterson said the bill will force people to use the pronouns.
In the video, he lashes out against political correctness on campus, bashes “politically correct” human resources training, “pathological” HR departments and the people behind the doctrines as “resentful” and “uninformed.” He equates the radical left with Marxists who he says are no better than Nazis and says he won’t be the tool of a “murderous ideology.”
In an interview, he said he believes political correctness could lead to totalitarianism, which he began studying extensively in his teens during the Cold War when he was looking for answers to the psychology of religion.
The second video, posted about a week later, addressed what he calls the university’s “ill-advised” mandatory HR training. In the third, Peterson talked about a “peaceful” game he’s devised that will allow people to stand up to “PC extremists.”
Peterson’s wife, Tammy Peterson, said her husband has been talking about the “trouble” with political correctness for at least a decade and that his views aren’t new.
“Jordan writes things all the time. And he never writes anything different. It’s just that this time he did a YouTube video,” she said. “At the beginning it was disconcerting because he didn’t expect to have so much interest.”
What surprised them both, they said, was that his comments revealed a “big underbelly” of people who felt the same way about political correctness.
Tammy said he has received “massive support” and she quit working as a massage therapist to deal with interview requests from the press, about 180 since September.
American legal scholars such as Robert P. George, a professor at Princeton and an influential conservative Christian thinker, posted “I stand with Jordan Peterson” on Facebook. Some prominent newspaper columnists applauded him for his battle for free speech and academic freedom.
Meanwhile, messy scenes unfolded on campus. One rally to support Peterson attracted a white supremacist and a man wearing a Hells Angels jacket, according to the Varsity newspaper, and resulted in violence by the left and right. Violent threats were made against transgender students and faculty.
Other professors waded in.
“The people who (Peterson) has somehow burdened with his preoccupation with political correctness and free speech are actual victims,” said Ronald de Sousa, a retired prof who still teaches full time, including a course on the philosophy of sexuality.
De Sousa felt compelled to make a video of his own after his daughter, a second-year psychology student at U of T, read a story about Peterson.
Peterson has “had a kind of liberating effect on prejudice,” said de Sousa, which he likens to the effect that president-elect Donald Trump, who has also railed against political correctness, has had in the U.S.
Last November, when Jordan Peterson called UBC Prof. Mary Bryson “she” instead of “they” during a debate organized by U of T, he said he did it by mistake
To keep track of who was who, he kept open a page on his phone with the others’ names — Brenda Cossman, a professor of law at U of T, moderator Mayo Moran, also a U of T law professor, and Bryson, who he had been told goes by “they.”
When he used the wrong pronoun, the debate room went quiet, he said, but he never intended to be rude.
“You know, it’s a funny thing,” said Peterson, sitting in a leather chair in an extension he and Tammy had built on the third floor of their Toronto home, a section made to resemble an indigenous longhouse. Totem poles frame the living space, an ode to his love of West Coast art, which he began collecting years ago.
“There’s this strong compulsion to be polite,” Peterson continued. “And not to purposefully offend someone. And I think that polite compulsion is being hijacked by power-mad leftists.
“In fact I’m certain of it.”
It’s December, and Peterson and his wife have just returned from Palo Alto, Calif., where they visited his sister Bonnie, a nurse, and her husband, Jim Keller, an engineer who helped develop one of Apple’s iPhone chips.
The media frenzy hadn’t died down. While there, Peterson did a podcast with Joe Rogan, a U.S. comedian, actor and UFC announcer who has his own history of criticizing political correctness, according to Maxim magazine. Rogan, who used to host the television show Fear Factor, has millions of listeners.
Tammy is a couple of floors below in the kitchen, talking to her son Julian, 23, who returned in the fall after studying philosophy in Halifax for five years. The Petersons also have a daughter, Mikhaila, 25.
The couple first met when they were 8, living on the same street in Fairview, northern Alberta. They played with her science kit and Jordan taught her to play chess.
She said that even as a teenager, Jordan was “very intense.” “Most of the time he was reading.”
Their lives were intertwined in the town of 2,000. Peterson’s father was one of her elementary teachers. They went to the same high school in Fairview, which by then had become a “wild place,” said Tammy. Young men would come in from the oil rigs to drink in the bars, and drug deals took place on the tennis courts.
They both loved Sandy Notley, the librarian at their junior high school, who opened their world to books.
She introduced Peterson to 1984, Brave New World and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s book about a Soviet labour camp.
He spent a lot of time in the Notley home, getting to know Grant Notley, Sandy’s husband and leader of the Alberta NDP. Peterson sometimes joined double dates with their daughter Rachel, now the province’s premier.
And he shared the family’s politics.
“I was probably attracted by the essential idea of fairness, something like that,” he said, “interested in policies that were designed to help ordinary people.”
When he was 14, he ran for vice-president of the Alberta NDP. He attended party conventions and met Roy Romanow and Ed Broadbent. He sang the left-wing anthem “The Internationale” with labour leaders.
But around the age of 18, he became disillusioned with the “party functionaries,” although he still liked the leaders. “They were resentful, just like the social justice warriors” of today, Peterson said.
And he said he had a crisis of faith.
“I stopped believing that the philosophy that was embodied in socialism was sufficient to redress the problems that I felt were paramount,” said Peterson, who was becoming increasingly concerned about social conflict.
“I was obsessed by the Cold War,” he said. “I had nightmares about nuclear destruction on a regular basis. And by the time I was 17, that’s pretty much all I was ever thinking about.”
For years, he said, he focused on why “the world had turned itself into two armed camps that were threatening each other with final destruction.”
Peterson went to Grande Prairie College and began looking for answers to his questions, reading everything he could get his hands on and writing a book about the “architecture of belief,” called Maps of Meaning, which took him 15 years to complete. He still teaches a course on it today.
He and Tammy, who had gone their separate ways after high school (they were mostly just friends), linked up again in 1987 in Montreal, where Peterson was doing his PhD at McGill. Tammy earned a degree in kinesiology from the University of Ottawa.
The couple married in 1989 and Mikhaila was born a few years later. Peterson got a job as a visiting professor at Harvard and the family moved to the Boston area, where Julian was born.
But Peterson said he started looking for other work around the six-year mark because of the difficulty visiting professors had getting tenure at the Ivy League school. Peterson was offered a job at U of T.
In Toronto he teaches three courses and does some clinical practice, making $161,636 in 2015, according to Ontario’s Sunshine List. His support on Patreon will allow him to reduce some clinic hours and devote more time to videos, including a series on Solzhenitsyn and Orwell, among others.
Tammy said that before she married her husband, who she fully supports, she thought he was extremely interesting but “unwieldy.
“I thought, this guy … who knows which way things are going to go with him? Because his mind is so busy and his thoughts are so broad and controversial.”
There was little to indicate that this latest controversy would be so public.
Last summer, De Sousa and Peterson were part of a public panel at the International Network on Personal Meaning in Toronto, when, said de Sousa, an organizer apologized to the audience for not having any women on the panel. At which point, de Sousa said, Peterson “exploded and said ‘I completely disagree. I think this is completely ridiculous and I want to say that I completely disagree.’”
De Sousa said he has known Peterson for years and that he has always been “perfectly nice to me.” The two have had heated debates as public speakers, sometimes on TV and other times in front of audiences.
And yet, at the panel “I was so startled,” said de Sousa. “And of course it was this thing about political correctness that was brewing.
“I only realized later that he thought that saying that one should strive to have some sort of balance of sex on an academic panel is one of these things he regards as political correctness.”
In the U.S., political correctness has been blamed for punitive actions against professors, such as the firing of a Louisiana State University professor in 2015 because she “swore and used humour about sex when she was teaching about sexuality, often to capture her students’ attention,” according to the U.K.’s Telegraph.
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has said he was warned not to perform at colleges in the U.S. because they’re too PC.
The term has had various meanings, but today it’s often used by critics to denote a culture bent on not offending anyone.
There has been some trickle-down effect on Canadian campuses, but “surprisingly little given that our members, our faculty in Canada have enormous free speech, academic freedom rights,” said David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, which defends academic freedoms. Peterson’s case is one of three currently playing out in universities across Canada.
Despite Tammy’s doubts about Peterson even as a kid, she now understands “most of his complexities” and shares some of his ideas, specifically that allowing kids as young as 13 to choose their own gender will lead to “disaster.”
Peterson describes it as “crazy” and said allowing gender fluidity will lead to more “isolated” and “lonesome” kids who question their gender.
He has never come out and specifically said he believes non-gendered people can’t exist — but he’s hinted strongly.
“I don’t know what the options are if you’re not a man or a woman,” Peterson said in his first video. “It’s not obvious to me how you can be both because those are by definition binary categories.”
Bill C-16 will amend the Canadian Human Rights Act by adding “gender identity” and “gender expression” to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination. It will also amend the criminal code to protect against hate speech on those grounds.
Peterson argued that those additions to the federal act will compel him to use non-gendered pronouns because the Ontario Human Rights Code says pronouns are a way to express gender.
But “compel” may be too strong a word.
“The code doesn’t tell anyone to do anything like that. It’s a bit of a mischaracterization,” said Toby Young, a lawyer with the Human Rights Legal Support Centre.
“The fact is that you can’t use language, or speech, that is discriminatory.”
Jail would not be on the immediate horizon. If a complainant wins a case at the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, they can be awarded compensation paid by the other party.
Ontario has had the same provisions in its human rights code since 2012 and there has never been a case on pronouns heard by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. Hearings have typically been related to complaints where a person is seeking to have their gender reassigned on birth certificates or travel documents.
That isn’t to say a complaint couldn’t go forward.
A student could allege that a professor who refused to use non-gendered pronouns such as “they,” “ze” or “zir” upon request wasn’t fulfilling the duty to accommodate their gender expression, said Young.
But “you have to remember this hasn’t been tested,” he said. “There are no cases I know across Canada where there’s been any litigation on this. And certainly no decisions.”
Young also said litigation may not be the best route.
Many universities have human rights offices where complaints can be filed internally and dealt with through discussion, mediation or negotiation, he said.
U of T doesn’t have a human rights office, but the school has a number of equity offices on campus that work to avoid complaints in the first place, said spokesperson Althea Blackburn-Evans.
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