A spectre is haunting the world, the spectre of gender-neutral pronouns. You can ignore the rise of the right-wing populist politics of Trump, Farage and Le Pen, everyone. The greatest threat to our right to free speech comes from those cultural Marxist loons trying to enforce political correctness on us. At least, that’s according to University of Toronto psychology professor, Jordan Peterson, who’s caused quite a fuss by refusing to address transgendered students by using their preferred alternate pronouns (‘they’, ‘ze’, etc.). Mr. Peterson has suggested that gender-neutral pronouns, and other ‘attempts to control the ideological and linguistic territory’, united under the umbrella of political correctness, are the initial thrusts in a massive Marxist offensive designed to deprive us of our freedom of speech, by preventing us from being deliberately and obstinately rude to each other. Presumably, at the end of the Cold War, the leaders of the Soviet Union, knowing the end was near, plotted to topple world capitalism by infiltrating Western universities with political correctness. This is just the beginning, warns Mr. Peterson, if we don’t act now, the regressive left will assimilate us like the sci-fi villains they are!
Taking a more serious approach, Canada’s House of Commons recently passed a bill (Bill C-16) to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act, which makes it illegal for the federal government to discriminate on the basis of gender identity and expression. Mr. Peterson’s argument is essentially that Bill C-16 and other forms of political correctness are attacks on freedom of speech. By not using gender-neutral pronouns when asked, Mr. Peterson fears that under the new law he’s in danger of being shipped off to the nearest gulag for re-education. Now, this would perhaps be a valid point if his fears were substantiated. They aren’t. Under Bill C-16, according to law professor at the University of Ottawa, Kyle Kirkup, “using an inappropriate pronoun […] would [n]ever result in a criminal conviction”. As mentioned earlier, the amendment only prohibits government entities from discriminating against transgendered people, along the same lines as it prohibits discrimination for reasons of race, gender, religion and sexual-orientation. It doesn’t affect private businesses (that is for the individual provinces within Canada to decide) or universities. His appeal to free speech doesn’t hold much weight, because he isn’t being targeted by the government. Private entities are perfectly able to ignore his opposition to political correctness on the grounds of free speech, because free speech is a right granted only by the government. Dr. Peterson is under no governmental threat if he keeps on refusing to use gender-neutral pronouns.
But that isn’t to say that his stance on the matter is correct. For some bizarre reason, gender-neutral pronouns have become a target for people tired of political correctness to rail against. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of visiting one of the many cesspools of the internet like the YouTube and the Daily Mail comment sections (I personally find the cathartic rage therapeutic), you’ve probably encountered some randomer banging on about how ‘they’ is always plural. Except, ‘random Daily Mail strawman’, ‘they’ isn’t always plural. ‘They’ has been used in the singular since the 1300s, and, even if it hadn’t been, it’d still be grammatically correct. Linguistics has moved away from the unscientific Victorian pretensions of prescriptivism, towards descriptivism. If a sufficient number of native English speakers intuitively understand the singular qualities of ‘they’, then, linguistically, the use of singular ‘they’ is correct. Under the previous logic, using ‘you’ in the singular instead of ‘thou’ would also be wrong. Obviously, most people don’t run around like they’re part of some Shakespearean troupe, so we have clear everyday evidence that plural pronouns can naturally become singular.
Mr. Peterson has said that he’s perfectly content with referring to transgendered staff and students by their preferred pronoun. That is, as long as these preferred pronouns happen to be ‘he’ or ‘she’. This suggests that he isn’t perhaps a complete bellend, but, in the words of his colleague, Dr. Lee Airton, “[he is] very publicly working through [his] own lack of familiarity or understanding of trans people’s otherwise fairly ordinary lives”. It’s a bit like if a professor offered to call you Michael or Mike, but your name happened to be James. It’s all very nice that you’re being offered a choice, but you don’t happen to identify with any of them. Except, it’s more serious than that, because this discrimination isn’t driven by eccentricity or forgetfulness. It’s driven by Dr. Peterson’s prejudice against trans people. By forcing his, some would argue outdated, perceptions of gender onto trans people, he is creating a hostile environment for them. I think everyone should be able to agree, no university professor should be willingly and consciously creating such an environment for their students and colleagues.