A Controversy at Two Canadian Universities about
the use of Gender-neutral, Personal
Pronouns. e.g.: they, co, ze, zer, zir, hir, mer, etc.
About gender-neutral pronouns:
Personal pronouns like "she" and "he" usually fit well when used to refer to cisgender females and males.
The term "cisgender" refers to about 99.6% of adults whose birth-identified sex, biological sex, and gender identity all match.
"Transgender" refers to those persons where their current gender identity differs from their birth-identified sex and/or biological sex.
However, there has been no generally accepted gender-neutral personal pronoun in wide usage. Such pronouns could be used to refer to persons who identify as female, male, neither gender, both genders or a third gender. They would be particularly useful, in at least three situations:
When a person's gender is unknown. Usually a person's first name will indicate their gender. However, some names are used by both genders. Examples are Alexis, Carol, Christian, Daryl, Gayle ... Sidney, Tracy, etc. Also, a person's first name may be unknown; perhaps only their initials are known. One of the reasons why the webmaster and main author of this web site identifies as "B.A. Robinson" is to remain gender-unknown in order to make tracing more difficult. This is a response to the death threats that the office occasionally receives because of its promotion of religious tolerance and coexistence.
When a transgender person does not currently identify as either male or female. They sometimes refer to themselves as "gender fluid":
A minority of transgender persons identify as neither male nor female. For them, gender is a meaningless term.
Others identify as an intermediate gender with female and male aspects; as having a third gender; or as switching from time to time between female and male.
When referring to some deities. For example, in the Bible, Yahweh is generally accepted as being neither female nor male. In the original Greek, the Holy Spirit is also referred to as neither male nor female in some Biblical passages in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament).
Sometimes the normally plural pronoun "they" is used to refer to a single individual, either male or female. But this often causes confusion because "they" normally refers to a situation involving multiple individuals.
As a result, some people are promoting the use of gender neutral personal pronouns.
For decades. the Twin Oaks intentional community has suggested "co/cos/coself" as a gender-neutral pronouns to replace "she/her/herself" and "he/his/himself." "Co" is made up of the first two letters of both "cooperate" and "community" -- both foundational principle at Twin Oaks. But it does not seem to have caught on widely. 9I will use these pronouns below (except in direct quotes) as an example of how they would appear in texts.
Others have suggested "She/he," "S/he," "Ze," "Zir" and "Zhe."
Controversy at the University of Toronto: The views of Professor Jordan Peterson:
2016-FALL: Peterson, 55, is a tenured psychology professor at the University of Toronto (U of T) in Ontario, Canada -- across Lake Ontario from Buffalo, NY. Co posted three videos on YouTube in which co said that co would no longer refer to transgender students and faculty by using gender-neutral personal pronouns, even if they had asked to be identified in that way. 1 Co did this in reaction to:
The federal bill C-16, which became law during 2016-MAY. It amended the Canadian Human Rights Act to add gender identity and gender expression to the list of forbidden forms of discrimination throughout the country. It also amended sections of the Criminal Code of Canada that dealt with hate propaganda, incitement to genocide, and aggravating factors in sentencing. 2
A human resources initiative at the U of T.
Co will not use "they" which has a long history of being used as non-gendered pronoun. Co also refuses to use gender-neutral pronouns that have recently come into relatively common use, such as "ze" and "zir." Referring to Professor Kelly Hannah-Moffat who is the university's human resources and equity vice-president, and others at the U of T, co said:
"For me, personally, that’s the sticking point. 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. ..."
She’s taking advice from the Black Liberation Collective, even though they’re perfectly willing to push violence as a solution to social problems. And even though their leader believes that white people are inferior because they don’t have enough melanin in their skin." 1
Some transgender persons, university faculty, student and labor unions criticized Professor Peterson, accusing co of helping to foster a climate of hatred.
Cassandra Williams, 21, a transgender student, is vice-president of university affairs for the U of T''s Student Union. Co said:
"A lot of trans students -- as a result of not only the climate but direct death threats they were receiving -- stopped going to class." 1
The total student enrollment at the U of T is on the order of 87,000 students. That would imply that on the order of 520 students there are transgender if the incidence rate of 0.6% holds for them as it apparently does for the general adult population according to the Williams Institute at UCLA. 11
Althea Blackburn-Evans, a U of T spokesperson, said:
"Like with all faculty members at the university, freedom of speech is a core principle, 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." 1
The U of T administration sent Peterson two letters. One referred to Canada's new human rights legislation. The other said that when co was asked to use a specific personal pronoun and refused, that that could be considered discrimination. 1
Controversy at Wilfrid Laurier University: Conflict over the use of an excerpt from a TV program in class:
2017-NOV: Lindsay Shepherd, 22, is a graduate student at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. In addition to cos role as a post-grad student, co leads tutorials on the use of language for first-year students who are in a communication studies course. On NOV-01, co showed two excerpts from a TV program to one of her classes: one less than two minutes long; the other less than three minutes. 12 It was part of "The Agenda" program on the provincial government's Ontario Educational Communications Authority (TVO) television channel. It featured two University of Toronto (U of T) professors:
Dr. Jordan Peterson, described above, who disapproves of the use of gender-neutral personal pronouns like "zie" and "zher," and refuses to use them.
Dr. Nicholas Matte, another U of T professor, who approves of the use of such pronouns.
After viewing the brief clip, the class discussed the topic. Later, an anonymous student in the class complained to someone at the Rainbow Centre who in tern passed the complaint to the U of T administration. 12 Shepherd was asked to attend a meeting with Laurier Professor Nathan Rambukkana, Professor Herbert Pimlott, and Adria Joel, a diversity and equity official. They felt that her seminar was "transphobic" and created "a toxic environment," because it exposed students to both points of view. They concluded that she should have presented only a positive view in favor of the use of gender-neutral pronouns. 3
Shepherd defended cos position, saying that a university is exactly the location where students should be exposed to all points of view in a neutral manner, Professor Rambukkana disagreed. Co said that presenting the anti-transgender point of view:
"... is like neutrally playing a speech by Hitler."
Co noted that the U of T campus was being:
"blanketed with white supremacist posters." 3
Laurier Professor Pimlott also disagreed with the use of the program excerpt, saying that Peterson's views were "academically suspect," like a person who denies climate change or a white supremacist. Co said:
"To present as if there's two sides to a debate when there substantially is not ... that becomes problematic. ... We are legitimizing positions that don't have credible evidence. ... I would find it problematic if my tutorial leaders were representing positions that didn't have any substantial academic credibility. ...I'll have to talk everything over with my colleagues. ... Hopefully everything can continue, and we can continue to have a working relationship. Frankly some of the things we talked about are a little bit problematic and we need to process them."
Shepherd was concerned that co might lose her teaching assistant job. Co said:
"If this trend continues of radical leftist indoctrination, I'm not really interested in being a part of that. Universities are no longer places where ideas may freely circulate -- they are places where if you even bring up the 'wrong' ideas (ideas they do not consider politically correct), you are labeled as some sort of public enemy. Universities are no longer places where one can engage with controversial ideas. They are echo chambers for left-wing ideology. I now feel so completely alienated from the university as an institution." 3
Mark Mercer is the president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS). 10 It is a Canadian non-profit group that promotes academic freedom and intellectual excellence on Canadian university campuses. Co posted a comment on the Society's web site, saying:
"Showing a video of an academic stating an academic position can stimulate students to develop thoughtful responses to ideas with which they might disagree. This can promote intellectual resilience and independence." 3
A Laurier University professor of religion and culture, Dave Haskell, said that co was "shocked" that few other U of T professors have supported Shepherd. Co specifically opposes:
"... teaching students what to think," instead of teaching them: "how to think. ... [Then] you've ceased to perform the function of a university. ... It's cult-like behavior." 3
Shepherd's censure was widely covered by the press in articles that were highly critical of the Laurier University. Co had taken the precaution of discreetly recording the meeting with the two Laurier professors and the university official:
The full recording is available on the Macleans magazine web site. 12
After hearing the tape, Laurier President, Deborah MacLatchy said:
"The conversation I heard does not reflect the values and practices to which Laurier aspires." 5
President MacLatchy formally apologized to Lindsay Shepherd and indicated that the university is proceeding with a third-party investigation of the matter. 5
Professor Rambukkana issued an open letter to indicate cos regrets for "how the meeting we had proceeded." In retrospect, Rambukkana felt that co should have been more supportive of Shepherd during the meeting. Co wrote:
"... in not also prioritizing my mentorship role as the course director and your supervisor, I didn’t do enough to try to support you in this meeting, which I deeply regret. I should have seen how meeting with a panel of three people would be an intimidating situation and not invite a productive discussion. Had I tried harder to create a situation more conducive to talking these issues through, things might have gone very differently, but alas I did not." 8
Subsequently, a group of professors at Wilfrid Laurier University suggested that the university formally adopt a freedom of expression resolution that would maximize:
"... freedom of expression on campus within the bounds of the law and operations of the university." 6
Spokesperson for the group, David Millard Haskell, is a professor of religion and culture. Co said:
"What we've seen our administration offer so far in its treatment of Lindsay Shepherd suggests to us that it does not believe freedom of expression and freedom of inquiry is the primary function of a university, and that worries us." 6
The professors would like the university to adopt a statement modeled on one developed by the University of Chicago. It also has been adopted by a number of other U.S. universities. It would be called: "The Laurier Statement for Freedom of Expression."
2017-NOV-28: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologizes to the LGBT community:
In a statement that was apparently unrelated to the events at Laurier University, Prime Minister Trudeau issued a formal apology to the LGBT community in Canada saying sorry for decades of:
"... state-sponsored, systematic oppression and rejection. ... You are professionals. You are patriots. And above all, you are innocent. And for all your suffering, you deserve justice, and you deserve peace. It is our collective shame that you were so mistreated. And it is our collective shame that this apology took so long -– many who suffered are no longer alive to hear these words. And for that, we are truly sorry."
A group of petitions were generated on Change.org:
The controversy at the University of Toronto and Wilfrid Laurier University has triggered petitions at Change.org. The Toronto Star newspaper describes this web site as the place: "where people normally go to sign petitions to stop wars and change the world...” The New York Times calls it: “the go-to site for Web uprisings."
"L.A.: of Edmonton petitions for support of Lindsay Shepherd ... because academic freedom depends on our support. Received 336 signatures as of 2017-NOV-24.
William McNally, an associate professor of finance at Wilfred Laurier University petitions for Laurier to adopt the University of Chicago statement. Received 875 signatures in its first seven days.
JustCallMeAbraham petitions to protect free speech on Canadian university campuses. Received 48 signatures.
Further developments during 2017-DEC:
Life Site News published an article on 2017-DEC-21 titled: "Grad student’s accusers lied: no student complained of 'transphobic' video." They reported that:
"WLU Laurier president Deborah MacLatchey announced Monday [DEC-18] that a report by independent investigator and lawyer Robert Centa found no student filed a complaint against Shepherd for showing a video clip about gender neutral pronouns."
Lindsay Shepherd was relieved by Centa's report. She said:
"As much as people criticize students for being snowflakes, it turns out it was the professors. ... [Without the report] I would have gone through my whole life thinking I offended someone and really hurt someone, and I violated policies, and it would not have been true. ... It’s a complete abuse of their power to pretend that someone had complained.”
Also, on DEC-18, twenty Laurier faculty members released an open letter supporting their three colleagues who had interrogated Ms. Shepherd, It says, in part:
"We reject efforts of those who have seized this episode as a strategic opportunity to disparage disciplines and scholars with commitments to improving social and economic equality within universities and in society at large."
Clifford Orwin, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, wrote:
"Ms. Shepherd’s hectorers were lying to her, like cops trying to extract a confession from a suspect. ... They knew they were lying to her. ... With the stunning revelation that there never were student complainants against teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd –- not even one –- the reputation of Wilfrid Laurier University should hit rock bottom."14
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
Patty Winsa, "He says freedom, they say hate. The pronoun fight is back," Toronto Star, 2017-JAN-15, at: https://www.thestar.com/
"An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code," Wikipedia, as on 2017-NOV-18, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/
Luisa D'Amato, "WLU censures grad student for lesson that used TVO clip," Waterloo Region Record, 2017-NOV-14, at: https://www.therecord.com/