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I’m with Voltaire

April 18, 2017

It’s not often these days that anything on The National (the CBC’s nightly news programme) gets me thinking, but last night one segment did.

The segment was about freedom of speech – or lack thereof – at today’s universities. The focus was on three individuals: a young man at Ryerson who was vilified for wanting to start a men’s issues group, a young woman at the University of Alberta who was vilified for attempting to hold a “pro-life” demonstration, and the now infamous University of Toronto professor whose refusal to use gender neutral pronouns has made the news across the country.

Let’s start with Ryerson. Yes, the patriarchy held sway in western culture for millennia and, yes, the women’s movement was a long overdue fight back against this. This doesn’t mean that young men today don’t genuinely have issues of their own and wishing to get together to talk about these issues does not ipso facto make the group members “misogynistically anti-feminist”.  The Ryerson student union refused to give this group accreditation and thus they are forced to meet in whatever tiny room they can find. Nearly half the members of the group are young women who genuinely wanted to learn more about the issues challenging men. These guys were not discussing the best way to get a girl incapacitated in order to sexually assault her. They weren’t dressing in loin cloths and beating drums. They were talking about the role of men and boys in modern society. And why the hell shouldn’t they be allowed to do so with as much accreditation as the vegan group I’m sure must exist? Kudos to the young women who joined the group.

At the University of Alberta, a young woman wanted to put up a large and disturbing photo display of foetuses in bottles to make the point that they looked like real babies who’d been denied life by the evil of abortion. Let me be clear here. I believe to my core in a woman’s right to choose when and if she will have children. I think the termination of an unwanted pregnancy is no different than the surgical removal of a tumour. I’ve seen displays like this and they infuriate me. What a woman does with her body is no one’s business but her own. Although it was not specified in the segment last night, I can only assume that the young woman and the other members of her “pro-life” group are devout Christians. Are they entitled to believe that abortion is a sin? Whether or not I agree with them, regretfully I must concede that they are.

The response to this display was a counter demonstration staged by a large number of students who came out with pro-choice placards to block all view of the “babies in bottles” images. (Good for them.)  Things apparently got rather heated and the upshot was that the young woman who organised the display was told that her group would have to pay $17,500 for security if they wanted to stage another demonstration. I have to admit (as much as I disagree with her opinions) I did agree with her when she said this amounted to pricing small groups like hers out of their right to freedom of speech.

And then we come to that UofT psychology professor Jordan Peterson. He has become something of a hero to right wing columnists for his refusal to use third person plural pronouns to refer to individuals. The more I read about and see of the professor, the easier it is to conclude that he is a vile, probably transphobic individual. Which makes agreeing with him about anything rather uncomfortable. But I do and thus I step cautiously into a minefield.

Here goes…  Okay, I admit it: I am a language and grammar pedant – and mighty proud to be so. “They” is the English language word you use to refer to multiple people. It is not the word you use to refer to an individual. I’m sorry if I’m causing offence to anyone, but as far as I’m concerned dem’s de rules. End of.

That said, I am exceedingly happy to embrace and use new words, which are regularly introduced into the language.

Back in the 1970s, when women rebelled against forms of address reflective of marital status, a new form of address was invented: Ms. I immediately and enthusiastically adopted its usage. As far as I’m concerned being identified by my marital status is deeply offensive. So I absolutely understand and support the insistence of trans individuals that being referred to by gender-specific personal pronouns is unacceptable to them.

For some time the idea has been floated of introducing a new personal pronoun, “ze”, into the language. Oxford, Harvard and many other academic institutions are happy to accept this as a chosen pronoun. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing the various forms would be ze, zis and zim, which, at the risk of sounding flippant about a serious subject, sound pretty damn zippy to me.

This, of course, would fail to satisfy Professor Peterson, whose views on gender fluidity are rigidly negative. But it would make language pedants like myself very happy indeed.

Meanwhile, should Professor Peterson – or any other individual whose point of view is deeply offensive to many – be banned from speaking on other campuses? Or shouted down when they attempt to speak? No they should not. Boycott the event or stand at the back with a placard denouncing their offensive opinions. When they’ve finished, debate, discuss and feel free to mock. If there is one things haters hate it’s being a laughingstock.

I’m with Voltaire. Although he never actually said “I disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, he did say this: “Think for yourselves, and allow others the privilege to do so, too.”

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PS I just checked. The variations of ze (or zie) are actually supposed to be zir and zirs. Personally I prefer mine.

Here are some other proposals.

personal pronouns

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