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English review - Pronouns and Peterson: The Fallout Over Gender and Speech

Hosted at LUX, the documentary “Shut Him Down: The Rise of Jordan Petersonwas screened to a sold-out auditorium. After the screening, philosopher Maïté Tjon A Hie led a discussion between clinical psychologist Jan Derksen, affiliated with Radboud University and the Free University of Brussels, and philosopher Katrine Smiet, assistant professor in Gender and Diversity at Radboud University.

Shut Him Down: The Rise of Jordan Peterson

Patricia Marcoccia’s documentary follows Peterson’s activities surrounding the introduction of Bill C-16, an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act, which adds gender expression and gender identity to the list of groups protected from discrimination. Peterson considers this bill part of an authoritarian left-wing movement to control speech: “The changes to the law scare me. I can envision a student or a colleague insisting that I call them using gender neutral pronouns. I’m not doing that. I don’t recognise another person’s right to determine what pronouns I use to address them.” Following his first YouTube video, we see the initial ‘rise’ of Peterson at the first rally he attends. Students, concerned with the problem of freedom of speech, flock to him. Counter protestors, many of whom are transgender, disrupt the rally- a trend we see throughout the documentary.

Peterson goes on to claim that the issue is “only nominally about sexual politics. It’s about language that’s designed to control our freedom of expression” and opposes those who wish to “demolish” gender, which he believes to be a fundamental category that we use to position ourselves in society. Peterson is worried about chaos in society and would much rather see us all lead ordered lives. Hence his Twelve Rules for Life and its book tour, which spans most of the second half of the documentary. This bestselling self-help book teaches people how to lead ordered, meaningful lives.

An Audience Divided

Following the documentary, a question was posed to the audience: by a show of hands, who is in general agreement or disagreement with Jordan Peterson? A clear majority showed their agreement, while very few indicated disagreement. This immediately foregrounded a question that would come to characterise the debate: what does Peterson’s success say about the underlying relations between different groups in society? As discussion progressed, the divide between both the audience members and the speakers grew more pronounced and polarised as the opposition depicted in the documentary spilled over from the screen into the seats.

Initial Responses from the Speakers

According to Jan Derksen, Peterson’s personality appears in the documentary as a kind of “blank screen” onto which people project their own insecurities and ambiguities concerning identity. Katrine Smiet responded by referring to this strong identification with the figure of Peterson as a “cult phenomenon”. Both speakers agreed that the documentary failed to focus on the content of Peterson’s ideas in order to clarify why Peterson is such a polarising figure.

Freedom of Speech

The discussion then turned to Peterson’s objection to allowing Bill C-16 to curtail freedom of speech and that it should be kept free of “gender politics”. Smiet argued that it is clear that gender is in fact “fundamental to Peterson’s worldview” and that Peterson takes a “binary conception of gender to be a fundamental ordering principle.” Smiet also argued that Peterson has fundamentally misconstrued the nature of Bill C-16, which does not force anyone to use the preferred pronouns, but only recognises discrimination in this regard. Thus, the bill does not violate freedom of speech. In agreement with Smiet, Derksen stated that Peterson has “victimised himself” and provides no scientific evidence for his views on gender.

Anxiety and Identity

Derksen emphasised that sexual identity, once a repressed or deeply private matter, has become increasingly public in the past forty years. The fundamental organising principles of traditional culture are losing their assumed validity and dominance, which has provoked a “fearful anxiety” in Peterson. The most important question of our time, Derksen continued, is whether “we are able to productively manage the anxiety that emerges when conservative principles break down.”

Smiet responded to this, by posing and answering a second question: “who is threatened and scared by this breakdown of conservative principles?”- young, white men who have been displaced from their social dominance and to whom Peterson presents an appealing narrative, in which they are the heroes who must restore order. Derksen agreed that Peterson’s popularity can be explained, in this sense, as being a paternal guide.

Questions from the Audience

Disagreements between Smiet and Derksen concerning the social and biological aspects of gender quickly arose. Smiet argued that the binary biological division to which gender is usually referred does not hold and that gender is a social construct. However, in response to the question “what system would fit reality better than a binary concept of gender?” Derksen stated that most people are satisfied and identify with the binary. Derksen furthermore claimed that masculinity, which is associated with activity, and femininity which is associated with passivity, is present in each individual to varying degrees.

Smiet, disagreeing strongly, contested that the binary of gender is something that we have all been subjected to and thus only appears to fit the majority. She argued that the idea of femininity as being passive, contributes to the continued oppression of women. A tense exchange followed between Smiet and an audience member who confronted Smiet by asking her whether she could name one right that women do not (yet) have. He held that men and women have equal rights by law and that oppression was not a rights issue. This sparked fierce debate, which intensified by a response from the audience, that Peterson advocates returning women to a passive position.


The event came to a close with an audience member asserting their “support for Peterson as a woman” in view of “his positive encouragement for individual identity”, and a final remark from the moderator that, at the very least, we can agree with Peterson’s call to take responsibility in our communities. The community present at the event, however, remained clearly divided over the figure of Jordan Peterson.

This report was written by Jason Day and Michael Grooff, as part of the Research Master Philosophy of the Radboud University.