I am a theoretical physics professor based at the University of Toronto (UofT) in Ontario, Canada. Since I started my doctoral studies in 1990, I have made increasing efforts to educate myself about addressing the chilly university physics climate for women, disabled people, trans people, and other equity-seeking groups. More recently, I have started to do better at supporting the liberation of underrepresented minorities of which I am/was not a member, and at making broader links on and off campus.
There is a long history of people working towards social justice at UofT. In 2015, the Black Liberation Collective made twelve demands to the UofT administration with the goal of addressing longstanding anti-Black racism at our institution. Their fifth demand was that professors, among others, be required to do equity and anti-oppression training. The idea that the university might respond to this positively in 2016 apparently enraged a conservative professor of psychology named Jordan B. Peterson (JBP). He started posting incendiary polemical videos to his YouTube channel, and proceeded to ignite a social media and news media firestorm in late September 2016.
On Wed.28.Sep.2016, Tom Yun of The Varsity broke the story about JBP's trans antagonism and his brazen opposition to Bill C-16, federal trans rights legislation. Sean Craig of the National Post picked up on it the same day. When I read these articles while walking home from dinner that night, I got angry and decided to do something about it. It occurred to me that if a local psychology prof can use his UofT Full Professor bully pulpit to stir up anti-trans hate, then maybe I can use mine to do the exact opposite -- only better, I hoped. So I went on a trans-supportive tweet rant, and sent a rebuttal of JBP's reported opinions to Craig. Parts of my rebuttal were reported by the National Post the next morning. An avalanche of interviews followed, by over a dozen reporters (including multiple journalism students), for print, web, radio, and TV, mostly on Thu.29.Sep.2016, Fri.30.Sep.2016, and Tue.04.Oct.2016. The following are the resulting articles/interviews that I feel represented my point of view reasonably fairly:-
Other newspapers wrote some constructive pieces (without interviewing me) which also deserve to be listed: Torontoist (Fri.30.Sep.2016, by Al Donato, which quoted me), Torontoist op-ed (Tue.04.Oct.2016, by S.W. Underwood and Ben Vincent), The Star (Mon.10.Oct.2016, editorial, which quoted me at the end), and The Varsity (Wed.12.Oct.2016, by Jack Denton).
As a result of speaking out publically against anti-trans hate and in favour of inclusion on campus, I endured months of harassment from JBP and his disciples and supporters. Attackers came at me via twitter, email, text message, and telephone in the middle of the night. They posted many outright untruths, and anything they perceived as unflattering that they could find online. One of them descended to making a neo-Nazi threat by quoting Adolf Hitler at me one day after the Trans Day of Remembrance. Most of the harassment and abuse was acute, but a few JBP stans continued chronically for well over a year. Other more vulnerable folks at UofT endured even worse harassment and abuse. UofT announced that police would investigate in mid-October when trans students were threatened.
Students mobilized in response to JBP's bigotry by organizing a Rally and Teach-In at Sid Smith on Wed.05.Oct.2016, among other events. The Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies organized a Trans-Positive Teach-In on Thu.06.Oct.2016, featuring a panel of experts and people with pertinent lived experience, including me. Among the material I shared there was a little video I made centred on an analogy between coming to terms with particle/wave duality in quantum mechanics and coming to terms with nonbinary gender identities. Other UofT teachers also responded; here are two great examples. Dr. Nicholas Matte wrote this: How do we respond to Transphobia and Cisnormativity on the part of University of Toronto faculty?. Prof. Brenda Cossman wrote this: Bill C-16 – No, its Not about Criminalizing Pronoun Misuse. (There was also a funny response from a U.Penn PhD student in linguistics here.)
How do you rein in a professor who is clearly crossing the line on human decency? In early October, the Chair of Psychology wrote a letter to JBP warning him to pull up his socks. On Tue.18.Oct.2016, almost three weeks after his tyre fire ignited, the UofT Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science, David Cameron, and the Vice-Provost for Faculty and Academic Life, Siobhan Nelson, weighed in, warning him in writing to comply with UofT equity policies and the Ontario Human Rights Code. On Thu.20.Oct.2016, Metro reported that over 250 UofT faculty members signed a letter condemning JBP's transphobia and racism and anonymous threats made against marginalized students.
Later on, when UofT sponsored a Sat.19.Nov.2016 Forum on Bill C-16 featuring JBP debating experts Brenda Cossman and Mary Bryson, I boycotted the event in favour of hanging out with trans students. I felt it was seriously bad trans allyship to (a) platform a known cis bigot one day before the annual Trans Day of Remembrance on Sun.20.Nov.2016, and (b) act as if trans human rights were up for debate in the first place. They weren't. JBP was full of false equivalences, post-truths, and desperate attempts to hang onto sixty year old theories about psychology and sociology. The world has moved past centring him and his ilk, and he is beginning to understand that fact. His best strategy would be to upgrade his human decency circuits, not to insist that we must all go back to the 1950s.
In spring/summer of 2017, higher education reporter Simone Chiose did a deeper investigation into the timeline of JBP's rise to fame and fortune. As part of her work, she interviewed me. Chris Selley also wrote a piece.
On 15.Jun.2017, federal Bill C-16 protecting trans and gender nonconforming Canadians with federal human rights legislation passed its third reading in the Senate, and it attained royal assent on 19.Jun.2017. (This was five years to the day since royal assent was attained for Toby's Act, Bill C-33, in Ontario.) JBP had testified against the federal Bill C-16 vociferously, doing his level best to spike it. Our trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming revenge is knowing that he was on the wrong side of history.
Even as we savour the Bill C-16 victory, we must continue to be vigilant about protecting the human rights of marginalized Canadians and pushing consistently for further improvements in social justice. In particular, we should be advocating for greater access to material necessities of life (housing, food, health care, employment, ...) for trans people, rather than just talking about pronouns! And we should be challenging the rise of fascism with every ounce of energy we have available.
In July 2017, JBP released a YouTube video discussing his plan to launch an AI-backed website blacklist of university teachers and courses that discuss progressive ideas he believes to be dangerous. Several weeks later, a group of UofT professors who would be targeted on the basis of their specific expertise wrote a concerned letter to the administration, and the Faculty Association weighed in. The issue got picked up by mainstream media on Fri.10.Nov.2017 after Press Progress broke the story. CBC asked me for another interview, and I did one, panning the whole concept. Not long afterwards, JBP announced he was pulling back from this plan.
In late 2017, JBP published a self-help book aimed at the alt-right market and went on a book tour. Here are some critiques of his scholarship, strategy, and ideology, listed by author (all of whom were harassed by his fans). As of late June 2019, there are 127 of them.
In August 2019, this study clearly showed that YouTube content produced by the so-called I.D.W. -- which includes JBP -- is indeed a radicalization pathway towards right-wing extremism. This confirms what trans justice activists have been saying for awhile now.