Human Rights and Compelled Speech

Posted August 1, 2018
By Anne McNeilly

The broad-shouldered man sitting in a front-row chair leaned over and looked fiercely at me.  “I’m a mean guy.” He looked as though he could snap logs in half with his bare hands.

When I unexpectedly laughed, his features softened. He said he was also a “helper,” attending what was advertised recently as a “compelled speech” panel, in case security needed support dealing with protesters.  He pointed to the security men, who were wearing suits but standing alertly, at each corner of the large auditorium packed with more than 700 people.

Fortunately, there were no protesters, just an interested, respectful audience. Unfortunately, this is what it has come to – security is now required at a panel discussion about Bill C-16.

Describing the event as being about “compelled speech” was also unfortunate because the bill does not “compel” anyone’s speech.

The bill amends The Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code such that gender identity and gender expression are included in a range of categories, including race,  language, colour, religion, sex, sexual orientation,  age, physical disability,  that protect people from discrimination.

Some trans people, who identify as neither male nor female, may prefer not to be identified as “he” or “she,”  but Bill C-16 does not make it illegal to do so.  It may be insensitive or offensive to refer to someone this way, but it is not illegal.  And suggesting that the bill, and the law, now force people to speak in a certain way is incorrect.  

Panelist Jared Brown, who appeared last year in front of the Senate along with Jordan Peterson - UofT ‘s high-profile professor objecting to the bill  - said his concern with the bill is that the government now  “compels” people to speak in a certain way and gives it the power to interfere with free speech, which sets a dangerous precedent.

The law does not prevent people from continuing to use “he” and/or “she,” but the bill does protect people who don’t identify as a “he” or a “she” from being discriminated against - an important distinction.

And this was perhaps the main problem with this panel of speakers, that included journalist Barbara Kay, Lindsay Shepherd and neuroscientist Debra Soh – there was no one on the panel who could or would clarify what the bill does and doesn’t do.  As a result, people in that packed auditorium likely left with wrong information, even though the speakers announced at the start that they were delivering “facts,” and not talking about vague “feelings.”

Sarina Singh, who organized and moderated the panel against “compelled” speech for its second year, incorrectly described Bill C-16 as “proof” that free speech is under assault.   Free speech may be under assault due to political correctness, but it is not under assault because of this bill, which simply adds trans people to a wide range of categories, to prevent discrimination against them.

The specific problem here is that the English language, unlike many others, has no gender- neutral pronouns.  UofT’s Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist who has expressed concerns about the bill, is on record as not having any objections to using “them,” “their” or “ “zie” pronouns if asked.

News publications are still wrestling with this question.  The New Yorker, for example, has not made the transition to using gender neutral pronouns, although its chief copy editor, Mary Norris, is clear she is in favour.  John McIntyre, language guru and columnist (“You Don’t Say”) at the Baltimore Sun is all for it.

In Canada, The Canadian Press, which is the style guide for newspapers across the country, has yet to adopt gender-neutral pronouns to avoid confusion for many (often older) readers and those in smaller communities who may not yet be aware of the controversy, according to Stephen Meurice, CP’s editor-in-chief.

My own view is that language evolves, often rapidly, and this issue will resolve itself as the gender-neutral pronoun “they” becomes more widely used in the singular context.  Using gender-neutral pronouns is a sign of respect and consideration for those who don’t identify as CIS gender.  (According to Debra Soh, the majority of people – she cited 99.9  per cent - are CIS gender, which means their gender identity matches the sex they had at birth.)

Panelist Lindsay Shepherd, the Wilfrid Laurier teaching assistant who was censured late last year by two university faculty members for showing, without taking sides, her first-year class of undergrads a TVO debate featuring Peterson, was also critical of  Bill C-16.   And National Post columnist and panelist Barbara Kay, who was dismissed as a commentator from a CBC radio show for “incorrect remarks,” told the audience that the panel discussion was moved to Toronto’s Christian College in Thorncliffe, far from subways and public transportation, because there was a protest when it was originally slated for Toronto’s downtown Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA).  Panelist Singh said she received death threats on e-mail while putting the panel together.

Pronouns have now become so controversial that panelist Shepherd said her 10-year-old sister was reprimanded at a math camp this summer for inadvertently referring to a friend as “she.” Students must, at all times refer to their fellow campers by name, and only their name.  “She” and “he” are forbidden words.

Shepherd was also critical of guidelines released by Alberta’s teachers’ union that suggest calling students “comrades” rather than “boys” and “girls.”  My own elementary  teachers used to just say:  “Okay, people, time to  . . . .”  No muss, no fuss.

Shepherd urged the audience to call out authoritarianism wherever, and whenever, it manifests – in this case, it’s the teachers’ union.

Moderator Singh told the audience that power is held by those you are afraid to say no to – clearly teachers have more power than their students, but it is not the government here, or anything in this bill, that is telling students how to talk.

Living freely means allowing the debate between those who agree and disagree about issues involving free speech to discuss it without rancour, violence or threat.

To many people, on both sides of the pronoun debate, this is anything but a “trivial” issue.  All the more reason to promote tolerance, acceptance and education.