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Several hundred students attended the rally protesting Jordan Peterson’s view on genderless pronouns.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

No one can accuse Jordan Peterson of being an academic wallflower. The University of Toronto psychology professor has more than 10,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel, has spoken at TED conferences, debated religion and gender on TV and boasts more than 20,000 Twitter followers.

Compared with those media, academic words have limited reach, he says.

"I wrote a book in 1999. If 3,000 people have read it, including my students, it would be a shock to me," Dr. Peterson said. "I did a talk on Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky. I have 100,000 views. I'm not going to get that in a lecture."

But it was not until last week that Dr. Peterson hit the media mainstream.

That is when he posted a video saying he would not use genderless pronouns – "they" – if asked to do so by a student. Laws that would force him to are partly the result of lobbying from a "sophisticated radical fringe," he said, and infringe his academic freedom.

Indeed, under Ontario human rights law, like that in other provinces, ignoring such a request is a form of gender discrimination. The federal government's Bill 16, aimed at protecting transgendered and transsexual people, would ban such discrimination nationally. It's still at first reading.

From every corner of the university, the criticism has been swift.

Transgendered students and supporters organized a protest and rally where they discussed their experiences this week; other professors have criticized his understanding of gender as a binary category, responding on Twitter, YouTube and in their own classes. The university said it would investigate any complaints that may be launched against Dr. Peterson. (So far, none has been filed.)

In a meeting, his own department chair told Dr. Peterson that he must respect the law.

"I reminded him that every single employee of the University of Toronto is expected to make sure that their actions fall within the Ontario Human Rights Code," said Susanne Ferber, the chair of psychology. "At the same time, he should be mindful of the impact of our words and our actions on our students."

Instead of backing down, Dr. Peterson has made more videos – in the last, released Wednesday, he markets a line of stickers opposing political correctness that he says is available on eBay.

His critics question his respect for his students.

"He does not understand it; he's never felt it," said Reilly Marston, a student in linguistics at U of T who attended the rally Wednesday. "No one has ever said, '[a] man – that's not a real thing.' You can receive ridicule to the point where you kill yourself."

Dr. Peterson is swimming against a national movement of increased recognition for transgendered students across the country.

In Ontario, university application forms allow students to identify as "another gender identity"; many campuses have gender-neutral washrooms; others, including the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Victoria, include gender identity among the grounds of prohibited discrimination. In the face of surveys that show almost 40 per cent of trans people have faced job discrimination and a quarter have been assaulted, such measures aim to create a welcoming environment on campus.

Yet insofar as Dr. Peterson's opposition has found support, it may be because it taps into decades-long battles on campus over language and who gets to define acceptable speech. From controversy over the value of the words of dead white males, the debate has transformed into one over who has the right to speak at all. Last month, for example, author Lionel Shriver caused a tempest for a speech in which she defended "cultural appropriation" – the use of symbols that belong to one culture by those from a different culture.

On language, Dr. Peterson is an absolutist.

"I think that people need to be able to say whatever they want no matter how outrageous," he said.

Human-rights codes force bigots into silence only temporarily and can even create them, he argued.

"Things have been pushed so far to the left that there is non-productive activity being generated on the right, and it has a propensity toward violence," he said.

For his critics, the professor is the one using language to widen the fault lines. Ronald de Sousa, an emeritus professor of philosophy at U of T who has posted a YouTube rebuttal to Dr. Peterson, says he does not believe Dr. Peterson himself is bigoted.

But "what he has done is unfortunately reminiscent of what [Republican presidential candidate Donald] Trump has done in the United States and that is woken up a whole lot of prejudice, not to say bigotry," he said.

A.W. Peet, a physics professor who was one of the first to speak out against Dr. Peterson, says they have invited the professor to meet to see whether there is any common ground. (Dr. Peet uses the pronoun "they.")

"I think we are going to have a cup of tea and imagine what an inclusive university might look like in 20 years," Dr. Peet said. "If you sit down a climate-change conservative and a very left-wing person and you ask them not to talk about what they disagree about, but ask them to find common ground for what they would like to see for their children … it's amazing how much they can agree on those things. I'm going to try it with Peterson," they said.

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