In 2016, a little-known University of Toronto psychology professor by the name of Jordan Peterson chose to break a tacitly-settled academic world social contract — and legally-protected basic human right — by deliberately refusing to acknowledge the correct pronouns of his students. That infantile protest, putatively in the name of free speech, like a pebble tossed carelessly (ostensibly, at best) into a still but primed pond, has rippled into a surging wave of symbolic violence against trans and non-binary students that has, in my opinion, culminated in the June 28, 2023, stabbing of a gender studies professor and two students in a University of Waterloo classroom.
Reports of the incident state a twenty-four year old former University of Waterloo student entered the 200-level Gender Issues philosophy class of approximately forty students “and asked the professor what the class was about.” According to a student in the class, when the assailant learned the course was a gender studies class, “the man’s body language changed, as though he were ‘happy’ to hear that he was in that class.” The student then added, “The thing that disgusts me the most is this vile, mischievous smile that he had on his face and immediately the professor’s face just turned to like pure fear.” The man closed the door, pulled two knives out of his backpack and proceeded to attack the professor. He also stabbed two students who were attempting to leave the classroom. Waterloo police acknowledged that they “believe this was a hate-motivated incident related to gender expression and gender identity.”
The police also noted in their press release that the stabber was “an international student,” but there was nothing un-Canadian about this act of violence.
Political transphobia is on the rise in this country, deployed by politicians like the premier of my own province of residence, New Brunswick, to scapegoat and demonize the most vulnerable members of our society — a tactic rightly characterized as “more than teetering” on the edge of fascism by the province’s Liberal leader Susan Holt.
The MAGA movement in the United States and its Canadian adherents in the ‘Progressive’ Conservative Party (notably, federal leader Pierre Poilievre has refused to comment on the stabbing) have seized upon trans and non-binary people as subjects of ridicule and disdain in recent years, as they falsely attribute very real social and economic problems wrought by decades of neoliberal governance and corporate greed to marginal gains in terms of visibility and outspokenness for trans, queer, and non-binary people, particularly in online spaces, as if these developments are responsible for all of society’s ills, or, to put it in Peterson’s terms, “woke capitalism.”
In fact, that these gains have manifested at times in the form of modest censure for those determined to speak publicly in prejudicial ways, a phenomenon colloquially referred to as ‘cancel culture’ or ‘wokeness’ (of course, this phenomenon is also intimately connected to struggles for racial justice cynically coded as ‘critical race theory’ which serve a similar purpose) has been weaponized to undermine what little modest gains have been made by 2SLGBTQIA+ people.
The insidious sleight of hand performed by an increasingly organized right-wing movement has been to discursively invert the actually-existing nature of power relations so that those most victimized by a society that refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of their existence (trans and non-binary people) are instead demonized as the very root cause of all social problems. Thus, cancel culture is positioned as the scourge of our time and the richest man in the world, one Elon Musk, can claim on the website he literally owns that “the words ‘cis’ or ‘cisgender’ are considered slurs on this platform.” Such a reversal neatly absolves the corporate and political elite for a world in environmental, social, and economic shambles.
I am not a gender studies professor per se. I teach courses on social theory and sports in the Department of Sociology at the University of New Brunswick. But, the project of ‘gender studies’ to deconstruct the dominant sex-gender system — that is, to teach students that gender is a social construction anchored to structural power relations — runs through all of my courses, as it does for so many of my colleagues across the country and continent. In another course I will be teaching to all in-coming Faculty of Arts students at UNB this fall called “Arts First: Justice,” I contend that a genuinely liberatory politics requires us to abandon the assumption that anyone should be compelled to embody or express an externally-imposed identity, whether that identity relates to gender, sex, or sexuality.
These are, I can only guess, the sorts of ideas discussed in the 200-level gender issues in philosophy class at the University of Waterloo. They are not, however, ideas that fit the fascist script of the MAGA movement, its Canadian iterations, and those they enrich and protect. The assault on the Waterloo professor, then, is the logical consequence of a discursive attack on ‘cancel culture,’ ‘wokeness,’ and, most importantly, on trans, queer, and non-binary people (an attack often already takes all too material violent forms against members of those communities).
It is notable that first thing in the morning on the very day of the Waterloo assault, Jordan Peterson tweeted that members of the Endocrine Society who support gender-affirming care are “liars[,] butchers[,] monsters” who belong in “prison.” In another tweet, he added “call me cis to my face and see what happens.” Such inflammatory language and arguable invitations to violence are, I would suggest, part of a larger rhetorical strategy to characterize those who support the basic human rights of trans and non-binary children as ‘groomers’ determined to commit (sexual) violence — “child abusers,” as Peterson would have it — against kids. This sort of rhetoric is effective precisely because it would be outrageously defamatory to make such claims without substance (although this is in fact exactly what is occurring).
The consequences, however, are frighteningly real, as they invite material violence in ‘defence’ of children.
And so we have in Waterloo a situation that can be discursively constructed by the right through a frame that allows them to suggest that even as a knife is embedded in the body of a gender studies professor, it is trans people and their allies who are the ones committing the real violence — a master class in gaslighting if ever there was one.
Peterson, who had no comment on the Waterloo stabbing, instead called in the following days for “Prison For the Liars And Butchers,” speaking of physicians who provide gender-affirming care to children. In the intervening days he has also taken to tweeting as ‘commentary,’ “DIE woke universities And [sic] not a moment too soon,” a statement of what I can only read as stochastic terrorism that retains only the thinnest possible plausible deniability.
The point is, of course, both to blame and to silence. It is the fascist way.
But, this is not to suggest that all is lost. I think I speak not just for myself, but for my colleagues across the country, indeed, the continent, when I say that these violent events have only deepened our commitment to justice for 2SLBTQIA+ people. And that means we aren’t going to stop teaching gender studies.
We’re just getting started.
Nathan Kalman-Lamb (cis, he/him) is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of New Brunswick.