Canada’s Transgender Rights Bill is incoherent—and that’s a concern

By: Hendrik van der Breggen

Canada’s Bill C16, a.k.a. Transgender Rights Bill, attempts to add gender identity and expression to human rights and hate-crime laws. Below I argue (with Jordan B. Peterson’s help) that the bill is incoherent. I also show why, logically, that’s a concern—for everyone.

Jordan B. Peterson, a psychology professor at U of Toronto and an outspoken critic of Bill C16, appeared in a Senate hearing on Bill C16. He expressed concern that the bill compels speech, and thus is a threat to free speech. He also testified to Bill C16’s incoherence—my interest here.

Peterson’s testimony correctly points out that the appropriate context of interpretation for C16 is constituted by the policies of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), as was indicated by a link at the website of the Department of Justice. (The link was later taken down, which is a discussion for another time, a discussion having to do with this question: Are Bill C16 proponents hiding something?)

In defence of C16, to refute Peterson, a senator read from OHRC policies. The OHRC clearly allows citizens not to use preferred pronouns: as an alternative we can always use the person’s chosen name. So preferred pronouns are neither necessary nor mandatory.

Significantly, however, Professor Peterson ALSO read from the OHRC policies, which just as clearly state this: “Refusing to refer to a person by their self-identified name and proper [preferred] personal pronoun constitutes gender-based harassment.”

See the contradiction? You may use a chosen name only versus you must use the chosen name AND personal pronouns.

Peterson goes on to argue for several other contradictions within the legislation or implied via OHRC policies. For example, sexual preference is immutable, which implies biological grounding, i.e., dependency on sexual identity, but also sexual identity and gender identity and gender expression are entirely independent. (For substantiation, check out YouTube: Jordan B. Peterson, Senate Hearing on Bill C16.)

So Bill C16, when interpreted correctly, is in fact incoherent.

At this juncture, a reader sympathetic to Bill C16 might respond: So what? Why is it a concern that a piece of legislation is logically incoherent? Especially if I get what I want.

Answer: Because from a set of contradictory claims, anything follows validly.

That an argument is logically valid (deductively valid) means that whenever the premises are true the conclusion must be true too. Validity means it is not possible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false. This is Logic 101.

If the claims that constitute a properly interpreted piece of legislation are contradictory, then these claims, when used as premises to infer some other legal conclusion—any new legal conclusion—will always constitute a deductively valid argument. Why? Because it’s not possible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false.

Think about it. Because it’s not possible for the premises to be true, because they’re contradictory (A and not-A can’t be true at the same time and in the same sense), this means that it’s also not possible for the premises to be true AND the conclusion false, which means that the definition of deductive validity is satisfied.

So, if Bill C16 is accepted, it provides a precedent or grounding for ANY new and weird piece of legislation—including what you might not want.

Bill C16 was accepted into Canadian law on June 19, 2017. This should be a concern for every one of us, whatever one thinks about gender identity, gender expression, and preferred pronouns.


Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College, Otterburne, Manitoba, Canada. Hendrik’s teaching and research interests include philosophy of religion, philosophy of science, critical thinking/ logic, and ethics. Over the past nine years, Hendrik has written (and continues to write) the newspaper column “Apologia” in which he attempts to make philosophy accessible to the general reader. Past and current installments of “Apologia” are available at Hendrik’s blog: http://apologiabyhendrikvanderbreggen.blogspot.ca/. Links to Hendrik’s other articles can be found at his faculty profile page: http://www.providenceuc.ca/college/faculty_and_staff/faculty/hendrik_van_der_breggen/. The views expressed here or in his column/blog do not always reflect the views of Providence.


Image: Centre Block of the Canadian Parliament buildings, photo by Saffron Blaze, via http://www.mackenzie.co


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2 Comments

  1. Nicholas Ravnikar

    Three questions

    1. Would it make a difference if C16 was changed to read ““Refusing to refer to a person either by their self-identified name, or by the proper [preferred] personal pronoun constitutes gender-based harassment.”?

    2. Doesn’t C16 offer the incoherent policy as an optional policy that universities may elect to adopt, pursuant to their individual governance systems? My understanding– which might be in error — is that this would be an incoherent policy that mandates or coerces speech which can be voluntarily adopted by universities. That context would appear to affect the way in which the contradictory premises in the bill would entail any other conclusion — e.g., only in cases in which a university has elected, via its governance procedures, to adopt the policy.

    Would contradictory law or policy set at the university level necessarily entail any conclusion in other civil domains, or only at universities subject to the legislation? Or only those that voluntarily adopt it?

    3. Are there no examples of other incoherent laws that have introduced contradictory laws into the body politic? C16 may be an Aegean, rather than a Trojan Horse.

    • Hendrik van der Breggen

      Thanks, Nicholas Ravnikar, for your thoughtful questions (though I count 5, not 3). Here are my replies.

      1. I think your rewrite of C16 as a disjunction would be helpful, since a disjunction (when understood as an inclusive-or statement) is true when at least one of its disjuncts is true. This would allow for those who disagree with the ideology lurking behind preferred pronouns not to be compelled to use such pronouns, and this would allow for those who want to be referred by preferred pronouns or actual name to be called by their actual name. Interestingly, however, in the context of interpretation of C16 (as I point out in my above article) this option is given and also negated. For more on this see 21:55 – 25:20 of the May 17, 2017, Senate Hearing on Bill C16: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KnIAAkSNtqo .

      2. I’m pretty sure that C16 is law for all Canadians (it’s an addition to the categories to which Canada’s hate-crime laws apply) and to be understood federally (for all Canadians) in terms of the context of interpretation constituted by the policies of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), as was indicated clearly by a link at the website of Canada’s Department of Justice when C16 was set out. (Perhaps the Canadian government is back-pedaling on this now, because the link explaining the interpretive procedure via OHRC policies was surreptitiously removed.) If a university has freedom via its governance procedures not to adopt the policy, that would be great—and would limit legally the otherwise anything-goes consequences of logically contradictory claims at the heart of C16 (when interpreted via OHRC policies).

      3. I don’t know of other examples of laws logically incoherent at their core (of course, I may be lacking knowledge here). If there are such laws, then they are problematic logically and can thereby serve as “grounds” for any new and weird piece of legislation. The fact remains that reasoning from what is at its foundation a contradiction anything follows logically/ deductively validly (which may explain some of the present confusion surrounding C16).

      Thanks again for your thoughtful questions. I hope my replies are helpful. Best wishes for 2018!

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