Sweden gets own Jordan B. Peterson: Professor refuses to comply with medical school demanding “correct” gender terminology in teaching

In order to prevent students from feeling discriminated the Faculty of Medicine at Lund University has decided to introduce a long list of gender controls in its education programme for the medical profession. One requirement states that teachers must use the “correct” gender terminology. These actions follow a student criticizing renowned professor Germund Hesslow’s course on biological sex differences for conflicting with the university’s discrimination and equal treatment policies. Hesslow has refused to comply with the new speech regulations, making his case parallel to the conflict between Jordan B. Peterson and Canada.

In September this year Academic Rights Watch reported on the case of Germund Hesslow (Professor of Neurophysiology and Associate Professor of Philosophy), whose lectures on “Heritage and Environment” was criticized by a student for being in possible violation of the university’s discrimination and equal treatment policies. Following the criticism, Christer Larsson, the Chairman of the medical programme, urged Hesslow to apologise for certain formulations regarding homosexual and transsexuals, something that Hesslow refused to do.

Following the accusations, the leadership decided to open an internal investigation into charges of discrimination and harassment, the result of which was announced last week. While the investigation “acquits” Hesslow from any wrongdoing, it also states that there is nevertheless “risk for discrimination”. Its recommendation is that the Faculty should take the actions it deems necessary to reduce this risk.

In a commentary, Professor Hesslow denounced the decision to open a formal investigation in the first place. He wrote: “Each one who in the future considers lecturing about subjects that can cause strong emotions or saying things that some students wouldn’t wish to hear now has to consider the possibility of being subjected to considerable discomfort and public investigation using completely different standards than those usually applied when evaluating lectures” (our translation).

In a letter to Hesslow, the Faculty Dean Erik Renström reports a number of new gender strategies introduced by the Faculty. Among them are certain terminological requirements: “With regard to he criticized lecture, the program management [Larsson, see above] has already informed you of the correct terminology regarding gender identity and sexual orientation”. Further: “In order to broaden the perspective, your lecture will also be supplemented with a lecture on perspectives on sex and gender in medical science”.  Renströms mentioning of the “correct terminology” refers to Hesslow’s claims (made in passing in response to a student question in the Q&A) that “homosexual women have a male sexual orientation” and, with regard to transsexuality, that “whether it’s a sexual orientation is a question of definition”.

These formulations were criticised by the program Chairman for not respecting “the terminology as defined in Swedish law”, with reference to the Swedish Discrimination Act. Regarding transsexuality it is worth noting that according to the Discrimination Act (2008: 567) it is not a sexual orientation. The latter are defined as “homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual orientation” (Ch. 1, § 5). Hesslow explains, in a written response to the student, that his statement referred to the fact that there are, in his view, scientific grounds to believe that “it is not possible to draw any strict borders between transsexuality/gender dysphoria and homosexuality”. If so, the matter does indeed become a question of definition.  Even so, it is unreasonable to think that the Discrimination Act or any other law enacted by the Swedish people’s representatives in the parliament as the expression of the will of the majority, should determine which terminology a professor should use in his lectures on the biological basis for sex differences.

Science and scientific discourse are not slaves to public opinion but should be allowed to contradict beliefs commonly held, something which may lead to a correction of the latter to the benefit of society at large. Objecting to Hesslow’s scientific conclusions on the grounds that they fail to comply with current legal terminology is a symptom of an unusually deep intellectual failure. The Discrimination Act is irrelevant in this context for another reason as well. It says nothing about the causes or orientation of female homosexuality. For example, it says nothing about whether or not homosexual females have a male sexual orientation. In his reply to the student, Hesslow writes that the evidence he had in mind was research findings indicating that homosexuality among women can be linked to exposure to the hormone testosterone in the uterus. A new twin study on the subject was recently covered by the BBC. To summarize these and similar findings as “homosexual women have a male sexual orientation” seem reasonable since they report an effect of the male sexual hormone.

Other gender directives to be introduced are a new seminar series “with focus on the grounds of discrimination which are introduced by the theme of trans-persons’ encounter with health care” and a mentor program for senior researchers which will, unsurprisingly, “focus on gender”. Within the research programme there are, Renström continues, “courses with focus on gender and intersectionality perspectives on medical research”. “As a further measure the management for the faculty education program will, aided by tools developed by section Personnel at Lund University, work to identify what risks there are within the programme”. This will lead to further plans of action, and so on.

There appears to be no limits to the administrative creativity in this area, despites its apparent lack of relevance to the core activities of the university, viz. research and education.

Hesslow “crime” is that he has made expressed views about the biological foundation of various sexual phenomena. An evidence-based discussion of such causal relations in a scientific context is simply not the kind of event that can reasonably be regarded as offending anyone. Freedom of research and freedom of expression, as protected in the Swedish constitution and in various international agreements, trump any single individual’s subjective feeling of offence.

Hence, there is no reason whatsoever to introduce far-reaching administrative anti-offense or gender strategies in response to what are in fact a trivial sequence of events.

Unfortunately, it appears that the Hesslow case is being used by the Faculty of Medicine at Lund University as a pretext for a politicized medical school, whereby various discrimination and equal treatment policies function as ideological instruments aimed at avoiding informing students about basic biological findings the existence of which is difficult to reconcile with the current Swedish political agenda.

EJO/JSS/MZ