Over the last few years, the seemingly banal topic of pronouns has been the subject of much debate in America. What began as a trend in the woke context of university life has rapidly spread across institutional contexts outside academia: more and more, it is expected that people will not only name their “preferred pronouns” for how they should be referred to in the third-person, but that others will unquestioningly comply and refer to the individual in a way that honors those preferences. Thus, in many professional contexts, it has become commonplace to see an email signature that looks like this:
“Adam Ellwanger, PhD
Professor of English
University of Houston – Downtown”
My purpose in what follows is not to take a stand on whether one should be obligated to comply with the pronouns that a colleague, co-worker, or student prefers (though that is a worthy topic of debate). Rather, I intend to demonstrate a new development in the pronoun battles, and how it exposes the covert political motives that the advocates of pronoun rights routinely deny.
What advocates of compelled usage hesitate to acknowledge is that these preferences are not merely a question of social propriety. Rather, they are part of larger political agendas…
Confronted with criticism from those who argue against compelling the use of one’s preferred pronouns, a common rejoinder is that “This isn’t that difficult; referring to someone by using the pronouns they request is a simple accommodation that amounts to common courtesy.” Of course, with the ever-expanding list of “pronouns” which people profess to “prefer” (terms that sometimes are not even recognized as English words), using these novel pronouns is not as easy as LGBT advocates claim. Even without the newly-invented pronouns, it is still difficult to adjust to the increasingly common demand that one refers to a singular individual with the third-person plural pronoun “they,” for example. A verbal slip-up or refusal to use a person’s preferred pronouns can have very high stakes, as shown in recent court cases and the ruling in Shawnee State University v. Meriwether (2021) where the 6th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals upheld a professor’s right not to comply with students’ pronoun preferences. Thus, the widespread concern over compelled pronoun usage cannot be breezily dismissed as old-fashioned hand-wringing over changing standards for politeness.
What advocates of compelled usage hesitate to acknowledge is that these preferences are not merely a question of social propriety. Rather, the pronoun gambit advances larger political agendas—agendas that generally fall under the umbrella of what one might call “postmodern woke progressivism.” Devotees of that school of thought commit themselves to a “radical critique” of the “status quo.” Put differently, they see the unspoken, traditional assumptions that guide social life in America as proof-positive that the nation is a hotbed of cultural violence and exclusion. As many prominent political thinkers on the left have observed, contesting common standards for language use is one way that this critical demolition of norms proceeds.
GRAMMAR TROUBLE: GENDER, NUMBER, AND USAGE NORMS
In spite of their innocuous appearance, I have long suspected that behind these pronoun preferences lurks sweeping social aims. There are some clues that indicate these hidden objectives. Consider the email signature above: why does the line devoted to the preferred pronouns always seem to list multiple words? Must we really say “He/Him/His”? Why not just say “He” or “Pronouns: Masculine”? Aren’t the “him” and the “his” logically and grammatically implied by the “he”?
But what if someone makes a mistake?
My working hypothesis for this seeming redundancy (he/him/his) was that the parties asserting a right to one’s preferred pronouns would eventually push for more modifications to standard English usage. I supposed that eventually, I would see a series of pronouns that did not agree in terms of either gender or number. Last week, I saw the first evidence of this new trend in the battle over pronouns.
On March 30th, Rod Dreher (editor at The American Conservative) wrote a blog post on a new lawsuit against Christian colleges that receive federal funding. Assisted by an organization called REAP (the Religious Exemption Accountability Project), the plaintiffs assert that they suffered various forms of abuse, discrimination, or intolerance at the orthodox and evangelical colleges and universities they attended. One party to the lawsuit claims that at her Christian college, she had to endure “A Bible with anti-LGBT passages highlighted […which was] left at her dorm door with a note saying ‘I’m praying for you.’” Another party, who identifies as a “demisexual, pansexual cis woman who is in a long-term relationship with her non-binary partner,” claims to have faced discrimination at the religious college to which she applied because it maintains “policies surrounding sexual purity,” among other things.
Leaving aside the question of why a young person who belongs to a sexual or gender minority would attend such institutions (whose opposition to the LGBT cultural agenda should be well-known), the aim of the suit is to lay the legal grounds by which to strip religious schools who do not conform to the diktats of LGBTQIA+ activism of any federal funding. The suit is interesting in its own right, but it was the biography of one of the plaintiffs (cited by Dreher) that caught my eye.
On REAP’s website, plaintiff Hayden Brown’s bio reads as follows:
“Hayden Brown lives in York, NE. He identifies as a queer demiboy and is majoring in English Education with an emphasis in reading instruction. Hayden studies at York College. They came out as part of the LGBTQ+ community the summer after their freshman year to their parents, who forced him into therapy designed to push Hayden toward changing their identity. School officials have attempted to interfere with her education, including by asking her to withdraw from a study abroad program in Vienna, Austria because of her sexual orientation, and by telling her to change her clothes when she wears high heels or dresses.”
What immediately caught my eye was the shifting pronouns in this passage. It opens by referring to Brown with third-person, masculine singular pronouns (“he”), then switches to third-person plural pronouns which are neutral in gender (“they”), before finally switching to third-person, feminine singular pronouns (“her.”) Wondering if I had finally found confirmation for my hypothesis, I visited Brown’s profile on the REAP site. Sure enough: the pronouns listed were “he/they/she.”
I assume that as a “queer demiboy,” Brown is arguing that one can use any pronoun to refer to him/they/her. Fair enough. But what if someone makes a mistake? What if, instead of varying the pronouns so as to affirm Brown’s multifaceted identity, a speaker uses only singular feminine pronouns? Or what if a person uses plural neutral pronouns and masculine singular ones, but forgets to mix in the feminine singular, thereby refusing to acknowledge the feminine dimensions of Brown’s unique personhood? Or what if an interlocutor does use all three sets of pronouns in reference to Brown, but uses the masculine singular ones most frequently, thereby implying that he/they/she might be more masculine than he/they/she is feminine? Or what if by using they and their too infrequently, a speaker asserts that Brown’s identity is less fluid than how Brown experiences his/their/her own being?
A critic of my analysis might say that Brown is actually simplifying the question of pronouns in his case, effectively saying, “Any pronouns are fine.” But in the fraught debate over how to refer to emergent sexual and gender minorities, can anyone make such an assumption? Is it safe to assume that Mr. (Ms.?) Brown (or people like him/they/her) will not be offended if I don’t sufficiently vary my pronoun usage to reflect all the complexities of his/their/her persona? Many people will be unwilling to take the risk. Others may avoid speaking to Brown entirely, simply too afraid to stumble into a dangerous faux pas.
Others may avoid speaking to Brown entirely, simply too afraid to stumble into a dangerous faux pas.
My fear here is that if I agree to navigate the linguistic minefields of the sort that Brown draws me into, this will only incentivize others to demand that I submit to even more labyrinthine and arcane linguistic contortions. For example, if someone like Brown can insist that I ignore the standard rules of English usage (where pronouns should agree in gender and number), why must the accommodations end there? What happens when someone belonging to a sexual or gender minority prefers the pronouns “he/they/she,” but unlike Brown (who might say “Whichever one is fine”), deigns to name further expectations? What if that person tells me that when I indicate their possession of something (e.g., his car, her car, or their car), I should only use the masculine pronoun (his car), because, despite their multifaceted identity, they experience their possession of things in the masculine mode? Must I comply with such a request? If so, how can I reasonably be expected to remember to make this obscure adjustment during moments of extemporaneous speech? Many professors these days can’t remember all their students’ names—let alone their preferences on an ever-shifting table of pronouns.
Some might say that such a scenario is patently ridiculous, and that I am painting an absurdity that would never happen in order to make pronoun preferences seem more outlandish than they are. But I would note that ten years ago, the idea that people would name any preferred pronouns at all in a professional context would have seemed absurd. Not only that, but just a year or two ago, a pronoun sequence that blurs all the lines of gender and number would have been difficult to imagine. And yet, here we are. There is no reason to expect that the demands placed on speakers in the name of courtesy can’t expand, and certainly, no reasons to assume that they won’t. People mock the “slippery slope” argument, but some slopes are, in fact, slippery. In the case of this slope, it seems we have already slipped considerably. Where do we draw the line?
THE LEFT’S WAR ON LINGUISTIC NORMS
One of the major arguments in favor of compelling people to comply with preferred pronouns is that to do so “Isn’t that difficult.” We hear this constantly. And maybe it isn’t that difficult… when the pronouns that are “preferred” conform to linguistic norms that require uniformity in terms of gender and number.
The left’s desire for a new set of English usage norms is one reason we should be wary of compelled uses of language that are justified through appeals to politeness.
In Brown’s case, however, we see where this is leading us: a set of conditions that actually breaks down the rules regarding gender and number in English usage. For the woke progressive worldview, these reforms would almost certainly be welcome: critical theorists often argue that the structural rules of language are one way that intolerance and marginalization are perpetuated.
The left’s desire for a new set of English usage norms is one reason we should be wary of compelled uses of language that are justified through appeals to politeness. Leaving aside whether such linguistic reforms are a good thing or a bad thing, adhering to the new “preferences” is very difficult for those who have internalized the rules of traditional usage, regardless of the LGBT lobby’s insistence to the contrary. And since any failure or refusal to comply with those preferences is often cited as “hatred” that is an actionable attack on one’s being, the increasingly complex standards of compliance amount to an increasing liability—not only for dissenters in professional and social contexts, but also for sympathetic “allies” who have difficulty absorbing the new rules.
Ultimately, language does not simply organize our thoughts; language is the medium of thought itself. Given that one’s right to their preferred pronouns was an idea that was born in the humanities departments of universities, the architects of these new expectations and reforms are deeply aware of how reinventing linguistic rules and norms has the power to change ways of thinking and being in the world. Of course, those larger existential and sociopolitical reforms are a conscious objective of those insisting upon modifications in language use. Policing your words is a way to police your thoughts. In a world where so much of what used to be the private space of the individual has recently become public, those who are on the fence regarding the right to one’s preferred pronouns must ask how much they value the most sacred private space left in our society: the privacy of their own thoughts.