The Battle Over Pronouns Coming to a College Near You

Last year, Jordan Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto, made news when he refused to use the invented pronouns of the transgender movement as prescribed by Canadian law (see chart).

Pronouns these days are a new battleground, as recommendations admonish us all that the standard English pronouns, which traditionally distinguish she from he, him from her, are discriminatory and must now be reassigned or reinvented upon request.

Still, it’s worth asking: By changing nouns and pronouns, is one changing one’s sex? If I force you to refer to me as he when all anatomical and biological signs indicate I’m a she, have I thereby consolidated a new identity? Does saying it make it so? But then, if physical reality has no traction, why should a “woman” get outraged at the uninvited display of a “penis” in one setting (such as a late-night meeting in a hotel room), but not at precisely the same intrusion in another setting (say, a bathroom or shower room now accessible to all those who “identify as female”)?

Although the purpose of a common language is to enable people to communicate in agreed-upon ways, lately that accord has been breached at the most fundamental level. Why should the existence of a small number of people who decide they “identify” as another sex dictate the use of nouns and pronouns to the rest of the population? Because the real energy behind this seemingly minor adjustment to our language is something much greater: a desire to disguise a fundamental fact of mammal life: sexual dimorphism. This explains the demand that each person’s choice of pronoun must be respected by others (all 7.6 billion of us).

Obviously, the true target isn’t that vast majority of the population that has no difficulty with being referred to by words that correspond to their biological sex. But when sex is transformed into something “assigned at birth”—with the implication that this was a random or an ideologically tainted act—no one is allowed to be comfortable with being a mere he or she, despite clear biological evidence of maleness or femaleness. That’s why we now have terms such as cisgender, heteronormative, and transphobic.

An odd fantasy lies behind these demands: that changing one’s language means changing one’s reality. The material world, however, is intractable, unforgiving. Men who identify as women are no more likely to die of uterine cancer than women who identify as men will develop testicular cancer. Yet these days it’s become necessary to state the obvious. Identifying as female won’t make one menstruate (a term itself offensive since it contains within it the syllable “men,” particularly unfortunate in this context; etymology be damned). Even worse, languages that do not have gender-specific pronouns –such as Hungarian– have had no trouble manifesting traditional gender roles and even, gasp, patriarchal traditions nonetheless. Perhaps we should all switch to Hungarian anyway, on the slim chance that this will usher in a glorious future.

The new pronoun dispensations naturally depend upon a prior transformation in the use of nouns.  Professors should, therefore, avoid referring to students as man or woman (e.g. “the man sitting near the window”). To accommodate a few individuals, then, the rest of us must pretend that sexual dimorphism has been “theorized” out of existence through decades of insistence on the social construction of everything.

Critics, however, note that transsexuals often seem determined to reinvigorate sex and gender stereotypes. Those who think this is merely a “transphobic” observation might want to check out the entirely traditional exploitation of “feminine” sexuality evident in Bruce Jenner’s transformation into the glamorous Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair in 2015. Throughout the country, women pushing 70 probably wept with envy. And pronouns, uncaring, rapidly realigned themselves.

The effort to do away with conventional language norms in English is not new. Many creative writers have played with these ideas. The first such book I came across was the utopian romance Beatrice the Sixteenth, by “Irene Clyde”–who turned out to be the British jurist Thomas Baty, whose unofficial life’s work was dismantling gender roles while actually promoting “feminine” values. Published in 1909, the novel assiduously avoids any nouns or pronouns indicating gender, so that the reader has no way of identifying the sex of the characters. Numerous other writers, especially starting in the 1970s, have engaged in similar language games as they spun out their imagined societies. Marge Piercy’s 1976 utopian novel Woman on the Edge of Time, for example, uses “person” for he/she, and “per” for his/her. To this day creative writers continue in their quest for societies without gender.

In the real world, psychologist Barbara Greenberg (2018), who describes herself as “a huge fan of social inclusion,” recently argued that schools should prohibit students from forming “best friends.” Why? Because this practice leads to emotional distress: “The word ‘best’ encourages judgment and promotes exclusion.” Instead, parents should encourage their children to have a small group of close friends. Or, one might add, they could just send their kids to convents, which have a long history of attempting to suppress what were called “particular friendships.”

L.P. Hartley’s book, Facial Justice, published in 1960, features a fictitious newspaper called The Daily Leveller.  The “paper” argues that correcting grammar and spelling errors should be banned because it can lead to envy and bitterness. Particularly unacceptable is the tyranny of the Objective Case, because, “it wasn’t fair for a word to be governed by a verb or even a preposition. Words can only be free if they’re equal, and how can they be equal if they’re governed by other words?”

Perhaps the linguistic totalitarianism in Lou Tafler’s inventive novel Fair New World (1994) will soon set the standard. Tafler (the pseudonym of philosophy professor Lou Marinoff) takes the battle of the sexes to new extremes. He imagines three separate societies, two of which are dystopias: Bruteland inhabited by men, and Feminania by women. The third is an amusing utopian alternative called Melior.

In Feminania, the Femininnies have created a language called Fairspeak. The letter combinations (not merely morphemes) man and men, regardless of the context in which they occur, have been replaced by feminist-inspired alternatives: womb, womban, and womben. This produces terms such as wombdate, wombanacle, and dewomband.  Etymology counts for nothing, just as in the real-world preference for herstory, promoted by feminists starting decades ago.

Even gender-neutral endings are revised in Feminania: er and or are replaced by her, as in acther and disasther. Naturally, son becomes daughther, producing words such as pherdaughther,, pridaughther, readaughther, and just plain daughtherg (= song). Gent is replaced by lady, as in intellilady, dililady, and ladylewombanly.

In all sections of the book dealing with Feminania, then, the reader must slog through a soup of zany, multisyllabic terms such as wombanufacture, docuwombentary, wombagewombent, and comwombencewombent.  The author, however, has thoughtfully provided a glossary. In addition, for the 20th anniversary edition of Fair New World, in 2014, Professor Hardy Orbs of Amherst College contributed a foreword that, among other things, clearly explains the basic rules of Fairspeak.

All these fictional efforts reflect a strict, even obsessive, adherence to rules. And this makes it impossible to avoid noticing that the new pronoun policing, meant to facilitate breaking the rules of sexual dimorphism and encouraging self-selection of sexual identities, is paradoxically dictatorial. We must give up the gendered language that a few individuals find uncomfortable, for not being comfortable is now taken to be identical to experiencing discrimination.

In practice, however, comfort is hardly the issue, since transgender rights must supersede all others. To refuse to conform is dastardly – and it’s unclear what the consequences might be: Perhaps the language police will come calling. In Canada, they’re already in place.

In June 2017, Canada passed Bill C-16, which added the categories “gender identity or expression” to its Human Rights Act, thereby prohibiting discrimination directed against trans people. That’s on the federal level. Most Canadian provinces have made similar reforms to their codes, covering workplaces, schools, hospitals, etc.

It all sounds reasonable enough, until one considers the effect of these new statutes on free speech, as law professor Bruce Pardy explains. The Ontario Human Rights Commission, for example, declared that “refusing to refer to a trans person by their chosen name and a personal pronoun that matches their gender identity … will likely be discrimination when it takes place in a social area covered by the Code, including employment, housing, and services like education.”

The law’s defenders dismissed critics’ concerns as absurd and “transphobic.” Yet when one senator proposed an amendment to the bill clarifying that it was not intended to actually require particular language use, this was summarily rejected. The same article notes that the ostensible pursuit of human rights has turned into a zero-sum game, one that expands even further government’s intrusion into daily life. Until now, individuals never got to impose their particular noun and pronoun preferences on all others. “When speech is merely restricted, you can at least keep your thoughts to yourself. Compelled speech makes people say things with which they disagree,” Pardy observes. And that, of course, is the point: to force conformity to a new social agenda, rooted in identity politics.

What if one forgets? Will there be a punitive fine? Re-education? Perhaps harsher measures for repeat offenders? Canada is ahead of the U.S. in such legislation, though in fact, equal protection is patently not the aim. Earlier in 2017, for example, the Canadian parliament passed a (non-binding) motion condemning anti-Islamic rhetoric and behavior – in the guise of an anti-discrimination bill. When amendments were offered that would include other religions in the motion as well, they were rejected.

But in the United States, the First Amendment (a word with two “men” in it) thus far prevents the government from compelling speech. You can’t be forced to recite the pledge of allegiance, or to show respect when it is recited by others. Perhaps pronoun justice will supersede such old-fashioned notions of individual rights, not based on group affiliation.

Sexual harassment law and the numerous regulations that follow from it, policing of language, and other related obsessions seem to aim ultimately at denaturing sexual identity to the point that anyone can claim to be anything (thus far, still confined to the human realm), which entails the right to be addressed by the noun and pronoun of one’s choice. This may look to some like respect for individualism, but it is in fact group coercion. There’s no demand here for tolerance, only for obeisance. Not just: don’t interfere with my desires and preferences, but: you must support them and subordinate your own to them. Yet this diktat applies only to gender, not to race, as we see in the denunciations of those who “identify as” Black or Native American but really aren’t. In those cases, somehow, biology still matters.

As Humpty Dumpty says to Alice, “When I use a word… it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” But, objects Alice, the question is “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” Not so, Humpty Dumpty replies; the real question is “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Daphne Patai

Daphne Patai

Daphne Patai is professor emeritus in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of, "What Price Utopia? Essays on Ideological Policing, Feminism, and Academic Affairs," among other books,

9 thoughts on “The Battle Over Pronouns Coming to a College Near You

  1. Ok, so my gender is a “Russian Male” and my preferred pronoun is “they-Masters-of-the-Universe-and-Electors-of-Presidents” (who said that a pronoun, especially a preferred pronoun, should be short?). So it is now illegal in Canada to address me in any other way, isn’t it? Nice, should have a vacation in that country.

  2. I use pronouns to refer to biological sex (and so does everyone else in common usage).

    Trying to claim otherwise is simply Orwellian. What’s next, will using “Color” be offensive too?

  3. I should mention that I’m an MtF myself, and I get a big laugh out of all the campus crazies these days, in their 12-year playpens.

    OMG! I said “men”tion!

    How unPC!!!!

    1. If they want to make up their own pronoun and use it, I suppose that is their business. Somebody once made up an entire artificial language, Esperanto, and now they have a Klingon dictionary. But there is no way I will ever let them force me to use it if I dont want to, and they also cannot force me to actually study their made up words, so I know what they are talking about, if I dont feel like it. And if they put one of these made up words in a scholarly paper, without defining it in a footnote somewhere, or in parens after the first use (like you should do with an Acronym), they should not object if I call it gibberish.

  4. Professor Patai brilliantly makes her point at the end of her fascinating essay, when she quotes the dialogue between Humpty Dumpty and Alice. It does indeed seem that the annals of human folly never much change, except for the names!
    Harvey Silverglate, Cambridge, MA

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