The Pronoun Wars
Pronouns and antecedentsWhen I first heard about "the pronoun wars," I assumed the debate was about the old problem of the correct pronoun to use when "everyone" was the antecedent. This is the related question that I put on the mid-term exam for the course on Applied Grammar I was teaching in 1994.
You have been asked to edit an official government document. You have to decide what to do about the following sentence:
"In the future every university student will be required to pay 51% of the cost of their education."
If you decide to change the sentence (or not to change it), you will have to explain your decision to three people: Mr. Boyle, who is a strict grammarian; Ms. Doyle, who is a proud feminist, and Mrs. Murphy, who likes to see problems solved in a practical, common-sense fashion.Explain the problem with the sentence, and give your decision and justifications.
Traditional grammar versus feminismThe traditional grammarian would insist that the antecedent "every student" was singular, and the pronoun which followed must be the singular "his." The feminist would not accept that all university students should be identified with the masculine "his." Ultimately I was directing students to the "professional writer's" solution, which was to restructure the sentence to eliminate the problem and impasse. However, unbeknownst to me, in the same year, psycho-linguist Steven Pinker published The Language Instinct in which he argued "that everyone and they ["their" in my example] are not an 'antecedent' and a 'pronoun' referring to the same person in the world, which would force them to agree in number. They are a 'quantifier' and a 'bound variable'."
Singular theyConsequently, Pinker concludes: "There is no reason that the vernacular decision to borrow they, their, them for the task is any worse than the prescriptivists' recommendation of he, him, his. Indeed, they has the advantage of embracing both sexes and feeling right in a wide variety of sentences." The problem I was teaching my students to correct simply did not exist in terms of linguistics, but it did perhaps persist as a sociological problem at the time. These days Pinker's solution seems to have gained consensus, and what is known as the "singular they" has certainly become commonplace.
Pronouns in the new millenniaHowever, my imagining of the "pronoun wars" came nowhere near the complexity and sensitivity of the conflict as it has recently played out online and in the media. In my 1990s reflections, the proper pronoun to use when referring to "transgender" or "non-binary" or "non-conforming" individuals never crossed my mind.
It is impossible to research this question without encountering the name Jordan Peterson, the University of Toronto professor of psychology, who has parlayed his fifteen minutes of infamy for refusing to follow the University's transgender pronoun policy into a career as a viral presence on the internet and in the media. My millennial counselor (my guru on all things post-2000) has strongly advised me against reading Peterson as a waste of my time. Of course, that injunction has made me all the more curious.
Jordan Peterson: victim or villain?The obvious question: why wouldn't Professor Peterson address his students in their preferred pronouns? Isn't it just a matter of politeness to address people the way they want to be addressed? Isn't that what we do with titles, names, nicknames, preferred middle names, etc? The supreme irony in Peterson's interviews is that, despite the difficult lives (lives Peterson is making more difficult) of people who suffer the dysphoria of feeling or appearing that their genders have been misaligned, he manages to make himself appear the victim.
Peterson frequently refers to two letters he received from the University of Toronto which he manages to make sound quite dire. Here are the letters in question:
The gist of the letters is "you have been making some people uncomfortable, please stop." However, Peterson is quite right to point out that they invoked "the law." The second letter states, "The law in Ontario, specifically the Ontario Human Rights Code, protects against discrimination based on gender expression and gender identity." This overkill invocation was an invitation to Peterson to escalate his opposition.
Pronouns for every gender identity?Peterson typically makes the valid point that the pronoun shifts being proposed by LGBT Resource Centres seem impracticable and awkward.
Who's side are you on?When I watched the TV Ontario episode of The Agenda with Steve Paikin on "Genders, Rights and Freedom of Speech" (which has itself become a source of controversy), I was surprised that the only transgender individual on the forum panel, Theryn Meyer, sided with Jordan Peterson in opposition to the University's pronoun policy (and the Human Rights legislation in both Ontario and Canada intended to prohibit discrimination against transgender individuals).
The Argument against "gender expression"The intent of the recent changes to the Ontario Human Rights Code seems clear enough--and similar legislation is being proposed at the federal level and in various countries. "Race, age, sex, and sexual orientation" seem evident categories, but I noted with interest that "The Code does not define creed" even though it is listed as a category to be protected from potential discrimination. The newly added category of "gender identity and gender expression" is extremely vague and fluid. It has been suggested (not entirely facetiously) that the legislation would open the door (literally) to the cisgender male using the women's locker room on the grounds that he is "expressing his female gender."
"Gender identity" and "gender expression" remain undefined"Expression" and "identity" are problematic concepts (see "Be Yourself": Is This Really Good Advice? and "Be Yourself": Part II). Apparently, the framers of the Code, decided to pass on the problem of definition to "the courts and tribunals," as they have done with "Creed." Anywhere this subject is discussed, it is noted that "gender" is cultural and "sex" is biological (although some postmodern deconstructionists like to challenge the latter claim--see Deconstruction and "Ways of Talking). "Gender" could be listed as a proscribed ground of discrimination without any reference to "expression" or "identity."
Is a new law necessary?Just as sexual discrimination covers both men and women (even though the original impetus was discrimination against women), gender discrimination would cover every possibility from hyper masculinity to extreme femininity and every mix, variation and crossing in between--without necessarily making any reference to sex or identity or expression. However, while this change might solve legal and discrimination issues, it does not address the question of pronouns.
Do we really need new pronouns?Do we really need gender neutral pronouns? Maybe. In writing I find myself using "s/he" and "his/her" fairly frequently, or sometimes using "her" when the tradition is to use "he"--when talking about God, for example. However, are transgender persons being served by the pronoun debate? It seems the public sphere is being dominated by "experts" on the extreme fringes of the issue with little voice being given to the .6 percent of the population who might be personally affected.
Practical mattersI struggle to imagine myself asking someone "What pronouns do you use?"--as is recommended by LGBT Centres and legislators. Would anyone, including a transgender person, be pleased with or even understand this question? In a personal interaction, it is highly unlikely that I would use a gendered pronoun with someone: "you" is gender neutral, and we do not address people in the third person in English; i.e., "he/she," when we are speaking to them.
Gender binary is arbitrary (but so is language in general)As I have commented elsewhere, the gender binary (he/she) is arbitrary and certainly isn't a necessity in the English language (see Falling in Love is Unprofessional). Third person singular is the only gendered pronoun in English; therefore two pronouns "he/she," which expand morphological to his/her, him/her, herself/himself--a total of eight possibilities. Not an enormous stumbling block for Anglophones, but French and other Romance languages add gender to every noun and adjective. Is anyone seriously considering that some of the worlds most widely spoken languages are going to completely restructure themselves to become gender neutral in order to accommodate transgender individuals?
What really matters to the people most affected?When I ask myself what is the pronoun debate really about, I come away with the conclusion that we are witnessing a variety of agendas--political agendas, academic and professional agendas, self-aggrandizing agendas--but relatively little focus on what might really matter to transgender people. When Jordan Peterson claimed to fear that he might be accused of "hate speech" if he failed to use the correct pronouns, I thought this counterfactual claim to be farfetched. Unfortunately his opponent in the debate, Nicolas Matt, a lecturer in Transgender Studies at the University of Toronto, was all too eager to confirm that refusing to use the required pronouns "was hate speech."
Are the pronoun wars helping or hurting LGBT individuals?As I researched online to confirm Peterson's claim that New York had instituted "31 protected gender categories" what I immediately discovered in print and on Youtube were individuals gleefully mocking the notion of 31 different genders. Since the point of the legislation is to protect the transgender non-conforming individuals from mockery and intimidation, I couldn't help but recognize that the legislation was providing the opportunity for widespread public mockery and intimidation. I fault Jordan Peterson for using his authority as a professor and a psychologist, as well as a writer and intellectual, to give license to the willful ignorance of yahoos and trolls. At the same time, LGBT communities have a lot of work to do to clarify and, I dare say, simply their positions. The legislated, Orwellian menace of prison sentences for faulty pronouns is the wrong way to go and has simply encouraged a backlash against exactly the people the legislation was intended to protect.
As I researched the claim of "31 protected gender categories," I eventual came across this New York City publication:
The "31 gender categories" are, in fact, an ostensive definition of the phrases "gender identity" and "gender expression" rather than new categories of gender. The legislation will doubtlessly be difficult to implement, but perhaps we should all begin by attempting to understand it.
Facebook's 51 Genders