The Post Millennial Trans Pronouns are more than the sum of their parts (of speech)

The Post Millennial - Wednesday February 7th, 2018

I met an old friend at an art gallery launch last week. A successful lawyer from Toronto, his devotion to logic and precision of language make him an excellent jousting partner on political issues, where he tends left, and I tend right.

Like other eminently reasonable libertarians I know, he prides himself on his non-judgmentalism. Myself, I think non-judgmentalism by reasonable people (who erroneously assume other educated people are reasonable too) is a principal reason that classical liberalism got pushed to the margins of intellectual life in our culture by the authoritarian – and fanatically judgmental – left.

It wasn’t long before our conversation turned to the subject of Jordan Peterson (because how can you talk about cultural issues with any sentient Canadian today, and not talk about Jordan Peterson?). 

Our general topic was “compelled speech,” the issue that brought Peterson to national attention, when he pushed back against the provisos of Bill C-16 that would make failure to respect trans pronouns in discourse a human rights offence.

For my friend, accommodation for this relatively tiny minority amounts to a courtesy that does no harm to anyone. Later, to bolster his own perspective, he sent me a link to a New York Times article that’s been widely distributed, entitled “That’s What Ze Said.” 

Since the prestigious  New York Times ran it, I have to suppose it’s their idea of high-end polemics.  But I found the arguments put forward in defence of trans pronouns by author Jennifer Finney Boylan, a Barnard College English professor, unoriginal and woefully jejune.

Boylan’s argument is twofold: first, she compares trans pronouns like “ze” and “xir” and (singular-usage) “they” to “Ms,” an honorific that gained mainstream purchase in the late 1980s: that is, as nothing more than helpful neologisms to keep linguistic pace with social change.  Second, as a teacher, Boylan says she uses these pronouns “simply because calling people by the names they prefer is a matter of respect” and “because to do so, in the end, is to simply treat my fellow human beings with love.”

Beginning at the end: Let’s dispense immediately with the “love” angle regarding our “fellow human beings.” No one is obligated to love their fellow human beings, let alone to show it by using words they don’t recognize as legitimate. Nor must teachers “love” their students. The sole criterion for superior teaching is knowledge of one’s subject and enthusiastic competence in teaching it.

On to the meat of Boylan’s defence.

Professor Boylan’s “Ms” analogy is untenable. Most glaringly, “Ms” – as Boylan herself notes – was first mooted as an honorific in 1901. It took 85 years to catch on. In other words, it was accepted into the language organically, and not by fiat, as in the case of trans pronouns. That’s a difference with an enormous political distinction.

Language evolves, of course. Nobody is arguing that language is a fixed phenomenon. But in a free society, words are not adopted through coercion (although proscription of certain words – false advertising claims, for example – can be justified in certain circumstances without breaching the basic principle of freedom of speech).

Moreover, Ms answered a social need for women – both single and married – who felt that their marital status is no longer anyone’s business but their own. That’s a legitimate social demand based on a right to privacy. Accommodating that preference is simply a matter of courtesy – not unlike a request to use a middle initial in written communications, say – and nothing more. There’s no disputed principle at stake there.

“Ms” is a single, easily remembered honorific. Like “Lord Billingsley” or “Lady Rottenborough” – honorifics, by the way, you would be mocked and denounced for adopting for personal usage, if they had not been honestly conferred by inheritance or official bestowal. But, because trans pronouns are invented, multiple and bespoke, they present practical difficulties that the universally applicable “Ms” does not (try telling immigrants in their English as a Second Language class that they may have to learn up to 70 supplementary pronouns for use with trans people). That’s just for starters.

The real problem is that we are being called upon to publicly attest to an unproven theory: that although there are only two sexes, there is no fixed number of genders. There is no scientific evidence for the theory of gender fluidity. I acknowledge that gender dysphoria is a phenomenon. So I have no problem with normal pronoun exchanges for trans people identifying as the sex opposite to their biology. If a man presents as a woman, I am fine with “she” and “her,” and vice versa. But I won’t use a pronoun that actually “means” the person is neither male nor female. Everyone is entitled to their own identity illusions, but nobody is entitled to coerced recognition of their illusions by others as an objective reality.

I have seen the “respect” argument many times. But I agree with Jordan Peterson that pronouns are not a sign of respect; they are neutral signifiers, placeholders for names. On the other hand, I am not looking for a fight on this, and neither are most people. Ordinary people really wish there were some compromise strategy for avoiding the accusation of transphobia, which is inevitably attached to anyone who announces he or she will not use trans pronouns.

Here’s my solution, which I probably won’t be called upon to execute, but which gives me peace of mind knowing it’s handy. In order to avoid an altercation, I would use the person’s name in every instance where a pronoun would be the natural and obvious choice. 

I have no objection to calling a person any name he or she chooses, whether it be John, Mary, Zircon or Tira Mi Su; so if the occasion arises where a possessive or indirect pronoun would be the normal and natural usage, I will simply substitute the name, even if it sounds awkward and even if it is obvious I am avoiding the pronoun.

Trans activists won’t like that. They want to hear you speak the pronouns. Because the issue is not communication; the issue is who is to have power over whom, and who is to voice submission to whom. I don’t bow down to manmade (or transmade) idols. And nor should any free citizen.