A blog for conservative philosophers. We are philosophers who think being perennially orthodox is worth being presently heterodox; i.e., politically, we are generally right, and therefore think leftists are generally wrong, if not insane.
This is the 3rd and last part of my series. If you haven’t read Part 1 & 2, then please do. In this blogpost, I respond to Robin Dembroff (who is transgender) and Daniel Wodak’s argument that we should use the pronoun they or ze to instead of he or she. Please read their argument here. You might also be interested in what Dembroff had to say about pronouns earlier in her life.
Permit me a rather large quote so that you can see what’s at issue:
Some languages—Hungarian, Finnish, Malay, Armenian, Bengali, Yoruba—have no gender-specific pronouns or grammatical gender. We think that English speakers should adopt the long-term goal of making English like these languages: we should stop using pronouns like he and she, and adopt gender-neutral pronouns like they or ze for everyone.
We acknowledge that this is a controversial and provocative thesis, but we think it is one worth talking about. For this reason, while we discuss some of the reasons supporting it, we hope this piece will foster critical discussion.
Consider a familiar scenario. You’re a professor. You have a fresh batch of undergraduates this semester. You start the first class by asking students to introduce themselves, including their names and preferred pronouns.
We think there’s something wrong with asking this question. To see why, suppose that you have a genderqueer student: i.e., a student who does not exclusively identify as a man or woman, and so falls outside of the traditional gender binary. That this student is genderqueer might not be publicly known or evident from their gender performance. What should the student do? They could answer honestly: they prefer they. To do this, though, would disclose their gender identity. It is not part of the semantic meaning of the singular they that it refers to a genderqueer person (by contrast, he presupposes that the referent is a man; ditto for she and women). But given the background assumption that he is for men and she is for women, using they for someone often pragmatically implicates that they do not identify as a man or a woman.
There is nothing wrong with someone disclosing that they are genderqueer. But there is something wrong with forcing someone to disclose this information. Your student should get to choose whether and when they disclose their gender identity to others; you should not force them to disclose this information to strangers, partly out of respect for their autonomy, and partly to protect them from serious risks of stigmatization and discrimination. (Some might object that gender-specific pronouns are used to mark so-called ‘biological gender’, rather than gender identity. If true, that wouldn’t justify your conduct. As Talia Bettcher has compellingly argued, people also shouldn’t be forced to publically disclose their sexed anatomy.)
I have some responses. Here they are.
Firstly, the scenario they describe is not familiar. I’ve never asked any person for his preferred pronoun. I’ve never heard anyone ask for that either. That question is ridiculous. And that these authors characterize this scenario as familiar gives me good reason to wonder if they’ve solated themselves to Google’s headquarters or the Huffington Post.
Secondly, what these authors refer to as “gender” or “gender identity” is not communicated in our standard uses of ‘he’ and ‘her’. Instead, we communicate ideas about the referent’s sex. That’s not to say that these pronouns cannot be used to convey ideas about sex and “gender”, but just that these pronouns must covey ideas about sex, at least when they’re used standardly toward a singular person whose sex is known. We have books stating that dating as far back as 1841. But of course, I might be wrong. It’s happened before; and so if the authors would like to provide me with a standard use of ‘he’ or ‘she’ for a single person, a use with a semantic content that is “gendered” and apart from sex, then I’d like to hear it, because I can’t think of any.
One might point out that we sometimes refer to cars and countries as “he” or “she”, which therefore might be grounds to think that these pronouns can be generally used apart from the sex. But this is wrong. The practice of calling such objects “he” or “she” is called personification – it’s where we treat an inanimate and non-personal object as if it had a sex. It’s a practice often based upon the belief that a particular object shares some of the paradigmatic, typical or ideal traits of the male or female sex. The extension of this use is restricted to inanimate objects and non-persons; hence, personification is not a counter-example.
If I am right, the upshot is that there is no “misgendering” with the standard use because neither “gender” nor “gender identity” are communicated with that use. Again, this use is about sex. Hence, if that genderqueer person is male, and if I referred to this person with the pronoun he, then my use of that pronoun was standard and correct. How he feels about the matter and his sense of self-perception is irrelevant to that fact.
The authors might object that people shouldn’t be “forced” to reveal their sex. And I agree with them: I don’t want to force anyone to do that either. Thus, if someone wants to keep his sex quiet, you won’t see me twisting his arm. I’ll just try not to use the he or she pronouns out of respect for privacy.
At this point my objectors might argue that if I were to refer this person as he, then this person would be “forced” to either object to my use, reveal private information or go along with it, which might embarrass or annoy him.
My response? I largely agree with this observation. This embarrassment or annoyance might suck for that person, but that’s life. It’s filled with shit like that. We don’t get through life and social interaction without sometimes feeling sad, angry or embarrassed. The prudential and reasonable strategy is to cope, not change some deeply ingrained features of a language spoken by hundreds and hundreds of millions of people across the world. That should strike you as an overwhelming self-entitlement to think otherwise, something approaching narcism.
At this point, the authors might object with something like this:
Such an embarrassment doesn’t just suck – it’s a HUGE social injustice. One that demands we change a language used by millions and millions all over the world; and it also demands that we embrace the singular they and ze to protect people from such an egregious use of linguistic violence! Equality! Tran-feelings matter! Egalitarianism!
My response? Meh, I disagree. I think that English is justly embedded with sex-based pronouns, because these pronouns serve to help us recognize, emphasize and appreciate the importance of sex and sexual difference. In fact, I’d like English to be more like French, which has way more gendered features of language. I don’t just say this as a Christian (sexual difference is grounded in our theological anthropology), but as a human being and active citizen. Hear me out.
Human beings are either male or female. This difference between us is not irrelevant – it’s not like hair colour. Instead, it grounds us in one of two natural kinds of human embodiment. And it doesn’t end with our natural kinds: there are many other differences between men and women, those that can enrich our social interactions while broadening and deepening our perspective and life. In this way, many of our differences are complementary, providing the opportunity for a fuller and more dynamic human existence and polis. Heck, even our bodies are complementary, providing the means for a man and a woman to create a new being, an embodiment of their love and a future for society.
That’s some pretty important shit, no doubt. Thus, sexual difference matters. It matters to society. It matters to our flourishing. It is an integral part of human existence. It’s an objective part of who and what we are. And that’s why we should keep our sexed-based pronoun use, because it helps us recognize and emphasize our sexual difference.
To be sure, I am able to sympathize with an individual who wants to keep his sex private (though it is weird and he should not), and I am willing to accommodate individuals on a case-by-case basis. However, these cases are exceptions to the rule: I will not abandon the linguistic conventions that serve to recognize and emphasize sexual difference. Those conventions are aimed to serve the common good, which is the good of us all. Transgender activists shouldn’t be able to undermine that for the rest of us.
If you haven’t already seen it, let me recommend to you the recent documentary, The Red Pill, filmed by Cassie Jaye. Jaye begins the documentary as a full-blown Hollywood feminist. She hears about the so-called Men’s Rights Movement, which see views as sexist, bigoted, and in general, hateful toward women. She begins to seriously investigate the movement, motivated by curiosity of what could be driving people (to her shock, the Men’s Rights Movement includes women too) to staunchly oppose the obviously good feminist movement. Gradually, as she talks to founding members of the Men’s Rights Movement and feminist professors, cracks form in her feminist worldview. At the end of the documentary, she no longer knows what exactly to think, except she no longer calls herself a feminist. She’s been “red-pilled”.
A feminist deconversion is a happy ending, as far as I’m concerned, but I wasn’t entirely satisfied with how Jaye got there, or with the position of the Men’s Rights Movement. One thing that the documentary makes evident is that some of the founders of the Men’s Rights Movement are baby boomers who went to college in the 60s and 70s and became, surprisingly, feminists. They were converted to feminism by The Feminine Mystique and Simone de Beauvoir. So, they bought the notion that gender is a social construct. Being consistent thinkers, they moved from the feminist accounts of how society’s (the feminists would call this ‘Patriarchy’, but the Men’s Rights activists take issue with this for reasons that will become apparent in a moment) traditional notion of genders constricted and confined women (in their minds) and noted that society also constricted and confined men, only in different but equally oppressive ways.
Here are some examples. Feminists’ so-called “Patriarchy” has unfairly hoisted on men the responsibility to defend their countries. It has unfairly hoisted on men the hardest jobs. It has unfairly hoisted on them the pressure that they be the “bread winners” and have great careers. How does it do this? It builds monuments to men who died in war; it labels men who die in difficult jobs as “brave” and “courageous”; it expects men to earn the money and be tough so that the women can stay home and nurture the children.
All of this is oppressive to men. The Men’s Rights activists keep pressing on Jaye some obvious facts to demonstrate the oppression. Over 95% of deaths in combat are men; a similar number of the workplace fatalities are men; at the time of filming there was exactly one shelter in the country for battered men, whereas there were hundreds or more such shelters for women.
What corrections do the Men’s Rights activists aim for? Here, we see their mistaken philosophy at work, because the outcome they seem to desire is equality—things would be good if an equal number of women died in combat, if an equal number of women died in the workplace, if an equal number of women were the bread winners. To be clear, they are egalitarians who would prefer that we strip society of the notion that men should protect, defend, and provide for their families.
The problem with this is that it denies that there are differences between manhood qua manhood, and womanhood qua womanhood, that go deeper than socially constructed roles, and these differences are not simply anatomical (nobody denies those differences). They act as though it is a problem that men want to provide for their families, or are more willing to put themselves in harm’s way. But these desires are good and natural for men to have. Men have these desires, not merely because society evolved in such a way as to give them to us and pressure us into adopting them, but because of our biology. The social norms came after, and because of, our biological natures. And, if you like, we could note teleological differences too. This isn’t to say that all men have, or should have, the desire to provide for their families—we needn’t commit to anything so strong to affirm general tendencies. So, at bottom, the Men’s Rights Movement makes the same mistake that feminists make; they fail to see that there are differences between manhood and womanhood that track real characteristics of nature and these differences are good. We should affirm them and encourage men and women to embrace the normal desires that God gave them as men and women.
So, while I’m happy to join hands with the Men’s Rights Movement to fight for tort reform for child custody, I won’t be joining the movement. They may have all taken the Red Pill, but they need to take another. Take the one for egalitarianism. It won’t hurt!