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by Adrian Sobers
“For all their usefulness, though, pronouns do cause problems.” – Sam Leith
In Humans vs Computers, Gojko Adzic tells the story of Andrew Wilson who changed his name to They. No first or last name, just: They.
Yes, the plural in construction pronoun: they. Who does that? Well, like so many other things; they do. You know how it goes: They always [insert gripe].
The problematic nature of pronouns Leith is referring to, however, is in the context of writing: agreement (more on that later), and the position of feminists that “using the masculine pronoun as the default universal inscribes patriarchy at the level of language itself.”
They have become even more problematic (pronouns that is, not feminists or Mr. Wilson) with the growing popularity of “preferred” pronouns. As is the case with most developments, to understand them better we should trace its philosophical roots as best we can. (You will hardly find a more practical discipline than philosophy. Not as convincing as physics, but more practical than it gets credit for.)
Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self remains the best resource for understanding the intellectual history of the empathy based ethics that rules the roost today.
Preferred pronouns, menstruating (and pregnant) men are the most recent examples of a dire trend that has its roots in an even more dire philosophy. As is so common in human history, a perfectly good thing, empathy in this case, gets perverted.
Having empathy for another human being is completely different from grounding our ethics in empathy. When ethics is grounded in empathy (in a word: emotionalism), issues tend to slide to the more silly side of the spectrum.
Academe, where else, provides the richest examples. Rule of thumb: the more august the institution (or individual), the more ridiculous the offering. Princeton is a perfect example.
Take this pronouncement from their student-run ballet program: “Ballet, is rooted in white supremacy and perfectionism.” (Oh boy, here we go.)
“We aim to decolonise our practice of ballet even as ballet remains an imperialist, colonialist, and white supremacist art form.” Behave do.
Not to be outdone, the equally august Columbia University issued an instructional video on why pronouns matter (and it’s not for the reasons your primary school teacher gave).
The pronoun refresher appearing in The New Criterion (December 2021) is worth quoting in full: “A pronoun is a substitute for a noun or noun phrase. In English, pronouns have number and gender. Agreement in number and gender is essential if one wants to be correct. “James has his own ticket” and “Mary has hers.”
“All men love their own children” but “Everyone has his own ideas” (not “their,” it should go without saying, because “everyone” is singular and in standard, i.e., correct, English, the masculine singular is preferred in such cases). You see how it works.”
Or rather should work. In addition to remembering the fundamentals from primary school, we now have to navigate emotionalism (not to be confused with having empathy).
With the advent of preferred pronouns–ze/zir/zirs–and one cannot help but wonder if God has a preferred pronoun. This is not a hill I am prepared to die on (John 4:24), but more often than not it is singular, masculine.
Similar to the feminist charge of inscribing patriarchy in the language by using the masculine pronoun as the default universal, the typical pronoun warrior puts this down to oppressive patriarchy: “If God consists of this insecure toxic masculinity, there’s no reason for a woman to worship this kind of God.” But even the silly side of the spectrum has serious takeaways. In this case, it happens to be the most serious of takeaways.
The most important thing here is to familiarise ourselves with the work of the most personal of pronouns: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me [Jesus], because he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13–14, NRSV).
Leith is right, pronouns do cause problems. But the most personal pronoun is in the problem solving business: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” He knows they need it.
Adrian Sobers is a prolific letter writer and commentator on issues of national interest.