Perhaps the name Dr. Jordan Peterson is unfamiliar to you. It was to me until I happened upon his recent YouTube video, “Fear and the Law,” in which he calmly and methodically dissects political correctness, with particular reference to Bill C-16 (a Canadian bill which would add “gender identity” and “gender expression” to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination).
Peterson is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, so it’s a fair bet that he knows a good deal about the workings of the human mind. In “Fear and the Law” he imagines being told to refer to a student or colleague via “gender-neutral pronouns”: “I don’t recognize another person’s right to determine what pronouns I use to address them. I won’t do it.” Cue storms of fire from students and professional bodies alike.
From this it is clear that we need to talk about pronouns. We shouldn’t need to, but we do. That’s just the way the world is right now. A couple of clarifications from the outset, though. Firstly, our concern lies not with an illness (transsexualism) but with an ideology (gender identity, leading to transgenderism).
Secondly, our question is not how to respond if John (who is male) asks us to call him Jessica. Forenames are not inherently linked to sex in the way pronouns are. No, our question is this: if John asks us to refer to him through pronouns other than he/him/his, should we?
How Words Relate to Bodies
It makes sense to start with some perhaps-forgotten basics. Third-person personal pronouns are those sets of words through which we refer to a person via that person’s sex. You know how Facebook allows us to tag somebody in a photo? It’s the same thing. Pronouns are how we tag somebody in a conversation.
We use he/him/his for a male, she/her/hers for a female, and they/them/theirs to refer to more than one person. This is a simple, well-established, and entirely uncontroversial system, because sex is the only viable candidate for what to attach personal pronouns to: it represents the whole of a person’s body, it cannot change, and it exists independent of our mind. In other words, it is the only anchor by which we can secure the relationship between language and people.
In a world of sexual difference, a third-person personal pronoun is the spark given off when our words meet a third person. But if it is that straightforward, can we not bring this essay to a close already? Unfortunately not, because there is a new kid on the block and he (?) wants us to use pronouns in a brand new way.
How Transgender Pronouns Undermine Language
It does not matter what you or I mean by the word “gender.” The only opinion that counts is that of the state, as the state alone has the power to impose its belief on us. In law, our gender identity is defined without reference to our body, meaning the shift from sex to gender is the shift from body to mind.
It is, then, also the shift from the given to the chosen, from the fixed to the fluid, and from a number (two, binary) to any number (non-binary). Unlike his sex, John’s gender identity is immaterial. This requires new ways in which to communicate our identity—hence the arrival on campuses across America of “preferred pronouns” lapel badges.
You don’t need to be a psychology professor to realize than an attempt to transplant pronouns from the body to the mind is an attempt to destroy our ability to communicate. Consider: John can choose from infinite gender identities, with no fixed link between any one gender identity and any one set of pronouns.
For example, John and Joan might each identify as “female,” with John using she/her/hers and Joan using, say, red/white/blue. What does all this mean? It means gender pronouns are hyper-volatile. John might change his pronouns (without changing his gender identity), or he might change his gender identity (without changing his pronouns), or he might change both. Furthermore, he might do any of these things at any time and for any and no reason. That’s a lot of badges.
Nothing illustrates this nihilism better than the push to convert “they” into a singular pronoun. (A note to any nit-pickers: here, we are not debating the validity of using “they” when a person’s sex is unknown. Rather, we are concerned with an emerging trend wherein a person insists on being referred to as “they” rather than by his or her correct pronouns.) Besides being a spectacularly unimaginative choice for an alternative singular pronoun, “they” also represents another attack on difference. Not content with collapsing the sexes into each other, the ideology also wants to collapse the difference between the singular and the plural. The level of recklessness is almost admirable.
At root, the notion of gender pronouns is a category error, a misunderstanding of the nature of language. Gender identities don’t have pronouns, for the same reason ages and skin colors don’t—namely that sexes do have pronouns. There can be no such thing as a non-binary pronoun because there are no non-binary sexes, and there can be no such thing as a neutral pronoun because there are no non-sexed bodies.
So, in answer to our question, we could not refer to John through some set of pronouns other than he/him/his even if we wanted to. Think of it this way: is it possible to permit males to enter the female restroom? No. Why not? Because as soon as we permit males to enter, the restroom ceases to be the female restroom. Sure, it still has the word “Female” on the door, but its function has changed. Likewise, pronouns cease to be pronouns as soon as we de-sex them. Sure, John can help himself to the linguistic husk of female pronouns—she/her/hers—but their previous content will forever be beyond his reach because their previous content was a female-sexed body.
It turns out that gender pronouns are not pronouns at all. They are a new thing trading under an old name. All that remains of authentic pronouns is a kind of ghost ship. The crew has jumped overboard, with the vessel drifting on unmanned, buffeted about by the winds of our imagination. In sum, we are being asked to stop using pronouns but to continue using the word “pronoun.” Irony, anybody?
Privatize Identities Privatize Language
The explosion in the number of so-called preferred pronouns is clearly another by-product of the switch from sex to gender, meaning that the present breakdown in language is merely a symptom of a prior problem—i.e., a breakdown in our understanding of our own identity. If language is the battleground, then identity is the battle.
In effect, the switch represents the privatization of identity, inexorably leading to the privatization of language. But we can no more privatize language than we can identity, as identity and language make sense only in relation to somebody else. Gender pronouns might work just fine in a quiet corner of the Internet (hello, Tumblr!), or if each of us had a planet to himself or herself, but for as long as we need to talk with people about people then we need a common language.
Let’s just ask ourselves: if we are prepared to say John is not a he, then on what basis can there be anything we are not prepared to say? Seriously, gender pronouns are a hall of mirrors we won’t be able to find our way out of. So let’s not go there. Ideally, the gap between reality and language should be as narrow as possible so our speech is in harmony with how things really are. Gender ideology, however, requires levering apart language and reality so that reality ends up being beyond the reach of our speech.
Body of Evidence
Sex and gender might appear to be two aspects of identity that can run parallel to each other in law, but gender is making claims that contradict sex. The mind is claiming superiority over the body of which it is the mind. So it is not a case of us having both a sex and a gender. No, we are being told to choose: sex or gender. We are being asked to peel words off our body and attach them to our mind. Good luck with that. We are in fact being asked to sever the link between language and our own body.
G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.” This is surely the right perspective to have in the war between sex and gender. It is not about being abrasive or meddlesome, but we do need to get off the back foot so the ground is not constantly shifting beneath us. We need to put down some strong verbal roots in the fertile soil of reality, and that means sticking with real pronouns.
We are not in control of whether somebody will pour hatred in our direction, but we can tend to those things that are within our control. We can look inside ourselves, examine our conscience, and know that our motivation is healthy. Check your heart, not your “privilege.” Be confident, hold the line, and respect the pronouns. Respect language. Respect sexual difference. After all, who would John be without the difference between his father and his mother? He would be…nobody.
Is it disrespectful to refuse to call John a she? Not at all. Are we doing something wrong when we gently inform him that regarding pronouns his body beat his mind to the punch? No. Also, is it hurtful or hateful to conserve the relationship between words and people? Nope.
As an anchor to communication, the body works. Sex works. The mind does not. If we refer to people via their sex, as we should, there is no possibility of ever “mis-gendering” or “mis-pronouning” somebody. Dr. Peterson won’t use gender-neutral pronouns, and you shouldn’t either. All together now: I won’t do it.