This will sound like a humorous question, but it is one I have turned over in my mind for months now, and one that cultural conservatives and practicing Christians will eventually have to confront: how much should we care about pronouns? Put differently, should we care that one individual wants to be called “they”? Or that one wants the prefix “Mx.”? This is not a simple question, and I have not found a simple answer.
If you are like most people, you probably don’t give much thought to word choice. Most of us just speak, letting our voices keep up with our thoughts, and not quite being intentional with our terms. This means we get swept along in word trends, which is why you see the ignoble reign of “curate,” “price point,” “artisanal,” “vibrant,” and, for that matter, “intentional.” We also slip easily into euphemism in order to avoid displeasing those around us: problems become “issues,” and opposition to an idea becomes a “phobia” of that idea.
But our language governs us in ways we can scarcely imagine. Literary and rhetorical theorists from Aristotle onward have recognized that we prime our actions and beliefs with the terms we choose. The theorist Kenneth Burke focused especially on the power of metaphor, noting that if you tell a young woman that all men are wolves, you are priming her to see only lupine qualities. Today our terms function as a kind of secular dogmatic code, indicating what is acceptable and unacceptable to say.
Richard Weaver, the midcentury philosopher and icon of traditional conservatism, wrote that language was “sermonic”: the terms we use guide our thoughts and instruct our actions, which means we must choose our terms with care. So-called God terms, such as “progress,” tend to steamroll opposition and force compliance (who could be against progress?). Devil terms, by contrast, make an idea untouchable; think here of the progressive proclivity for labeling all opponents “fascists.” God terms and devil terms have “inherent potency,” according to Weaver—they carry with them more weight than a collection of vowels and consonants would indicate.
Any parent learns quickly that language is important, as children are wont to repeat the best and worst of what we say. It is vexing, then, that more cultural conservatives aren’t paying attention to the victories secular liberalism is achieving—one term at a time. It is a truism that predates Orwell that he who controls the language controls the mind. If Catholics and cultural conservatives aren’t willing to enforce standards in language, who’s to say we will have any power to enforce them in culture and behavior?
And yet the line between linguistic prescriptivism and descriptivism is not as neat and clean as we would perhaps like. When I worked as an English professor, I constantly tried to enforce correct use of language in the classroom. But what is correct? We treasure Shakespeare, but we don’t speak in Elizabethan style. Language has evolved since then, and the culture with it. When I pushed back against student use of, say, “impactful”—to take a particularly repugnant example—students asked, reasonably: what if that word is perfectly acceptable in 50 years? I found I had no good answer, other than to insist that we would be as clear and honest in our writing as we could.
Given my open cultural conservatism in the classroom—a rarity in any age, and a virtual unicorn on campuses these days—it was probably inevitable that a student would ask me what I thought about the transgender movement’s focus on “oppressive” pronouns, and academia’s rapid and totally unsurprising accommodation of neologisms like a singular “they.” Again, this is not as simple as we’d like to think. After all, “Ms.” was revived by feminists as a bridge between Mrs. and Miss. There was resistance, of course, but today there is little if any opposition to the term. Who’s to say that “Mx.” won’t follow the same path, or even that it might deserve the same acceptance?
No doubt the rebuttal is already in your mind: “Ms.” still refers to an individual, biological female. “Mx.,” by contrast, is specifically designed to subvert the linguistic reflection of biology and the differences between the two sexes. This is true of the whole litany of new terms that are increasingly common in academia and progressive publications: “zir,” “hir, “em,” “xerself,” “eirself,” among others. (Incidentally, those come from a “Pronoun Guide” brought to you by a public university.)
What are cultural conservatives to make of these? There are several important things to bear in mind as we reflect upon the linguistic battles—which, though they may seem trivial, are incredibly important: if you condition youth to use certain terms, you are very much conditioning their view of reality. We live in a world of discourse, and we make the social world as we speak it into being. We may get our inspiration and salvation from a pure civitas dei, but there is no doubt that civitas terrena is a messy world of discourse and rhetoric.
The first thing to bear in mind as you confront pronoun debates is that gender theory was invented, plain and simple. Nothing was “discovered,” as in the natural sciences, that suddenly allowed us to have a more enlightened view of sex and gender. A group of social theorists and psychologists, working from little more than a wide but shallow well of critical theory, invented a new way of thinking and speaking. Because modern academia is fixated on transgression and subversion of tradition in all things, and because transgender theory offers the ultimate act of self-creation, the idea rapidly became standard dogma among the professoriate. When you are taught in virtually every subject that tradition and institutions do nothing but oppress true selves, how could you not find gender theory irresistible?
Second, and perhaps even more important for Christians, the movement for new pronouns is at heart a mission to elevate the self to Godlike status. Transcendence of the self—the quest to move past human preoccupations in the service of something higher—is completely abolished in the world of new theory and new pronouns. Indeed, there can be no transcendence because there can truly be nothing outside the self. If you reject God-given biology, and reject the terms that reflect that biology, you are indulging in the most egregious kind of solipsism: Nothing matters beyond what I feel to be true, despite all evidence to the contrary.
This is what makes the current debates over pronouns so confounding: it’s not just that these terms have arisen, but that you are an oppressor if you do not use them. It is now common for university professors to list their “preferred pronouns” in their email signatures, and many university departments list similar “choices” on their respective web sites. The implication here—not so much implied as vaguely threatened—is that if you fail to follow these “preferences”—and in modern, emotive culture a preference is all that matters—then you are harming that person’s true identity. You are performing an injustice, or even, in all too many accusations, an act of violence.
How can there be transcendence of self, and subservience to something higher, in such a situation? When you insist that you can ignore biology, and that you can invent new terms, and that people are doing violence to you if they ignore those terms, you are indulging not just in philosophical incoherence but indeed in unbelievable levels of self-absorption. By this I do not mean selfishness or self-centeredness; I mean a reflexive, singular focus on the Self above all other aspects of social and democratic life. If I refuse to engage in a conversation with you unless you accommodate my often ludicrous choice of terms (“eirself”?), I am not just revealing myself to be self-absorbed but also a poor and shallow citizen with no understanding of what is required for true pluralistic exchange.
Our instinct, then, should be to resist the incursion of new pronouns that actively refute not just biology but basic ontology and epistemology. But then we are right back in a quandary: how, given our Christian mission to be welcoming and charitable to all, are we to talk—and I mean literally talk, as in basic conversation—with advocates of this view? How, as a Catholic with a Catholic understanding of biology and man made in the image of God, should I respond when someone asks me to use “zir”?
Again, there may be no simple answer. Conservatives know that there is often greater truth to be found in the local and the particular than in the rigid and universal. Perhaps we just do the best we can in a given situation, responding to a conversational partner with grace and humor and honesty. Perhaps we remind our fellow citizen that an imperfect but reliable system is generally preferable to no system at all. Perhaps we bear in mind that the social norms that govern our culture take centuries to build but months to crumble. Perhaps we note that the same people complaining about our president’s erosion of “democratic norms” seem to have no problem overturning two millennia of consensus norms on human biology.
Most of all, perhaps we take that opportunity to remind (ahem) him or her that the best way of living is to move past the self and its petty, earthbound preoccupations. That insisting on others accommodating your every linguistic whim is neither charitable nor selfless. That one is not born anew each day. That the self is given, not created. That we are but travelers in this earthly realm, and the more we become preoccupied with the whims and travails that make up human life, the more we lose sight of what is truly important: that which is above us.
Transgression is attractive, especially for youth. Rebellion is a cycle through which nearly all of us pass at some point. But may I humbly suggest, to Christian conservatives and gender theorists alike, that to truly rebel in times like these one should live a simple, quiet life in the service of God and fellow humans, and that the relentless focus on the created self is the surest path to madness? You want true freedom? You want true rebellion? Get over yourself and stop talking about “identity.” Dedicate yourself to something and someone else. Lose yourself—lose the self—in a teleological pursuit. Do that, and suddenly you’ll recognize the pronoun debates for what they are: a useless distraction from first things, higher things, and permanent things.