*Note: This article originally appeared in edited form at the Library of Law and Liberty:
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.” ― Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
“Hello, my name is Simon, and my personal pronouns are ‘He, Him, His.’”
As an incoming doctoral student, my first encounter with this novel bit of bien pensant was at a seminar on “microaggressions and diversity.” If you’ve been off a mainstream campus for a while, let me reeducate you on the finer points of modern identity. Identity and political power have allied themselves in the modern academy in troubling ways. For instance, it is now fashionably sophisticated to introduce oneself with this curious ‘personal pronoun’ overture--a preemptive declaration of one’s preferred gender identity. It’s intended, I’m told, to prevent the commission of “microaggressions” from potentially confused colleagues. Indeed, über-elites on campus include it as a postscript to their email signatures, declaring to the world that they possess a nuanced grasp of identity framing. Personal pronouns, it would appear, have become a poststructuralist calling card for the gender movement. Coupled with feminist critiques of “structural sexism,” this movement is careening down the road toward illiberal suppression of discourse and thought.
Charitably, these personal pronoun postures might be harmless enough, reflecting what might merely be the elevated sensitivities of an avant-garde social class. Like other forms of virtue-signaling, sensitivity to gender “aggression” seems to disproportionately afflict the upper-educated quintile, the class that spends a lot of time in its own head. “Come now,” you say, “that seems a bit over the top…these folks are just asking for respect.” If that were as far as it went, I’d enthusiastically embrace it. Instead, cultural doges are busily establishing and enforcing the parameters of “appropriate” discourse, vigorously persecuting those who do not ascribe to the orthodoxy. Lawrence Summers, J. Michael Bailey, Helmuth Nyborg, Dr. and Ms. Christakis, James Otteson, Kenneth Zucker, Jordan Peterson and an ever-growing list of targeted academics bears abundant testimony to a newly constructed climate of intolerance.
“Microagressions” are subtle expressions of power--intentional or unintentional slights against nonconformists that reinforce established structures of authority and influence. To an extent, the gender movement’s recognition of this subtle phenomenon is both insightful and useful. As a nonconformist myself, I know firsthand that uninformed stereotyping, snide rebukes, and other forms of in-crowd/out-crowd “otherizing” behaviors are hurtful and demeaning. Face it, we’ve all been there. It’s a noble and generous impulse, therefore, to wish to call attention to the phenomenon and to exhort the collective to increase its decency quotient. It’s not noble, however, to unilaterally claim the moral heights and vigorously apply the aggression in reverse.
The gender movement establishes its bid for power in the most old-fashioned way: by appropriating language. In framing and continually reframing the very meanings of words, the movement amasses for itself considerable power. For instance, according to public announcements at the University of Kansas, “gendered” words that students are urged to “avoid” are: “mom, dad, girl, boy, men, ladies, husband, wife, sister, boyfriend.” Instead, students are encouraged to use “partner,” “sibling,” “parent” and other gender-neutral terms. In an ironic twist, these former bastions of erudition now even encourage the use of “y’all” instead of “you guys.” If you think this is weird, try adopting the complicated pronoun matrix that suggests (and I’m not making this up) that we use “Ve” as in, “Ve has a car,” “I called ver” or “Vis eyes gleam.” No really, I’m not making this up--I lifted them directly from the campus Advising Center’s publicity cabinet, which promotes new norms of speech and (ahem…) intercourse. This sort of semantic reconstruction has a powerful effect: it throws befuddled associates off-guard, pushing them into a verbal corner by allowing one party to define what is and is not acceptable to say. Orwell reminded us, “…if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” These linguistic artifices epitomize the corruption of thought.
As social movements go, I’m obviously on the skeptical end of the gender “issue,” but I’m hardly defiant. The language gymnastics it proposes are convoluted, to be sure, but to be fair are intended to restructure the terms of discourse. Fine. We could all probably stand to think outside our norms and nobody should lose their head over momentarily forgetting the reflexive form of “Ze.” Where I part ways with this kind of linguistic activism, however, is when it moves responsibility from the personal to the public. The gender movement seems intent on grasping the Censor’s stool (an historic temptation, to be sure) by co-opting language and pushing infractions into the public arena. By doing so, it places its thumb on the balance of power by begging the intrusion of the administrative state. Here’s how:
“Violence,” “Hate,” and “Kill” are terms of consequence. They carry with them such a weight of intolerable abuse that it invites, or rather requires, the involvement of authority. As the entity with the exclusive monopoly on the use of force, we expect the “state” or, more nebulously, “administration” to constrain or punish those who violate or kill others. The gender movement has usurped consequential words like “violence” and “kill,” making otherwise loutish insensitivity into a clarion call to the authorities. “Violence” is now defined as “socially and structurally empowered behavior that actively violates the autonomy of individuals or communities, enacting harm to their physical, psychological, and spiritual wellbeings[sic].” Definitional sloppiness aside, it’s clear that the movement views “violence” as any expression or behavior that does not square with unilateral assessments of “self.” The definition is broad enough to include as “violent” any action, by any person, at any time, in any place, and has the additional feature of being wholly detached from the “violator’s” intent. Campus guidelines make sure that we recognize that a previously innocuous expression such as “hey, man!” is now an example of “gendered violence” with the possibility of inflicting “psychological harm.” No seriously, it’s no longer appropriate to say, “hey, man.” I know, because this was briefed to a classroom full of new students my professor calls “freshpeople.”
The word “kill” used to describe a singularly brutal intrusion into another person’s lifespan; now it can be used in a much wider context. For example, you are “killing” a transgender person if you are “…holding to non-consensual gender” terms. Again from the publicity cabinet:
Cisgender insensitivity…actively kills trans+ and GNC [Gender Non-Conforming] people for what they wear, look like, how their bodies grow hair, and much more. This is no exaggeration.
No exaggeration? This kind of language appropriation poses real problems to those of us interested in real violence and real killings, because that is where we collectively agree to invite the state to intervene. By cavalierly adopting this language, the gender movement implicitly summons the power of authority to militate for its views on “proper” discourse and behavior.
To be fair, it seems unlikely that anyone will be going to prison over the kind of “violence” and “killing” described here—though Canada is paving the way. Everyone I know in the trans+ and GNC community appears to be relatively tolerant and civil. But it doesn’t require active policing and prison sentences to significantly alter an intellectual climate. People lose their livelihoods or are subjected to vicious social backlash for transgressing against this new order. Edicts on “correct” speech have a demonstrably chilling effect on individual speech and thought. I have been told repeatedly to “not talk about” what I consider legitimate and noteworthy gender differences and to “be careful” who I say such things to. Rumors that I would be publishing an article on the subject were met with vehement (nay, frantic) warnings to “not do it” before I had even formulated an argument--my viewpoint was considered déclassé at the mere whiff that it might not be in lockstep with “approved” discourse. Thankfully, I have the luxury of being insensitive to academic career prospects, or I would certainly have kept my mouth shut. Many others have.
The gender movement is fashioning a bizarre world in which everyone’s identity is integral to their perspective and yet we are simultaneously forbidden from discussing it. Constantly shifting norms of suitable language make frank and open discussion of gender and identity off-limits to intellectual discourse. While identity is chained to political “voice” and is fetishized amongst character attributes, to engage someone in dialogue in terms of their identity is, paradoxically, strictly verboten. The gender-charged, linguistically constrained climate emphasizes identity to the point where it becomes a hindrance to discussing identity. Odd.
Now, lest I be branded a consummate boor, I actually think that gender-based oppression was (and is) a real thing—to a degree. My heart sincerely goes out to those who suffer humanity’s nastier side for the physical and psychic inconsistencies that are beyond their control. I'm sensitive to the argument that gender “construction” is a laregely social phenomenon that acts in powerful and often-unseen ways. I’d argue even, in the interests of debate, that the current state of “gender” (58 variants and counting) is itself the result of social construction. I rather wonder if new genders are being invented from the thin air of our collective constructions. An interesting question anyway, but I’m quite sure the idea (and, tellingly, myself) would be roundly dismissed in a modern faculty lounge.
Because I’m an historian, I can’t help but point out that this debate is nothing new, despite showy campus sidewalk-chalk proclamations to the contrary. The Lakota Sioux, for example, supported a special sub-community of gender-variant Wíŋkte, as did the Navajo with their disparaged Nádleeh. The social standing of these “variants,” was, I suspect, far less honored than that of today’s LGBT(QIA) community. I challenge, therefore, the narrative that we live in an oppressive age, sullied by a ugly bias. I believe that things are, by and large, better than ever from a gender equality perspective and I, for one, want the trend to continue. It frustrates me that my opinion (as a straight male) is increasingly discounted, since this reflexive suppression seems so evidently at odds with the movement’s ostensible ambitions. I worry that the headlong rush to “normalize” gender relations by vigorously policing “incorrect” expressions will hurt all of us.
Insisting that we ascribe to gender-language along “proper” lines is fundamentally illiberal, and risks reawakening the very forces of cultural authoritarianism that created gender discrimination in the first place. John Stuart Mill, in The Subjection of Women, wrote in 1869 that, “I consider it presumption in anyone to pretend to decide what women are or are not, can or cannot be, by natural constitution.” I couldn’t agree more. Substituting “people” for “women” we might use this sentiment to continue to create a world where we are judged on our capacities and character rather than the shell we happen to inhabit.
 I suspect that this word-choice would itself be considered a microagression. It appears to be a legitimate synonym for “non-conforming,” but my mere suspicion that it is not a “proper” substitution says much about the current state of power dynamics.