Friday, August 2, 2019
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Friday, August 2, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The War Against Gendered Personal Pronouns: How Changes in Vocabulary Shape the Societal Worldview
Humpty Dumpty once said to Alice, as in Alice In Wonderland, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean. Neither more or less." Alice responded to Humpty Dumpty, "The question is, whether you can make words mean so many different things?" Humpty Dumpty's retort? "The question is, which is to be master? That's all."
There is incredible wisdom and an embedded threat within that quotation. If one is the master of language, then one controls the entire communication system, and for that matter eventually the culture. To control the lexicon, to control the dictionary, to control the vocabulary is eventually to control the meaning, indeed, the entire worldview of a society. The worldview shapes the vocabulary, but make no mistake, the vocabulary shapes the worldview.
Therefore, we have to take seriously a serious opinion piece published recently in The New York Times by the Times columnist Farhad Manjoo. He wrote an article with the headline, "The Perfect Pronoun, Singular 'They.'"
Manjoo wrote, "I am your stereotypical cisgender, middle-aged suburban dad. I dabble in woodworking, I take out the garbage, and I covet my neighbor's Porsche. My tepid masculinity apparently rings loudly enough that most people call me, 'he' and 'him.' And that's fine; I will not be offended if you refer to me by those traditional uselessly gendered pronouns, but 'he,'" the author went on to say, "is not what you should call me. If we lived in a just, rational, inclusive universe, one in which we were not also irredeemably obsessed by gender, there would be no requirement for you to have to guess my gender just to refer to me in the common tongue."
Farhad Manjoo has written for Slate. He's written for the Wall Street Journal, and now for the New York Times. He's dabbled in the gender issue before, even writing a piece in which he suggested that men should wear makeup. But in this article, published recently in The New York Times, he is calling for the rejection of traditional gendered pronouns and instead simply the use of the word "they," even in the singular.
You'll note that in the article's opening sentences, he went on to say that this is how we should speak to one another. Manjoo is making a moral argument. He intends to make a moral argument. He is effectively arguing that it is morally superior to use non-gendered language, including pronouns. And the specific pronoun he recommends, well, we know this already, it's "they."
Later in the article, he writes, "So, if you write about me, tweet about me, or," he says, "if you're a Fox News producer working on a rant about my extreme politics, I would prefer if you left my gender out of it. Call me 'they,'" he wrote, "as in, 'Did you read Farhad’s latest column? They've really gone off the deep end.'"
He goes on to say, "And unless you feel strongly about your specific pronouns, which I respect, I would hope to call you 'they' too, because the world would be slightly better off if we abandoned unnecessary gender signifiers as a matter of routine communication. Be a 'him' or 'her' or whatever else in the sheets, but consider also being a 'they' and a 'them' in the streets."
Well, his suggestion of a linguistic difference between the language used between the sheets and on the streets might be a little bit clever, but it's way too clever when you consider what's really at stake here. What he's calling for is a revolution, not only in the language, but in the morality, and not only that, in the entire worldview, even the understanding of who human beings are, what it means to be human, what it means to be a him or a her, what it means to be a they.
You should remember that earlier in the column, as I quoted, he went on to speak of those traditional uselessly gendered pronouns. Useless. That's very interesting. He's calling gender pronouns uselessly gendered. Well, is that true or is that false? Is it important when we speak to one another that we speak to one another as male or as female?
Well, let's just consider the fact that that is not only the traditional way that human beings have conceived, known, and spoken of one another, throughout the entirety of human existence. It is also something that is deeply embedded not only in the language but in the entire system of meaning. It's also something that the Bible affirms as a matter of God's revelation. Indeed, it's a matter of the creation that God has brought about to his glory. When he created human beings, the only beings in his image, he created us, male and female.
It's right there in the very first chapter of the Bible. Thus a he and a she, a man and a woman, a male and a female, this is written into the entire structure of creation, and even as Farhad Manjoo refers to them as being now useless, they're hardly useless. And furthermore, Manjoo protests the fact that many elite institutions that presumably are entirely sold out to and enthusiastic about the moral revolution, including the gender revolution, they haven't yet caught up with the linguistic revolution.
He asked, "Why do elite cultural institutions, universities, publishers, and media outlets still encourage all this gendering? To get to my particular beef," he wrote, "when I refer to an individual whose gender I don't know here in The Times," that's The New York Times, "why do I usually have to choose either he or she, or in the clunkiest phrase ever cooked up by small minded grammarians, he or she?"
Manjoo doesn't want to have it. He writes, "I shouldn't have to. It's time for the singular 'they.' Indeed, it's well past time and I'd like to do my part in pushing 'they' along." Manjoo writes as if this is probably inevitable. He says that many in the society are already adjusting to the singular "they." He says it's perceived as neutral in gender. "When people encounter it, they're as likely to guess it's referring to a man, woman or non-binary person."
He says this makes the singular "they" a perfect pronoun. "It's flexible, inclusive, and obviates the risk of inadvertent mis-gendering. And in most circumstances," he says, "it creates perfectly coherent sentences that people don't have to strain to understand."
Well, before looking at the inherent contradiction that comes in using the word "they," it's also an inherent confusion, let's consider the fact that even if you take Farhad Manjoo's argument at face value—"Oh, it's wrong to use gender pronouns, we would be morally superior if we get rid of those gender pronouns”—he says that there is no real loss, but of course there's an immediate loss. We really don't know as much as we used to know about the person being referred to. When you speak about "they," intentionally, as he makes clear, referring to either a male or a female or what he calls a non-binary person, you really don't know as much as you knew when you referred to someone or heard someone referred to as he or she. There's a tremendous loss of meaning with the use of "they" in that sense, but that's actually the point. You can't bring about a moral revolution on gender if the language keeps showing up with those noisome “he’s” and “she's.”
But then we have to move on to the bigger problem when it comes to the language and that is that "they" is plural. It always has been plural, but now he's insisting that we should use "they" in the singular.
Speaking of the resistance to using the singular "they," he writes, "Institutions that cater to grammar snoots still disfavor the usage. The Times allows the singular 'they' when the person being referred to prefers it, but its style book warns against widespread usage."
Here's The New York Times style book citation, "Take particular care to avoid confusion if using they for an individual." Why would there be confusion? Well, because "they" implies plural, more than one person. When you speak of "they" in the singular, you begin to confuse the entire language system.
Just consider this simple English sentence: They are drowning, we need to save them. Well, of course we should respond to that with an effort to bring about lifesaving intervention. You save one person. Have we saved them? No one person is a he or a she. If we are told we need to save them and we save only one, have we failed to save another who needs saving?
But we're talking about this because this is an argument that is coming up again and again, and here it has shown up in the most influential newspaper in the world, and in the voice of one of that newspaper's own columnists. And furthermore, we are told that Manjoo himself wants to be referred to with the singular "they." That is his own, you know the language now, preferred personal pronoun.
So I pulled up the biography of Farhad Manjoo on the website of The New York Times. It doesn't work. Just listen to how he is described. "Farhad Manjoo became a Times opinion columnist in 2018. Before that they wrote the Time's state-of-the-art column, covering the technology industry's efforts to swallow up the world. They also have written for Slate, Salon, Fast Company, and The Wall Street Journal. To their chagrin, their 2008 book, True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post Fact World, accurately predicted our modern age of tech embedded echo chambers and alternative facts."
The last sentence, "Farhad Manjoo was born in South Africa and immigrated with their family to southern California in the late 1980s. They live in northern California with their wife and two children." So here we have, and remember this is straightforward, this is the official bio on the website at The New York Times, we have an individual who has moved with their family, they live, their wife.
But at this point we should note that this ridiculous exercise only works because we actually do already know who he is. He understands that the issue goes far beyond the language. That's why the language must be conquered. He says, "One truth I've come to understand too late in life is how thoroughly our lives are shaped by gender norms. These expectations are felt most acutely by those who don't conform to the gender binary."
But he says, "Even for people who do fit within it, the very idea that there is a binary is invisibly stifling." Well, let's just consider for a moment the fact that the vast, vast majority of human beings, for what we know who have ever lived and certainly who speak of their judgment on such things now, are quite comfortable, indeed insistent, upon being known as a he or a she. This is not invisibly stifling.
He also speaks of how this applies to his parenting, "From their very earliest days, my son and daughter, fed by marketing and entertainment, and (surely) their parents modeling, hemmed themselves into silly gender norms. They gravitated to boy toys and girl toys, boy colors and girl colors, boy shows and girl shows." He concludes, "This was all so sad. They were limiting their very liberty to satisfy some collective abstraction."
No, they weren't. And they weren't just responding to cultural or consumer impulses either. They were responding to some deep knowledge within themselves. And even if the issue of color preferences related to male and female are an abstraction, the fact that even children want to clearly understand themselves as male and female is not an abstraction.
One respondent to Farhad Manjoo in the letter section of a later edition of The Times wrote, "The universal use of the singular 'they' by contrast would compel all speakers to change virtually every sentence and deference to the half percent of the population who identify as non-binary. In the process," wrote Ron Meyers of New York, "it would destroy ancient and universal linguistic distinctions of gender, and much worse, the distinction between the singular and the plural, which is essential to linguistic clarity."
Here's something deeply essential to the Christian worldview. The Christian worldview begins with the self-existent God, the God who created everything and gave the gift of being, that is an actual objective reality, to his creation.
Of course, the Bible makes very clear the elaboration of creation from that point. But God, the Creator, gets to determine what the creation is and what the creation means. He made human beings linguistic creatures. We have the capacity for language.
Our responsibility, according to the Christian worldview, is to order our language so as most faithfully to correspond to the reality that God has created. This is a moral responsibility. It's a theological responsibility. It's also just a natural impulse because human beings, made in the image of God, given the gift of consciousness, given the gift of language, we desperately do want our language to make sense and to be communicable, one to the other, understandable to those to whom we speak or write or communicate. If our language, if our vocabulary becomes detached from reality, it becomes not only less linguistically useful, it becomes subversive of the very idea of communication.
But note very carefully, this is intentional. This is exactly what the moral revolutionaries, the gender revolutionaries are trying to bring about. If they do not change the language, they cannot change the contours of the worldview, and that's what they are determined to do. Our language will, if they succeed, no longer correspond to reality, objective reality, it will instead correspond to their newly invented system of gender understanding, or we might say of gender misunderstanding, of confusion rather than of clarity, of self-deception rather than of truth.
The Linguistic Revolution Reaches Colorado State University, Banning Words Like ‘American’ and ‘Freshman’
Writing in a different context, also in the month of July, Peggy Noonan, who had been speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush, wrote an opinion piece asking the question, "What Were Robespierre's Pronouns?" Speaking of Robespierre, the famous author of The Terror, that regime of murder and mayhem during the French Revolution. In contrast to the American Revolution, which was about rational order, the French Revolution was about up ending that rational order.
It was an explicitly secular, indeed atheistic revolution, and those revolutionaries, the French revolutionaries, understood that they too would have to change the language. They even changed the names of months because they no longer wanted to be trapped within the old Julian calendar. They came up with new names for the months. They came up with a new system of meaning, and of course it turned murderous. It began to break down. It no longer corresponded to reality. It no longer corresponded to human nature.
In her column, Noonan then wrote, "So here is our parallel, our hiccup. I thought of all this," she said, "this week because I've been thinking about the language and behavioral directives that have been coming at us from the social and sexual justice warriors who are renaming things and attempting to control the language in America."
Before I go on with Peggy Noonan's point, let me just say, I think she missed something huge here and that is that even in the French Revolution, those radical revolutionaries did refer to one another as comrade, but they never denied the basic reality of he and she. They did away with aristocratic titles, but they still seem to understand that a man is a man and a woman is a woman.
Peggy Noonan was directing her attention to what is known as the Inclusive Communications Task Force at Colorado State University. Now, one footnote here is that at least until this, some people probably thought the Colorado State University was something of a rational alternative to the liberalism in neighboring Boulder, the home of the University of Colorado. But as Noonan writes, “This task force at Colorado State University has said that the students and faculty on the campus should not use words such as, for instance, ‘American.’”
Why? "This erases other cultures," said the task force. Looking at the actual directive from the university, it was explained, "The Americas encompasses a lot more than the United States. There is South America, Central America, Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean, just to name a few of the 42 countries in total. That's why the word ‘Americano’ in Spanish can refer to anything on the American continent. Yet when we talk about Americans in the United States," the style guide said, "we're usually just referring to people from the United States. This erases other cultures and depicts the United States as the dominant American country."
Instead, students at Colorado State University are told to use words such as “U.S. citizen” or “person from the U.S.,” instead of using “American.”
Katherine Temp of National Review refers to other sections of this mandated language. Students are not to use “freshman” because it excludes women and non-binary gender identities, not to use “Hispanic” because of its origins and colonialization and the implication that to be Hispanic or Latinex, Latina, Latino one needs to be Spanish speaking. Don't use phrases such as "hold down the fort," because that, we are told, has historical connotations to guarding against native American intruders. Don't use phrases such as "no can do" or "peanut gallery," because they supposedly have origins in an ethnic slight.
Don't use the phrase “cake walk.” Don't refer to people as male and female because this "refers to biological sex and not gender." And, the style guide also says, "We very rarely need to identify or know a person's biological sex and more often are referring to gender."
Well again, I beg to differ. I'm going to insist upon the fact that the vast majority of human beings consider, and rightly so, sex and gender to be the same thing, and it really does matter to them that they know whether an individual is male or female.
I'm going to go further out on a limb here and suggest that biological males, who also know themselves to be males, on the Colorado State campus in the student body, are going to be likely to date biological females, who know themselves to be biological females and who have no question about that. And I don't think that even as these students might say they're eagerly going to embrace this revolution, I don't think they will with their lives. But this being an official statement from the university, they might have to in the classroom.
Smile When You Say It: The Coming Age of Coerced Corporate Speech
But next, note that this will not stay in the classroom. It's also going to get right down to the road surface. Here's a headline from The New York Times, "No More Manholes in Berkeley as City Writes Gender Out of Codes." The reporters are Thomas Fuller and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs reporting from Berkeley, California. No real surprise there.
They write, "The city of Berkeley, long a bastion of liberal ideas, voted this week to purge gender from its law books." This is datelined back in the middle of July. "’Manhole’ will be replaced with ‘maintenance hole.’ ‘Sisters’ and ‘brothers’ will be replaced with ‘siblings.’ And ‘he’ or ‘she’ will be banished in favor of ‘they,’ even if referring to one person."
Now, I'm also just going to suggest here, I'll go out on a limb again, I don't think the police are going to do this when they're talking about suspects. It's going to have to be an identification of number. Are you looking for two robbers or one robber? And if the police arrested them, they better not just be one.
Now, maybe you really do have to be in the leadership of the People's Republic of Berkeley, California, to believe that the word “manhole” is somehow sexist and repressive, but you don't have to go that far to understand that the moral revolutionaries are going to have to go after every gendered reference in the entire dictionary before they can rest assured that they're making real progress.
Keith Johnson, chair of the Department of Linguistics at the University of California right there in Berkeley, said that the English language has been evolving over time. "As the society changes, there will be pressure for the language to change as well. That will be," he says, "a generational change."
And it's not just Berkeley, California, a municipality in Alaska took a similar action, "removing gendered words from its city code and replacing some with a singular they, their, and them." The reporters go on to say, "Last month Multnomah County in Oregon, which has a population of about 800,000 and includes Portland, passed a similar measure, replacing gendered pronouns with the singular use of they and related words."
The reporters go on to say that Miami was way ahead, getting rid of gendered words in 2017. But the paper was at least honest to cite Leah Weston, a lawyer identified as a policy director in the Miami City government, who said, "Unfortunately, when it comes to interpretation of words, when you have things that are vague, it can create problems." No kidding.
But next, in response to all of this, Jack Kelly writing for Forbes, asked the question, "What will happen if your company is next?" Kelly is writing about a very real situation. It's not just cities that are taking this kind of action. It's not just speech code guides that are now showing up on college campuses. It's also corporations. Corporations, trying to get with the sexual and gender revolution, are doing their very best to change their own language. How long is it until your average corporation is ordered in compliance with the same kind of vocabulary revolution?
As Kelly wrote, "This would create a 1984 Orwellian system in which corporate management and coworkers will police all our conversations to ensure adherence to this new language." Kelly continued, "To have an organization dictate every word we speak would have a chilling effect on communications, no one would want to be perceived as insensitive or violating the law, and scared to speak. Most likely," wrote Kelly, "people would avoid the employees that champion that cause, and they would fear for their job. Rather than making it inclusive, employees would change their social circles and speak with only those who share the same ideology as the potential risk would be too severe." That is exactly right.
Humpty Dumpty, Alice in Wonderland, and the Masters Who Control the Language
But next, my last example of this meltdown comes from Louisville, Kentucky. Emma Austin, writing for the Louisville Courier Journal. Headline: "What does pansexual mean? All of the LGBTQIA letters explained."
She asked the question, what does it mean to be pansexual? This because of a Hollywood celebrity declaring herself, or themself, according to the new language, to be pansexual. She says, "As LGBTQ issues continue to take a center stage in politics and policies across the nation, we thought a cheat sheet on inclusive terminology and a quick history on LGBTQ issues would be a good starting point for those wanting to learn a bit more about the community."
She asked the question again, what is pansexuality? "Pansexuality is when a person is attracted to others, regardless of gender or sex. A misconception of this identity," she writes, "is that it means a pansexual person is attracted to anyone and everyone. Generally," she writes, "gender and sex are not determining factors in a pansexual person's romantic attraction to others."
But the kicker is the last sentence here, "However, people who identify with pansexuality may have different interpretations of what the term means to them and their identity." That's the real issue here. By the time she identifies and defines what the terms mean, she has to come to the end of the paragraph and say, "But other people might use this phrase to mean something else entirely different."
And all of that does indeed bring us full circle to understanding that what we are facing in this society is not only a meltdown of meaning, but an intentional confusion, a revolution that is even now affecting the language, and is using language to affect the entire culture.
And that brings us back to Humpty Dumpty's claim that when he uses a word, it means just what he chooses it to mean, neither more or less. When Alice protests, asking how words can mean so many different things, Humpty Dumpty pulls the power card. He understood exactly what will be taking place in American society in the 21st century.
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master? That's all." That is the real question. Who gets to be the master of the language? Who determines as master what the language will be, what the words must be that we will use, what they must be understood to mean, what words can now not be used in order to come entirely in line with the new morality, the new mandates, the new linguistic rules, the new masters.
But remember, in conclusion, that in the literary tale, Alice is presented as the one who is right and Humpty Dumpty as the one who is wrong. But we're now living in an age determined to turn that story upside down.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.