Humpty Dumpty, Alice in Wonderland, and the Masters Who Control the Language

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
August 2, 2019

Humpty Dumpty once said to Alice, “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 retorted:  “The question is, which is to be master? That’s all.”

Yes, which—or who—is to master of the language? That turns out to be one of the most crucial questions of the age.

There is incredible wisdom and an embedded threat within that exchange between Alice and Humpty Dumpty. If one is the master of language, then one controls the entire communication system and eventually the entire culture. To control the lexicon is eventually to control the meaning and 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 an opinion piece published recently in The New York Times by columnist Farhad Manjoo with the headline, “It’s Time for ‘They.’”

Manjoo writes, “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 online and in person that most people guess that I go by ‘he’ and ‘him.’ And that’s fine; I will not be offended if you refer to me by those traditional, uselessly gendered pronouns.”

He goes on to say, “But ‘he’ is not what you should call me. If we lived in a just, rational, inclusive universe, there would be no requirement for you to have to assume my gender just to refer to me in the common tongue.”

You will note that in the article’s opening sentences, Manjoo says that this is how we should speak to one another. 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, is “they.”

Later in the article, he writes, “So: If you write about me, interview me, tweet about me, or if you are 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’ or ‘them,’ as in: ‘Did you read Farhad’s latest column — they’ve really gone off the deep end this time!’ And — unless you feel strongly about your specific pronouns, which I respect — I would hope to call you ‘they’ too, because the world will be slightly better off if we abandoned unnecessary gender signifiers as a matter of routine communication. Be a ‘him’ or ‘her’ or anything else in the sheets, but consider also being a ‘they’ and ‘them’ in the streets.”

Manjoo’s suggestion of a linguistic difference between the language used between the sheets and on the streets might be a bit clever, but it is much too clever when you consider what is really at stake here. What he is calling for is a revolution, not only in the language but in the morality and even the understanding of who human beings are.

You should remember that earlier in the column, Manjoo spoke of those “traditional, uselessly gendered pronouns.” Useless. That’s very interesting. Is it important when we speak to one another that we speak to one another as male or as female? The honest answer would have to be, yes, often it is very important.

Consider the fact that using gendered pronouns is not only the traditional way that human beings have conceived, known, and spoken of one another throughout the entirety of human existence, but it is also something that is deeply embedded in the entire system of meaning. It is also something that the Bible affirms is a matter of God’s revelation. Indeed, it is 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. Even as Farhad Manjoo refers to them as being now useless, “gendered” pronouns are hardly useless.

Manjoo goes on to protest the fact that many elite institutions that presumably are entirely sold out to the moral revolution, including the gender revolution, have not yet caught up with the linguistic revolution.

He asks, “Why do elite cultural institutions — universities, publishers and media outlets like The Times — still encourage all this gendering? To get to my particular beef: When I refer to an individual whose gender I don’t know here in The 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’?”

He continues, “The truth is, 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, gender neutral “they.” He says this makes the singular “they” a perfect pronoun because, he says, “It’s flexible, inclusive and obviates the risk of inadvertent mis-gendering. And in most circumstances, it creates perfectly coherent sentences that people don’t have to strain to understand.”

Farhad Manjoo claims that we would be morally superior if we did away with gendered pronouns and that there would be 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 to whom someone is referring.

When you speak about “they,” referring to either a male or a female or what Manjoo 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 gendered pronouns.

But there is an even bigger problem here. “They” is plural. It always has been plural, but now Manjoo and the gender revolutionaries are insisting that we should use “they” in the singular.

Speaking of the resistance to using the singular “they,” he writes, “Institutions that cater to snoots generally discourage it. The Times, whose stylebook allows the singular ‘they’ when the person being referred to prefers it, warns against its widespread usage: ‘Take particular care to avoid confusion if using they for an individual’ the stylebook counsels.”

Why would there be confusion? Well, because “they” implies plurality. It implies 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. The obvious response to that situation is to bring about lifesaving intervention. So, 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 needed saving? The confusion becomes obvious. The confusion could be downright deadly.

Manjoo goes on to say that he himself wants to be referred to with the singular “they.” That is his own preferred personal pronoun.

So, I pulled up the biography of Farhad Manjoo on the website of The New York Times. It just doesn’t work. Just listen to how he is described.

“Farhad Manjoo became a Times Opinion columnist in 2018. Before that, they wrote The Times’ State of the Art column, covering the technology industry’s efforts to swallow up the world. They have also 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-abetted echo chambers and ‘alternative facts.’ Farhad Manjoo was born in South Africa and emigrated 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, in Manjoo’s official bio on the website at The New York Times, an individual who wrote “their book,” moved with “their family,” and who is married to “their wife.” We should note that this ridiculous exercise only works because we actually do already know who he is.

Manjoo continues by applying this genderless speech to his parenting. He says, “From their very earliest days, my kids, fed by marketing and entertainment and (surely) their parents’ modeling, seemed to hem themselves into silly gender norms. They gravitated to boy toys and girl toys, boy colors and girl colors, boy TV shows and girl TV shows. This was all so sad to me: I see them limiting their thoughts and their ambitions, their preferences and their identity, their very liberty, only to satisfy some collective abstraction.”

No, they weren’t. These children weren’t just responding to cultural or consumer impulses. They were responding to some deep knowledge within themselves. Even if the issue of color preferences related to male and female is an abstraction, the fact that even children want to clearly understand themselves as male and female is not an abstraction.

Ron Meyers, who responded to Manjoo’s opinion in the letter section of a later edition of The Times, wrote, “The universal use of the singular ‘they,’ would compel all speakers to change virtually every sentence in deference to the half-percent of the population who identify as nonbinary. In the process, 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 is 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. 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, and it is a theological responsibility. It is also just a natural impulse because human beings, made in the image of God, given the gifts of consciousness and language, desperately do want our language to make sense and to be communicable and understandable. If our language becomes detached from reality, it becomes not only less linguistically useful, it becomes subversive of the very idea of communication.

But note very carefully that this linguistic revolution is intentional. This is exactly what the moral revolutionaries and 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 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.

I am actually quite confident that the vast majority of human beings rightly consider sex and gender to be the same thing and that they will continue, even as an act of resistance, to use he and she and related “gendered” language customarily and without irony.

What we are facing in this society is not only a meltdown of meaning, but an intentional confusion. This is a revolution that is even now affecting the language, and is using language to affect the entire culture.

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 is 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? Who determines what words must be used and how those words will be understood? Who determines 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 that in the literary tale, Alice is presented as the one who speaks sense and Humpty Dumpty as the one who speaks nonsense. But we’re now living in an age determined to turn that story upside down.


This article is based on the episode of The Briefing from Friday, August 2, 2019:



R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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