briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, February 20, 2020

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Thursday, February 20, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Change the Pronouns, Change the Culture: How Stickers at Harvard Signal Moral Transformation

There are many different ways to look at language, what language is, how language works, but at least one very central and indispensable way of looking at language is that it is not merely a way of communicating, it is also the establishment of certain rules. Language establishes rules. The way you speak about something determines how you can describe it. Furthermore, when you’re thinking about the structure of a language, every single language reflects a cultural context into which it is born, and the differences in language are not merely differences in vocabulary and grammar and syntax and structure. They’re not even merely differences in the kinds of vocalized sounds that human beings can make.

They reflect a different set of rules. Now, one of the issues to consider here are the rules by which languages work to differentiate between human beings. What it means to, say, be old or young, to be an infant or to be a mature person, what it means to be, and you know where we’re headed here, here’s the rub these days, what it means to be male or female. But of course I’m speaking to you today and you’re hearing and understanding in English. And so the primary concern of the rules of our understanding come down to the rules of the English language. And when it comes to these contested issues, what have been the rules of the English language? Well, you have a differentiation in noun. You have man and woman, you have a designation of male and female. You have terms such as masculine and feminine. You have boys and girls, you also have husbands and wives, you have brothers and sisters. The English language, by the use of those nouns and descriptors, identifies individuals by the fact that they are, of course, human beings, but they are designated by the fact that they are either men or women.

And then there follows another set of linguistic rules, and one of the most important components of those expanded rules come down to pronouns. Every single language has to have some kind of linguistic unit that operates like a pronoun. In the English language, the pronouns are so indispensable that we hardly utter a paragraph without using some kind of pronoun. Our pronouns can be animate or inanimate. When you’re thinking about the animate pronouns that is, that relate to persons, well you think of the pronouns he/she and his/hers, and when you’re thinking about inanimate, you traditionally think of it and its. When speaking of a collective, generally whether animate or inanimate in the English language you refer to they and them. Now, for the entire history of the English language, that has been fairly understandable. It has been essential in creating any kind of coherent language system in the English speaking world that we know that when you’re speaking of a he, that’s a distinction when compared to she, his to hers, and his and her together to it.

When you start putting all that together, you recognize that if you are going to change the fundamental morality of a civilization, you’re going to have to change these linguistic rules. And if you change those linguistic rules, you’re going to have to change the pronouns. And that is why right now the pronouns are effectively ground zero in the battle to completely transform the civilization. You change the civilization by changing its linguistic rules, or you might put it the other way. You can’t fundamentally lastingly change the civilization unless you change those language or linguistic rules. And when you’re talking about those rules, when the critical issue is sex and gender, then the pronouns turn out to be thermonuclear. All of this comes to light in a recent article that has to do with Harvard University, the New York Times article by Anemona Hartocollis has the headline: “Gender Pronouns Can Be Tricky On Campus: Harvard Is Making Them Stick.”

The article begins, “For generations of future diplomats and cabinet officials educated at Harvard’s renowned John F. Kennedy School of Government, orientation day has come with a name placard that the students carry from class to class so their professors can easily call on them. But this tradition was modified last fall by a student named Diego Garcia Blum. We are told that this first year graduate student, “immediately took a Sharpie to it writing he/him next to the big block letters of his name. Other students did the same thing writing she/her and they/them. The student said, ‘Yup! Day 1, that’s when I thought the students are ahead of the school.”

So as the story unfolds, it turns out that the placard, presumably something like a folded piece of paper with a student’s name on it that the students carried from class to class and placed in front of themselves in order that the teacher might address them and identify them—you had that placard modified by this one student in the fall adding preferred personal pronouns, and then the other students decided that that was a really, really good idea, or at least doing that appeared to be a really, really popular idea, and that’s when they decided that the students were, when it comes to the moral revolution, ahead even of the school, and you are talking here about Harvard University. When it comes to at least many issues of the sexual revolution, when you’re talking about the change of morality around us, it’s hard to imagine that Harvard isn’t right up to date. But when it comes to this article, we are told, “Despite his reputation as a bastion of the establishment, the Kennedy School followed the students lead, agreeing to provide clear plastic stickers this semester with four pronoun options that students could apply to their name cards: he/him, she/her, they/them, and ze/hir”—here that is Z-E/H-I-R.

Now notice how quickly all this has come about. In just a matter of months, Harvard decided it was such a good idea that there would be no need for students to bring a Sharpie to modify their placards. They would actually be offered these transparent stickers that are preprinted with at least four different sets of authorized pronouns. He/him, she/her, they/them, ze/hir. One student said, “I think it’s valuable, generally speaking, to challenge the norm that you can assume a person’s gender based on appearances.” That was said by Raven Graf, age 25, identified as a non-binary student at the Kennedy School whose pronouns, just in case you’re about to ask, are they and them.

The New York Times then tells us, “As young people who’ve grown up with a more expansive concept of gender identity bring those ideas to college classrooms, universities have responded in varying ways with some professors in schools quickly accommodating a wider range of gender pronouns and others struggling over whether and how to institute new policies.” Now the New York Times goes right local to tell us that New York University last week said that students would now be able to indicate their pronouns in the system that provides class rosters and also provides seating charts to faculty members.

The New York Times then goes on to tell us that at least 39 other schools allow students in one way or another to indicate their pronouns on such thing as class rolls and they cite as authority a National Clearing House maintained by the director of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Stonewall Center. Stonewall, there’s a moral clue. Just remember that the Stonewall rebellions or riots as they were first known is where you have the LGBT community begin to date its uprising and resistance in the 1960s.

Going to a student at New York University identified in this case as a first year law student named Skylar L. Spear, well, this particular student who identifies as transgender and non-binary according to the article, “said the ability to enter pronouns when registering for classes would remove some of the obstacles that students face.” Now, if you’re asking yourself, what would those obstacles be? It turns out that what is given to us at this point in this article is actually far more important than the reporter or the student or the New York Times seems to recognize. Just listen to this paragraph, “In the past, Spear,” That’s the student, age 24, “has emailed professors in advance to say that their pronouns are they/them.” Now let’s just stop there for a moment. We talked about the linguistic rules of the English language. They and them are collective. They are plural.

When you decide that you’re just going to use they and them to refer to the singular, you have changed the meaning of the language and furthermore you have helped to destroy the power and clarity of the language, because when you see and them the fact is that we are not wrong, we are right to think not of an individual but of a collective, of a plural pronoun. When you decide you’re just going to make it singular because you want to deny the so-called the gender binary of male and female, you aren’t really just transforming the language, you are beginning to reduce the functionality of the language. But this isn’t even the most important part of the paragraph.

The article continues, “One professor maintained a tradition of addressing students by last names and an honorific like Mister or Miss.” Spear, “asked the professor to refer to them, remember singular them, by their first name without any honorific.” The student said, “It took him a while to get used to it.” She acknowledged the professor’s discomfort. “I appreciated that he was trying, but it did make me uncomfortable to speak up in class because I wasn’t sure what he would call me for a while.”

Well, let’s just think about that sentence for a moment, because we’re no longer just talking about changes in the language when it comes to, say, singular and plural. Now we are talking about the destruction of one of the formal aspects of language, even the honorific titles coming before a name including Mr. and Mrs. or Miss. or even these days, the modified second wave honorific Ms. So you have Mr. and Mrs., Miss and Ms. customarily used, and if you’re going back further in the culture, it is only Mr. and Mrs. and Miss, and the distinction there for females is between those who are married and those who are unmarried.

And of course the second wave feminist said that that was patriarchal and oppressive and that’s why there was the development of Ms. But in any event, what is central to all of those honorifics is that one way or another they referred essentially to the biological sex and thus the gender of those who are male and female. You say to a man, mister. You say to a woman, Mrs., Miss, or again after second wave feminism, sometimes Ms. Now the question might immediately arise, why make such a big deal out of this? Well, that’s a very interesting question. For Christians, it’s more than just a linguistic question. Why do such honorific titles exist, and why do we use them? Well, honorific is actually a key to why we use those terms of speech. It is because they indicate honor and respect.

Now, of course when you are talking about honor and respect, one of the first things you think about is the reality that children are often taught, and I believe should be taught to say Mr. or Mrs. or for that matter Sir and Ma’am when it comes to speaking to those who are older. That’s not just a convention, it’s just an underlining of the fact that there is a respect that is due to certain individuals, and if children are not inculcated one way or the other with that sense of respect, then all kinds of bad consequences are going to follow. But it’s not just children and it’s not just Mr. or Mrs. It’s also the entire complex of these honorifics that are used, say, just among adults to indicate that there is a certain level of formality and respect within a context.

There is something that is not only elegant, there is something that is incredibly respectful and, after all, points to the formality and the importance of what is taking place when a professor addresses a student as Mr. Smith or for that matter Miss Jones. Or you go down all the permutations that have been traditional and English language usage and the fact is that once you remove those honorifics it changes the entire context. When you have a professor and a student referring to one another as Joe and Judy, well just about everything changes. And of course the change is actually something that has been driven by the moral revolutionaries who want to flatten all the hierarchies so there is no hierarchy imposed upon the understanding that there would be any difference between the teacher and the student. This goes back to one of the statements I heard in the 1970s, there is no more need for the sage on the stage, all we need is a guide on the side. Flatten the hierarchies, get rid of the teacher. There is no teaching authority. Why would the teacher be in front of the class? What gives the teacher that right? It is of course the refutation of expertise. It is even the subversion of knowledge. It is, for that matter, a revolution in the society and that’s why it is being pursued and pushed so assiduously on America’s college campuses. If you can break down the social structure there, then it stays broken.

The article in the New York Times, by the way, continues telling us that professors are now being ordered by universities to bend to this kind of gender non-binary and the preferred personal pronouns. It’s also interesting that one professor is cited here. She is herself identified in the story for one reason or another as age 64, her name is Ruth Hayes. We are told that she teaches animation at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Now, hold on just a minute. If you know anything about higher education, that is notoriously one of the most liberal college campuses in the United States.

But the article continues that she had adopted a script by which she introduces herself to her classes at Evergreen State University. Her script, “My name is Ruth Hayes. I use she/her pronouns. I teach animation.” We’re told that she learned this by following the example of her LGBTQ colleagues.

But returning to the headline, we are reminded that Harvard has decided not only to join, but to celebrate and to continue to push this entire moral revolution by the use of transparent stickers put on the name placards. Students choose from one of four options and one of the professors said, “I see those stickers as a gift. It reduces the friction and the cognitive load for us to identify people the way they want to be identified.”

I’m going to end our consideration of this issue by looking at that term cognitive load. Just think about that for a moment. What would cognitive load mean? Well, it’s one of those academic terms that is almost intended to mean, well, less than simpler language would mean, but cognitive load would mean knowledge or perhaps cognitive load in this case more likely means what the student expects you to know before the student expects to be expected to address anyone in an expected academic context, in the expectation that there really is no such distinction as male and female unless the student chooses that differentiation. That in the age of the overthrown gender binary, what is expected now is that you’re going to have to ask everyone, in virtually, I guess every conversation as well as every classroom, for preferred personal pronouns. It is, let’s be clear, a disaster.

There is a further issue here, next, when we think about this issue. How should we as Christians think about the pronoun question? I’ve addressed that now for a number of years. I addressed it in my book, We Cannot Be Silent. I want to come back to it at this moment to say that the context has changed even from when I wrote that book. When I wrote that book, there was a kind of moral pressure coming from the secular left to adopt this kind of preferred personal pronoun language. Now it is not just cultural pressure. It is coming, as this news article makes clear, with coercion. It is coming with the coercion that if you do not follow these rules, you can’t teach. You can’t stand in the classroom. You can’t be employed by this institution or this school. Now, for Christians, we have to recognize that once you adopt this language, you have adopted the new rules of the new morality. That’s the big problem. That’s why I would encourage Christians not to use these kinds of pronouns and to recognize that the coercion to use these kinds of pronouns is going to come to all of us virtually everywhere, every workplace, every classroom, every civic organization. It is going to become more expected and more demanded, but let’s understand what is at stake. If you adopt the new rules of the new language or linguistic system, you are also adopting the new morality that those rules are intended to serve.

Part II

A Battle for the Next Generation: Wisconsin Schools Withhold Students' Preferred Gender Pronouns from Parents

Next, I want to turn to Madison, Wisconsin. U.S. News and World Report ran an article, the headline: “Parents Sue Madison Schools Over Transgender Policy.” Yesterday on The Briefing, we looked at proposed legislation in Iowa that would require the school districts in the state to inform the parents of students when sexual orientation and similar kinds of curricular content would be coming up and would also give parents the opportunity to inspect the curricular materials, but we saw that the expected suspects pushed back on this arguing that parents ought not to have that authority. That’s a warning. We talked about it very clearly yesterday on The Briefing, but now we’re talking about a neighboring state, Wisconsin. U.S. News reports, “A group of parents filed a lawsuit Tuesday alleging that the Madison School districts transgender policy is unconstitutional because it prohibits teachers and staff from informing parents that their children want to switch sexes.”

Later in the article, we are told, “Even though the district requires parental consent before students can change their name and gender in official district records, the policy allows students to pick new names and pronouns they can use at school, regardless of whether they have a parent’s permission.” Now, hold on just a moment. As concerning and alarming as that would be at this point, the reality is there’s a lot more danger here. The story continues, “All teachers and district staff must refer to students by their chosen names and pronouns, even though the names aren’t official in district systems.” Listen to the next sentence, “The policy also prohibits teachers and staff from revealing a student’s gender identity, including any new names or pronouns used at school to parents or guardians. The policy goes on to state the staff must use the child’s legal name with family.”

Now at this point, it is almost as if we are reading a news report from the former Soviet Union or from North Korea or from some other kind of totalitarian regime. I have been warning for years that one of the central efforts of the moral revolutionaries is to use the power and the structure of the public schools to separate children from their parents. In particular, to separate children from the moral authority and influence of their parents. That’s not a conspiracy theory. Back in the early decades of the 20th century, the philosopher John Dewey, who became the most important figure in the American public school system, he argued that one of the prime functions of the state paid schools, of the government schools, what we now call the public schools, should be to separate children from the religious prejudices of their parents. That’s not new. That’s not even a recent conspiracy.

That is also exactly what was undertaken in the former Soviet Union and throughout the communist bond. That is exactly what is championed in China and North Korea. But here we are being told, and you heard the words that I read, we’re being told not only that children in the Madison school district, not only are they given the authority to change their gender identity, their name, and their pronouns in school, but the school will not even tell the parents the name that children use at the school. The school is not even to tell parents the gender identity or expression that the child exhibits at school. It is to be a matter between the school and the student. Remember, we’re talking about children here, and cut out from the equation are parents. Parents, who after all might have religious objections, and for that matter you might imagine parents who aren’t even particularly religious who would have exceptions, are now seen as the enemy and the secret pact is between the school and the pupil.

The essential point here is repeated in another paragraph. “If a student wants to change gender identity at school, teachers must fill out a form listing the student’s chosen name and pronoun and answer whether the student uses that name at home. The form states that parental consent is needed to change the name and gender in official records, but students can use their chosen name and pronouns without parental permission.” The next sentence, “The form states that any interviews with the student are confidential, in defiance of a state law that gives parents access to all educational records that according to a lawsuit that has now been filed by fourteen parents there in Wisconsin.”

When you think about the pace of moral change and you see the role that is often played by schools, whether higher academia for that matter, public schools when it comes to high school, middle school, and elementary school, one of the things we need to note is that we have had to discuss live issues that are threats to parental authority here coming from two different states in just two consecutive days. And note that both of these states are in the American Midwest. We’re talking about Iowa and Wisconsin two days this week. We are not talking about Washington state or California on the West coast. We’re not talking about the Northeast or the Atlantic coast. We’re talking about Iowa and Wisconsin. This is a wakeup call to all parents. If it can happen in Iowa and Wisconsin, it is probably happening frighteningly near to you. And if not happening now, then the logic is certainly coming for you and your school district and your own children.

Part III

The Tangled Web of Eugenics and Evolution: Richard Dawkins Defends the Hypothetical Success of Selective Human Breeding

Finally, an interesting controversy has emerged with a man who is seemingly always controversial and intentionally so, Richard Dawkins, retired professor of science at Oxford University and the world’s most famous atheist, largely by his own innovation and by his own publicity. But Dawkins received a little bit more publicity or a different kind of publicity than he was counting on in recent days as the Washington Times reports with the headline, “Richard Dawkins Slammed for Saying, ‘Of Course, Eugenics Would Work.” Jessica Chasmar reports for The Times, “British evolutionary biologist and famed atheist Richard Dawkins sparked outrage on Twitter after he wrote that putting ideology and morality aside, eugenics or the selective breeding of humans would of course work in practice.”

Dawkins tweeted, “It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological political moral grounds. It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice. Of course it would. It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs and roses. Why on earth wouldn’t it work for humans? Facts ignore ideology.” Now the article in The Washington Times tells us that the tweet sparked a wave of criticism from both sides of the ideological spectrum. Critics on both the left and the right quickly jumped on Richard Dawkins, and Dawkins responded by simply saying that they were ignoring facts. The fact is, as he said, eugenics would work. What are we talking about here?

Very quickly, just remember that the word “eugenics” means good genes. It refers to a program of good breeding. Now, when it comes to, say, race horses, we understand that. You have the intentional breeding of two different horses that are understood to have superior skills and superior genes and the offspring for that matter, even the reproductive cells of those horses can be enormously valuable. They can sell for millions and millions of dollars.

Now, you can also understand that some people would immediately say, “Well, if it can happen with horses, why not with human beings?” And of course this opens one of the darkest chapters in the history of humanity, when you consider the fact that the Nazi experiment of the Third Reich attempted to do just that. But it’s not sufficient to cast this off and say it was merely the Nazis. The reality is that many of the elites in the English speaking world also grabbed a hold of the fact that if you could breed horses and cows and goats and rabbits, it should make sense to breed human beings selectively and intentionally as well.

Now, there would be a lot to unpack here, but at least one issue would be that in one sense, if we are intellectually honest, then eugenics turns out to be something of a logical consequence from the theory of evolution. If you’re talking about evolution and natural selection, then it would appear to be quite plausible that when you are looking at eugenics, it’s just a jump from the affirmation of evolution as a natural process to a social process. To be fair, most of the proponents of evolution would not go so far as to be proponents of eugenics, but that’s what becomes interesting because Richard Dawkins, the most famous evolutionist in the world, turns around and says, “Yeah, it might have moral and political problems, but there’s no fundamental reason it wouldn’t work.” But here’s where Christians must immediately think, “Just because something is possible doesn’t mean that it should be allowed to happen.”

And furthermore, even this kind of conjecture is morally irresponsible. And furthermore, the very idea of eugenics is a refutation of the fact that every single human being is made in the image of God, every single human being. There is no distinction amongst those who operate out of a biblical worldview based on genetics. None at all.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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