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by Adrian Sobers
“For all their usefulness, though, pronouns do cause problems.” – Sam Leith
In Humans vs Computers, Gojko Adzic tells the story of Andrew Wilson who modified his name to They. No first or last name, just: They.
Yes, the plural in construction pronoun: they. Who does that? Well, like so many other things; they do. You already know the way it goes: They all the time [insert gripe].
The problematic nature of pronouns Leith is referring to, nonetheless, is within the context of writing: agreement (more on that later), and the position of feminists that “using the masculine pronoun because the default universal inscribes patriarchy at the extent of language itself.”
They’ve turn out to be much more problematic (pronouns that’s, not feminists or Mr. Wilson) with the growing popularity of “preferred” pronouns. As is the case with most developments, to know them higher we should always trace its philosophical roots as best we are able to. (You’ll hardly discover a more practical discipline than philosophy. Not as convincing as physics, but more practical than it gets credit for.)
Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self stays the perfect resource for understanding the mental history of the empathy based ethics that rules the roost today.
Preferred pronouns, menstruating (and pregnant) men are probably the most recent examples of a dire trend that has its roots in a good more dire philosophy. As is so common in human history, a superbly good thing, empathy on this case, gets perverted.
Having empathy for an additional human being is totally different from grounding our ethics in empathy. When ethics is grounded in empathy (in a word: emotionalism), issues are likely to slide to the more silly side of the spectrum.
Academe, where else, provides the richest examples. Rule of thumb: the more august the institution (or individual), the more ridiculous the offering. Princeton is an ideal example.
Take this pronouncement from their student-run ballet program: “Ballet, is rooted in white supremacy and perfectionism.” (Oh boy, here we go.)
“We aim to decolonise our practice of ballet at the same time as ballet stays an imperialist, colonialist, and white supremacist art form.” Behave do.
To not be outdone, the equally august Columbia University issued an instructional video on why pronouns matter (and it’s not for the explanations your primary school teacher gave).
The pronoun refresher appearing in The New Criterion (December 2021) is price quoting in full: “A pronoun is an alternative choice to a noun or noun phrase. In English, pronouns have number and gender. Agreement in number and gender is crucial if one desires to be correct. “James has his own ticket” and “Mary has hers.”
“All men love their very own children” but “Everyone has his own ideas” (not “their,” it should go without saying, because “everyone” is singular and in standard, i.e., correct, English, the masculine singular is preferred in such cases). You see how it really works.”
Or reasonably should work. Along with remembering the basics from primary school, we now must navigate emotionalism (to not be confused with having empathy).
With the appearance of preferred pronouns–ze/zir/zirs–and one cannot help but wonder if God has a preferred pronoun. This is just not a hill I’m prepared to die on (John 4:24), but as a rule it’s singular, masculine.
Just like the feminist charge of inscribing patriarchy within the language through the use of the masculine pronoun because the default universal, the everyday pronoun warrior puts this all the way down to oppressive patriarchy: “If God consists of this insecure toxic masculinity, there’s no reason for a lady to worship this type of God.” But even the silly side of the spectrum has serious takeaways. On this case, it happens to be probably the most serious of takeaways.
A very powerful thing here is to familiarise ourselves with the work of probably the most personal of pronouns: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he’ll guide you into all the reality; for he is not going to speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he’ll declare to you the things which can be to come back. He’ll glorify me [Jesus], because he’ll take what’s mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13–14, NRSV).
Leith is correct, pronouns do cause problems. But probably the most personal pronoun is in the issue solving business: “Come to me, all you which can be weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I gives you rest.” He knows they need it.
Adrian Sobers is a prolific letter author and commentator on problems with national interest.