Don’t Say ‘They’: Why Pronouns Matter

Pronouns may not seem like a fight worth having, but as Chesterton said, “The Church and the heresies always used to fight about words, because they are the only thing worth fighting about.”

By Published on June 8, 2022

A couple weeks ago, a Title IX investigation was opened for three middle school boys from Wisconsin who used the pronoun she for a biologically female student who wished to go by they. Under the Biden administration, refusing to use misaligned pronouns is considered sex discrimination. Even style guides today encourage the use of they if it is the chosen pronoun of an individual.

One rationale given is that someone really is whatever gender he or she claims, and to not recognize that with pronouns is to contribute to that person’s psychological distress. This is the case even if, as Abigail Shrier describes as being increasingly common, a person’s gender dysphoria is socially conditioned. So, according to our own government, we are now in a zero-sum game: Either use individuals’ chosen pronouns or be blamed for their suicides.

Thankfully, many are beginning to recognize that even using the pronoun they for an individual is deeply problematic, much less fully imbibing all that the new transgender orthodoxy commands. Recently, the Manhattan Institute’s Leor Sapir wrote an editorial entitled “Don’t Say ‘They.’” In it, Sapir argues that using they and them to refer to an individual is far from harmless and amounts to buying into an ideology that “gender is an oppressive social system.” In other words, using nonbinary plural pronouns and also opposite-sex pronouns says something that is not true about God’s design, the created reality of men and women.

Two Guiding Principles

So, what are we to do? Shall we use words that align with reality or shall we refuse to risk the psychological distress of a transgender person?

Two guiding principles can help us here. First, as Aleksander Solzhenitsyn advised, we must “live not by lies.” Second, as Paul advised, so far as it depends on (us), live peaceably with all.” Living like Christians today requires both, together.

Words matter. Not only do our words reflect reality, and thus misusing words can distort reality, but Scripture is plain that God’s words make up reality. To use words incorrectly is to not only embrace something not true, it is to mislead others away from God. This is not true, nor is it loving. Thus, God says that He hates a “lying tongue.”

Dr. Meriwether’s story demonstrates that people of conscience ought to not prematurely surrender their convictions, or believe that cultural defeat is inevitable.

Honoring the second principle, to do our best to “live peaceably with all,” is particularly difficult when the choice is to tell a lie or to be responsible for psychological distress. Philosophy professor Nick Meriwether had a creative response when he found himself between this rock and hard place. When a male student requested that Dr. Meriwether refer to him as a female, using feminine titles and pronouns, he offered to only “refer to this student by a first or last name.”

In response, Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio, charged Dr. Meriwether with creating “a hostile environment,” placed a warning in his employee file, and threatened future punitive action if he refused to comply. So, Dr. Meriwether filed suit, claiming his free speech had been violated. He won. Shawnee State was forced to award him $400,000 and remove the disciplinary statement.

Dr. Meriwether’s story demonstrates that people of conscience ought to not prematurely surrender their convictions, or believe that cultural defeat is inevitable. Even more, it offers a way forward when it comes to pronouns, telling the truth and living at peace.

The Fight About Words

In English, names do not indicate gender. Pronouns do. Offering to call individuals by their chosen names is a way of respecting them as people without saying something that is not true about them. In a conversation with an individual, the pronoun you is acceptable, since in English it refers to both plural and singular, and to both male and female. In no way, does you deny that biological sex is binary.

On the other hand, speaking in the third person — he, she or they — when speaking about others is trickier. Some people point out that we use the word they all the time to refer to individuals. However, whenever we say something like, “Somebody left their book,” we don’t know who it is. It’s different if we do know who it is. For example, it would be inaccurate (and strange) to say, “Abigail left their book.”

In other words, there are ways to not say something that is not true. We can avoid using nonbinary or opposite-sex pronouns, and instead use names. And, we can use plural pronouns to talk about a group rather than an individual. Still, as Dr. Meriwether’s situation illustrates, these alternatives will not satisfy everyone. And, when there is no choice but to use third person pronouns, the only way to tell the truth is to use the pronouns that align with biology, not ideology.

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To be clear, there is one situation where using someone’s chosen name violates the first principle of telling the truth: If you’ve known a person all of his or her life, and if that name was given for specific purposes. So, for example, to ask moms to use a chosen name over a given name for the child they’ve raised and loved is just cruel.

Some argue that because language changes over time, accepting pronoun changes is just changing with language. This argument assumes that language doesn’t actually refer to reality, but only to other words. But there is a real world, and sexual distinction is part of that real world. To change the language of pronouns severs a link to reality, denies that reality, and disconnects people from what is actually true about their created bodies.

Pronouns may not seem like a fight worth having, but as Chesterton said, “The Church and the heresies always used to fight about words, because they are the only thing worth fighting about.”

 

John Stonestreet serves as president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He’s a sought-after author and speaker on areas of faith and culture, theology, worldview, education and apologetics.

Heather Walker Peterson, Ph.D., is the Senior Editor at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. A former associate professor of English, she’s written for publications such as Mere Orthodoxy, InterVarsity’s The Well, and the Mudroom.

Originally published on Breakpoint.org: BreakPoint Commentaries. Republished with permission of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

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