Recently, Jordan Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto, helped to cause a minor scandal when he refused to use gender-neutral or accommodating pronouns with students who self-identify as other than “he” or “she.” The university remonstrated him—and then Rex Murphy came to his defence a week ago in The National Post. Yesterday, the professor had a major news outlet, The Toronto Sun, to publish his own essay. That Peterson is gaining publicity for a right-wing perspective should be obvious from the stated dislike of Marxism in his essay and his nigh inexplicable claim that people who want to change pronoun usage have “an intense resentment of anyone who has become successful for any reason whatsoever.” As a more-or-less leftist liberal with only a little nostalgia for the bygone conservatism of the Red Tories, I want to use my own admittedly (and helpfully) jumbled politics, and my position as a professor of English, to ask a simple question. How can we set aside the us-and-them politics of this debate?
Before I go too far, I want to say that if a student ever came to me and said, “I prefer the pronoun 'per'" or any other pronoun, I would use it, or, if I couldn’t remember it among all the options, I’d use the person’s name. Having some control over the words people use to define you is meaningful to your sense of identity and belonging. Here is one of my favourite poets, the insistently or at least consistently lower-case bill bissett, offering a similar opinion:
. . . . . . . . . . can b myself he
she thinks thn thats the feer
that th punishment will cum
fr sure if he she cant leev her
call her him n start packing
Here bissett is also radically objecting to the authority of standard English, while offering the he/she option that many people today would change to “they.” Who would have thought that bissett’s writing would ever be old-fashioned in the eyes of other radicals? But rather than do any research right now to answer this question, I also want to say that I note as “incorrect” the grammar of most students who use “they” when referring to singular nouns and names. When a student’s writing is already excellent, I try not to count “they” as a technical error.
Most students, however, are not using "they" for political reasons. Rather, they don’t know which parts of the sentence benefit from agreement with each other. They need a lot of reminders about how parts of sentences fit together to generate and express coherent, consistent thoughts. Asking for agreement in writing is usually not as political as many students and critics think.
It's obviously political in the case of Peterson, however, with various parties attempting to convince or cow each other. In my opinion, confrontational assertiveness is no help, and a third way out of the double bind is needed. I can respect someone’s stated preference for a set of pronouns, but, if the word “they” comes from standard English and is plural in standard English, I’d also like people to respect my preference. It’s a part of my sense of identity and belonging as someone who loves language and has fostered that love against various stigmas that persistently degrade art and the humanities. Rather than err with “they,” I’d rather see writers use neologisms such as “per,” “pers,” and “perself,” which Marge Piercy coined in her 1979 novel Woman at the Edge of Time. (I like these ones because they remind us of the English word “person,” so they’re not only affirmative but also easy to remember and say.) To butt heads on “they” as plural or singular is to perform a script produced by a binary opposition whose politics is equally binary and thus potentially antagonistic. (“Politics is” can be correct when “politics” is used as a synonym for other singular nouns such as, in this case, “ideology.”). The third way is the neologism, which should be less contestable, in theory but not in Murphy’s or Peterson’s case.
Murphy’s conservatism reacts partly against the perception of these pronouns as “a set of freshly made up words,” or, in other words, what he calls “neologisms.” Notably, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "neologism" itself dates to 1772, which is closer to “new” than “old” in the history of the English language. If Murphy reflected on this relativity, he would soon realize that the English language is constantly changing to reflect new realities, partly by gaining new words. I would remind Mr. Murphy of George Orwell’s coinage of “doublethink,” which I suspect Murphy himself has been glad to have in his verbal toolbox. I love Murphy’s subjunctive and his vocabulary of “imprimatur” and, perhaps ironically, “obscurantists”—but, Mr. Murphy, to use “midwife” as a verb would surely have bothered some English professor somewhere. Maybe even me.
Yes, I have been—am—a prescriptivist much of the time. In trying to improve a student’s writing, we’re trying to improve the student’s thinking. Many of us need to improve our thinking by learning how to think beyond binaries, or black and white. This lesson comes partly out of the debate over pronouns, and many of the advocates of gender-neutral pronouns identify as “non-binary.” But, still, knowing how words agree with each other is really helpful: it helps writers to be aware of how sentences work and how their readers might experience their sentences. There’s nothing wrong with this purpose.
So I was stung when I first saw how the website Motivated Grammar attacks professors like me for prescriptivism. I’m amazed at how someone could write against prescriptivism and sound like such a bully! Check it out:
The only problem with this view [of grammatical rules as helpful] is that all
you’ve managed to learn about English is how to get your brain to release
some satisfying endorphins every time you blindly regurgitate some
authority figure’s unjustified assertion. You’re not helping; you’re just
getting someone to pretend to agree with you long enough to shut you
up. Or worse, you’re scaring people into submission to a point where they
feel compelled to preface their speech with apologies for any unknown
violence their words are committing against the presumed propriety
of the language. (par. 4)
Notably, Peterson believes that his university and his provincial government are trying to do just that: “[scare] people into submission.” He worries that the government will dramatically expand hate speech laws to punish people who misuse pronouns which, I agree, would be scary. I know that a pronoun can be used hatefully, but there are all kinds of other words that are much worse; "hate" is a very serious word. What if you could be punished if someone overheard you misidentifying a genderfluid person who identified as “she” when you knew her, and who later flowed into “he”? Gender is too complex to regulate with such imagined laws, and one would hope that the tone of the discourse surrounding it could be less brutish.
Laws can be too rigid, and other forms of power can be more flexible. I like the power of contextualization, of putting things in perspective. Motivated Grammar states that many well-respected writers throughout history have used the singular “they.” If great writers break the rules, why can’t we all? Using a claim to authority (the great writers) to deconstruct a claim to authority (grammar) is fine, but it can be interpreted as just another power play, one power against another. Recently, I heard Alan Doyle of Great Big Sea hosting his program on CBC Radio, and he said of a song he had just played, “I love it—loves it!” He corrected himself into using the grammatically incorrect but culturally appreciated error of subject-verb agreement in Newfoundland. This example of self-policing demonstrates to me that the “grammar police” and the related discipline are not only functions of a dominant language or culture. (Read DA Miller’s The Novel and the Police or Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish for more on police and self-policing.) Dialects and subcultures have their own gatekeepers, often cultural figures such as Doyle or Murphy.
I like their respective styles of writing, but let me give my own example of a great writer. Not too long ago, I was reading Tim Ingold’s wonderful book Being Alive, specifically its chapter on landscape and weather. The blurb from Stuart McLean (not the Stuart Mclean of The Vinyl Café) on the back cover claims that his prose “is exactingly lucid and charged with poetic eloquence.” Indeed, he is a writer who can use the subjunctive perfectly: “Are pebbles, then ‘objects on the earth’? [James] Gibson would say so, and so would we, were each of us to stop to pick one up and, having examined it, to replace it where it lay” (131). But I found this sentence: “For formerly blind persons whose sight has been restored by a surgical operation, and doubtless for the newborn opening their eyes for the first time, the delirium [of seeing the world appear to be formed in the moment] can be overwhelming” (128). Here, a writer many would call “great” switches from the plural “persons” to the singular “newborn” for no apparent reason, thereafter linking “newborn” with “their” when “newborns” would agree better. Why not write “newborns”? (It’s so easy to fix these minor errors, so why not?) Did Ingold intend to refer back past “newborn” to “blind persons”? Not likely. (That’s a sentence fragment, of course, and I’ve started some sentences with conjunctions, too.) But what harm is done by agreement? And why doesn’t this usage cast doubt on the writer?
The short answer is that we trust Ingold’s writing because of who he is (however questionable such authority might be) and, more important for my argument, because most of his writing really is above reproach. Readers in the academy, however, are trained (perhaps a distortion of our education) to be critical of everything, including each other. One of the recent peer reviews of one of my essays returned the feedback that my writing is too “conversational”; I had used a single contraction in 6,500 words. (The essay has since been published.) My former supervisor, in contrast, reacted to my attempt to minimize metaphor (read my book if you wonder why) by telling me my writing had become almost unbearably “stark.” Professors tend to approach everyone’s writing with a critical eye. Students, especially, are usually in the early phases of establishing credibility as thinkers and writers. If my professors over the years hadn’t noted the myriad ways in which my essays were difficult to understand, I might have improved simply by reading a lot more, but I might have needed twenty years instead of—I won’t say how many.
In the end, I wish Peterson would relent and eschew his overly conservative ways, but I also wish that the more ardent prescriptivists and political correctors would calm down a little so that we can talk about writing and gender without polarizing our debates.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “The Confessions of a Sisyphean Prescriptivist and bill bissett Fan." Publicly Interested, 4 November 2016, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
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Joel Deshaye is a professor of English literature with an interest in publics, publicity, celebrity, mass media, and popular culture.