On the Folly of ‘Preferred Pronouns’

For some time now I have heard members of both the political Left and Right continually draw a false analogy between pronouns and proper names.

The line of reasoning usually goes something like this: Ellen announces that she now wants to go by the proper name “Elliot.” Given this new knowledge, it would therefore count as disrespectful or perhaps even harmful for me to knowingly and intentionally keep referring to her as “Ellen.”

Analogously, so the argument goes, it would be similarly disrespectful and perhaps harmful of me to refuse to refer to her by her newly stipulated preferred pronoun of choice—he, they, “ze,” etc.—and to instead continue to keep referring to her as “she.” 

It is precisely here where this false analogy between pronouns and proper names radically breaks down and where much of the confusion within the present transgender debate occurs.

Indexicals vs. Proper Names

Pronouns, within a given language, are not the same nor do they function the same way within a given language as proper names; not hardly. Rather, pronouns are indexicals. Indexicals are terms within a given language with meanings that are context-dependent. Unlike natural kind terms (like “male,” “female,” “horse,” etc.) or proper names (like “Bob,” “Karen,” “Bruce,” etc.) which always refer to the same object or set of objects in a language-independent of context, indexicals get their meaning from the context in which they are uttered and from the behaviors of the speaker uttering them. Canonical examples of indexicals include terms like “I,” “he,” “she,” “here,” “now,” “this,” and “that.”

Unlike claims like “the sky is blue” or “a bachelor is an unmarried man,” claims with indexicals in them cannot be immediately determined as either true or false without knowing more about the specific context during the time of utterance. Hence, when I say “he is the boss” “this is the dining room” or “the meeting was yesterday,” the truth or falsity of these assertions will depend upon when I was speaking, or to whom or what I might have been gesturing when making such utterances.

Notice, however, that despite their initial incompleteness, indexicals get their meaning from a combination of the other public meanings that make up the particular claim or sentence in which they are uttered (i.e. “boss,” “dining room,” etc.) as well as from the publicly evaluable extra-linguistic contexts and behaviors (i.e. pointing) that accompany such utterances.

This is all to say that the meanings of indexical terms like “he,” “she” and “they” are publicly determined within an overlapping, integrated, and deeply nested network of shared meanings and concepts that refer both to other shared concepts and meanings as well as to the objective world.

And while, in principle, an individual’s own proper name can logically fall within the purview of one’s own stipulated determination; pronouns, insofar as they are indexicals, count as wholly public goods within a shared network of public meanings and cannot, in principle, be similarly privately or personally stipulated and still remain meaningfully intelligible. Indeed, personally-determined pronouns make about as much sense as personally-determined ze-dollar bills. Language and meaning, much like currency, it turns out, simply don’t logically work that way.

Refer vs. Regard

What’s the big deal then, if Bruce wants us to now refer to him as Caitlyn?

No problem at all.

What’s the big deal if Bruce wants us to now refer to him as “she,” however?

Well, nearly every problem under the sun one could possibly imagine given how many other shared concepts, definitions, meanings, laws, records, institutions, and social practices (both past and present) are directly or indirectly attached to, dependent upon, and/or implied by the shared, intergenerational, public agreement over the fixed meaning of that one, single indexical term “she.”     

Problems exacerbate when we consider the further distinction between simply referring to persons by certain terms versus regarding them by those very same terms. Indeed, it is here where the original false analogy mentioned above often compounds severely, as transgender advocates move from a low-stakes request: e.g., “please refer to me by my new proper name” to “refer to me by my new preferred pronoun” to “regard me by my new preferred pronoun in all respects and contexts.” This demand becomes increasingly difficult and eventually logically impossible for all other language users to accommodate, especially when the persons uttering such demands often fail to be the actual thing that these terms publicly refer to in any respect whatsoever. 

Yet this impossible demandingness is exactly what is occurring at present with respect to benevolent sounding laws involving compelled gender terms, compelled preferred pronoun use, and “nondiscrimination” legislation and policies based upon “gender identity.” In so doing, such wrongheaded legislation not only runs roughshod over the most basic rights and liberties of all other non-elect language users, constituting the legal erasure of males and females and rendering the possibility of speaking the most obvious of truths a crime, but it also sets out on an impossible project against both the fabric of biological reality and against logic itself.

To grant monopolistic control to a privileged set of speakers over the meaning and rules of use of publicly shared indexical terms like “he” and “she” is, therefore, to grant definitional control over directly related terms “male” and “female,” and by implication, control over all language, meaning, and truth itself. And insofar as these folks cannot even provide an explicit definition of the terms “male” and “female” or articulate what on earth neo-pronouns like “ze” or “zir” are supposed to refer to, the state of affairs is actually worse than mere control over truth. It is the annihilation of truth.

In short, the seed of much of the present confusion within the transgender rights debate is largely located in the wrongheaded conflation of privately determined proper names with publicly determined indexicals as well as the valuing of politeness over truth under any and all circumstances. Truth, however, sometimes morally obligates us to assert it, regardless of who it offends.

You are welcome to your own proper name. But you’re not welcome to your own pronouns, nor to your own language, nor to the objective reality that lies beneath.

About Michael Robillard

Dr. Michael Robillard is an independent scholar, philosopher, and U.S. Army veteran. He has held prior academic posts at the University of Notre Dame, the University of Oxford, and the U.S. Naval Academy. His other writings can be found at www.michaelrobillard.com and on Twitter @RobillardDr.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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