Watch it!: The pronoun police are on the beat

“Hi, my name is Jason. I’m one of the Orientation advisors and I use he, him, his gender pronouns.”

That’s how Jason Meier, Director of Student Activities, greets new students during orientation at Emerson College in Boston.

Students at an increasing number of colleges are challenging traditional personal pronouns and pushing for new preferred gender pronouns.

A video used as part of student orientation at Emerson suggests that students open up conversations with new people by asking, “Hello. What are your preferred pronouns?”

At the University of Vermont, students can have themselves listed as she, he or ze, on class rosters. The university also offers “neutral” as a gender option for students and lets them use whatever first name they want, even if the one picked hasn’t been legally registered.

Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass permits students to choose their preferred pronoun and advises that the only pronoun that can be used by faculty while writing evaluations is the one displayed in course rosters. The school cautions, however, “Students should give serious consideration to the request to use a preferred name and/or pronoun, as this choice will be permanently reflected in the narrative portions of the academic transcript.”

In February 2015 students at Scripps College in Claremont, CA. were advised that henceforth they could choose which of numerous different pronouns they wanted professors to use in addressing them.

Pronoun choices offered at Scripps

Pronoun choices offered at Scripps

“The pronoun portal feature gives students an opportunity to inform faculty of a pronoun that most closely matches their gendered and lived experiences at Scripps,” an e-mail to all students said. “ It has been made available for students and faculty in an effort to build an inclusive environment.”

Rachel Neuberg, a sophomore at Scripps, told a student publication, The Student Life, she believed the change was a necessary step for the college to make in creating a safer environment for students.

But support for all this is far from universal.

YouTube, for example, has disabled comments on The Emerson College video cited earlier “due to hate speech.”

Some critics argue that colleges, by capitulating to the demands of student pronoun police, are pandering to the perpetually offended. Other say the whole contretemps is just responding to self-obsessed people who think the world revolves around them and a politically correct, Orwellian effort to validate social progressive doctrines.

Critics also charge that academics have failed to do their duty by allowing, and sometimes fomenting, the spread of the pronoun police. . “…the ideology that there is “sexist language” in ordinary words and in the ordinary use of English gender rarely comes under sustained criticism, even in the intellectual arenas where all things are supposed to be open to free inquiry (an ideal asserted with increasingly laughable dishonesty at American universities),” said Diane Ravitch, author of The Language Police.

A commenter on a preferred gender pronouns story in queerty, wrote, “I have a lot of thoughts about gender roles but, frankly, I see this as being almost completely needless…It’s petty and entirely unrelatable to people who aren’t of that overbearingly intellectualized echelon, it’s so self-possessed. Let’s face it, those of us in the LGBTQ are minorities, we don’t need to assimilate everyone else to our sexuality or our gender.”

Another commenter wrote on the website of Allied in Pride, an LGBTQ advocacy organization at George Washington, “People with opinions that differ from your group think have every right to have those opinions. YOU DEMAND TOLERANCE, BUT WANT OBEDIENCE AND DISPLAY THE QUINTESSENTIAL EXAMPLE OF INTOLERANCE (emphasis in original). Pot meet kettle.”

Morton Schapiro, president and professor of economics at Northwestern University, writing about how to deal with free expression controversies on campuses, said, “It might be relevant to remind people that elected student representatives have every right to recommend what they want, just as the administration has every right not to abide by what they suggest…” Perhaps the same principle should apply to the pronouns debate.

What should you do? How do you navigate the rocky shoals of the pronoun wars without being chastised, harassed, berated and charged with insensitivity? ‘Tis a puzzlement.


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