The Pronoun Wars:
Little Words, Big Consequences
by Edwin Faust
December 5, 2013
The pronoun wars have begun. They were preceded by skirmishes fought by feminists who deplored the universal usage of the impersonal “he” in prescriptive grammar. They achieved a middling success in imposing their preferred “he/she” or the ungrammatical “they” in place of “he”, thus crushing the elegance and economy of accepted usage under the clumsy hobnail boots of political correctness.
Sensible people may have regarded this preoccupation with pronouns as the eccentricity of those overwrought by their search for expressions of male chauvinism in every venue. They were, in retrospect, the sign of things to come. Now, there is a spreading acceptance of what is called Preferred Gender Pronouns (PGP). This entails a shift from prescriptive to descriptive grammar and asserts the freedom of the individual to designate his own gender, unrestricted by biological factors. New gender-neutral words, such as “ze”, “sie”, “e”, “ou” and “ve”, presently vie for primacy in undergraduate papers and university publications.
PGP proponents and practitioners are, at the moment, largely restricted to the world of Academe, but they represent the vanguard of a broader cultural mindset and their influence should not be underestimated. They have friends in the media and they are educating most of our children.
As lamentable as it is to witness the manhandling (if I may be permitted a “sexist” term) of language by the aesthetically impaired, what should be regarded as more alarming is that this assault on English usage represents the determination to reshape human nature. The pronoun wars are symptomatic of a growing division of society into those who accept natural law and those who reject it.
Ironically, PGP proponents have a clearer perception of the profound truth expressed in the old Catholic saying “lex orandi, lex credendi” than do the current custodians of the Church’s liturgy and doctrine. “As we pray, so we believe” means that the way we use language, as well as the rubrics associated with it, shapes our perception of the faith. In a broader context, the way we use words determines how we see the world. This truth is universal. The PGP polemicists know it well. Their opponents apparently fail to appreciate its overarching importance.
The amoralists who wish to remove the social stigma of behavior that has historically been regarded as perverse, that is, as a violation of human nature, are fighting for their cause on many fronts, but language is seen as the key to victory. Moral judgments are formulated in words. It took many years and a determined effort, but the amoralists succeeded in making “gay” the accepted term for all expressions of sexual deviancy rooted in same-sex attraction. We now have the Cardinal-Archbishop of New York declaring defensively that the Catholic Church is not “anti-gay”. Once you accept the amoralist terminology, you endorse its connotations.
The Associated Press Style Book long ago forbade reporters the use of the term “prolife”, imposing the terms “anti-choice” or “anti-abortion” in its stead. Language is thus manipulated to make the affirmation and defense of human life into an apparently negative value, one that opposes freedom. Given the option of being characterized by the media as either “pro-choice” and “anti-choice”, politicians — never a class noted for the integrity of their convictions — generally opted for the former label. It sounds more positive, more consonant with American values.
This linguistic legerdemain is being performed in many areas of life. Perhaps the most shocking change that has occurred in our society during the past 50 years is the transformation of language. Not only have we seen the inversion of values illustrated by the imposition of such words as “gay” and “pro-choice”, we have seen the near universal acceptance of obscene language as the lingua franca of films and now television. The only thing currently regarded as indecent is any attempt to ban the public utterance of the four-letter word or to restrict the sexual content of programming. What once would have been regarded as stag films are now mainstream entertainment.
But there is little to be gained by lamenting the collapse of public morals and the few avenues of redress open to those who would reverse it. Most attempts end in focusing on particular incidents rather than general policy. That is not to suggest the fight should be abandoned, but what should be realized by all those engaged in it is that a deeper game is being played here. The very claim that human nature exists is being challenged.
In one state after another, in one nation after another, homosexual marriage is being made legal, and those who oppose it are vilified as bigoted and hateful. Obamacare could have avoided the opposition of the Catholic bishops, tepid as it may be, by not insisting on universal coverage of the costs of contraception, but in doing so, the amoralists would have missed a great opportunity to dismiss, as a matter of public policy, the claims rooted in natural law that underlie opposition to contraception. We are witnessing what is imagined by those who are engineering it as the final assault on natural law. And when victory appears near in any campaign, the winning side becomes enormously energized.
It may seem that there is little prospect of standing against the amoralists, who appear to be riding the tide of history, with all the presumed inevitability that accompanies such a notion. But those who deny human nature are not simply opposing particular religious groups or factions of a political party, they are opposing Creation itself. They will lose.
Reality is structured by ineluctable laws. Science would not be possible if it were otherwise, for one could not then perform repeatable experiments. Change can only be measured against the background of the changeless. If everything were in flux, no action could be expected to produce a given result. All this is accepted as true in nature. On what basis can man be exempted from this truth?
He cannot. Human bodies are constituted in invariable ways, as are human minds and spirits. We know that every physical action we perform produces its proportionate reaction. We can also readily observe that this is true of those actions we call moral: the liar forfeits trust, the thief forfeits security of possession, the adulterer forfeits confidence in the fidelity of his spouse, etc. This is so because human nature exists and it is all of a piece: to reject it in part is to reject it in whole and to dissolve the very criteria of morality.
Our society is now engaged in this perilous experiment. The attempt to create a social structure that upholds human nature as the basis of morality in some areas, yet rejects it in others cannot succeed. It will collapse under the weight of its own incoherence. Meanwhile, a great deal of suffering will accompany the social engineering that hopes to loose human nature from what it presumes to be the mere bonds of custom and religious prejudice. Its failures will be attributed to its critics, rather than to its own unfounded assumptions, and punitive laws will likely be enacted to remove the obstruction of the recalcitrant.
Original sin is a concept that appears in various forms in most every culture. In Genesis, the tempter tells Eve that tasting the forbidden fruit will make her to be as God. What does it mean – to be as God? It means to take as one’s own the prerogative of ordering nature. No individual and no government can do so, as history has repeatedly demonstrated. It seems we as a society are about to learn this lesson again. God help us.
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