There’s been a lot of ink spilled recently about the use of pronouns and preferred names in academia. At U of T, one professor in particular is kicking up a fuss about having been asked to use students’ preferred names and pronouns. A CBC editorial on the subject by Neil Macdonald recently provided an entertaining example of a baby boomer throwing a sputtering temper tantrum over the fact that he’s being asked to think about other people.
I could begin demanding that my colleagues refer to me as “blort” or “zonge” with the expectation that they would respectfully begin doing so.
(Imagine wanting to be treated with respect! Hilarious! Also, for the record, the singular “they” is not some newfangled invention of “those damn SJW’s.” There’s at least one example of it in Shakespeare. See A Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene 3.)
It’s almost not worth saying that this is a generational thing, and when the boomers have passed on, their faux indignation over being asked to be a decent human being will die with them. In a couple decades, this debate will seem as weird to us as a prof who insists that freedom of expression means that he has the right to use the n-word to refer to students who are people of colour.
But let’s take the question of whether we should debate another person’s pronouns at face value, just for fun. Academia is supposed to be an anything-goes bare-knuckle cage-match of ideas, right? Are there legitimate reasons why we might not want to have a debate over pronouns?
I’ve come up with two.
Let’s start with the example of smoking and lung cancer. I’ll get back to the debate at hand, I promise.
Smoking causes lung cancer. This is a fact.
Yes it’s a probabilistic thing; yes, it’s true that not all smokers get lung cancer; yes, it’s true that not all people with lung cancer smoked. But the causal link between smoking and lung cancer is so well established that it is now beyond doubt.
If, in 1950, there was a formal debate at McGill called “Does smoking cause lung cancer?”, that might have been an appropriate debate to have. There was genuine uncertainty over the issue at the time.
However, if I saw a poster on campus today in 2016 for a debate with the same title, I would take it to be a major failing in terms of either scientific judgement or intellectual honesty on the part of the organisers. I would question either their motives or their competency. For a person who wants an answer to the question of whether smoking causes lung cancer, the appropriate response is to point them toward the library, where there are reams of good data on the subject. A debate would not be appropriate.
The reason for this is that a formal public debate presupposes a certain equipoise between the sides being debated. Just framing certain issues as needing to be discussed by academics in the manner of a debate can be dishonest, like in the smoking/lung cancer debate example.
And so sometimes when a person says that something is “not a matter of debate,” it’s not because that the person is some insecure authority whose policies cannot bear scrutiny and they wish to stifle dissent by barring discussion. Sometimes when a person says that something is “not a matter of debate,” they just mean that it would be irresponsible and dishonest to use the machinery of academic “debate” to introduce unwarranted uncertainty where the issue has already legitimately been settled.
As academics, of course we need to be ready to defend any position we take. If there is anywhere that debates should happen over difficult, offensive or extremely technical subjects, it’s within a university. And yet, not all debates are intellectually honest ones to have. Sometimes when a person says, “Let me play devil’s advocate,” the correct response is, “The devil has enough advocates.”
Yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre
Not all speech is benign. The famous example is that if you falsely yell “fire” in a crowded theatre, you could kill people.
The same goes for other forms of speech, including academic or political “debates.” After Harper dredged up the niqab debate in the 2015 election, there were violent physical attacks on Muslims in Montreal. The Brexit and Trump campaigns also both arguably brought about spikes in hate crimes in the UK and the US. If you have debates like, “Should we ban Muslims from our country?” those can—and we have seen recently that they do—incite violence against Muslims.
Other sorts of speech can cause harm even more directly. Let’s imagine the example of a trans student in a small class who doesn’t want to be outed as trans to her peers. Imagine that the student goes to the teacher on the first day of class and says, “I know the class list has my name as ‘John,’ but I go by ‘Jane,’ and I’d like you to use ‘she/her’ when referring to me.”
Let’s further imagine that the professor is of the type who refuses to respect a student’s preferred name and pronouns on principle. Just by exercising their “right to freedom of expression,” this professor could out the student to their peers against the student’s will, which could directly put them at risk of harm. This student might be threatened or harmed, but even if the student is lucky and nothing bad happens, she might just feel threatened by this behaviour, which is a harm in itself.
Part of the problem is that discussions that can cause harm or risk of harm to others are often initiated by people who don’t bear any of that risk themselves. So for example, when Harper decided to “have a debate” on the niqab for his own narrow political ends, he did so knowing that he would never be the target of the anti-Muslim violence that followed. Similarly, a cis prof who refuses to use preferred names and pronouns will never be on the receiving end of violence against trans people, and they aren’t even in a good place to evaluate the level of risk that they may be imposing on other people against their will.
The prof at U of T wants to paint himself as the brave intellectual, bucking the orthodoxy and asking questions that no one else has the courage to ask, while his opponents won’t even meet him for an honest discussion. All I see is a guy who doesn’t have any skin in the game, who can afford to debate the level of respect owed to other humans because it will never affect him personally.
What does it mean when someone says their pronouns aren’t up for debate, then?
When a person says their pronouns “aren’t up for debate,” they are not saying that there is no defense for the position they’re taking. There is a field of study that has considered, among other things, the question of pronouns and preferred names. In a lot of academic institutions, it’s called “Gender Studies.” You’ve probably made fun of it. But the fact that you’re ignorant of an entire academic discipline and decades worth of research doesn’t mean that there is a genuine question to be considered. It might just mean that you need to go to the library.
And when a person says their pronouns “aren’t up for debate,” they might mean that what seems like an abstract, academic discussion to you could mean harm or the risk of harm to them. They’re not saying, “My position cannot stand up to criticism.” They’re saying, “I don’t want to be a casualty of this discussion.”
Everything should be open for debate—in principle—but not all debates come from a place of intellectual honesty, and not all debates are benign.