The Pronouns of Bedlam

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“‘Shut up,’ he explained.”

—Ring Lardner, The Young Immigrants

This past year, certain reporters, some students and professors, and the Canadian government have hounded Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, for his protests against the government’s Bill C-16, passed with Royal Assent in mid-June, which makes the misuse of “gender identity or expression” a form of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act.  Peterson opposed Bill C-16 because its vague wording could require everyone to honor “gender-neutral language.”  Fearing that his opposition might bring him before the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, Peterson consulted an attorney, who told him an appearance before the Tribunal would cost him $250,000 and a guaranteed conviction.  “Go back to your safe little life,” the attorney told Peterson, “and shut your mouth.”

This threat by the state to force the use of “gender-correct language” on its citizens and the outcry by the usual suspects against the professor’s refusal to employ the pronouns ze, zir, zhe, or they (referring to one person) reveal once again what many people know: Some Western academics and bureaucrats have gone poco loco in the coco.  No, scratch the poco and make it mucho.

Jordan Peterson and others like him understand in their bones one great truth: Language matters.  The names by which we call people, places, and things are vital both to our perceptions of reality and to reality itself.  Novelist and essayist George Orwell once wrote, “Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”  This is the same writer, of course, who in Nineteen Eighty-four has the government declare, “War is peace.  Freedom is slavery.  Ignorance is strength.”

Torque the language, hammer, smash, and twist the meaning of words, and freedom can indeed become slavery.  Solidity becomes pure wind.

Our changing times are piling high this funeral pyre of words and their meanings, particularly by means of the wrecking tools of politically correct language.  Let’s look at just a few samples of the fuel feeding these flames.

First up is the laughably named Affordable Care Act, enacted under President Obama, which made healthcare for so many of us less affordable.  We see the destruction of language by our government in every “war” we have fought since 1945, none of which was a declared war as required per the Constitution, and a few of which the government even termed “police actions,” as though a cop had pulled over a speeding motorist.

The use of Islam and terrorism in the same sentence causes some to swoon and others to blurt out “racism,” unaware, apparently, that Islam is not a race.  Publicly express your fear of Islamic terrorism, and in certain Western countries you will be labeled an “Islamophobe,” subject to fines and even imprisonment.

To protect mentally and emotionally fragile students, universities offer “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” to take the sting from intellectual encounters that may offend delicate student sensibilities.  It has become commonplace at some universities for speakers, mostly conservative, to be shouted down or violently forced to leave the podium because of their “politically incorrect” thinking and speech.

Instead of using b.c. (Before Christ) and a.d. (Anno Domini) for dating, many history books now use b.c.e. (Before the Common Era) and c.e. (Common Era), though both systems rest on the idea that a birth in Bethlehem split history in two.  The use of Merry Christmas rather than Happy Holidays has made a slight comeback, but the former still flutters the hearts of the politically correct.  This year, England’s National Trust tried to drop the word Easter from its annual Easter-egg hunts, but protesters, including Prime Minister Theresa May, forced the Trust to reverse that alteration.

OK, OK.  I understand some of these concerns and changes.  Some of them strike me as frivolous, some as dangerous, but though I disagree with the censorship and twisted language, I understand the apprehension of those who favor these shifts.  But politically correct “gender” language?  Naw.  I’m done.  I stand with Professor Peterson.  I have no intention of using some bizarre form of he or she in my writing.  Furthermore, if you’re shambling about with XY chromosomes, well, to me you’re male.  If you’re endowed with XX chromosomes, curse me if you will, but I’ll be thinking of you as female.  (And yes, I know rare natural genetic exceptions exist.  Note the words “rare” and “exceptions.”)  Whatever your DNA, I’ll address you by any title you like—Mr., Miss., Mrs., Ms., and whatever other abbreviation is marching around the parade ground—but please know I am only being polite.

Many changes in our language I find acceptable.  Postmen is outdated, replaced these days by postal carriers.  Ditto policemen becoming police officersMankind morphing into people or human beings disturbs me, only because “mankind” rings more nobly in the ear and heart.  The Nicene Creed requires believers to say “for us men and for our salvation He came down from heaven.”  I’ve known priests and parishioners who refuse to say the word “men.”  I disagree with them, but I understand their hesitation.

Gender is different.  We can make all the claims we like as to what “gender” (meaning sex) we are, but the old axiom “You can’t fool Mother Nature” refutes those claims.  Let’s look at a few examples taken from nature and unrelated to gender.  A teenager I once taught became news in the local paper by claiming she was an astral-projection traveler who had visited different vicinities of the universe.  No one questioned her sanity.  No one laughed at her.  (If you’re interested in such adventures, you’ll find websites with instructions on how to join my former student.  If you decide to follow those instructions and shoot off into outer space, please, when you come back to Planet Earth, contact me telepathically as to whether Mars really has a canal system.)

Another example of the reality of nature: A four-year-old who claims to be Superman will eventually realize that he isn’t “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.”  With any luck, he won’t wind up with a broken leg before his enlightenment.

Finally, a last instance of our natural limitations vis-à-vis the real world, inspired by several bloggers and reporters who have conducted the same experiment: I am a white male (yes, I know: “The horror, the horror!”) about 5'7" in height, average in my appearance with a slight potbelly and a face reddened by too much sun and gin, mediocre at sports and adept in literature.  If I tell you face-to-face that I am a Chinese female, 6'6" tall, movie-star beautiful, a Michael Jordan on the basketball court, and a brain surgeon to boot, and you nod your head and say, “That’s right, ma’am,” then answer me this question: Which one of us is the more deluded?  Which one of us is truly nuts?

We need to start labeling crazies as crazy.  In the late 1970’s, I was living in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I encountered the aged Anna Anderson, who claimed to be the missing Anastasia, youngest daughter of the last of the Russian Romanovs.  She and her American husband lived in squalor in a large house near my apartment, drove a station wagon filled with trash, and hosted swarms of cats and dogs in their home.  “Anastasia” could make all the claims to the throne of Russia she liked, but sane people knew that she and her husband, who referred to himself as “son-in-law to the Czar,” were bughouse crazy.  After her death, DNA tests revealed her as a fraud.  Surprised?

To claim you are an heir to the Romanov dynasty, to claim you travel through space, to claim you are a Michael Jordan on the basketball court, to claim you are a woman when you were born without breasts and with bollocks, to claim any of these absurdities is worth no more than a dried cow patty in a pasture.  Once upon a time, every respectable insane asylum boasted someone claiming to be Jesus Christ or Napoleon Bonaparte.  None of these claimants, to the best of my knowledge, performed miracles, rose from the dead, conquered Europe, or died in exile on the island of Saint Helena.

Regarding asylums, wealthy men and women of the 18th century used to pay a fee to explore the grounds and corridors of London’s Bethlehem Hospital, an institution for the insane whose name, shortened by street slang, became Bedlam.  On their tours through Bedlam, visitors were amused or horrified by the antics of the confined lunatics, men and women, the most dangerous of whom were manacled to the walls.  That ghastly practice of mocking desperately ill and mistreated people, of treating them like creatures in a zoo, rightly seems to us moderns cruel and inhumane.

So today, thank heavens, we no longer tour mental hospitals for entertainment.  We no longer mock the mentally ill, though unlike our ancestors, we often turn them out onto the streets to fend for themselves, a practice which should strike us as equally cruel.

If we wish to sightsee in the Land Of Imbecilia, however, if we wish to tour Bedlam, all we need do is visit the Internet, some departments and professors of our universities, and certain departments of our government.  There we may read articles written in academese or bureaucratic jargon, all touting gender-neutral language.  The more innocent among us may even lend an ear to professors and politicians advocating such usage, believing what they say and write because we respect “expertise.”  Unfortunately, we forget that some of our “experts” are not only boobs but Daffy Duck crazy as well, with apologies to the excitable Daffy.  (To the language police, who frequently lack all sense of nuance: Boobs here references morons.)

Yet how do we react?  With silence.  We no longer label crazy as crazy.  We no longer drive absurdity from the room with belly laughs, we no longer mock the idiots advocating such changes.  Instead, we respond to the arguments of these “experts” by ignoring common sense, shutting our mouths, and making ourselves at home in Bedlam.  We keep hoping the crazies will just prattle on, then go away and leave us alone.  Unfortunately, crazies don’t operate that way.  They never go away.  They notch up a victory and start looking for the next scalp.

The real world has enough problems of its own without revisiting The Wizard of Oz.  It’s time to quit worrying about such inane issues as gender-neutral language.  It’s time to quit considering whether eight-year-old Johnny should be transformed into eight-year-old Joanie.  It’s time instead to think about whether the Middle East is going to explode into a World War, whether we can get Americans back to work, whether we can reconstruct an America where we can live as human beings, cognizant of our heritage and culture and willing to defend our way of life from enemies both outside and inside our borders.

It’s time to start laughing at the crazies.

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