Sometimes a piece of writing so perfectly distills a cultural moment and mood that it deserves to be given outsized attention. That's very much the case with Farhad Manjoo's op-ed column in Thursday's New York Times, "The Perfect Pronoun: Singular 'They'."
Little in the column is original to Manjoo. In 2019, one encounters similar arguments, assertions, and assumptions every day in published essays, on social media, in lavish advertising campaigns, and increasingly in the literature produced and enforced by corporate HR departments. Yet Manjoo's column is worth focusing on because it presents such a concise and cogent statement of the emerging elite-progressive consensus.
What is this consensus? That "if we lived in a just, rational, inclusive universe … there would be no requirement for you to have to guess my gender just to refer to me in the common tongue." We would instead refer to Manjoo — along with everyone else in the world — by the gender-neutral pronoun "they." Not only would this help to avoid "the risk of inadvertent misgendering." It would also subvert the "very idea" of thinking about gender in binary terms.
In Manjoo's view, this idea — that the overwhelming majority of people are either men or women and so can be labeled either he or she, him or her, without causing offense or tyrannizing them — is "invisibly stifling" and "sad." Speaking of his own children, Manjoo laments how "silly gender norms" limit "their very liberty" with "little prospect for escape," relegating them to "a ubiquitous prison of the mind" that is "reinforced everywhere, by everyone." Hence the need to work toward "eradicating these distinctions in language" as a first step toward eradicating them "in society." As for the final element in the consensus, it holds that, other than "small-minded grammarians" (more on them below), the only people who would object to such a change in the use of "they" are those who are hopelessly "intolerant."
The first thing to be said about these convictions is that, apart from a miniscule number of transgender activists and postmodern theorists and scholars, no one would have affirmed any of them as recently as four years ago. There is almost no chance at all that the Farhad Manjoo of 2009 sat around pondering and lamenting the oppressiveness of his peers referring to "him" as "he." That's because (as far as I know) Manjoo is a man, with XY chromosomes, male reproductive organs, and typically male hormone levels, and a mere decade ago referring to such a person as "he" was considered to be merely descriptive of a rather mundane aspect of reality. His freedom was not infringed, or implicated, in any way by this convention. It wouldn't have occurred to him to think or feel otherwise. Freedom was something else and about other things.
The emergence and spread of the contrary idea — that "gender is a ubiquitous prison of the mind" — can be traced to a precise point in time: the six months following the Supreme Court's Obergefell decision, which declared same-sex marriage a constitutional right. Almost immediately after that decision was handed down, progressive activists took up the cause of championing transgender rights as the next front in the culture war — and here we are, just four short years later, born free but everywhere in chains.
How should we understand this astonishingly radical and rapid shift in self-understanding among highly educated progressive members of the upper-middle class? (In addition to calling himself a "cisgender, middle-aged suburban dad" at the opening of his column, Manjoo confesses that he "covet[s] my neighbor's Porsche," so it seems exactly right to describe him in this way.) I suspect Manjoo would say that his consciousness has been raised. Once he was blind, but now he sees. Once he slumbered, but now he's awake — or "woke."
Others have noted the religious connotations of the term. This has even been reflected in the prevalence of the formulation "Great Awokening" among sympathetic journalists seeking to explain the trend. It gets at something important. A kind of spiritual-moral madness periodically wells up and sweeps across vast swaths of the United States. In the 18th and 19th centuries, these Great Awakenings were decidedly "low church" affairs and invariably emerged from America's plethora of Protestant sects. Today, for perhaps the first time in American history, it is a nominally secular, progressive elite that finds itself swept up into a moral fervor and eager to overturn (linguistic and other) conventions in a surge of self-certainty and self-righteousness.
Yet the focus on religious antecedents can obscure as much as it clarifies about what's going on around us.
What is it, exactly, that Manjoo finds oppressive about the use of gendered pronouns? In addition to raising a fusty objection to the ungrammatical use of a gender-neutral plural pronoun to refer to single, gendered individuals, grammarians might also point out that English is far less gender-infused than many other languages. Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, German, and many other languages divide the world into masculine, feminine, and sometimes (but not always) neuter nouns. Masculine chairs, feminine houses, and so on, reflected in definite and indefinite articles and pronouns in every sentence ever read, written, spoken, or heard in languages across the world. Talk about a prison with little prospect for escape!
The comparatively slight fudging of the grammatical rules that Manjoo proposes for American English would be utterly impossible in these other languages, used by many hundreds of millions, without tearing them apart from top to bottom. Looks like Anglo-American culture stands at the forefront of human freedom after all.
But what is this freedom that Manjoo and so many others suddenly crave for themselves and their children? That's more than a little mysterious. Slaves everywhere presumably know that they are unfree, even if they accept the legitimacy of the system and the master that keeps them enslaved. But what is this bondage we couldn't even begin to perceive in 2009 that in under a decade has become a burden so onerous that it produces a demand for the overturning of well-settled rules and assumptions, some of which ("the gender binary") go all the way back to the earliest origins of human civilization?
The beginnings of an answer can be found in the writings of a number of thinkers who have analyzed, often critically but from a range of religious and political perspectives, the potential excesses of liberalism and democracy — and especially the antinomian logic of individualism. Alexis de Tocqueville, Robert Nisbet, Christopher Lasch, Walker Percy, Michel Houellebecq, and others have reflected deeply on what might be called the phenomenology of individualism — how a society devoted at the level of principle to the liberation of the individual from constraints can easily produce citizens who continually feel themselves to be newly enslaved and in need of ever new and more radical forms of liberation.
That's because all societies — as collectivities of individuals sharing a common culture as well as common laws, rules, and norms (including linguistic rules and norms) — invariably constrain individuals more than they would be if they lived in absolute isolation from others. Any one of those limits on the individual will can feel as if it's an intolerable constraint, and the principle of individual freedom can always be invoked in order to combat it.
This is how a progressive in 2014 can consider it an unacceptable limitation on individual freedom for gay couples to be denied the right to marry — and base that argument on the claim that a gay man's love and natural desire for another man, like a lesbian's love and natural desire for another woman, is irreducible and ineradicable — and then insist just five years later that it is an unacceptable limitation on individual freedom for anyone to be presumed a man or a woman at all.
As Andrew Sullivan has powerfully argued, the two positions are fundamentally incompatible. The first, which morally justifies same-sex marriage, presumes that biological sex and binary gender differences are real, that they matter, and that they can't just be erased at will. The second, which Manjoo and many transgender activists embrace and espouse, presumes the opposite — that those differences can and should be immediately dissolved. To affirm the truth of both positions is to embrace incoherence.
But that assumes that we're treating them as arguments. If, instead, we view them as expressions of what it can feel like at two different moments in a society devoted to the principle of individualism, they can be brought into a kind of alignment. Each is simply an expression of rebellion against a different but equally intolerable constraint on the individual. All that's changed is the object of rebellion.
Will Manjoo's call for liberation from the tyranny of the gender binary catch on in the way that the push for same-sex marriage did before it? I have no idea. What I do know is that, whatever happens, it's likely to be followed by another undoubtedly very different crusade in the name of individual freedom, and then another, and another, as our society (and others like it) continues to work through the logic of its devotion to the principle of individualism.
The only thing that could halt the process is the rejection of that principle altogether.