Ingham County, MI
“Do you realize,” asked a friend and former colleague of mine—he was an exacting teacher and scholar and also a man of infinite jest—“do you realize what a serious intellectual problem it is to confuse one with more than one?”
I’ll call him “John,” because that was his name, and may God rest his once-wayfaring soul for pointing out that something is amiss when, say, a person runs their hands along the fender of an old Cadillac and says, “look at the workmanship on this cars!”
I notice the “word-processing” program I’m using doesn’t flinch at “their” or “this” in the previous sentence. No squiggly green line appears to tell me I’ve committed two offenses against number. (Soon no associate dean will appear to tell me that I’ve committed two offenses against number. But sit tight on that. One thing at a time.)
John wrote precise sentences and lectured in a careful systematic way. He remarked with amusement on the once-odd but now-ubiquitous phenomenon of the career academic who cannot talk in a straight line. He believed that a student leaving class should know more than she knew walking in.
Permit me to try that last sentence another way: “He believed that a student leaving class should know more than they knew walking in.”
Again, my “word-processing” program is indifferent to “they” as the pronoun referring back to “student” (it is indifferent to both versions of the sentence, whether I use “she” or “they”), probably because the program is hoping to climb the ladder from IT into “faculty leadership” or administration.
To be fair I should say that it is also indifferent to this version of the sentence: “He believed that a student leaving class should know more than he knew walking in.” But anyone with a pulse, however faint, knows that whereas the first two versions are acceptable—the first on the logic of reparations for past wrongs and the second on another kind of “logic” altogether, about which more later—the mere scent of the third will draw out from all the hovels and dens and caves of academia the ravenous censors who have too much time on their paws and too little sense in their heads.
For bear in mind that the guardians of the academy, the Keepers of Permitted Thought, have one thing in common: they all made high marks in Offense-Taking, nine hours of which are required of all Master’s candidates in all graduate programs everywhere. You can’t get into a PhD program if you’re not outraged. And some of these Keepers, the really good ones, even majored in Offense-Taking as undergraduates, initially at expensive east-coast schools but now pretty much everywhere, especially at those really progressive institutions where young people, firmly in command at age nineteen of the best that’s been thought and said, are permitted to build their own majors, majors that typically combine the most rigorous offense-taking classes and the best offense-taking practices from all the disciplines that offer coursework in it, chiefly Sociology, Women’s and Gender Studies, Anthropology, and English. (If you can’t learn to be royally pissed, even at imagined slights, you’ll never be a good academic.)
Now John of blessed memory used “she” because he taught at a women’s college, so he had good reason to speak as he did. What he said corresponded to What Is. He took it as axiomatic that a man (or woman) shouldn’t speak nonsense—a rule, be it noted, that would silence anyone running a committee or faculty meeting—but he did, as I said, regard confusion of number to be a serious intellectual problem, and therefore he would not permit it, especially not on student essays, where in the age of rampant lunacy he could still exercise a little influence.
In those days the neutral “he” was still being used but was under considerable pressure to drink hemlock. And it is important to emphasize that the erstwhile masculine pronoun had been used as a neutral pronoun. It was so used by such formidable women as Flannery O’Connor, Iris Murdoch, Winefred Nowottny, and Elizabeth Anscombe—apparently without discomfort, unease, or offense to the user herself—or, rather, “the user themselves,” or “the user themself,” or “the user herselves.”
But this did not satisfy a great many people of lesser intellect. So, by and by, it was replaced with fairer if clumsier idioms: “he or she,” “him or her,” “his or her,” and, inevitably, “her or his,” which was a reparation for always putting “his” ahead of “her” in “his or her” but that, as I have pointed out elsewhere, is clearly an especial aural offense except to those whose ears are mere handles on a jughead.
I call the practice “hurrorhizzing.” I’ll be the first to admit that it deserves even worse scorn than that ugly term intends, but not even the Bar Jester can hit every opportunity for scorn out of the park. Sometimes the wind ain’t right, or the bar’s out of Beam.
But now “he or she” and the like have also been handed the hemlock, not because the hearing impaired have finally got their cochlear implants and heard for themselfs how grating such expressions are to aural perception, or how offensive to elegant prose, but because such idioms stand in the way of an important political movement that, like all important political movements, gets to be on the right side of history.
Case in point. (The “word-processing” program recognizes that as a sentence fragment and tells me to “consider revising,” presumably because the program is independent-clause-centric. As an academic I should be offended. I should be stirring myself up into an augury of frustrate bitchery. If I were really good, and really on the right side of history, I’d end my sentences with exclamation points.)
Case in point: (That’s better. The program prefers the colon to the period, as do I. I just wrote it the first way to see if the program had gone to sleep on me.)
Case in point: I read recently a few pages of revision to a faculty handbook. The revisions eliminate the hurrorizzing, which at least had the benefit of not confusing one with more than one, and substitute in its stead what is now being called “the singular they” and its variations. So: “The tenure candidate should include their Curriculum Vitae, three letters of …”
And immediately, like Pinocchio’s distant spooky kinsman in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, I smell a child, a well-paid child, also known as a dean, except the fustercluck movie I’m in might as well be called Shitty Titty Wang Bang, because this, obviously, is not an attempt to reduce the clumsiness in the language brought on by too much hurrorhizzing; it is—well, let’s play the game for a moment—it is an attempt by an administrator to use their executive power to institutionalize “the singular they” on behalf of all right-thinking offense-takers whose hearts bleed for all the many people so demagnetized that they can’t decide whether to stand or sit while peeing. (The “word-processing” program has not asked me to consider revising the phrase “…by an administrator to use their …”)
And that, my friends at the bar, is the truth. The “singular they” is a solution not to sexism—and certainly not to linguistic club-footedness—but to the oppressive insensitivity of, say, those insensate farmers, who, although they feed us, also expect a bull to know his business around a cow (or is it “expect a bull to know their business around a cows”?) without ever asking what the poor bulls and cows identify as.
Because, you see, if you’re an academic it’s important that you not know how nature works. Only then can the “singular they” do its job, which is to signal the triumph of the Gender Benders.
The Bar Jester pauses for emphasis: none of this is driven by concern for precision of expression or grammatical integrity. It is driven by a high-toned pious sympathy for the twenty-seven genders that have popped up since breakfast. (John of blessed memory would put on a wry ironic smile and issue a warning: the number could increase by twenty-seven more before you publish this, so be fluid). No. It is driven by the unimpeachable justice of being able to say, if you wish to say it, “look at the workmanship on this cars.”
Concerning this confusion I wish to say three things, but the reader (and I use the singular not as a social engineer with ears made only for lifting but as a Bar Jester: advisedly) will have to wait with bated breath for the next installment.