Ingham County, MI

Previously on The Bar Jester Chronicles: Concerning this confusion [the “singular they”] I wish to say three things, but the reader will have to wait with bated breath for the next installment.

And now, ye bated, the waiting is over.

For the first of these three things let us pinch a little something from that on-again / off-again fool, Ralph Wacko Emerson: When those who ignore the difference between one and more than one say “come out unto us,” then “keep thy state; come not into their confusion.”

That’s from “Self-Reliance,” and it is worth noting that editors tend not to footnote Emerson’s gesture toward Genesis 19, and they do this for two obvious reasons (or is it “two obvious reason”?): one is that they don’t know Genesis; the other is that if they did they’d have to footnote their own footnote, because the first footnote would be a considered a micro-aggression requiring an apology—and three full days of Sensitivity Training.

At any rate, point number one is: ignore the Singular Theyers. Ignore especially the individual singular solitary solo non-plural and yet self-proclaimed non-binary person—person—who, without so much as a split personality to justify the demand, demands that you refer to him or her as “they.”

Keep thy state; come not into his or her confusion.

The second thing I wish to say is this: long ago we were told by the Linguistic Elite that “he” doesn’t actually function as a gender-neutral pronoun that means both “he” and “she,” that in fact—though this contradicted actual usage at the time—it means “he” only and that “he” is exclusionary and oppressive.

Remarkable as this feat was for a mere two-letter word, it meant that we couldn’t simply agree to use the word as we had been using it for quite some time: in some contexts to mean “he” and in others to mean “he” or “she” or both.

(A childless academic of the sitting—though I think sexless—variety once condescended to instruct me on the point: “You don’t want your daughter to feel excluded,” it said to me. I, an academic of the standing variety, replied, in effect, that my daughter wouldn’t grow up to be that stupid.)

But here’s the point: the same cunning linguists who said it wasn’t possible to assign gender-neutrality to “he” are now assigning number-singularity to “they.”

This is impressive. In the old days all we had to do was agree to one additional meaning attaching to the monosyllable “he,” and we just couldn’t do it; now we’re being asked to add a minimum of two meanings—and maybe twenty-seven more, depending on how many genders Nature (in consultation with the Sociology department) ends up providing—to the monosyllable “they.” And this we can do.

Actually, “can” is the wrong word. Students are now being told not that they can but that they must use “they” as a singular pronoun. This is now, officially, correct usage.

And that’s where the real problem starts. I have a dog in this fight only insofar as the number-confused gurus, whether they be the op-edders at the Kronikle of Hire Education or the sheared-governance policy-making deans formerly known as professors of communications studies, believe they can tell me what words to use, especially when tradition and syllabic count and meter—and therefore style—are at stake. The whole damned world can use “donkey turd” as a pronoun for all I care. But I’m not going to do it.

But if that’s only where the problem starts—in coercion, especially coercion of the sort that is scornful of the past—then where the problem goes is to the heart of the doctrine of man itself. And the coercion is not being driven by a desire for clarity or elegance; it is being driven by an argument of insidious intent, by a program to evict an old anthropology and install a new one. And those not entirely comfortable with this arrangement might want to stand up on their hind legs and bare their teeth. For it merits emphasis: the boardroom where the new doctrine was voted in did not provide a chair for Nature. She was not given a seat at the table.

People who don’t give Nature a seat at the table have forgotten how they came to be and what it is that sustains them. And they are dangerous.

Okay, okay. This is getting a little too serious for a Bar Jester Chronicle. So let me just point out a little inconsistency here: during the old controversy it was assumed that meaning is conventional, that it is arbitrarily assigned by usage, and that a given word can be, objectively, offensive.

Obviously, there’s a problem with holding to the absolute verity of both of these claims. No word can be objectively offensive whose meaning has been assigned by mere convention and usage, for that arbitrary meaning, being arbitrary and conventional, will have to be as “fluid” as a sociologist. (And, like a sociologist, it will demand of the universe its own pronouns.) On this view the N Word could become a compliment and cease being what it is, which, in fact, is a word some people use with impunity, because on their lips it is not offensive, while others use it at the cost of a livelihood, because on their lips it is offensive.

So which is it? Or does it turn out that context matters—as, back in the case of the gender-neutral “he,” it apparently didn’t?

Back of all this—if a short diversion be allowed at this point—is a more fundamental question: whence meaning? The regnant linguistic theories of the early- to mid-twentieth century answered the question by begging it. Some folk, and I am one of them (though I’m by no means alone), hold a different view: that meaning is “given.” But that is grist for another mill.

At any rate, the Bar Jester has stopped listening when all the other people around him are saying “he” can mean only “he,” now and ever and unto the ages of ages, whereas “they” can mean whatever we damn-well want it to mean. What he’s going to do is head to the bar where he belongs and start telling jokes, substituting credentialed nut-jobs wielding the “singular they” for all the Polacks, Irishmen, feminists, lawyers, priests, rabbis, and harelips.

How many people wielding the “singular they” does it take to change a lightbulbs?

The third thing I wish to say brings me at last to what I’m calling The Hooper Hermeneutic, so named for Matt Hooper, the character in Jaws who’s “into sharks,” as Helen Brody somewhat unreflectingly puts it. I’ve been waiting for the right moment to unveil this versatile interpretive tool. I acknowledge that now might not be the right moment, but what the hell:

There’s a three-thousand-dollar bounty on the carcharodon carcharias that has been dining off the shores of Amity Island, specifically on an exceedingly pneumatic (though in the end insufficiently buoyant) dish named “Chrissy!” and, for dessert, on a scrawny boy named “Alex Kintner.” A few Amity locals manage to catch an impressive Tiger shark, around which there’s considerable excitement. Everyone’s smiling, including Chief Brody and the mayor (who now thinks he can keep the beaches open on the Fourth of July), to say nothing of the fisherman who believe they’re suddenly rich. Matt Hooper, who’s from the Oceanographic Institute, is skeptical.

(Later his skepticism will be justified: he’ll cut open the shark’s digestive tract and find no human remains whatsoever, not even the hoped-for necrotic quarter-brain of a snarky internet troll who defends himself against attack as if he were actually brave enough to use his real name—a strange aberrant behavior that even selachimorphologists recognize as cowardice and idiocy combined at about a one-to-one ratio.)

What’s interesting about Hooper’s doubts concerning the Tiger shark is that he expresses them in a quick intuitive leap: by considering the relative merits of the fishermen themselves.

Martin [he says, speaking to the chief of police], there are all kinds of sharks in the waters, you know. Hammerheads, white tips, blues, makos, and the chances that these bozos got the exact shark . . . it’s a hundred to one . . . a hundred to one. Now I’m not saying that this is not the shark. It probably is, Martin, it probably is. It’s a maneater, it’s extremely rare for these waters. But the fact is that the bite radius on this animal is different from the wounds on the victim. I just . . . I wanna be sure. You wanna be sure. We all want to be sure, okay?

The Hooper Hermeneutic is a time-saving interpretive method that, as a matter of first business, considers the source—for example the sociologist or the individual singular solitary solo non-plural and yet selves-proclaimed non-binary person. Note that in Jaws it also prevents more deaths except for Quint’s, the one justifiably brought on by an Ahab-like monomania. But its first task is to say: look around you. You do see—don’t you?—that it’s the clowns who are proposing genders as numerous as the sands of the seashore—that it’s the offspring of Ronald McDonald who think it’s okay to confuse one with more than one. And you’ve heard what’s being proposed, and then received in all seriousness, without its ever having been subjected to anything more rigorous than the transient and ephemeral criticism of the Three-Ring, right? And you’re okay with simply dismissing the slow careful judgment of time? You’re really going to take seriously the immense nonsense dreamed up in this circus—a circus that’s being staged in the most confused era since the one that gave us Prohibition and, before that, Manichaeism?

And then the Hooper Hermeneutic kicks in: the chance that these bozos are getting it right is a hundred to one . . . a hundred to one.

You, by contrast, wanna be sure. We all wanna be sure, okay? So we let time, not fashion, do its work.

I should probably make a fourth remark about all this: any number of certified geniuses will come rushing in to remind me that meaning changes with usage.

It does? Damnation! I must go on a Paul Revere ride!

The remarkable thing here is not the observation; the remarkable thing here is that these geniuses—or should I say this geniuses?—think the rest of us need them to tell us that meaning changes with usage.

So let’s just make an small observation here, one that ought to be pretty obvious: these are the same people who appeal to the authority of that fancied creature known as The Dictionary—whose last name more often than not is “dot com.” Then they will launch into a dissertation on the difference between prescriptive and descriptive grammars, as if no one else has ever heard of this—and as if prescriptivism is of no use whatsoever. It is usually from the certified geniuses that we get such odd locutions as “first off” and “based around,” not to mention a blurring of “uninterested” and “disinterested.” And I leave aside the inconvenient fact that these same geniuses are descriptivists only up to a point, whereupon they become ardent prescriptionists telling the Number Non-Confused to use the “singular they.”

Of course usage comes to bear. Why do you think there’s no longer any consensus on the difference between semiannual and biannual? That’s one of the reasons good usage is important. Change tends on average toward entropy. We are, for example, on our way to losing the distinction between “imply” and “infer,” which is a useful distinction without which a certain degree of precision is lost. But in the clarifying light of the bar (as opposed to the obfuscating florescent buzz of the academy) you won’t find sufficient evidence that the Singular Theyers have much interest in precision, much less in logical consistency, and this says something about the activity going on behind their clownish eyeballs—if a flatline can be called “activity.”

And this is why we should consult tradition, not Last Tuesday; it is why we should submit to the judgment of time, not to the judgment of fashion. But if you can’t do that, at least remember your Oscar Wilde: “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.”

Finally, bearing in mind that clowns are sinister, remember your Hooper Hermeneutic: the chances that these bozos got the exact shark . . . it’s a hundred to one . . . a hundred to one.

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Jason Peters
Jason Peters professes English at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, where he teaches courses in Milton, the Catholic novel, Environmental literature, British Romanticism, and American literature prior to 1900.  While in Illinois he pines for the mysterious and musical tea-colored trout streams of his native Michigan, whither he is trying to repatriate full-time in order to raise cattle and chickens, make beer, and scourge the follies of higher ed.  (Read an attempt here.) His work has appeared in such places as the ­Sewanee Review, the South Atlantic Quarterly, English Language Notes, Explicator, American Notes and Queries, Christianity and Literature, Orion, First Principles, University Bookman, and the Journal of Religion and Society. He is also the editor of Wendell Berry: Life and Work (University Press of Kentucky 2007), Land! The Case for an Agrarian Economy, by John Crowe Ransom (University Press of Notre Dame, 2017), and co-editor of Localism in the Mass Age: A Front Porch Republic Manifesto (FPR Books, 2018). Currently he is building a fly rod and juggling just enough writing projects to prevent his completing any of them: an account of his repatriation efforts (tentatively titled Dispatches from Dumb-Ass Acres, by a Dumb Ass), another book on Wendell Berry, another on food (tentatively titled The Culinary Plagiarist: (Mis)Adventures of a Thieving Gourmand), and yet another on that neglected genius, Owen Barfield. He has tried to break life-long debilitating addictions to basketball and golf but has been woefully unsuccessful. Peters visits Rock Island on school days but otherwise lives in Williamston, Michigan, with his longsuffering wife, their three children, and his two arthritic knees.

4 COMMENTS

  1. I really enjoy your writing Jason. In a past essay you commented on the behavior of eighth graders, and I see parallels to the singular theyers. I think those said eighth graders circumvent a shark’s dinner plate at the troll stage, as they are still attempting to escape a parent’s basement.

  2. I’m so vain I probably think that throwaway line’s about me.

    But seriously, sir: is your problem that “the sheared-governance policy-making deans formerly known as professors of communications studies, believe they can tell me what words to use,” or with the risk that you could be punished if you use certain pronouns in certain ways?

    Because I’ve never heard of scholars being disciplined for insisting on using the masculine third-person singular pronoun in their writing or teaching. (See what I did there?)

    Conflating that practice with misgendering transpeople (or feeling free to use “the N Word” if one really, really wants to — “especially when tradition and syllabic count and meter—and therefore style—are at stake”) — doesn’t really make sense, however even for someone who’s had a few too many.

    Could it be that even in The Oversensitive Academy there’s nowhere near the sensitivity about using the masculine third-person singular pronoun in one’s (!) writing or teaching as there is about using that pronoun to refer to an actual, specific person, in the face of that person’s explicit request *not* to use that pronoun to refer to them (!!)?

  3. In the interest of not confusing one and more than one, I would admonish the author not to use the 2nd person plural “ye” to address the singular reader.

    Regarding the singular “they,” I note that it has been lurking at the edges of our language since at least the time of Chaucer, long before the advent of the gender people. It is at times convenient and often just seems natural.

    Sometimes a given word has unusual or even counter-intuitive properties, yet no one is confused by it, since that’s just how that word works. I think they/their/theirs is one of those words.

  4. So you think that “he” is inclusive? How about we make “she” the generic singular inclusive instead? The default gender in mammals is female so really this works better than your default male.

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