Writing in the New York Times, tech writer Farhad Manjoo says that we ought to eliminate “gendered” pronouns. Manjoo wants to eighty-six “he” and “she”; “him” and “her.” Our techie isn’t for some of the newly proposed pronouns like “ze,” because studies have shown people don’t know what or who ze is. Perhaps ze should be left to gender nonconforming people. That’s ze truth.
Manjoo’s truth is that he wants us to use “they” as a singular pronoun. “It’s flexible, inclusive, unobtrusive and obviates the risk of inadvertent misgendering.” Manjoo personally wants to be referred to as “they.”
Well, here goes.
Only two types of people object to Farhad’s proposal, they (Manjoo) writes. They (the types) are the grammarians and “the plainly intolerant.” They (Manjoo) has two children, a boy and a girl. They (Manjoo) says they (Manjoo) has been watching them (their’s children) grow up and adapt themselves (their’s children) to roles prescribed by their (all of the above) society. This horrifies them.
By “them” I mean them (Manjoo).
Okay, I can’t do this anymore. Speaking as a member of the plainly intolerant community, the discomfort Manjoo feels is a great illustration of the difference between conservatives and progressives. Conservatives tend to see the inherited forms of their culture, especially the parts that don’t readily and explicitly justify themselves, as a gift, even a patrimony. Not without its problems, to be sure. Progressives tend to look for an explicitly natural or rational justification for cultural forms, rejecting the mysteries of history and religion as arbitrary. When none is immediately forthcoming, they conclude that all this inheritance is an arbitrary form of oppression.
Manjoo sees that some people don’t quite conform to normal — or normed — gender roles. And so he writes, “Gender is a ubiquitous prison for the mind, reinforced everywhere, by everyone, and only rarely questioned.” This is an extravagant conclusion. He backs it up by saying, “Every boy and girl feels this in small and large ways growing up; you unwittingly brush up against preferences that don’t fit within your gender expectations, and then you must learn to fight those expectations or strain to live within them.”
Manjoo puts a conflict between society’s gender preferences and an individuals’s “gender expectations.” But where do these expectations come from? Are they natural in some way? Genetic? Aren’t expectations themselves culturally conditioned? And how can one articulate or even sense countercultural preferences without some reference to the culture? Nevertheless, Manjoo invokes at least the idea (the goal?) of “eradicating these expectations in society.” In lieu of that being achievable, he hopes to eradicate them in language. Manjoo believes that “he, she, his and hers” bring nothing other than “confusion, anxiety and grief.”
Somewhere in the back of Manjoo’s thinking, there is a pure “state of nature” where gender expectations aren’t corrupted by arbitrary culture. But no such thing exists. There is no individual conceivable apart from a world in which a mother and a father conceive the child, and these two parents are likely to express themselves in clashing and complimentary ways that a child will naturally learn from.
Some people will inevitably feel that they don’t fit in to their society in some way. Maybe it’s gender, and they come to some arrangement with their friends or family. But maybe it is something else — maybe they have a unique religious experience and found a Buddhist monastery. Maybe they fall in love with Slovakian culture, fill their home with Slovakian language and food, and eventually emigrate to Bratislava. Whatever that clash may be, the person’s character will be created and perhaps dignified by contending with the resistant culture.
Manjoo writes of his children:
From their very earliest days, my kids, fed by marketing and entertainment and (surely) their parents’ modeling, seemed to hem themselves into silly gender norms. They gravitated to boy toys and girl toys, boy colors and girl colors, boy TV shows and girl TV shows. This was all so sad to me: I see them limiting their thoughts and their ambitions, their preferences and their identity, their very liberty, only to satisfy some collective abstraction.
To Manjoo, this looks like oppression. To conservatives, it looks like the joyful early days of assimilation and appropriation. It is like children appropriating and assimilating the language of their parents. This process won’t just give them that language’s grammar but will come coded with their parents’ and peers’ class attitudes, politics, and religious convictions.
Just as children tend to speak in bold ways because they haven’t mastered subtlety, they engage with their boyhoods and girlhoods with a similar zest and garishness. They dress, choose interests, and imitate role models in exaggerations of masculine and feminine types they encounter in society. A young child cries “No!” while an older one will learn to give negative responses that disguise themselves. It is the same with cultural roles tied to our sex. This is part of the journey to discovering something more mature. We don’t forbid ourselves to speak English to our children, in the hopes that they can choose a language later, unmediated by the arbitrary inheritance of their culture.
There are so many things that Manjoo and the culture are passing on to their children. Without even trying, parents pass on their judgments about the world, moral, political, and aesthetic. Toddlers often adopt these in an extremely imitative and literal way. Teenagers may use them as an idol against which they rebel to better articulate their individual identity. If Manjoo’s children are growing up without religion, or without much in the way of Thelonious Monk’s music, or without Norse mythology, are those all the arbitrary and historically conditioned inheritance in which Manjoo himself is a willing participant?
For what it’s worth, I probably raise my children differently than Manjoo raises his. But his children are not in a prison, and he is not a jailer.
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