Liberals’ Astonishingly Radical Shift on Gender

Embracing incoherence.

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?

 

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—long 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.”