Others are saying that it is a violation of freedom of thought and speech to be forced into using the favored pronouns of the ideological left. This is a multifaceted issue, touching on linguistics, ethics, politics, freedoms, and the law. And, be assured, it is not going to simply disappear.
Professor Jordan Peterson at the University of Toronto has been at the center of a swirling controversy that has garnered international attention, made him a famous figure in academic social media, and brought down letters of rebuke from the university that employs him. Peterson’s offense: he has insisted that he has the right to use the pronouns “he” and “she” instead of gender-neutral pronouns like “ze” and “zir,” or “they.” (“Ze” and “zir” are newly invented words for the expression of gender in the transgender community.)
Many are insisting that a failure to use gender-neutral pronouns is discriminatory, constitutes hate-speech, and can lead to conviction before a human rights tribunal. Others—like Professor Peterson—are saying that it is a violation of freedom of thought and speech to be forced into using the favored pronouns of the ideological left. This is a multifaceted issue, touching on linguistics, ethics, politics, freedoms, and the law. And, be assured, it is not going to simply disappear.
From a Christian perspective, we certainly do not want to dishonor God in anything that we say. We also, however, want to be respectful and loving in our attitudes and words to our neighbors. If a believer has a friend, co-worker, or family member who identifies as transgendered—and who requests to be referred to by gender-neutral pronouns—how should the believer address them? How do we speak the truth in love in such a situation? How do we show our love for the person? How do we show our love for God? How then should a Christian talk?
Gender-Inclusive and Gender-Neutral Are Not Identical
If we are going to love God and love our neighbor in light of this particular issue, we need to understand the basics of gender-neutral pronouns. Using gender-neutral pronouns is not the same as using gender-inclusive language. In contemporary English, gender-inclusivity is normative. So instead of saying, “When a doctor goes about his rounds,” in contemporary English we say, “When a doctor goes about their rounds.” Instead of saying, “We need peace for every man,” the normative expression would be, “We need peace for everybody [or every person, or every human being].”
Gender-inclusivity does not specify a male or female gender when the class being referred to is not gender-specific. Since both men and women can be doctors, a gender-inclusive word is preferred when referring to doctors as a generic category. This widely accepted convention, however, is not what the gender-neutral pronoun debate is about.
The gender-neutral pronoun debate is about the correct pronouns to use when speaking about a particular person. If my doctor is a woman—which she is—I rightly say, “When my doctor goes about her rounds.” I use a gender-specific pronoun when I’m referring to a particular person. You (gender-inclusive!) may notice that in my example I used the gender-specific pronoun “she” in the statement inside of the long dashes (“—which she is—”); we simply use gender-specific pronouns all the time. For many, it is extremely difficult to understand how such pronoun usage can be termed discriminatory hate speech.
Gender-Neutral Pronouns and Transgender Advocacy
The issue of gender pronouns has become controversial because some people in the transgender community (as well as transgender advocates) want people who self-identify as transgendered to be called by their gender pronouns of choice.
So if someone is biologically and genetically of the masculine sex, but identifies their gender as female, transgender advocates are insisting that people must refer to them as “she.” Some are suggesting that it is a hate crime to refer to such a person as “he,” since it is an attack on their person and identity. Biological sex, then, is considered irrelevant. We must refer to someone on the basis of their preferred pronouns. This extends to newly invented gender-neutral pronouns like “ze” or “zir” (and others).