The Story: The Trump administration recently issued a letter stating that teachers and students could be investigated for a civil-rights violation if they refuse to use the “preferred pronouns” of transgender students.
The Background: In February the Department of Justice and the Department of Education issued a notice withdrawing the statements of policy and guidance issued last year by the Obama administration that affected public schools.
In May 2016, the Obama administration sent a letter to all public schools in America notifying teachers and administrators of a new regulation for treating “gender identity.” The letter stated that, to comply with federal law, policies concerning students would be based on their “gender identity” and not on their biological sex.
The Trump administration disagreed that “sex” and “gender identity” should be interpreted as synonymous, and believed that the issue should be handled by states and local school districts.
At the time, many parents and educators cheered the changed and assumed the Trump administration had resolved the controversy. But earlier this month the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) issued a new memo on “Instructions to the Field re Complaints Involving Transgender Students.”
The new memo clarifies that the withdrawal of the Obama administration guidance documents “does not leave students without protections from discrimination, bullying or harassment.” It also clarifies, as Howard Feinman says, when the OCR “may open an investigation in various situations, including cases in which gender-based harassment has created a hostile environment for a transgender student.”
Unfortunately, included under “gender-based harassment” is a refusal to use “preferred pronouns.” As the memo states, a harassment investigation may be opened for “refusing to use a transgender student’s preferred name or pronouns when the school uses preferred names for gender-conforming students or when the refusal is motivated by animus toward people who do not conform to sex stereotypes of a transgender student created a hostile environment.”
This means that students and teachers who refuse to use “preferred pronouns” can be investigated for violating a transgender student’s civil rights. For example, if a transgender girl (i.e., a boy who identifies as female) wants to be referred to as “she” the student would be in violation of a federal law for referring to him as “he.” Similarly, a student who was non-gender conforming may prefer to use pronouns such as “ze” or “they” and it would be considered a violation to refer to them as “he” (if they are biological male) or “she” (if they are a biological female). (There are also other transgender pronouns such as zie, sie, ey, ve, tey, and e.)
Why It Matters: This memo will only come as a shock to those who haven’t been paying attention. Despite the claims of the LGBT community, the Trump administration has in general been sympathetic to their cause. While some of President Obama’s LGBT policies have been rolled back, many of the worst ones still remain. (For instance, the Pentagon is still planning to allow transgender men and women to serve openly in the military under their “preferred” gender.)
But while the policy is not surprising, it is deeply troubling. While it may seem like a minor inconvenience or a trivial concern, forcing people to use specific pronouns can be a profound violation of a person’s conscience.
There is nothing particularly special, of course, about such pronouns as “he” or “she.” They are linguistic conventions chosen to refer to and distinguish people by their biological sex. But this is the reason they have become a primary battleground for transgender activists.
While the activists (backed by the government) can’t force a person to deny the reality that a boy is not a girl just because he chose to “identify” as one, they want the power—again backed up by the force of law—to force people to deny reality in their use of language. In other words, while they can’t force us change our minds, they can force us to pretend that we agree with their agenda.
In February I wrote about how the transgender debate is about redefining reality:
What is at issue is not merely the question of which individuals can use what bathrooms but whether individuals have the right to redefine reality in a way that the rest of society is forced to accept. At issue is whether there is any fundamental reality that all people must acknowledge or whether reality is itself is malleable and based on personal preferences.
Those who accept the idea that we can ignore biological sex for the mental construct of “gender identity” are endorsing metaphysical subjectivism, the view that “our own mental activity is the only unquestionable fact of our experience.” They are not only disagreeing with those of us who believe reality is created by God, but are attempting to make metaphysical subjectivism the standard that trumps all others in determining norms and ethics.
The first and most important way to force metaphysical subjectivism on individuals is to control the language. The attempt to control how we see reality by restrictions on language is an old tool of totalitarian regimes—and one that was highlighted in the greatest of anti-totalitarian novels.
In George Orwell’s 1984, the main character, Winston, is tortured by O’Brian, an agent of the ruling party. “Do you remember,” O’Brian asks, “writing in your diary, ‘Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four’?” When Winston responds that he does, O’Brian holds up four fingers and asks:
'How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?'
'And if the party says that it is not four but five—then how many?'
Winston is repeatedly tortured when he doesn’t answer with O’Brian’s preferred answer. Eventually he answers:
'Five! Five! Five!'
'No, Winston, that is no use. You are lying. You still think there are four. How many fingers, please?'
'Four! five! Four! Anything you like. Only stop it, stop the pain!'
[. . . ]
'You are a slow learner, Winston,' said O'Brien gently.
'How can I help it?' he blubbered. 'How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.'
'Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.'
Winston thinks that if he tells O’Brian what he wants to hear it will be enough to satisfy his torturer. But he learns that’s not really the goal:
'How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?'
'I don't know. I don't know. You will kill me if you do that again. Four, five, six—in all honesty I don't know.'
'Better,' said O'Brien.
Winston begins to realize that it’s not his answer that matters but his compliance to the agenda of the party. The party, not the individual, gets to decide what constitutes reality, and any disagreement will be punished.
Winston believed he had the freedom to say “two plus two make four” while we think we have the freedom to say “boys are referred to by the pronoun ‘he.’” But in both cases the dominant, controlling group disagrees.
Obviously, the current situation is not the same as in Orwell’s dystopian novel. Teachers who refuse to refer to a boy as “she” will not be tortured. They’ll simply lose their job and be considered unqualified to be a teacher. Many courageous educators will nevertheless refuse to submit and have to choose a different career. But the message will eventually sink in until all teachers go along with the “choose your own gender” system. They’ll deny reality because they want to protect their livelihood or because they consider it a minor compromise. And eventually, the youth of America will not be able to remember a time when we didn’t have to ask people what they chose as their “personal pronouns.” They’ll have conformed to the reality-distorting propaganda that boys can be girls and girls can be boys and ze can be no gender at all if that’s what ze decides.
They’ll learn that in America everyone has a right to choose their gender. They just don’t have a right to follow their conscience.