Free Speech and Pronouns


Suppose someone asks to be referred to by a gender-neutral pronoun: ‘their’, or maybe ‘ze’.   (A) Do you have to do it?  (B) Is it wrong if you don’t?  (C) Does anyone else have the right to require you to do it?  The answers are:  (A) Yes;  (B) Normally; and (C) Sometimes.

(A) We have a social obligation to address people and refer to them in the way they prefer. If your friend wants to be called Daniel and not Dan, then Daniel it is.  If Dad wants to be called Dad and not Bob, you call him Dad.  If Ms. Ahmed marries Mr. Mackenzie, you continue to call her ‘Ms. Ahmed’ unless and until she tells you otherwise—you never insist on ‘Mrs. Mackenzie’ against her wishes.  You call an instructor ‘Dr’ or ‘Professor’ as appropriate, unless invited to call them something else.  (Especially in the case of women. They earned their titles, yet often suffer ‘Miss,’ or even ‘Judy,’ from people who reflexively acknowledge the authority of male instructors.)

(B)   At the same time, a breach of a social obligation isn’t always a big deal, morally speaking. You shouldn’t wear a Hawaiian shirt to a funeral, and you shouldn’t smoke in a friend’s company without permission.  But these are matters of etiquette, not morality.  Why is deliberate mis-naming different? People’s names, titles, and pronouns are part of their identity, and to deliberately address them in a way other than they wish is a gratuitous insult.  That is wrong in itself.  But it is also to presuppose that they are to be admitted to your conversational world only on your terms, not on their own.  That is not only offensive to them, it is also an offence against them.  Of course, there are exceptions.  If you oppose titles of nobility or religious nomenclature, you have no duty to call someone ‘Lord Black’ or ‘Father Brown’, even if their bearers prefer it.  But what if you firmly believe married women should take their husband’s names, because St Paul said something that, in your view, requires that?  Doesn’t that make it morally permissible for you to insist on calling Ms. Ahmed ‘Mrs. Mackenzie’?   No: Love your neighbour as yourself.  And grow up.

(C)  Now, what about free speech? Even if mis-naming is a breach of social obligation, and even when it is also a breach of moral duty, doesn’t the free speech principle prohibit others requiring me to address people as they wish.  Isn’t that my call?  Who is anyone to boss me around?

It is hard to believe, but a Canadian professor of psychology (who insists on ‘Dr. Peterson’ from the press) thought that this would amount to ‘silent slavery with all the repression and resentment that that will generate.’ Knowing even less about the law than he apparently does about psychology, Dr. Peterson fears that pronominal intransigence might expose him to hate speech prosecution.  It would not.  But it might, and I think it should, expose him to discipline on his campus.

Universities are not just public platforms; we have work to do.  One aspect of that work is teaching students in an environment in which they can learn without distraction and, in particular, without being insulted or needlessly exposed to risk.  To insist on calling transgender students (or faculty) by anything other than the name and pronouns they prefer is a gratuitous insult.  (See above, (B): ‘Grow up’.)  More important, students cannot learn effectively when subjected to regular offence or humiliation from their instructors.  So take your opposition to the ‘silent slavery’ of pronouns to Youtube or Hyde Park Corner, where your audiences are not captive.

Mis-naming can sometimes be worse than an insult.  Imagine an anti-Semitic professor who thinks far too many Jews are admitted to his university.  Imagine it is already dangerous for Jewish students on campus. The professor breaches no other laws or regulations, but does insist on mis-naming his Jewish students:  He knows that Green’s father changed the family name from ‘Greenberg’, so that is what he calls Green.  He pronounces all middle-European names ‘correctly’, to emphasize their foreignness:  ‘Weidenfeld’ gets ‘Vy-den-feldt’, never ‘Wy-dun-feld’.  Mike always gets ‘Micah’.  And so on.  If challenged,  he says his mis-naming is merely correcting errors.  He says his purpose in doing that is to highlight Jewish over-representation.  His secondary purpose–he also says–is to stand up for free speech, and to strike back at ‘social justice warriors’ who are trying to sell people like him into ‘silent slavery’.  The effect of his behaviour is that Jewish students are now even more anxious than before, for he has made them visible targets for anti-semitic discrimination, or worse.

There used to be instructors like this.  (Perhaps in some places they still exist.) But there are now many more instructors like Dr. Peterson, who insist on their right to call transgender students by a previous name (perhaps the one on their application form) or to refer to them by what he considers to be their genitally mandated pronouns.  Where transgender people are at risk of discrimination and violence—which is to say, everywhere—this marks them as targets, even if the actual discrimination or assault is left to others.

But isn’t that effectively to ban discussion of transgender rights or (in the case of the Jewish students) to cramp exploration of admission policies?   Of course not.  Prohibiting deliberate mis-naming would be a reasonable time, manner, and place regulation in a university classroom. There is no ‘slavery’ here, silent or otherwise.  Then what about ‘all the … resentment that that would generate’?  Feelings of resentment are partially within our control.   The case for campus speech regulations is at the same time a case for learning to control one’s resentments.  If they prove intractable to rational control, there is always psychotherapy.