Being respectful shouldn’t mean upsetting the language: Ted Diadiun
CLEVELAND — Kiel, Wis., a small town of 4,000 souls located halfway between Milwaukee and Green Bay, suddenly found itself at the center of the pronoun universe a few months ago.
In April, the parents of three eighth-grade boys at the local middle school were notified that their sons were being investigated for sexual harassment as described, in some way, in the 1972 Title IX legislation that prohibits the gender discrimination in any school that receives federal funding.
It appears the boys were accused of not using the pronouns chosen by another pupil – “they/them” – when addressing a classmate in a music lesson. In 1972, gender pronouns were well understood and uncontroversial, but today’s world has become more complicated for everyone, including eighth grade boys.
“Mispronunciation”, the boys’ sin is called.
One of the mothers, Rose Rabidoux, thought it was a joke when she got a call from a school principal. “I really thought, ‘You have to pull my leg,'” she told a local news program. “The more he said, ‘No, it’s for real,’ the angrier I got.”
With the help of a conservative Wisconsin legal aid group and much outrage from the local community — which sadly escalated into bomb threats — the parents managed to get the school district drops the investigation and exonerates the students in June.
But as Rabidoux later said, “this dispute should never have been brought to this point”. And the zeal with which the school district pursued him raises obvious questions:
How and why did we get here? Why have we allowed this to happen in our culture?
Who had the power to twist our language in the interest of trying not to offend anyone? When did we reach the point where you can be suspended from school, disciplined at work, or shamed on social media for using words that have had unambiguous meanings throughout our lives?
It’s not just the pronouns. On a growing number of hospital websites, women are no longer “women”. They are “people who give birth” or “people who menstruate” or “people with a cervix”. Or, as it says on a Cleveland Clinic website, “people with the reproductive parts associated with being assigned a female at birth (AFAB) – including cisgender women and transgender men and people non-binary with a cervix”.
Oh good? Do you have to go through all this so that someone doesn’t feel uncomfortable?
An unsuspecting woman might be told she doesn’t have breast cancer, but “chest cancer,” as author Patricia Posner wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. The sensitive person no longer calls a breastfeeding mother a “nursing” child. This is “breastfeeding” and the baby does not receive breast milk. The child drinks “human milk”.
Getting back to pronouns…more and more recently, you’re likely to receive emails from someone with the sender’s preferred pronouns added to the signature. You won’t get it from me, but here’s what it looks like: “Ted Diadiun (he/him)”. As if you didn’t know.
The Cavaliers signed on to the program. Imagine getting an email from “Austin Carr (he/him)”.
Go to any college campus and you’ll likely see people wearing buttons that advertise their favorite pronouns. If the school doesn’t provide them, students can find them on Amazon.com with any combination of pronouns they want – and if the student is really ambivalent, there’s one that says, “Fluid . So ask.”
I have a friend who asked a student obviously something about “her” project, and was kindly corrected by a professor who said “they” were working on such and such. My friend was momentarily puzzled, surprised to learn it was a group project, but then realized… “Oh…”
The pronoun confusion has even made its way into the comic book pages – I had to read a June 20 “Sally Forth” comic more than once to figure it out, because one person says, “Did you see what Riley is wearing today? What’s up with that? And Sally replies, “I like their outfit.” I think they had a cool style.
I thought she was talking about one person… Oh…
A reporter for The Plain Dealer and cleveland.com attempted to spell it all out in a front-page story during “Pride Month” in June.
“I think you have to go back to why we do it,” said Monica Jackson, vice president of inclusion and diversity at Eaton Corp. “It’s about respecting and understanding how people want to be referred.”
We can state that it all started with kind-hearted people trying to do the right thing – to make everyone feel supported, included and respected. There have always been people for whom gender is complicated, and who suddenly felt like strangers.
Kindness is not an evil inclination. However people see themselves or wish to present themselves to the world, that should be OK with you, me, or anyone.
But why this need to empty the meaning of the language to address a tiny percentage of the population? There are many other ways to offer respect and acknowledge the humanity of another.
If Fred wants to be known as “her”, I guess I can get used to it. Doesn’t make sense to me, but it’s not necessary, is it? It won’t change my life, and if it helps Fred feel better, why not?
But they?” There is only one Fred. To call Fred “they” is to give up clarity in the name of… what? no neuter pronoun. If people want one, maybe “it” would work. At least it’s singular. But if you don’t like it, choose your own.
Speaking of clarity, how many people are we going to offend if we refer to someone who has just given birth as a woman? Everyone knows what that means. Do we really have to say “person who gives birth?”
“For women like me, it seems like we’re being phased out in a rush for political correctness to make sure no trans people are offended,” Posner wrote in her op-ed. “I respect trans rights, but what about my rights? There is a death of common sense playing out in real time, and most women keep quiet for fear of being attacked as fanatics.
If you verbally or physically attack someone for who or what they are, that is bigotry. But what is it bigotry to use language that we have used and understood all our lives, but a minority of people suddenly want to change?
It reminds me of the timeless quote from the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.
Everyone is entitled to their own idea of who they are, but we have well and truly passed the stage of common sense when we can no longer agree on the simplest and most direct words.
Ted Diadiun is a member of the editorial board of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer.
To reach Ted Diadiun: [email protected]
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