The politics of “thee” and “thou”

How can pronouns be controversial? They are, after all, just these little words that substitute for nouns.

But in our creative age, we have made even the pronoun political so that today, which pronoun you use, under what circumstances, and to whom or what it refers gives us a clue about your place on somebody’s political spectrum.

But it turns out that we (that particular pronoun seems to have escaped capture by one side or the other, just as its objective opposite “them” has) are not the first generation to recognize the political implications of this particular part of speech.

As Teresa Bejan points out in an article in the New York Times, the 17th-century Quakers recognized the danger lurking inside those pesky little words. Only, they did something about it.

As with everything political, the use of gender-inclusive pronouns has been subject to controversy. One side argues that not to respect an individual’s choice of pronoun can threaten a vulnerable person’s basic equality. The other side dismisses this position as an excess of sensitivity, even a demand for Orwellian “newspeak.”

Both sides have dug in. To move the conversation forward, I suggest we look backward for an illuminating, if unexpected, perspective on the politics of pronouns. Consider the17th-century Quakers, who also suspected that the rules of grammar stood between them and a society of equals. Source: Opinion | What Quakers Can Teach Us About the Politics of Pronouns – The New York Times

The Quakers rebelled against the use of pronouns to award status to anyone — to designate any difference in class or economic standing. Unlike today, however, when the general tendency is to try to respect and elevate all persons, the tendency of the Quakers was egalitarian humility.

In other words, everyone should be treated as if they have no status whatsoever. After all, God is no respecter of persons, they argued. Why should they be.

This attitude did not win them any friends, as Professor Bejan explains in her delightful and enlightening article.

Modern practitioners of pronoun politics can learn a thing or two from the early Quakers. Like today’s egalitarians, the Quakers understood that what we say, as well as how we say it, can play a crucial part in creating a more just and equal society. They, too, were sensitive to the humble pronoun’s ability to reinforce hierarchies by encoding invidious distinctions into language itself.

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.
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