Is Thee Talking to Me? — Teresa M. Bejan in the New York Times on what Quakers can teach us about pronouns.
Pronouns are the most political parts of speech. In English, defaulting to the feminine “she/her” when referring to a person of unspecified gender, instead of the masculine “he/him,” has long been a way of thumbing one’s nose at the patriarchy. (“When a politician votes, she must consider the public mood.”)
More recently, trans, nonbinary and genderqueer activists have promoted the use of gender-inclusive pronouns such as the singular “they/their” and “ze/zir” (instead of “he/him” or “she/her”). The logic here is no less political: If individuals — not grammarians or society at large — have the right to determine their own gender, shouldn’t they get to choose their own pronouns, too?
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 the 17th-century Quakers, who also suspected that the rules of grammar stood between them and a society of equals.
Today the Quakers are remembered mainly for their pacifism and support for abolition. Yet neither of these commitments defined the Quaker movement as it emerged in the 1650s from the chaos of the English Civil War. What set the Quakers apart from other evangelical sects was their rejection of conventional modes of address — above all, their peculiar use of pronouns.
In early modern England, the rules of civility dictated that an individual of higher authority or social rank was entitled to refer to himself — and to be referred to by others — with plural, not singular, pronouns. (A trace of this practice survives today in the “royal ‘we.’”) The ubiquitous “you” that English speakers now use as the second-person singular pronoun was back then the plural, while “thee” and “thou” were the second-person singulars.
When Quakerism emerged, proper behavior still required this status-based differentiation. As one early Quaker explained, if a man of lower status came to speak to a wealthy man, “he must you the rich man, but the rich man will thou him.”
Quakers refused to follow this practice. They also refused to doff their hats to those of higher social standing. The Quakers’ founder, George Fox, explained that when God sent him forth, “he forbade me to put off my hat to any, high or low; and I was required to thee and thou all men and women, without any respect to rich or poor, great or small.”
The Quakers thus declared themselves to be, like God, “no respecter of persons.” So they thee-ed and thou-ed their fellow human beings without distinction as a form of egalitarian social protest. And like today’s proponents of gender-inclusive pronouns, they faced ridicule and persecution as a result.
But there is also an important difference between the Quakers and today’s pronoun protesters. While modern activists argue that equality demands displays of equal respect toward others, the Quakers demonstrated conscientious disrespect toward everyone. Theirs was an equality of extreme humility and universally low status. Even the famously tolerant founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, couldn’t stand the Quakers and complained of the “familiarity, anger, scorn and contempt” inherent in their use of “thee” and “thou.”
Indeed, the trend in pronouns at that time was toward a leveling up, not a leveling down. By the middle of the 17th century, in response to increasing geographic and social mobility, the plural “you” had begun to crowd out the singular “thee” as the standard second-person pronoun, even for those of a lower social station. This meant that everyone would soon become, effectively, entitled — at least to the honorific second-person plural.
One might expect principled egalitarians like the Quakers to celebrate a linguistic process whereby all social ranks experienced an increase in dignity. But Fox and his followers looked on the universal “you” with horror, as a sign of the sin of pride. Long before he founded Pennsylvania, the Quaker William Penn would argue that when applied to individuals, the plural “you” was a form of idolatry. Other Quakers produced pamphlets citing examples from more than 30 dead and living languages to argue that their use of “thee” and “thou” was grammatically — as well as theologically and politically — correct.
The Quaker use of “thee” and “thou” continued as a protest against the sinfulness of English grammar for more than 200 years. (In 1851, in “Moby-Dick,” Herman Melville could still marvel at “the stately dramatic thee and thou of the Quaker idiom.”) But eventually, in the 20th century, even the Quakers had to admit that their grammatical ship had sailed.
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.
Yet unlike the early Quakers, these modern egalitarians want to embrace, rather than resist, pronouns’ honorific aspect, and thus to see trans-, nonbinary and genderqueer people as equally entitled to the “title” of their choosing.
To their critics, however, allowing some people to designate their own pronouns and expecting everyone else to oblige feels like a demand for distinction. Yes, some of these critics may be motivated by “transphobic” bigotry. But others genuinely see such demands as special treatment and a violation of equality. They themselves experience “he” and “she” as unchosen designations. Shouldn’t everyone, they ask, be equally subject to the laws of grammatical gender?
According to the Quakers, both sides are right: Language reflects, as well as transforms, social realities. But the dual demands of equality and respect aren’t always in perfect harmony. Sometimes they are even in conflict. Respect can require treating people unequally, and equality can mean treating everyone with disrespect.
At present, the battle over the third-person singular subject in English seems to be resolving itself in the direction of the singular “they” — at least when referring to a person of unspecified gender. (“When a politician votes, they must consider the public mood.”) Pedants naturally complain. They argue that applying a plural pronoun to a singular subject is simply bad English. But as linguists note, spoken English has been tending that way for many years, long before the issue became politicized.
If the rules of grammar are indeed an obstacle to social justice, then the singular “they” represents a path of least resistance for activists and opponents alike. It may not be the victory that activists want. Still, it goes with the flow of the increasing indifference with which modern English distinguishes subjects on the basis of their social position. More fittingly, if applied to everyone, “they” would complete the leveling-up progress of equal dignity that “you” started centuries ago.
Of course, a 17th-century Quaker would be likely to dismiss the singular “they” as diabolically bad grammar. But hey, who asked them?
Witness Clarity — David Remnick in The New Yorker.
Long before Alexander Hamilton became an icon of the Broadway stage, he glimpsed the harrowing qualities of a man like Donald Trump. He did not like what he saw. As his definitive biographer, Ron Chernow, makes clear, Hamilton was an advocate of strong executive power, yet he also envisaged the rise of a demagogue who would put liberty and the rule of law at risk, and place his own interests before those of the country. Writing to George Washington, in 1792, Hamilton seemed to anticipate our current moment and the con on the golden escalator:
When a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents . . . is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity—to join in the cry of danger to liberty—to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion—to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day—It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may “ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.”
Hamilton also paid close attention to the crimes and misdemeanors that such a scoundrel might commit, and how the country could protect itself from them. He wrote two Federalist essays about impeachment, and, as Chernow noted recently in the Washington Post, he would “certainly have endorsed” the current inquiry in the House. Only willful resistance to fact can obscure the reality that Trump, with the help of his lawyer Rudy Giuliani and various others, tried to extort a vulnerable ally in order to gain an advantage in the 2020 election campaign. The White House finally released three hundred and ninety-one million dollars in defense funds to Ukraine on September 11th—not owing to a fit of moral reconsideration but, it would appear, because two days earlier the House had launched its inquiry into allegations that Trump had tried to press Ukraine into investigating a political opponent. Given the abundance of documentary evidence, testimony from high-ranking public officials, and self-incriminating public statements by Trump, Hamilton would have seconded the sentiments expressed by Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, who gavelled open the public hearings on impeachment on Wednesday, saying:
If we find that the President of the United States abused his power and invited foreign interference in our elections . . . must we simply get over it? Is this what Americans should now expect from their President? If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?
The first day of the hearings was notable for the sobriety, clarity, and unshakable dignity of the witnesses. William B. Taylor, Jr., a decorated Vietnam War veteran and the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, who oversees Eastern European and Eurasian affairs, provided, as they had earlier in closed hearings, detailed testimony that the President of the United States sought to pressure the beleaguered President of Ukraine to sully the reputation of a Democratic rival, Joe Biden, in exchange for a meeting at the Oval Office and the release of the defense funds.
According to Taylor, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, spoke with Trump by cell phone from a restaurant in Kiev; the President’s emphasis was single-minded. After finishing the call, Sondland told one of Taylor’s aides that “Trump cares more about the investigation of Biden” than about the fate of Ukraine. The date was July 26th––the day after Trump issued his now infamous demand that the Ukrainian President do him a “favor.”
Taylor and Kent were impassive, formal witnesses, but they were direct about their sense of dismay. Essential questions emerged from the stories they told: How could a President engage in such brazen self-dealing? How could he play games with the security needs of a state that had been invaded by Russia, first in Crimea and then in the Donbass? “To withhold that assistance for no good reason other than help with a political campaign made no sense,” Taylor said. “It was counterproductive to all of what we had been trying to do. It was illogical. It could not be explained. It was crazy.”
The President dismissed the hearings as a “hoax.” He insisted that he was “too busy to watch,” although he retweeted more than a dozen video clips, articles, and commentaries in his putative defense. Conservative media outlets, from Fox News to Breitbart, declared the hearings “boring” and hoped their audience, the Trump base, would remain unmoved. Republican members of the Intelligence Committee, led by Jim Jordan, of Ohio, and Devin Nunes, of California, made every attempt to confound voters with misdirection and conspiracy theories. Nunes warned obscurely of the prospect of “nude pictures of Trump.” The Republicans complained that Taylor and Kent didn’t even know the President—their testimony was so “secondhand”—and yet these same legislators are in no rush to have the White House lift its block on witnesses with distinctly firsthand access—including Giuliani and the acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.
As Hamilton, Madison, Adams, and their colleagues were drafting the founding documents of the country, they expressed concern about “foreign influence” on the Presidency. The sources of their anxiety then resided mainly in France and England. It was therefore powerful to hear Kent compare the plight of the American colonists in their struggle against the British crown to that of the post-Soviet Ukrainians as they have struggled against the Putin regime in Russia. Trump favors Moscow. He has repeatedly dismissed the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russians interfered in the 2016 election. As President, he has made it plain that he welcomes outside interference again, if it helps him win reëlection.
The President and his confederates have warned of the consequences of impeachment. In 2017, the self-described “dirty trickster” Roger Stone, who is now on trial for lying to Congress, issued a characteristically Trumpish threat:
Try to impeach him. Just try it. You will have a spasm of violence in this country, an insurrection like you’ve never seen. Both sides are heavily armed, my friend. This is not 1974. The people will not stand for impeachment. A politician who votes for it would be endangering their own life.
Impeachment is a grave business, and the risks are manifest. But no democracy can overlook evidence of abuse of power, bribery, and obstruction in the hope that an election will set things right.
These hearings and a potential Senate trial will never get to the full range of Donald Trump’s corruptions, be they on Fifth Avenue or Pennsylvania Avenue, in Istanbul, Moscow, or Riyadh. But the focus of Congress is on this particular and outrageous abuse of the public trust, and for now that must suffice.
Doonesbury — Immigration status.