By: Isabelle Mokotoff
Well-chosen words can combat ignorance, soothe wounds, and erase fears, including the very 21st-century fear of “other”. History’s most galvanizing essays and speeches all boil down to simple permutations of an alphabet. What a staggering concept, that the ordering of characters can have such power. Language, a concept that arose from our need for connection, has often given mankind the vehicle and fuel to move toward positive change. But words can also be used to spread hateful, exclusionary ideas. Kathy Manos Penn’s “Calling All Grammar Geeks and Word Nerds” falls into the latter category and I find it offensive.
Penn criticizes the new rules of gender language, claiming that any pronoun usage that isn’t traditionally cis-normative is grammatically incorrect. She laments “the notion that ‘they’ can be used as a singular pronoun”, and, distraught and righteously self-pitying, she caustically warns her readership, “we are not to say male or female but instead say ‘man, woman or gender non-binary’.”
Let me set the record straight: I’m as big a word-and-grammar nerd as they come. But Penn’s grammar claim holds no weight. The living English language constantly evolves to fit our social needs; now, by adapting our pronoun usage, English speakers have ensured that the transgender and nonbinary communities feel comfortably identified in our semantic repertoire. As Penn herself concedes, journalists, etymologists, and governments alike support these linguistic changes (as, in my moral worldview, any decent person or institution would). Her objections are merely a transparent attempt to disguise venom toward the transgender and nonbinary communities as concern for the integrity of English.
Yet, I believe Penn’s words are protected under the First Amendment, the vehicle that allows us to inclusively expand our national vocabulary even while we publicly debate exclusionary points of view. We chose as a nation to codify freedom of speech in our Constitution because we prize vigorous discussions, even those that leave people feeling outraged. Our courts have interpreted the First Amendment generously; we draw a line between “offended” and “insulted” — subjective responses, like mine to Penn’s ugliness — and “slandered” and “defamed”, which, if objectively proven, are actionable for victims other than public figures and override the slanderer/defamer’s free speech rights. The victim might feel offended and insulted, but feelings prove insufficient to restrict the speaker or writer; the victim must demonstrate intentionally or recklessly published falsehoods that caused injury. Often, the fallout from reputational damage such as lost career or personal opportunities.
Penn’s whiny, intolerant viewpoint is part of an ongoing, often contentious American conversation about our society’s evolution. This isn’t a new human phenomenon; there have always been wide disagreements borne out of people’s life experiences, prejudices, and fears. But out of spirited debate comes — eventually — movement, growth, and majority consensus and societal change. Thanks to our First Amendment and our living, breathing language, we’re evolving, repurposing pronouns, and developing new social customs and laws to ensure that non-binary and transgender citizens feel included as equals with all of us “she” and “he” folks.