More than “He” and “She”

February 8, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment


Gender

What’s in a pronoun?  This is the question Jessica Bennett of The New York Times asked in her article on the rapidly expanding list of gender pronouns from which a person can choose these days:

He, she, hers, his, male, female – there’s not much in between. And so has emerged a new vocabulary, of sorts: an attempt to solve the challenge of talking about someone who identifies as neither male nor female (and, inevitably, the linguistic confusion that comes along with it).

These days, on college campuses, stating a gender pronoun has become practically as routine as listing a major. “So it’s like: ‘Hi, I’m Evie. My pronouns are she/her/hers. My major is X,’” said Evie Zavidow, a junior at Barnard.

“Ze” is a pronoun of choice for the student newspaper at Wesleyan, while “E” is one of the categories offered to new students registering at Harvard.

At American University, there is ”ey,” one of a number of pronoun options published in a guide for students (along with information about how to ask which one to use).

There’s also “hir,” “xe” and “hen,” which has been adopted by Sweden (a joining of the masculine han and the feminine hon); “ve,” and “ne,” and “per,” for person, “thon,” (a blend of “that” and “one”); and the honorific “Mx.” (pronounced “mix”) — an alternative to Ms. and Mr. that was recently added to the Oxford English Dictionary. (The “x” in Mx. is meant to represent an unknown, similar to the use of x in algebraic equations.)[1]

Wow.  I love language, but honestly, the array of gender pronouns now available is dizzying and a little intimidating to me.  Indeed, one of the points that Ms. (or should it be Mx.?) Bennett makes in her article is:

Facebook now offers 50 different gender identity options for new users, including gender fluid (with a gender identity that is shifting), bigender (a person who identifies as having two distinct genders) and agender (a person without an identifying gender).

Without a degree in gender studies, how is one supposed to keep all these pronouns straight?

Even if they’re hard to keep straight, referring to someone by their preferred pronoun – no matter how many pronouns there may be from which to choose – is important, according to Ms. Bennett, who cites Caitlin Dewey of The Washington Post:  “Misgendering ‘isn’t just a style error … It’s a stubborn, longtime hurdle to transgender acceptance and equality, a fundamental refusal to afford those people even basic grammatical dignity.’”  In other words, misgendering someone is deeply insulting and morally reprehensible because it denies who a person is, or, to put it more pessimistically, would like to be.

This debate over gender pronouns fascinates me.  It fascinates me first of all because of where it most often takes place.  Ms. Bennett, albeit anecdotally, cites two places:  college campuses and the secularly liberal and affluent Sweden.  These are places of power and privilege.  This is not to say that these debates take place only in places of power and privilege, but places of power and privilege are certainly pacesetters in these debates.

Today’s debates over gender pronouns in the halls of power and privilege may be connected to an influential – even if somewhat problematic and not wholly accurate – theory of psychological fulfillment that was first put forth by psychology professor Abraham Maslow in the previous century.  In his 1943 paper, titled “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Professor Maslow famously identified what he termed a “hierarchy of needs.”  At the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy were physiological needs such as air, water, and food.  These were followed by safety needs, which include things like national peace, job security, and a safe home environment free from abuse and neglect.  Next came needs pertaining to love and belonging like the needs for friends and family.  Then came the need for esteem, that is, respect.[2]  Finally, at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy, came the need for self-actualization.  In his paper, Maslow describes the need for self-actualization thusly:

We may still often (if not always) expect that a new discontent and restlessness will soon develop, unless the individual is doing what he is fitted for. A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be.[3]

Professor Maslow sagely puts his finger on the fact that before a person intently pursues self-actualization, he first must have his physiological, safety, love, and esteem needs met.  Maslow’s sequence of needs seems to inform, at least in part, why the debate over gender pronouns is hottest in places of power in privilege.  After all, these are the places, generally speaking, that have the highest potential to be the highest up Maslow’s hierarchy.  The desire to self-actualize one’s gender and the pile of pronouns that comes with such a quest is much less pronounced when you’re wondering where your next meal is going to come from.

For the Christian, of course, the problems with self-actualization run deep. Maslow, understandably, seems unaware of the ways in which his notion of self-actualization could or would be used 73 years later.  “What a man can be,” to use Maslow’s own words, is much greater than Maslow himself could have imagined, for, in the estimation of gender scholars, a man can be a woman, or a whole host of other things on the gender continuum.  Maslow seems to think of self-actualization in terms of vocation rather than in terms of a psychological identity that bends a physical reality.

Ultimately, the very notion of self-actualization, even as Maslow understood it, is problematic.  Christians believe that the road to fulfillment leads not through self-actualization, but self-denial: “Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24).  Maslow himself seemed to intuit this when, in later years, he replaced the self-actualization at the pinnacle of his hierarchy with self-transcendence, arguing that, ultimately, human identity is found not so much in who one can be, but in how one can serve.

Christians know that self-actualization is nearly as old as history itself.  It was a serpent, after all, who first touted the glory of self-actualization when he said to Adam and Eve, “You will be like God” (Genesis 3:5).  But what the serpent said was self-actualization was in reality self-destruction.

Something tells me that all these pronouns, denying and sometimes even downright despising how God has made us “male and female” (Genesis 1:27), isn’t far off from this old, old version of self-actualization.  The line between self-actualization and self-destruction, it turns out, is razor thin.  Let us pray we have not crossed it.

______________________

[1] Jessica Bennett, “She? Ze? They? What’s In a Gender Pronoun?The New York Times (1.30.2016).

[2] I find it troubling that Maslow places the need for esteem just under the need on the pinnacle of his hierarchy.  I see the need for esteem as much more foundational, for as creatures who are crafted in God’s image (cf. Genesis 1:27), we are afforded an esteem by our Creator that is foundational because it is rooted in the very order of creation.

[3] Abraham Maslow, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Psychological Review 50, no. 4 (1943): 382.

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