Vanderbilt University's campaign to support transgender individuals by encouraging use of proper "pronoun etiquette" has been characterized by a law professor at the Nashville university as the latest manifestation of an intolerant, secularist agenda prevalent in higher education.
"Political correctness, multiculturalism and the redefinition of the pronouns are a form of cultural Marxism," Carol Swain, professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt, told Baptist Press in written comments. "It's part of an aggressive agenda to destroy Western traditions, values and norms. Across America and on the Vanderbilt campus, a small minority wields enormous power when it comes to implementing their agendas for societal change."
Swain added, "The only acceptable religions" at universities like Vanderbilt "are ones that pose no threat to the godless secularism the university advances as enlightened truth."
As students returned this fall, the private university's Faculty Senate Gender Inclusivity Task Force placed posters on campus with the heading "What should I call you?" They urged faculty and students to share with one another in personal introductions and email signatures whether their preferred pronouns are he/him/his, she/her/hers or a gender-neutral option like ze/zir/zirs, according to an image of the posters posted online by the conservative publication The Daily Caller.
A Sept. 6 tweet by journalist and Vanderbilt alum Clay Travis included a photo of new Vanderbilt staff name badges that allegedly include an employee's name, title and preferred pronouns.
A 5,000-word blog post by Vanderbilt's Center for Teaching cites "the need to establish university-wide best practices for respecting gender identity and expression" and includes a link to a "pronoun etiquette sheet." The post references "long-standing misconceptions of gender as a binary construct" and states, "Biological sex is assigned at birth by a medical practitioner."
The university suggests professors give students an opportunity to state their preferred pronouns on the first day of class and urges instructors to correct pronoun misuse during class sessions.
"While it may feel awkward to stop and correct your (or a student's) pronoun usage," the blog post states, "failing to act is a personal affront (and a violent act) against gender nonconforming individuals."
"Fluency with gender nonconforming vocabulary" and "implementing gender-inclusive pedagogical practices" are important for all professors, the blog post states, even in disciplines like math and science.
Swain, who drew fire in 2015 for arguing Muslims should fully integrate into U.S. society, said the university "is advancing a dangerous political agenda that creates an unhealthy learning and teaching environment for students and faculty who disagree with its new direction."
"It is an unhealthy agenda because it seeks to squelch free speech and any ideas that run counter to its worldview. The indoctrination process for students begins as soon as they set foot on the campus," Swain said.
"The Christian faith is especially threatening to the agenda because of its lifestyle and belief requirements," she continued. "Vanderbilt tipped its hand in 2011 when it adopted a policy that eventually led to half the Christian groups on campus losing their student recognition and ... the same rights and privileges as other students whose parents pay the same amount in activity fees. If the university is successful with its indoctrination, Christian parents will hardly recognize their children by Thanksgiving."
An emerging trend
Vanderbilt is not alone in its advocacy of gender-inclusive pronouns.
In May, Tennessee lawmakers defunded the University of Tennessee's Office of Diversity and Inclusion after it, among other controversial acts, advocated use of preferred pronouns on campus, including xe, xym and xyr.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reported last year that other institutions to advocate pronoun usage reflective of gender identity include the University of Vermont, Harvard, Ohio University and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
As of October 2015, approximately 150 U.S. colleges had set up computer systems to record students' chosen names and "a handful" allowed students to note their preferred pronouns in campus databases, the Chronicle reported, citing data from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender advocacy group Campus Pride.
While the use of pronouns to advance a pro-transgender agenda is relatively new—the University of Vermont established a chosen-pronoun option in its database in 2009—the debate over gender-neutral pronouns is not.
A history of pronouns
A 2010 blog post by Oxford University Press (OUP) stated, "Wordsmiths have been coining gender-neutral pronouns for a century and a half, all to no avail. Coiners of these new words insist that the gender-neutral pronoun is indispensable, but users of English stalwartly reject, ridicule or just ignore their proposals."
OUP estimated there have been more than 100 distinct proposals for a singular, gender-neutral pronoun to be used in sentences like, "Someone left their cheese in the refrigerator." In that sentence, "their" is plural and doesn't agree with the singular object "someone." "His" or "her" would be an awkward word choice as well because each term specifies a gender though the gender of the person referenced is unknown.
To remedy such grammatical conundrums, proposals for a new pronoun have included ip, co, xie, per and en, OUP noted.
A more traditional solution to the difficulty is to use words like their, them and themselves a singulars even though they are technically plural. Such usage has occurred since the 14th century, according to the literary website pemberly.com, including in the King James Version's rendering of Philippians 2:3.
Karen Swallow Prior, professor of English at Liberty University, noted a vast difference between the historical gender-neutral pronoun debate and the current transgenderism-focused discussion.
"The gender-neutral pronoun debate we are currently facing is not one over linguistics, but gender identity," Prior told BP in written comments. "It's important to realize that they are two distinct issues. The debates from 100 years ago were related to English (including the issue of grammatical agreement and non-sexist language), not sexual identity.
"I love the English language," Prior said. "But, like all languages, it has its limitations and idiosyncrasies. Having only the word 'love' to express various kinds of loving relationships and having no gender-neutral, singular personal pronoun inadvertently offers fuel for the ongoing sexual and worldview revolution."
Paul Smith, associate professor of Old Testament studies at Gateway Seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention, suggested the original Hebrew language of the Old Testament as an instructive parallel for those wondering whether a gender-neutral pronoun is needed in English.
"Pronouns in Hebrew are only masculine or feminine with no other options," Smith told BP in written comments. Yet the Old Testament authors found ways to describe people in non-gender-specific ways when necessary and never used language to countenance deviant sexual or gender identities.
"Gender identity and gender roles are part of God's plan for creation, not a result of the fall," said Smith, pastor of First Baptist Church in Chandler, Ariz., and vice president of the SBC Pastors' Conference. "Any deviation from this plan is a result of the fall and therefore a violation of God's design and order.
"The Old Testament has no words for a third gender, nor does it have any terms for someone who wants to self-identify as anything other than their birth gender. ... The Old Testament speaks only to male and female and leaves no room for self-assignment of gender or gender-identifying terms," Smith said.
David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP (bpnews.net) reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.