Verbal Violence

The self-reference pronoun 'they' implies lost self-unity & 'it' declares self-objectification

A Civil Rights activist turned thug named H. Rap Brown was right. “Violence,” he said, “is as American as cherry pie.” Violence is also pluriform, and it includes the violence we do to language when we turn that violence on ourselves.

Here’s an example. Last week in Atlanta police shot and killed an environmental activist. The victim, they charged, shot a state trooper. Reading the AP story, I learned that the 26-year-old activist was “a non-binary person who went by the name Tortuguita and used they/it pronouns.”

The terrible sadness here begins with the fact that a life was taken. But there’s another folly in play. Tortuguita was a unique human person already so damaged as to have lost a sense of self-unity (note the self-reference pronoun “they”) and to have accepted self-objectification (note the self-reference pronoun “it”).

The AP, to use the bourgeois adjective of the day, seems “comfortable” with this new and grotesque reductio ad absurdum of the great, albeit farcical, pronoun revolution. I submit, gentle reader, that we should shed tears in private for Tortuguita and, if given the chance, in public blow whistles persistently. In any case, let’s right now pause to offer up an Ave for this tortured victim of violence.

After we pause to pray, we might consider just how to blow the whistle on such ghastly verbal nonsense. Various strategies come to mind. One, though limited, is sardonic derision. In that vein, I’ve decided to “go transgressive” for a bit, and I now return to the great pronoun revolution. Ask not what’s in a name! The question is what’s in a pronoun. The received opinion is whatever we want.

But the revolution, I say, calls for more. Worshippers of the zeitgeist, you have nothing to lose! Throw off the shackles of grammar! Cosmetic change is for pikers. Overcome your pronouns altogether. How so, you ask? Well, here’s how it would work, if it worked that way. At the risk of being thought “more transgressive than thou” this blogger is dropping all self-referential pronouns. You may now call James G. Hanink, as JGH calls this same worthy fellow, any of the following: Bubba, Tex, Scooter. (A bit of background: Some consideration had been given to Gee, Golly, Zoom, and even Bang, Thud, and Whack. But focus groups were left confused.) Any concessions? Well, not wanting to be called a nihilist, alphabetical order remains preferable. And not wanting to be called a despot, the floor is open regarding what replaces “you.”

In the past, perhaps led astray by Julie Andrews, “me” has been a name widely chosen by anglophone speakers for self-reference. But so promiscuous a use of the pronoun has drained it of meaning. Decades ago Alfred E. Newman, an icon of Mad Magazine, smelled a rat. “What, me worry?” young Newman persistently asked. AEN was onto something.

But a little sardonic derision goes a long way. If it works, it can open a way for us to get a bit closer to the truth of the matter at hand. What we call ourselves is hugely important. And what we rightly call ourselves depends on who we are. As persons, we are free and responsible. We are such because we are fashioned in God’s image and likeness. In so fashioning us, our Creator made us male and female and so ordered us to our own procreative community of the family. Language needs to honor, not obscure, this reality. A blog post, to be sure, can do little more than make a gesture. Let this gesture be toward the Book of Genesis with a readily available commentary from Pope Benedict XVI.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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