Last Friday a statement was published on the University of Tennessee website that encouraged students and faculty to make new students feel “welcome” by asking them what set of personal pronouns they wanted to be called by. There is so much wrong-headed thinking reflected in the material posted on that website and in the University’s defense of it that it is hard to know where to begin and where to end. But let’s hit some of the high points.
The Office of Diversity and Inclusion somehow thinks that its statement on gender-neutral pronouns can promote the inclusiveness and “welcoming” atmosphere it is charged with engendering (pardon the pun in that word). But it is impossible, practically and philosophically.
As a practical matter, the statement has already created friction on campus. When the head of the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) chapter on campus said he supported the traditional language referring to men and women, the president of the student group charged with disbursing $500,000 to provide the “University of Tennessee community with a balanced and diverse array of cultural, educational, and social programming” quickly lambasted YAF. He literally “condemned” the group’s views calling it “bigotry” and the “opposite of tolerance and inclusivity.” How is that for “inclusive” and “welcoming” language?
As a philosophical matter, the statement cannot truly be “inclusive” either. There is no such thing as ethical or moral neutrality, and that’s not a good thing for an institution of higher learning not to know.
The first clue that the statement on the website is a moral one is this: “We should not assume someone’s gender by their appearance, nor by what is listed on a roster or in student information systems.” Hmmm. Don’t the words “we should not” sound a lot like the “thou shalt not” we’re familiar with?
Nevertheless, Dr. DiPietro, UT’s President, in his official comment about the statement seems to want to convince us, the taxpayers, that it’s somehow okay to have this on the website because the University really doesn’t care if people follow the statement. It’s not an “official policy,” he says, that’s been adopted by anyone in authority—sort of the idea that people can do it if they want to or not do it.
That has the appearance of neutrality, but it is not neutral. It is not neutral because it does not say that men should be called by masculine pronouns and women should be called by feminine pronouns, which has always been the unwritten standard in our country. It is the non-neutral view that says, “Whatever works for you is fine, there is no real standard.” That is a standard and therefore, by definition, not inclusive.
But, moreover, Dr. DiPietro’s response is disingenuous. If it is not something the University supports, then he would have it taken down from the website. But it is, in fact, what the University supports as evidenced by the official “clarification” from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which reads,
We no longer use words like, ‘crippled,’ ‘retarded,’ or ‘crazy’ to refer to people with physical and mental disabilities. Women are no longer referred to as ‘girls’ and instead of saying ‘chairman,’ we now say ‘chair’ or ‘chairperson.’ Gender inclusive language is simply another step in this evolution. (emphasis added)
So the “official” unofficial policy is to encourage us to take a “step” in our evolutionary understanding of what it means to be a man and a woman.
Until such time as the University of Tennessee Knoxville, and the UT Board of Trustees, realizes that some truth regarding human sexuality will be promoted on our taxpayer-supported campuses and that truth is, by definition, exclusive, and until such time as they are willing to come clean with all of us on which view the University is going to promote, I would encourage UT not to “take sides” on this matter and take down the language on the website.1
If it doesn’t, we’ll know for sure what side the University and its Board of Trustees, including its chair, our Governor, are on. This just isn’t something on which one can be neutral.
1 Lest my critics point out the inconsistency in this statement, I fully recognize that taking down the page is not a “neutral” thing to do, and that is the larger point of the article; one cannot be neutral on moral or ethical issues. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to pretend that I was neutral in what I believe, and I don’t think my critics have ever accused me of doing so. That’s why I have critics!
David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.
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