Commentary Magazine

The Associated Press and the Pronoun Wars

(AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

The transgender movement is at war with the English language. With a new set of style guidelines, the Associated Press has joined the trenches—on the transgender side.

With its precision and plain beauty, English has long posed an obstacle for activists who insist that there is no biological basis to gender and who seek to overturn the gender binary. Unfortunately for these activists, the gender binary is built into the structure of English, with its gender-specific pronouns and many gendered expressions. Most people speak a gendered English, moreover. When we hear that one of our friends or relations is pregnant, we naturally ask: “Boy or girl?”

We speak this way because our language mirrors the natural and inseparable bond between gender and sex. For transgender activists, however, this is merely evidence of how entrenched the oppressive gender binary is. By their lights, gender is completely fluid and open to individual choice. As one overexcited activist argued in Slate in 2014: “With infant gender assignment, in a single moment your baby’s life is instantly and brutally reduced from . . . infinite potentials down to one concrete set of expectations and stereotypes.” If the movement has its way, asking “boy or girl?” would become as unacceptable as smoking—or maybe even legally proscribed.

Already among “woke” media types there is a taboo against “dead-naming” transgendered people. It is verboten to remind readers that Chelsea Manning was once named Bradley (there, I did it). A Canadian bill passed this summer restricts “discrimination” on the basis of gender “expression.” That provision, proponents hope, will lead to “monetary damages, non-financial remedies . . . and public interest remedies” for those who dare use a non-preferred pronoun. (And yet, they insist, the bill won’t trample free speech.) California has enacted similar legislation.

Now comes the AP’s gender rewrite. In a series of tweets on Tuesday explaining the changes first promulgated earlier this year, the AP’s editors contended that “gender refers to a person’s social identity, while sex refers to biological characteristics” and admonished writers to “avoid references to being born a boy or girl.” The venerable news agency also endorsed the language- and prose-disfiguring use of “they/them” as a singular pronoun. It even left open the door to more exotic made-up pronouns such as “ze” and “zir.”

Tuesday also saw the AP introduce a new rule: Instead of the expressions “sex change” or “transition,” writers are to use “gender confirmation.” This was a deep kowtow to the transgender movement, which believes that physicians don’t alter anything essential or fundamental when they perform a sex-change operation: Caitlyn Jenner was always Caitlyn Jenner. The operation merely confirmed this ontological fact.

You needn’t agree with social conservatives on transgender ideology to see that this is wrongheaded. The editors are using the AP’s style authority to declare the transgender debate over. News articles on the transgender question—still the subject of heated scientific and political debate—will now reflect the assumptions and ideological preferences of one side. Given the ongoing debate, AP’s move can’t but appear as an effort to delegitimize the other side, which includes not just orthodox Christians but also secular psychologists, social scientists, and many others.

The AP and its defenders will say that the move is necessary because journalistic prose should reflect evolving norms and usages. And they will argue that adhering to trans pronoun preferences is a matter of respect. But social norms are only “evolving” among a narrow progressive cohort. Most AP readers still use “he,” “she,” “sex change,” and the like. Most people “dead-name.” The AP is actively pushing norms in a certain direction and calling it evolution. As for respecting individuals, surely there are ways to do that without violating journalism’s core truth-seeking function. To suggest that Jenner was never “born” male is absurd and illogical.

The AP’s new style rules won’t change a reality which is written into human nature, and which men and women people have encountered since time immemorial. Such language games will only discredit the media and underscore the Orwellian aspect of the transgender movement.

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