What Quakers Can Teach Us About the Politics of Pronouns

In the 17th century, they also suspected that the rules of grammar stood between them and a society of equals.

Pronouns are the most political parts of speech. In English, defaulting to the feminine “she/her” when referring to a person of unspecified gender, instead of the masculine “he/him,” has long been a way of thumbing one’s nose at the patriarchy. (“When a politician votes, she must consider the public mood.”)

More recently, trans, nonbinary and genderqueer activists have promoted the use of gender-inclusive pronouns such as the singular “they/their” and “ze/zir” (instead of “he/him” or “she/her”). The logic here is no less political: If individuals — not grammarians or society at large — have the right to determine their own gender, shouldn’t they get to choose their own pronouns, too?

As with everything political, the use of gender-inclusive pronouns has been subject to controversy. One side argues that not to respect an individual’s choice of pronoun can threaten a vulnerable person’s basic equality. The other side dismisses this position as an excess of sensitivity, even a demand for Orwellian “newspeak.”

Both sides have dug in. To move the conversation forward, I suggest we look backward for an illuminating, if unexpected, perspective on the politics of pronouns. Consider the 17th-century Quakers, who also suspected that the rules of grammar stood between them and a society of equals.

Today the Quakers are remembered mainly for their pacifism and support for abolition. Yet neither of these commitments defined the Quaker movement as it emerged in the 1650s from the chaos of the English Civil War. What set the Quakers apart from other evangelical sects was their rejection of conventional modes of address — above all, their peculiar use of pronouns.

In early modern England, the rules of civility dictated that an individual of higher authority or social rank was entitled to refer to himself — and to be referred to by others — with plural, not singular, pronouns. (A trace of this practice survives today in the “royal ‘we.’”) The ubiquitous “you” that English speakers now use as the second-person singular pronoun was back then the plural, while “thee” and “thou” were the second-person singulars.

When Quakerism emerged, proper behavior still required this status-based differentiation. As one early Quaker explained, if a man of lower status came to speak to a wealthy man, “he must you the rich man, but the rich man will thou him.”

Quakers refused to follow this practice. They also refused to doff their hats to those of higher social standing. The Quakers’ founder, George Fox, explained that when God sent him forth, “he forbade me to put off my hat to any, high or low; and I was required to thee and thou all men and women, without any respect to rich or poor, great or small.”

The Quakers thus declared themselves to be, like God, “no respecter of persons.” So they thee-ed and thou-ed their fellow human beings without distinction as a form of egalitarian social protest. And like today’s proponents of gender-inclusive pronouns, they faced ridicule and persecution as a result.

But there is also an important difference between the Quakers and today’s pronoun protesters. While modern activists argue that equality demands displays of equal respect toward others, the Quakers demonstrated conscientious disrespect toward everyone. Theirs was an equality of extreme humility and universally low status. Even the famously tolerant founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, couldn’t stand the Quakers and complained of the “familiarity, anger, scorn and contempt” inherent in their use of “thee” and “thou.”

Indeed, the trend in pronouns at that time was toward a leveling up, not a leveling down. By the middle of the 17th century, in response to increasing geographic and social mobility, the plural “you” had begun to crowd out the singular “thee” as the standard second-person pronoun, even for those of a lower social station. This meant that everyone would soon become, effectively, entitled — at least to the honorific second-person plural.

One might expect principled egalitarians like the Quakers to celebrate a linguistic process whereby all social ranks experienced an increase in dignity. But Fox and his followers looked on the universal “you” with horror, as a sign of the sin of pride. Long before he founded Pennsylvania, the Quaker William Penn would argue that when applied to individuals, the plural “you” was a form of idolatry. Other Quakers produced pamphlets citing examples from more than 30 dead and living languages to argue that their use of “thee” and “thou” was grammatically — as well as theologically and politically — correct.

The Quaker use of “thee” and “thou” continued as a protest against the sinfulness of English grammar for more than 200 years. (In 1851, in “Moby-Dick,” Herman Melville could still marvel at “the stately dramatic thee and thou of the Quaker idiom.”) But eventually, in the 20th century, even the Quakers had to admit that their grammatical ship had sailed.

Modern practitioners of pronoun politics can learn a thing or two from the early Quakers. Like today’s egalitarians, the Quakers understood that what we say, as well as how we say it, can play a crucial part in creating a more just and equal society. They, too, were sensitive to the humble pronoun’s ability to reinforce hierarchies by encoding invidious distinctions into language itself.

Yet unlike the early Quakers, these modern egalitarians want to embrace, rather than resist, pronouns’ honorific aspect, and thus to see trans-, nonbinary and genderqueer people as equally entitled to the “title” of their choosing.

To their critics, however, allowing some people to designate their own pronouns and expecting everyone else to oblige feels like a demand for distinction. Yes, some of these critics may be motivated by “transphobic” bigotry. But others genuinely see such demands as special treatment and a violation of equality. They themselves experience “he” and “she” as unchosen designations. Shouldn’t everyone, they ask, be equally subject to the laws of grammatical gender?

According to the Quakers, both sides are right: Language reflects, as well as transforms, social realities. But the dual demands of equality and respect aren’t always in perfect harmony. Sometimes they are even in conflict. Respect can require treating people unequally, and equality can mean treating everyone with disrespect.

At present, the battle over the third-person singular subject in English seems to be resolving itself in the direction of the singular “they” — at least when referring to a person of unspecified gender. (“When a politician votes, they must consider the public mood.”) Pedants naturally complain. They argue that applying a plural pronoun to a singular subject is simply bad English. But as linguists note, spoken English has been tending that way for many years, long before the issue became politicized.

If the rules of grammar are indeed an obstacle to social justice, then the singular “they” represents a path of least resistance for activists and opponents alike. It may not be the victory that activists want. Still, it goes with the flow of the increasing indifference with which modern English distinguishes subjects on the basis of their social position. More fittingly, if applied to everyone, “they” would complete the leveling-up progress of equal dignity that “you” started centuries ago.

Of course, a 17th-century Quaker would be likely to dismiss the singular “they” as diabolically bad grammar. But hey, who asked them?

Conservatives Are Hiding Their ‘Loathing’ Behind Our Flag

The molten core of right-wing nationalism is the furious denial of America’s unalterably multiracial, multicultural national character.

The Republican Party under Donald Trump has devolved into a populist cult of personality. But Mr. Trump won’t be president forever. Can the cult persist without its personality? Does Trumpist nationalism contain a kernel of coherent ideology that can outlast the Trump presidency?

At a recent conference in Washington, a group of conservatives did their level best to promote Trumpism without Trump (rebranded as “national conservatism”) as a cure for all that ails our frayed and faltering republic. But the exclusive Foggy Bottom confab served only to clarify that “national conservatism” is an abortive monstrosity, neither conservative nor national. Its animating principle is contempt for the actually existing United States of America, and the nation it proposes is not ours.

Bitter cultural and political division inevitably leads to calls for healing reconciliation under the banner of shared citizenship and national identity. After all, we’re all Americans, and our fortunes are bound together, like it or not.

Yet the question of who “we” are as “a people” is the central question on which we’re polarized. High-minded calls to reunite under the flag therefore tend to take a side and amount to little more than a demand for the other side’s unconditional surrender. “Agree with me, and then we won’t disagree” is more a threat than an argument.

The attackers — the nature-denying feminists, ungrateful blacks, babbling immigrants, ostentatiously wedded gays — bear full responsibility for any damage wrought by populist backlash, because they incited it by demanding and claiming a measure of equal freedom. But they aren’t entitled to it, because the conservative denizens of the fruited plain are entitled first to a country that feels like home to them. That’s what America is. So the blame for polarizing mutual animosity must always fall on those who fought for, or failed to prevent, the developments that made America into something else — a country “real Americans” find hard to recognize or love.

The practical implication of the nationalist’s entitled perspective is that unifying social reconciliation requires submission to a vision of national identity flatly incompatible with the existence and political equality of America’s urban multicultural majority. That’s a recipe for civil war, not social cohesion.

Yoram Hazony, author of “The Virtue of Nationalism” and impresario of the “national conservatism” conference, argued that America’s loss of social cohesion is because of secularization and egalitarian social change that began in the 1960s. “You throw out Christianity, you throw out the Torah, you throw out God,” Mr. Hazony warned, “and within two generations people can’t tell the difference between a man and a woman. They can’t tell the difference between a foreigner and a citizen. They can’t tell the difference between this side of the border and the other side of the border.”

“The only way to save this country, to bring it back to cohesion,” he added, “is going to be to restore those traditions.”

Mr. Hazony gave no hint as to how this might be peacefully done within the scope of normal liberal-democratic politics. “It’s not simple,” he eventually conceded. Mr. Hazony notably omitted to mention, much less to condemn, the atrocious cruelty of America’s existing nationalist regime. Indeed, roaring silence around our Trumpian reality was the conference’s most consistent and telling theme.

The incoherence of an American nationalism meant to “conserve” an imaginary past was not lost on everyone at the conference.Patrick Deneen, a political theorist at Notre Dame, pointed out that American nationalism has historically been a progressive project. The nationalism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, he noted, arose as the United States began to establish itself as an imperial power of global reach. Building nations has always been about building armies, regimenting the population and centralizing political control.

Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs, similarly observed that nationalist projects meant to unite the diverse tribes and cultures of large territories generally involve a program of political mythmaking and the state-backed suppression of ancestral ethnic and community identities.

Mr. Levin suggested that a genuinely conservative nationalism, in the context of a vast national territory with an immense multiethnic population, would refrain from uprooting these traditions and communities and seek instead to preserve them in a vision of the nation as “the sum of various uneven, ancient, lovable elements,” because we are “prepared for love of country by a love of home.”

But what, today, do Americans call “home”? The next logical step would be to observe that the contemporary sum of rooted, lovable American elements includes the

  • black culture of Compton, the
  • Mexican culture of Albuquerque, the
  • Indian culture of suburban Houston, the
  • Chinese culture of San Francisco, the
  • Orthodox Jewish culture of Brooklyn, the
  • Cuban culture of Miami and the
  • woke” progressive culture of the college town archipelago, as well as the
  • conservative culture of the white small town.

But Mr. Levin, a gifted rhetorician who knew his audience, did not hazard this step.

Barack Obama claimed resounding victory in two presidential elections on the strength of a genuinely conservative conception of pluralistic American identity that embraced and celebrated America as it exists. Yet this unifying vision, from the mouth of a black president, primed the ethnonationalist backlash that put Mr. Trump in the White House.

The molten core of right-wing nationalism is the furious denial of America’s unalterably multiracial, multicultural national character. This denialism is the crux of the new nationalism’s disloyal contempt for the United States of America. The struggle to make good on the founding promise of equal freedom is the dark but hopeful thread that runs through our national story and defines our national character. It’s a noble, inspiring story, but the conservative nationalist rejects it, because it casts Robert E. Lee, and the modern defenders of his monuments, as the bad guys — the obstacles we must overcome to make our nation more fully, more truly American.

To reject pluralism and liberalizing progress is to reject the United States of America as it is, to heap contempt upon American heroes who shed blood and tears fighting for the liberty and equality of their compatriots. The nationalist’s nostalgic whitewashed fantasy vision of American national identity cannot be restored, because it never existed. What they seek to impose is fundamentally hostile to a nation forged in the defining American struggle for equal freedom, and we become who we are as we struggle against them.

Whether couched in vulgarities or professorial prose, reactionary nationalism is seditious, anti-patriotic loathing of America hiding behind a flag — our flag. We won’t allow it, because we know how to build a nation. We know how the American story goes: We fight; we take it back.