American News

Who Owns the Pronouns?

Language has always been an imperfect, evolving collective creation, but it has now become, for certain people, a form of personal property.
Chris Cuomo, Chris Cuomo news, news on Chris Cuomo, Kamala Harris, Kamala Harris news, CNN, news on CNN, gender pronouns, pronouns on gender, gender pronoun law

Atlanta, GA, USA on 1/4/2019 © EQRoy / Shutterstock

October 14, 2019 08:36 EDT

CNN news anchor Chris Cuomo is one of the least interesting media personalities imposed on the American public. An obedient exponent of CNN’s aggressive establishment agenda, Cuomo long ago suppressed any talent he might have developed for interviewing. Instead, he has faithfully cultivated a strategy of oppositional shouting with the people CNN doesn’t approve of. 

As a private individual, Cuomo’s style seems to be similarly confrontational, as revealed in the recent video of a private shouting match with a random individual he encountered in a crowd. The tables were turned on Cuomo last week after he made a remark to Senator Kamala Harris, a Democratic presidential primary candidate. The Twittersphere shouted down Cuomo in 280 characters for his political incorrectness. When Harris greeted Cuomo with the announcement that “my pronouns are she, her and hers,” he answered, “Mine too.” 

Some commentators have oddly called his inappropriate remark an attempt at a “joke,” though it was more likely a mistaken cue. The public assumed he was making fun of the recent convention of introducing oneself with a list of personal pronouns to be used during the conversation. 

Here is today’s 3D definition:


Words that in linguistic tradition conveniently replace proper names but which have in very recent times achieved the status of solemn obligatory titles of identity

Contextual Note

The culture wars that have become a salient feature of US culture since the second half of the 20th century have increasingly tended to focus on two areas of social intercourse: legislation and language. The fate of the civil rights movement, which, despite numerous legal reforms, has not significantly reduced the inequality between the races, stands as a warning against expecting authentic change through legislation alone. That helps to explain why all the anti-discriminatory movements have put far more emphasis on controlling the language people use. 

Very recently, the concern with defining and imposing language that is both appropriate and acceptable has undergone a major shift from its previous focus on collective status to an obsession with individual rights. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. It correlates with three core values and practices of US culture: extreme individualism, reliance on law rather than social interaction, and the capitalist belief in the sanctity of private property. Imposed and enforced by the recently formed army of gender defenders active on social media, the principle states that every citizen possesses a list of pronouns to be applied by others. Like real estate, the pronouns define the owner’s territorial boundaries and warn others not to trespass under pain of prosecution.

Harris had no need to proclaim her acceptance of the traditional pronouns — “she, her, hers” — applied to women. She did it to impress the pronoun-sensitive community of voters. Whereas most of Cuomo’s critics accused him of making an inappropriate joke and thus consciously mocking Harris’ demagogic commitment to announcing her pronouns, one Twitter critic, a certain Angelica Ross, noticed what seems to be a more logical explanation. She (if that is indeed “her” pronoun) wrote: “What you should do @ChrisCuomo is not just apologize but admit what’s behind this is YOUR ignorance.” 

Ross is right. Cuomo, like most people (including this author), was most likely unaware of the new law that former prosecutor Kamala Harris insisted on respecting — a law that authorizes individuals to impose on others the gender pronouns to be used in all subsequent discourse with that individual. The message in Cuomo’s spontaneous reaction was probably intended to be something closer to “I’m a feminist too” than to any form of mockery.

The “pronoun introduction” that Harris announced was clearly a planned and rehearsed electoral ploy designed to win votes among the gender minorities. Cuomo’s surprised and uncomprehending reaction was most likely also a miscalculated ploy to affirm his feminist credentials. As in all identity misunderstandings in the US, that meant war.

Twitter erupted to condemn Cuomo and he apologized, without even daring to use the legitimate excuse of ignorance. After all, how could a famous news anchor be ignorant of what a fanatical and vocal minority insists should be the rule for all?

None of the participants in the Twitter trial of Cuomo seem to have noticed that the real issue has little to do with either the semantics of the language or even the gender of the speakers. Instead, it reflects a deeper trend in US culture. Only in the US, with its combined notions of private property and individualism, can it seem natural and normal for someone to claim ownership of pronouns.

Although Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” claimed that the words he used meant what he chose them to mean, “neither more nor less,” language in human societies has never been controlled by individuals. For language to work, it must be shared and meaning negotiated through the multiplicity of exchanges rather than imposed by individuals or a group of individuals.

When governments try to impose linguistic practices, they generally fail. Even when successful, the result remains superficial and often short-lived. But the idea that every individual is empowered to define the set of pronouns other people must be constrained to use goes beyond the notion of imposing definitions. In terms of social impact, it is simply disrespectful, narcissistic and intimidating. That too seems to be a trend in public discourse in the US.

In normal human relationships, the identity of a person in a community stems essentially from the way they are perceived by others rather than from a set of pre-imposed descriptors. The subtle complexity of human interaction determines the meaning of the words we use. France may be the only nation that created the idea that an academy of honored writers could fix the meaning of the words used in the French language, but all they ever managed to do has been to publish an erudite dictionary that reflects centuries of practice in a great literary tradition and largely ignores the language people speak.

The obsession with identity in US politics has caused immense cultural damage and not just to the reputation of Chris Cuomo. In its commitment to correct very real injustices and ingrained attitudes inherited from the past, the identity fanatics fail to recognize the degree to which their methods casually undermine the natural foundations of human social relations. Like the unjust laws of the past, they impose monologue to replace and even banish dialogue.

This could not have happened — at least to this extreme — outside the individualistic, legalistic and capitalistic culture of the United States. It has elevated to the summit of its moral and social ideals three fundamental notions: an atomistic model of individual identity, dependence on the force of the law rather than the force of social relations, and belief in the sanctity of property and ownership.

Historical Note

The struggle for gender equality began with the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s, which itself followed the model of the civil rights movement in favor of racial equality. Language very quickly became the focus of debate in the civil rights movement. African Americans — sometimes with a keen sense of historical irony — called into question the words used to describe them. They rejected the term “negro,” traditionally considered polite, in favor of black. Although the linguistic logic had more to do with the uncomfortable relationship between “negro” and what is now referred to as the “n-word,” people saw this as a defiant act of affirming one’s pride, rather than shame, in the color of one’s skin.

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Until recently, all the debates about the mistreatment of minority and equal rights have focused on the status of groups. Even before the height of Martin Luther King’s combat for the black community, Italian Americans (less than 6% of the population) had protested about the image of Italians as gangsters and criminals due to the popularity of the TV series, “The Untouchables” that took place in Al Capone’s Chicago in the 1920s. The civil rights movement concerned a wider cross-section of the population as blacks represented roughly 12% of the population at the time. Women’s liberation came in with the advantage of a “minority” that represented more than 50% of the population.

Today, the combat has shifted away from the status of oppressed groups and focuses on the feelings of individuals. It has returned full circle to the obsession of Americans with “my” right to pursue “my” happiness on “my” terms. It negates rather than comforts the cause of social equality. It turns out to be a recipe for the destruction rather than the construction of social solidarity. And don’t count on the elite to show any concern with this return to individualism. Social solidarity has never been the goal of those who rule and profit from the capitalist consumer society.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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