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In Language, Dignity Over Clarity

In Language, Dignity Over Clarity September 3, 2014

Tom Flynn of the Center for Inquiry has a new post up arguing that the use of the pronoun “they” by trans* people to refer to a single individual is unnecessary and unclear, reducing the clarity of language as regards our capability to describe situations in which a distinction between singular and plural is important. He argues that his “options as a writer who wishes to describe [situations] clearly have been reduced because the power of my basic linguistic tools has been blunted.”

I will leave it to others to dissect the many problems with the linguistic premises of the argument Flynn presents. I want to state that I think Flynn’s case holds no water even if we accept his case regarding the reduction in clarity of language in its entirety.

We can accept, for the sake of argument, that the use of the singular “they” “degrades our language’s basic capacities” regarding “the unambiguous handling of number”, and yet still reject Flynn’s conclusion that authors and individuals avoid using it. Why? Because optimal linguistic clarity is a subordinate goal to the promotion of human dignity.

Language is not only a tool of communication, but also a method of domination and control, normalization and regulation. Suggestions about how we use and refrain from using language are not just discussions about clarity but discussions about power. When we start telling people what words to use, and how to use them, we begin to restrict their freedom to think, to express their ideas, and to define themselves.

This is particularly important when words are used by oppressed groups to name and shape their own experience. Throughout history language has frequently been tightly controlled by those who wish to prevent those on the outside from gaining power and influence for themselves. The ability to name one’s own experience and identity in words which have resonance for the individual is a critical component of human freedom, hard won by many groups and still unwon by some.

Which means: even if it is true that the choice by some individuals to refer to themselves as “they” introduces some lack of clarity and ambiguity to our communications sometimes, that reduction in clarity is far outweighed by the liberatory impact of enabling individuals to identify themselves in a way which carries meaning for them. The “blunting” of Flynn’s “basic linguistic tools” is of little significance next to the promotion of empowerment and identity-ownership some trans* people gain from being able to speak about themselves in words which resonate with them.

The self-definition of a person is more important than the dictionary definition of a word. In language, we should promote human dignity over perfect clarity.


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