Friday, September 11, 2015

Just Say Vol

I was caught up short by the recent kerfuffle at the University of Tennessee over the suggested gender-neutral pronouns, in part because it seemed to make the national news before I heard any local discussion. You may have heard of it by now: ze, xe, hir, zir, etc. as replacements for the gendered pronouns. The folks who posted the rubric wanted, if I understand correctly, to explain some of the terms preferred by those who feel the gender binary (she/he, her/him, hers/his) doesn't represent them. Note that there is a big difference between "suggested" and "mandated," a distinction that was either lost on or misreported to many. Summer Awad wrote a fantastic column about it in the Daily Beacon. Well, the university decided we'd had quite enough time to talk about that and, on Friday, September 4, took the rubric down.

Even though these guidelines have been adopted at Ohio University, Harvard, and the University of Vermont, among others, I must admit I didn’t react so well when I saw them. If I'm being completely honest with myself, maybe I was miffed that the advocates of gender-neutral language didn't come to the English department first. I know we get a bad rap as the grammar police, which, believe me, was not the job I thought I was signing up for, as you may have surmised by my use of a dangling preposition just now. But I've had this exchange too many times to ignore the fact that the world does not see me as I see myself.  As in:
        "So what do you do?"
        "I'm an English professor."
         "Oh gosh, I better watch my grammar around you."
I get misrecognized all the time. What I want to explain to all those strangers suddenly stressing out about subjects and objects is that what I do is all about stories, people, and the love of teaching. Throw in a lot of history as well. These are the endlessly fascinating and inspiring things to me and to most of my colleagues in English near and far, who include dictionary-makers, thousands of nerd literary historians, and yes, grammarians. As a tribe, we are actually pretty open to sociolinguistic change. We celebrate the new words entering the dictionary each year; I am especially fond of "winethirty" and "awesomesauce." two joyful signs that our language is alive and growing. I relish both the novelty and the vintage materials of these neologisms. But more years of study than I care to remember have yielded this insight: language rarely changes by fiat (anyone out there remember Esperanto?). However, it does, thanke ye olde Lorde in the Firmaement above our heades, change. So if there was a shared flaw in the plan of the the folks who proposed the pronouns and the administrators who pulled them down, perhaps it was this paradox: language comes from usage. It is the currency in our exchanges of thoughts, feelings, and ideas, and we are coining and recoining the stuff all the time in the ways we talk to one another.

Which brings me to the south.  Yes, I am a southerner, complicated as that relationship is most days. When the south and I are both on our best behavior, I revel in the fact that this is where I am from (a feeling which demands another dangling preposition), and I can only hope that the south kind of likes me too. So it seems perfectly meet, right, and salutary that in my Tennessee home, sometime around winethirty, as I was agonizing about this language kerfuffle, I had an epiphany. The south has always embraced a gender-neutral pronoun: y'all. The south's own second person pronoun has been around for ages, like the French "vous," but so much sweeter--utterly welcoming, informal, and the embodiment of the embrace of the self in the world. It's like Martin Buber's "I-thou" relation had a grammatical love child with Emmanuel Levinas' "face-to-face" encounter, and the little tyke is introducing everyone to everyone in your living room, where all your friends and crazy relatives are coming and going, just like we do in the south.  Y'all come over here. Y’all know Fred? Y'all need anything? Y'all come back now, y'hear?

This last line, the signature of southern send-ups and actual southerners alike, is where we have to get serious about our intentions. Who is welcome, and in whose home? And where this all goes down, folks, is in the third person, something that “y’all” does not entirely cover. Him/her, he/she, his/hers: these are the pronouns who live their lives haunted by the same ghost, "it." And “it” is the category where people hurt and get hurt. When we think in the third person, we can be tempted by our lesser selves to throw away someone's humanity because they don't fit the gender match-game that assures so many of their place in this scary world. If you are one of the folks who aren't so easily matched, it is much worse. Scary is a euphemism for how that space can feel. We are constantly faced with this choice in a broad array of encounters: theologian Miraslov Volf called it "exclusion and embrace." In our best moments, humans have affirmed each other across boundaries of every imaginable sort: the note slipped under a jail cell from Amnesty International that says "you are not alone"; Gentiles smuggling Jews out of Amsterdam and Berlin; Muslims shielding their Christian neighbors; the kid everywhere who stands up to the bully on the playground everywhere and says "no, you're not getting this one--not today." And then, there are are the not so shining moments. I don't have to go on.  Just turn each one of these scenes around.

So yes, I am all for language that makes more people feel welcome, language that connects, affirms, and embraces. But since it takes a while for language to shift, maybe we can look closer to home for a temporary solution. We’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years branding UT and the “VOL” name for use by its sports teams, but also initiatives (VOLVision, Hire-a-VOL, VOLmail) and various activities that signal welcome (VOLsconnect. The InVOLvement Fair, VOL Talks and Walks). We seem to have a new VOL campaign every week. The message is that UT Vols are connected to each other, that they share a community and a vision, that they embrace the stranger from abroad (I-VOL) and the little stranger at home applying for admission (Become a VOL). We have some pretty extensive rhetorical work invested in the project of making this recognizable monosyllable the welcome mat of our big orange house. As such, it provides the perfect pronoun:
It's an elegant and decidedly home-grown solution, raised right here on good ol’ Rocky Top.  It showcases my home team at its best and gives them a chance to show what they know about southern hospitality, beginning with the invitation spoken in a language that unites rather than divides Team VOL. It also has a grammatically simplifying effect—one-stop shopping for your third-person pronouns:  
         Who went to the store? Vol went to the store!
          To whom do you want to send that letter? I want to send it to vol.
          Whose Diet Coke is that? It's vol's, and you better not touch it!
You may never have to worry about the subjective, objective, or possessive case again. Hallelujah!

When we say that we are Vols, we are claiming a family identity that is southern culture at its best. To share this identity is to invite each other into the room with our language, calling each other by name, without exclusion and with the full embrace of words we share, use, and shape with our attitudes, desires, hopes, and imagination. George Takei started a revolution a few years ago when he offered his name as a loving, humorous shield to those who felt vulnerable. John Wesley started a revolution when he embraced the name that others were using to insult his little band of believers, the Methodists, otherwise known as the freaks of the eighteenth-century religious world. We have an opportunity here to go much deeper than university branding, which has done us the righteous favor of putting this term front and center at the intersection of history, language, and our better natures. This could be a chance to tell people who we really are and what it means to be a Tennessee Vol. If we mean it. So, what are y'all afraid of? Just say vol.