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.