• Flux Magazine

"A Cost and Benefit Analysis of Pronouns" by Becca DeMent

Sometimes concepts make really good sense. You get it. It all adds up. But at what cost? What does it take for this sensible thing to make sense in the real world? Freedom of speech is a wonderfully blessed thing we enjoy with little limitation here in the states. We get to say what we want because we are smart enough to rationalize through ideas, everyone gets to be heard, and the people can lead the national discussion instead of it possibly being a predominant religion or government who gets to. That all makes sense. Freedom of speech is only successful on an even playing field. Meaning that every speaker has equal grounds and power to speak, listen and respond. But what happens when one, who has the freedom to speak, speaks against someone who does not have equal power to speak back? The issue then is not the content of what that second speaker has to say. There is no limit or ban placed on them due to the ​content​. Rather, it is a matter of the environmental circumstances that are ​not​ taken into consideration when talking about the ​concept​ of free speech, which has a large influence on free speech’s ability to be conducted.

Women, the LGBTQ community, and People of Color have not and do not have the same power and ability to ​conduct​ free speech the way cis, white, straight, abled men historically had. The former groups did not and do not have the same representation in the press, politics, entertainment or religious institutions. They do not have the same education or merit, generally speaking, because those with the power to determine who would be educated, did not include them to hold onto their power. How can we say freedom of speech is so great when women are forced out of fear or violence or covered not to publically speak out about their sexual harassment? How can it be so great when a minority is speaking out about their oppression when those who run the paper cannot understand their struggle? How can it be so great when just coming out as LGBTQ could risk you being fired? It is not the content, but the circumstances. It is no longer a matter of a concept making sense, but rather an issue of costs versus benefits. It is this that I would like to analyze.

About a year ago in 2018, a Virginia ​public​ school teacher was fired for refusing to use a newly transitioned transgender male pronouns he, him, his. This at first may seem like a harsh punishment for the teacher, but I do not comment on the validity of the punishment. Rather, I agree with the school requiring its teachers to use the student’s pronouns(there is no such thing as “proper pronouns”, they’re either your pronouns or they’re not). Here is where concepts do not matter as much as the cost and benefits, but let’s discuss the concepts first. As previously said, freedom of speech, as a principal, makes sense. In this case, the teacher has the right to freedom of speech, and in their specific case, it can also be argued that due to their ideology that refraining from using the student’s pronouns was acting on freedom of religion. But what freedoms to speech does the student have? He could voice it to the teacher, which is he did and failed. He could report it to the local paper, share it on Facebook, or make a vlog about it. Under freedom of speech, those are all viable options that ​make sense​. But the ability to talk about the injustice does not address the injustice itself. That is why the student required school intervention because freedom of speech is not what he wanted, but rather to be who he was and have that validated by his ​public school environment​. We could discuss how the school’s (and its teachers of course)’s, their priority should be the safety and ​security​ of its students. We could ask why be a teacher- a ​public school​ teacher at that if you don’t care first and foremost about your students? We could talk about how the teacher “should” ​want​ to cater to and help with the interpersonal struggles of its students—- not make more for them. But that would further the discussion of concepts and their strengths, which the value of them can be reasonably subjective. That is why the analysis of costs and benefits is far more useful.

What does it cost the teacher to change their verbiage? Often we see a dog and will call it a “he” or “she”, and when corrected that it is the other we promptly make a change. The switch in our heads and then putting it into audible action is rather easy. We can even take this a step further and say that this happens to newborn babies. It is also probable to happen to a baby all dressed in pink, who is a little boy. With this, we can conclude that it does not cost the teacher much mental exercise, and even a smaller amount of physical exercise with which ​word​ to use. You may now think that it costs the teacher their comfort and right to religious freedom. I won’t argue that this is or isn’t so; that this is or isn’t a cost. I will outright conceded that this is the cost to the teacher, but here’s why it doesn’t matter (or at least doesn’t matter ​as much​). When the teacher used the incorrect pronouns it cost the student their identity, their sense of self, their mental and emotional health and wellbeing. It cost him the progress he made when coming out, his relationships with his friends and family, and his simple sense of holistic wellbeing. How can we say that someone’s right to physically speak one word over another is more important, more valuable, and a higher priority than all I just stated about that boy’s whole sense of self? How can we institutionally, especially in schools where it is about educating and cultivating the next generation, say that these element’s about a student's entire self-worth, does not measure up to a concept​? I don’t believe we should, or even that we can.

Imagine if the teacher, in a state of discomfort spoke the word “he” when referring to his student. The student, unknowing of this discomfort feels safe, secure and validated in the classroom. He can feel more self-confidence in his identity, and therefore able to focus on schoolwork and not his interpersonal life, while at school. Imagine him being at school to learn and be taught by the teacher, not being invalidated, discredited, have a personal ideology pushed onto him. It costs us a ​public school​ teacher who is ​personally​ conflicted(which he shouldn’t be when taking a public school position—- what does he expect? But that’s not the point.). But the benefit is a kid who is mentally and emotionally better self-fulfilled by being able to focus on school and not feel like an entire institution is against you. Isn’t that more worth it? I don’t think I have to provide much empirical evidence to provide that clearly, it is worth it. These are the real​ and tangible life scenarios that prove to be more justifiable than the meer agreement with the concept of freedom of speech says they are.

I urge you not to think with your emotional ties to these sensible and traditional concepts, but rather apply them to how they touch and interact with the world. What does it cost us to stay married to these longstanding concepts? Who does it cost us? What kind of future are we holding back by keeping down the voices of those who do not have the power of free speech the ways others do? We owe them our voices and protections against those with the power and the ​freedom​ to keep them down.

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