It’s a tactic followed by all totalitarian regimes: To control people’s thoughts, begin by controlling their speech. Require them to verbally affirm the regime’s dogmas—even if they disagree with those dogmas.
Anyone who has read books like George Orwell’s 1984 is familiar with the technique of coerced speech. But maybe you did not expect it to be used by the American government.
Welcome to the Orwellian world of sexual politics, where state universities are compelling professors to use the language of transgender ideology.
Fortunately, a few brave souls are fighting back. A philosophy professor is suing Shawnee State University in Ohio after the university punished him for refusing to use a transgender student’s preferred pronoun.
It started in January 2018, when Nicolas Meriwether called a student “sir” in his political philosophy class. (He calls all his students “sir” and “ma’am.”) Afterward the student confronted Meriwether, demanding the use of female pronouns. When the professor did not immediately acquiesce, the student became verbally abusive and threatened to get him fired—then promptly filed a complaint with the university.
Administrators accused Meriwether of creating “a hostile environment” and placed a written warning in his personnel file. They also threatened “further corrective actions” unless he capitulated to the student’s demands.
But compelled speech is a violation of liberty. Words express a worldview. To be forced to use transgender pronouns like “ze” and “zir” is to be forced to affirm the underlying transgender ideology—that gender is a social construction divorced from biological sex. Gender is reduced to a mental state, a question of how much you feel like a girl or a boy.
Transgender people are clearly biologically male or female from birth. They have typical sex markers—e.g., genetics, gonads, genitals—that all align with each other (unlike intersex people, whose biology is ambiguous). Gender dysphoria means their feelings are in opposition to their biological sex.
A BBC documentary says at the heart of the transgender debate is the idea that your mind can be “at war with your body.” And in that war, it’s the mind that wins.
A Princeton university professor wrote a book offering a philosophical defense of transgenderism, yet even she admits that it involves “disconnect,” “disjunction," "self-division," "self-estrangement"—the mind in opposition to the body. Her solution is to deny that the body has any relevance or significance: The physical body “tells us nothing … . It has no meaning at all.”
Compelled speech forces professors to affirm that the body gives no clue to our identity, that it is not part of our authentic self.
Where did such a negative view of the body come from? Transgender ideology rests on the assumption that human life is a product of mindless, purposeless forces. The implication is that the body has no intrinsic purpose that we are morally obligated to respect—and the mind is free to use it any way it wants.
But such an extreme devaluation of the body ultimately dehumanizes all of us. For if our bodies do not have inherent value, then a key part of our identity is devalued.
In his lawsuit, Meriwether states that he holds a Christian ethic, one that honors the body by calling people to live in harmony with their biological sex. This is a wholistic ethic—our mind and emotions are meant to be in tune with our body. Christianity presents the human body as fundamentally good, with intrinsic dignity and purpose. And we respect that purpose by taking it into account when discerning our gender identity.
That gender philosophy has as much right to be heard in the classroom as the social constructivist view.
Meriwether’s suit against Shawnee State was filed by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). “This isn’t just about a pronoun; this is about endorsing an ideology,” said ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer. “Public universities have no business compelling people to express ideological beliefs that they don’t hold.”
The lawsuit charges that Shawnee State is engaging in viewpoint discrimination, which the Supreme Court has held to be unconstitutional: Professors who endorse social constructivism in regard to gender are permitted to express their views, while professors who do not profess that philosophy are punished.
A small number of people suffer genuine gender dysphoria, and in our public spaces we should be sensitive to the difficulties they face. But the state should not seek to regulate other people’s perspectives or punish them for disagreeing with a state-mandated sexual orthodoxy.
Words reflect worldviews. A free society will remain free only when people have the liberty to use the terms that express their own worldview.
Nancy Pearcey is professor and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University and editor-at-large of the Pearcey Report. Her most recent book is Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality.