Subject rights, object rights

I was just talking to a friend of mine about pronouns and why language is so important to many people.

There is no doubt that language is political and has real social and material consequences. Therefore, nobody should ever blame anyone for critiquing language and arguing for change. It is also entirely fair to suspect anyone who says “sticks and stones” and denies these truths of lacking the experience of social vulnerability and powerlessness.

Arguing for change can mean many different things. It can mean anything from publicizing a personal choice to adopt more inclusive language, to advocating new standards of etiquette in one’s own social sphere, to codifying new linguistic practices within institutions who decide to do so, to using economic means to pressure individuals or organizations to comply with reformed language standards, to passing laws regulating language and punishing noncompliance. In other words, one can act interpersonally, socially, institutionally, economically or legislatively to make what one considers good or necessary changes to language.

As we move across this scale from personal to collective we should bear in mind something that is perhaps overemphasized among conservatives and underemphasized among progressives: the rights of the speakers, thinkers, judgers to speak, think and judge according to their own ideas, beliefs and consciences.

The rights of those who are spoken about, thought about, perceived and judged — the objects of language, thought, judgment, etc. — must be weighed against the rights of the subjects doing the speaking, thinking, judging, etc.

To put the problem simply, Person A thinks about, speaks about or expresses a judgment about Person B, whose rights prevail?

You cannot prevent Person A from oppressing Person B with beliefs that condemn and invalidate her very existence — beliefs which, if shared by society as a whole would make Person B’s life unlivable, without condemning, invalidating Person’s A’s existence. An argument can be made that Person A is intolerant, hateful and dangerous, and should be suppressed or contained to — but can’t it also be argued that a readiness to impose one’s own beliefs and morals on the rest of society and to forcibly suppress and punish those who disagree is also intolerant, dangerous and requiring suppression to protect dissidents? The point is not that one side is obviously right or wrong, but that looking at the full problem from multiple angles makes the question messier, makes it less obvious what ought to be done, and makes it easier to respect opposing views.

Object rights (the rights of those about whom we think speak) and subject rights (the rights of each person to speak their own truth) are in tension must be considered together and weighed together if we wish to do full justice to the problem.

Further we should not make the mistake of neglecting the more modest social actions an activist can take — conversation, etiquette, shaping of local social settings. Enforced conformity under threat of punishments ought to be a last resort, done reluctantly, under the most dire circumstances. It is not a small thing to force another person to conform to your own will and conscience, against their own will and conscience. We might be able to succeed here and there, but when we do, we have disrespected and violated the other person’s judgment and personal autonomy. We have (whether justified or not) insulted and oppressed them and likely made an enemy.

Persuasion does the opposite: by appealing to another person’s reason and moral sense and making arguments to them we show the greatest respect and produce solidarity in difference.

Producing solidarity in difference through respectful attempts to persuade — to say Thou to our adversaries, who share with us a commitment to appeals to reason and mutual acknowledgment of one’s subject and object rights — is the heart of liberalism, perhaps the most miraculous invention of humankind, so far.

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If your reaction to this is “no, I do know what is true and right, and I intend to do whatever it takes to make my views prevail”, I would suggest that you do not really ultimately belong to a marginal or vulnerable group, even if that is how you identify. If you were, in fact, powerless and vulnerable you would have little hope of success using force. Your real political body believes itself capable of imposing its will on the unwilling. We are not always conscious of our power and privilege, and power often conceals itself in the truths and morals it imposes.

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