Oct 15, 2022
Next time someone asks you for your ‘pronouns,’ try telling them, ‘you/you’…see what happens.
I hadn’t thought much about the English language pronouns since third grade; now it seems I think of little else. Suddenly, the lowly pronoun is uppermost in everyone’s mind, be they eight…or 80.
For more than a decade now, ‘they/them’ has been gradually replacing ‘she/her,’ ‘he/him,’ and ‘it.’ If this trend succeeds, and to a large extent it already has, English will lose distinctions of gender (M, F, N) and of number (S, P). Apparently, ‘case distinctions’ (they/them) will be retained.
I said ‘case distinctions,’ not ‘class distinctions;’ but wait! Will “they/them” make it into the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies? Or will it become another one of the many markers we use to distinguish ‘us’ from ‘them?’
Eliza Doolittle was permanently excluded from the upper rungs of English society because of her accent, that is, until Henry Higgins came along and ‘fixed it.’ Thanks to the good professor, aided no doubt by the post-war ubiquity of television, accent is no longer reliable in the service of our deeply treasured, if much maligned, ‘snap judgments.’
Regrettable because there is no knowledge quite so satisfying as a good stereotype confirmed! I mean, “How am I supposed to know how to treat someone if I don’t know what social class they belong to?” It’s quite a dilemma! Well, you know, you’re posh.
Will the pronoun war be co-opted by our social gatekeepers to keep old barriers in place…or even rebuild them where they’re worn with age and misuse? Only time will tell…but back to the task at hand.
This is not the first time that our attention has been directed toward the lowly pronoun. 100 years ago, existentialist philosopher and Jewish theologian Martin Buber focused on the distinction between “I – Thou (you)” and “I – It” relationships, the latter appropriate for certain interactions with the ‘inanimate world,’ the former more appropriate to human relationships.
Self-explanatory? But the problem comes when I impose an “I – It” structure onto an “I – Thou” opportunity. Ideally, my relationships with ontological equals will always be of the “I – Thou” sort…but of course, they’re not. Unfortunately, most of us do not have “I – Thou” relationships with our grocers, for example.
Yet, most of us would accept the proposition that ‘grocers’ are our ontological equals. In fact, most of us today are comfortable with the idea that all (or almost all) human beings are our equals. This was not always so. Until very recently, in fact, it was entirely acceptable to consign other tribes, other races, other nationalities, etc. to an ontological level inferior to our own: “They’re not really human.”
While the founding fathers were building a society “with liberty and justice for all,” they were also reinforcing the institution of slavery. In order to reconcile these apparently exclusive priorities, the southern slaveholders had to separate the concept of ‘slave’ from the concept of ‘all humans.’
Implicitly, or even explicitly, they dehumanized and reified their slaves. Slavery is a paradigm of ‘I – It’ relatedness. Commonwealth is, at least arguably, a paradigm of ‘I – Thou.’
But to quote the immortal Cars, “You can’t go on thinking nothing’s wrong,” and sure enough, 75 years later, the institution of slavery was on the ropes: the institution, not its hateful legacy. Reification is like skunk: once it’s in the fabric, it’s almost impossible to get out.
Buber challenges us to expand the ‘Universe of Thou.’ It’s not just our kids, our spouses, our Higher Power, as many of us would prefer. It’s the guy across the street, the woman on life support, the homeless family…you know the drill.
Implicit in Buber, and empowered by our reluctantly expanded collective consciousness, is the call to push the envelope of ‘ontological parity’ (or ‘congruence:’ I’m not insisting on pure equality here) beyond the species barrier. What about sea mammals? Apes? Pets? What about bees…and forests? I could go on. (“Please don’t!”)
What do Hasidic Jews and Native Americans have in common? They both live in an enchanted world. For them, and others, the earth, the entire universe in fact, is ‘Thou:’ a living entity for us to nurture and enjoy…not injure and destroy.
Sticking with Buber’s terminology, we have an opportunity to have an ‘I – Thou’ relationship with the Universe, through its creator and through each and every entity in it. But most of us don’t come close to realizing this potential.
We take the so-called inanimate world for granted and guiltlessly rape it to satisfy our own immediate needs. We carefully cultivate plants and husband livestock, but only so that we can harvest and slaughter them down the road.
Worst of all, though, we allow the poison of ‘I – It’ to seep into relationships with our fellow human beings, even those closest to us. 100 years on, I suspect that society is no better positioned today on the ‘It – Thou’ scale than it was when Buber started writing. And yet, Buber didn’t go nearly far enough.
Traditionally, English has distinguished pronouns according to three ‘persons’ and two ‘numbers’ (singular/plural):
I, me, we, us (‘I’ for our purposes);
You, including thou and thee (‘you’);
He, she, or it (‘it’).
Both of Buber’s dyads begin with the pronoun, ‘I;’ but that ‘I’ is only stable as a placeholder, a catalyst. Implicit in the concept of ‘I – Thou’ is the potentiality for reciprocity. Of course, we all know about ‘unrequited love;’ but even then, the possibility of reciprocity remains, albeit unrealized. That’s what makes these situations so tragic.
A fully developed ‘I – Thou’ relationship must also be ‘Thou – I’. A reciprocal ‘I – Thou’ relationship is really a ‘Thou – Thou’ relationship. In the context of that relationship, I am because you are, and you are because I am. We are two ‘thees’ in a pod.
When I enter into an “I – It” relationship with another entity (human, sentient or otherwise), I immediately preclude the possibility of reciprocity. I have substituted an active voice vector for the middle voice resonance arrow of ‘I – Thou.’ The communication is all one way, and when I relate to an entity in a way that precludes reciprocity, then I make myself inert, I turn ‘me’ into ‘it.’
So, whether it’s ‘I – Thou’ or ‘I – It’, the ‘I’ is unstable in every relationship. As soon as ‘I’ comes in contact with any potential relatum, it decomposes like a subatomic particle into either a ‘Thou’ or an ‘It.’ ‘I’ is the still coherent wave function in Quantum Mechanics: it decoheres ‘on contact’ to become a ‘Thou’ or an ‘It.’
This is an admittedly ‘off label’ use of C.S. Lewis’ notion of the “Great Divorce.” We are all living in two worlds, not one. One world is a world populated only by ‘It(s),’ the other only by ‘Thou(s).’ While the two worlds are entirely coincident, they do not interact. They are ships passing in the night.
Between these coincident worlds, there lies an infinitesimal, non-orientable membrane (called the ‘Sea of Green’ in the Beatles’ 1968 movie, Yellow Submarine). (Read "Yellow Submarine Part II" here.) When we pass from the ‘It – It’ universe to the ‘Thou – Thou’ universe, we pass from Liverpool to Pepperland (in the movie) and from ‘this world’ to the Kingdom of Heaven.
‘Thou – Thou’ relationships, to the extent that we can foster them on earth, are a foretaste of eternal life. This is precisely the state of affairs we long for when we pray, “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Challenge: Next time someone asks you for your ‘pronouns,’ try telling them, ‘you/you’ or even ‘thou/thou;’ see what happens and let us know.
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.