If I told you that my car was a Ferrari, you would say I was mistaken. You would probably take me outside to my driveway and point saying, “look! your car is a Saturn Vue.” If I replied, “no, it is a Ferrari,” you would think that something had gone very wrong. You might point again and say “but can’t you see? Just look at that white car over there! It looks nothing like a Ferrari.” “White car?” I reply. “But that car is red. And it is a Ferrari.” Now you are clear: Ben has lost his mind.
Let’s assume I have not lost my mind, that I am not actually seeing a red Ferrari in place of my car. But if I am not mad, then what exactly is it that has gone wrong? I appear to be doing something incorrect, committing some kind of crime. But what crime have I committed? What rule has been broken?
The most obvious conclusion to make is that I hold some false beliefs. I believe that I own a red Ferrari and when I say, Ben owns a red Ferrari on 29th December 2016, I am making a false statement. If that was the problem, then a quick look out side my house should be evidence enough to get me to see that I believe something false. But according to my little tale, I see the car and still say that it is a red Ferrari.
One possible way that I might have gone wrong is to fail to use the terms Ferrari and white correctly. I am using red Ferrari to refer to my car and you are using white Saturn Vue. How might you persuade me that I am doing something wrong? You might pull out a car magazine and show me pictures of Ferraris. You could then show me that those cars are not the same as my car. You presume that there is some fact in the world that determines the correct use of the term, ‘Ferrari’. You might point to things that are white and things that are red and try to show me that I have got the terms muddled up. You are assuming that there is some fact in virtue of which the meaning of Ferrari and white are determined. But perhaps I deny this assumption. There is no fact that determines the meaning of any term and today I am going to use Ferrari to mean that car in my driveway, the one you are calling a Saturn Vue. After all, language is not static. We adjust meanings for terms all the time. Over the years, the terms, gay, bad, wicked, and true have all taken on alternative meanings or become vague terms. Why should the term, Ferrari be any different. Indeed, the car, Ferrari, was named after the man who designed the Ferrari and his name originally meant “blacksmith”.
The most plausible response is to appeal to convention. The meanings of terms change over time because meanings of terms are determined by convention. Language works well if we are on the same page about what we mean when we use it. And while we are all on the same page about applying the term Ferrari to the car designed by Enzo Ferrari, we are not at all on the same page about applying that term to my car.
Convention is a kind of agreement people make usually in order to form a more common culture. It is commonly contrasted with strong forms of normativity, the view that there is one right way to do something and we have no say in the matter. In ethics, for example, there are those who believe that actions are deemed moral, permissible, or immoral by convention. There are others who say that there are some actions that are moral, permissible, or immoral even if everyone thinks the opposite.
When it comes to the language most people are content to treat its meaning as conventional even if they are committed to normative ethics. It is not to say that there is no normativity involved in the application of terms if one thinks that convention establishes meaning. Indeed, as my Ferrari problem shows, normativity is itself established by convention. We agree to a correct use and call out people who misuse terms saying, “but that’s not what we mean by that.” The grounds for the correct use of terms is the current convention of the use of that term in a given linguistic community.
Many people are currently arguing that pronoun use is going through a seismic shift. Proponents of the new view argue that by convention we are agreeing to use “he”, “she”, “they” in different ways than we have done so in the past. What begun as a minor adjustment to academic writing (the banishment of the generic masculine) has culminated in the abandonment of any normative pronoun. Now, you might say that I am going a little too far. After all, no one is saying we can’t have he and she; we are only increasing the quantity of pronouns to include other indications of gender identity. There have been moves in academic writing to introduce a non-gender pronoun leading to a plethora of options. Similarly, due to the development of gender self-identity, there have been many who wish to adopt pronouns according to certain internal feelings. “What is wrong with that?” you might say. Well, again, ask yourself if there is some fact in virtue of which a pronoun has meaning. If you think that gender is not real but something we determine by our dispositions, then gender is identical to a subjective feeling. Consequently, I might have some inner feeling that determines my choice to go by a pronoun of my choice. This leads to what I call the pronoun paradox.
Consider the Ferrari analogy. It is plausible that we agree, by convention, that white things be called red things and red things be called white things. We merely exchange terms. No problem. It might take a while but, given time, we would all get used to it. It would take a generation or two to teach our children the new way but it is perfectly possible. Then, if some old-school rebel insisted on returning to the old way, we could all appeal to convention to get him to change his ways. We would say: “we used to mean that, but now we mean something different.”
Isn’t the same true of pronouns? According to the paradox, no. Whereas, the adjustment to the terms for colors has something in the world by which we can all see whether or not we have applied the terms correctly (according to what we conventionally decide), there is no such thing when it comes to subjective feelings. This is because the claim to feel as if one is a certain gender either has to appeal to something in the world (or a concept) that we are merely changing the term for or to subjective feelings. It would be perfectly possible to merely refer to boys as girls and girls as boys in the same was as we could agree to call Saturn Vues ‘Ferraris’. But subjective feelings are said to be feelings of being a certain way, of feeling as if a person is a boy or a girl. But then there is more to gender than feelings and that is something the new view denies.