What Ben Shapiro gets wrong about gender pronouns

Ben Shapiro has become a hugely influential figure in the conservative movement. His online publication The Daily Wire has grown into a considerable outlet after only a few years of his leadership, and his podcast The Ben Shapiro Show offers decisive commentary on the latest political topics to a large and primarily young audience.

Shapiro’s vocal remarks on social issues have been opposed by liberals in dramatic fashion. His appearances on college campuses have been protested by hundreds of students over the years, who decry his rhetoric as harmful and even violent. For his fans, this has enhanced rather than harmed his reputation: the emotional outrage directed against him only strengthens his image as the voice of reason.

This is most clearly illustrated by his conservative position on gender pronouns, which has been denounced as insensitive as transphobic. But Shapiro and his followers believe their position to be a reasonable statement of scientific fact. They subscribe to a simple heuristic: gender pronoun use should correspond to the biology of the person in question. Typically, this boils down to either the chromosomes or the genitals of the person addressed. The more that opponents criticize this position, the more unscientific they appear to be, and Shapiro’s appearence as the ‘factual one’ is further strengthened.

But Shapiro’s position on this issue is not as obvious as he would have you believe. His philosophy on gender pronouns relies on some assumptions which are worth exploring. Ultimately, I want to demonstrate that Shapiro is guilty of a scientific-materialist perspective on gender — somewhat of an irony given his strongly religion background.

Deconstructing Shapiro’s argument

Shapiro is dedicated to the truth in all its forms — he targets his catchphrase, ‘facts don’t care about your feelings’, at those who turn away from the truth in favor of emotions and sensitivity. On the contrary, Shapiro assures us that he stands on the side of the facts, regardless of the consequences.

How does this ‘noble truth’ manifest itself with regards to gender pronouns? Here, Shapiro’s primary claim is being “on the side of science”. When it comes to gender pronouns, he tells us that he is one of the few commentators acknowledging biology, insinuating that those who disagree with him are denying basic science. This is also a distinction he makes on the abortion issue.

Thus, we find the following equivocation at the heart of Shapiro’s view on gender: I refer to science, therefore I’m on the side of science; science is the truth, therefore I’m on the side of truth.

But I want to scrutinize the second half of that argument: that science is the truth. Obviously, science gives us a great number of truths which have been tremendously beneficial to us. But it isn’t immediately clear that it gives us all truths about all subjects. Certainly, we should at least be skeptical that it could give us the truth about a social phenomenon as complicated as gender.

Like all scientific truth, Shapiro’s arguments about gender fall under the realm of correspondence theory. This means that truth is defined by how accurately something relates to reality. In the case of gender, Shapiro insists that pronouns should correspond to the reality of someone’s chromosomal makeup: XY for he, XX for she.

But — and here’s where some would cry heresy — there is a locus of truth that exists outside of correspondence theory, and therefore outside the realm of science. These exist in the realm of subjective engagement and are founded in a pragmatic theory of truth. And it is this dimension of truth which will reveal the most compelling counterarguments against Shapiro’s position on gender pronouns.

The waitress example: a pragmatic counterargument

In 2018, Shapiro appeared on transgender Youtuber Blaire White’s show. His host brought up an excellent thought experiment that may be called the waitress example. If Shapiro was meeting up with White at a restaurant for the first time, and needed to tell the waitress where to take him, would he refer to White (who has all the external characteristics of a woman) as a he or she? It seems intuitive that he would default to the feminine pronoun, regardless of or even despite whatever her chromosomal makeup entails. Doesn’t this show us that the use of gender pronouns is in some sense removed from biology?

Although White may not have been aware of it, this counterexample is squarely in the realm of pragmatic truth. It doesn’t relate to Shapiro’s cognition about pronouns, which would have taken into account the biological fact of the person, but rather his automatic and unconscious use of pronouns. It then asks us to consider whether there is some truth situated not in the judgement that Shapiro comes to, but rather the activity he partakes in.

The intuitive pull of this thought experiment is that Shapiro would be embodying some kind of truth when he automatically refers to a female-passing transgender individual as she. We are not robots: not all of the truths which guide us are founded on the products of our deliberation and considered thought. The waitress example demonstrates that when it comes to the use of gender pronouns, the truth is operating on the level of the activity rather than the thought. And in doing so, it is operating on the level of pragmatic truth.

Here was Shapiro’s immediate response:

“I think there’s some truth to that [Whites’s example], meaning that I think there’s a utility to the use of pronouns, but that’s not quite the same as suggesting that a transgender woman is a she in the objective sense.”

A she in the objective sense“: this perfectly encapsulates Shapiro’s position. In fact, he opens up this quote by affirming the existence of pragmatic truth (“I think there’s some truth to that”), but closes the door to it by asserting the prominence of the objective, correspondence theory view. The valuing of the scientific above the pragmatic reaffirms that Shapiro is approaching this topic from a scientific materialist perspective. He presupposes that there is such a thing as a ‘she in the objective sense’ in the first place, and grounds the use of gender pronouns to objective fact.

Gender as social construct

What Shapiro ignores when he formulates the issue in this way is the fact that gender is a social construct. What does it mean to say that? Many things: but first and foremost, that we cannot simply tie it to external features of the world like biology. If something is socially constructed, then it is largely a product of our interactions and presuppositions. For that reason, its existence is highly contingent on its practical use, and is therefore best understood in the framework of pragmatic truth.

In fact, when people insist on being ‘scientific’ about matters which are best understood as social constructs, some grave errors can result. We can find one historical example of this phrenology. This was a field which used to enjoy all the credentials of a science, and sought to connect different racial groups to anatomical features of the skull. Today, of course, we understand that racial and ethnic categories are primarily a product of how we use them, rather than any essential biology. So in retrospect, what was phrenology besides a scientific-materialist perspective that sought to entrench the social construct of race in objective reality?

The ugliness of scientific racism: this is what happens when empiricism is used to force a social construct

The same goes for gender pronouns. There remains some aspect of pronoun use which is not reducible to mere biology. In order to approach this fact, we cannot rely on a correspondence theory of truth, which simply attempts to relate things to external reality with no regard for use or process. Instead, we need to introduce the dimension of pragmatic truth, which relates more closely to practical use. This is of course fitting for something which is socially constructed, since social construction is an active, practical process, not a static designation.

Natalie Wynn’s contributions

Before diving into a pragmatic theory of gender pronouns, I want to introduce another perspective on this issue. Natalie Wynn is a prominent transgender Youtuber who does critiques of popular culture on her channel Contrapoints. She recently dedicated a video about gender pronouns and specifically highlighted Shapiro’s appearance on Blaire White’s show.

During her response to Shapiro, she outlines the distinction between prescriptive and descriptive grammar. In fact, this distinction is nothing more than a reiteration of the correspondence vs pragmatic divide that I’ve offered in this article. Whereas the prescriptive grammatician’s criterion of truth relates to its correspondence to fixed, established rules, the descriptive grammatician believes that the truth of language lies in how it is used. She then moves to state that Shapiro’s view is too limited, since it confines itself to the prescriptive position and therefore ignores the fact that a descriptive linguistics is a totally valid way to determining the correct use of a word.

However, Wynn stops short of advocating the descriptive view, even though she presents it as the alternative to Shapiro’s. Her reason for this is that she doesn’t want to confine the proper use of words based on the prevailing use at the time, for as we all know (and progressives especially), the common notion of appropriate use is highly dependent on the time. I have my suspicions about this argument, which I’ll return to later.

Towards a pragmatic approach to gender pronouns

Activity over cognition

So, in a political climate so captivated by gender identity, how can we approach the ‘truth of gender pronouns’? As we’ve seen, we cannot rely on a correspondence theory which aims to fix correct use to an objective reality like genitals or chromosomal makeup. This position, though technically ‘on the side of science’, cannot account for such intuitive counterarguments like the waitress example.

Rather, the truth about gender pronouns is a pragmatic one. In order to wrap our heads around this idea, we must understand that in a pragmatic conception of truth, our embodied activity is primary to our thoughts. Therefore, ‘correct’ or ‘proper’ use of gender pronouns is a correct and proper activity, not a judgement call or criterion that we can justify by logical arguments.

Therefore, in order to assess proper use of gender pronouns, we must ask the question: what is the proper mode of being which should guide our use of gender pronouns? Here, Shapiro would argue: judge by chromosomes or genitals! But this is absurd, because both in the waitress example and in common interaction, we typically do not know this information. By contrast, as the waitress example shows, our mode of being should at least involve a use of pronouns that reflects how the person addressed fits into our intuitive conception of male and female.

This is where, despite my strong criticism of Shapiro’s conservative position, I nonetheless disagree with the traditional leftist view. Here is a simple question: can a man who makes no attempt to transition into a female — neither with clothes, makeup, or any other modifications — and who has all the appearance of a male, insist on being called she? Most transgender activists would say yes: in fact we are incumbent to do so at the risk of being transphobic. We cannot interfere at all with the individual’s desire to identify as a female, regardless of how they may present themselves to us.

However, this is actually just another application of correspondence theory, albeit a more subtle one. Essentially, what this argument says is that when a person transitions and wants to be a female, there is some kind of “internal essence of femininity” which they are accessing by introspection. Subsequently, the use of pronouns should correspond to whether this internal essence is present or not, and we use their desire as evidence for this internal essence. To show this, we need only consider that the scientific ‘holy grail’ for this position would be a neuroimaging technique that could isolate a ‘female circuit’ inherent to a transgender female. In fact, some gender theorists may be operating under the assumption that such a thing may someday be possible.

But this is simply misleading. Since gender is socially constructed, it cannot be grounded in a person’s feelings either: in 300 years, someone who always ‘felt like’ a male may nonetheless be categorized as a female in some new societal standard (who knows!). Thus, even the typical leftist response does not go far enough in exploring just how radical the nature of social construction is.

Gender as performance

I think understanding gender as a performance is a useful paradigm. Since gender is socially constructed, a person who desires to be a female is necessarily desiring that people act like they are females. Pronouns, then, are simply a signal of whether society is ‘going along’ with their self-identity. But this ‘going along’ cannot be grounded in chromosomes (per Shapiro) or the desire of the individual (per the typical gender studies take). Rather, it is an intuitive reaction which is based on the performance of the individual. In other words: a transgender female does not possess some kind of innate feminine essence, which she can then point to as justification for her being called she. Rather, it is society’s use of she in referring to her that comprises her feminine identity itself.

If an individual is born male, and subsequently desires to enter the social construction of ‘female’, there is therefore an obligation that the individual perform according to whatever the standards for femininity are at the time. Of course, this standard might change over time, but social construction cannot travel through time — it is contingent on the mindset of the culture now. Money is a social construct, but I cannot claim that my $100 dollar bill is actually worth more because in 2100 inflation will make its spending power more. What matters is its market worth today. Similarly, according to a pragmatic conception of truth, a transgender individual cannot make a claim to their ‘personal’ femininity and demand that others recognize that femininity. Femininity is, for better or worse, an idea which holds an intuitive pull that is specific for our time and place. In order for an individual to enter the socially constructed category of female, they must perform the part well enough so that she becomes the intuitive category placed by society.

When a transgender individual ‘passes’ as female, what is happening is that referring to them as the female pronoun becomes pragmatically true, insofar as it becomes the immediate and unconscious pronoun that is used by society at large. Keeping this pragmatic conception in mind, then, the use of gender pronouns is a result of a dual-agreement between the transgender individual and society at large: the transgender individual performs the gender of their desired identity, and the population at large should be guided by their intuitive reaction to this performance.

Practical consequences (in the digital age)

What are some practical consequences of this view, which I personally uphold? Obviously, some of this has been revealed by the decisions I made to refer to the two transgender individuals. But there is some subtlety here. My intuitive use of the right gender pronoun is guided by my exposure to a person and their gender presentation, but in our increasingly digital age this presentation is limited to a digital platform.

Blaire White’s online presence — at least the presence that I’ve noticed and drawed from for this article — features her entirely in her post-transition state. For this reason, I hold an intuition to use a female gender pronoun, just as strongly as I would for a cisgender woman.

In the case of Natalie Wynn, however, things are more complicated. I was exposed to Natalie’s content back before her transition — therefore, in referring to her, I still have a memory of her male-presenting self. Suppose I was watching her first video and responding to it via article. Given the male-presenting individual I’m responding to, wouldn’t my intuitive reaction be to use ‘he’? In a pragmatic sense, that use would be correct.

In fact, I think part of Wynn’s hesitance to side with the prescriptive use, despite the fact that she presents it as the alternative to Shapiro’s descriptive approach, and her analogous hesitance to embrace a more pragmatic theory of truth, is rooted in the fact that such a notion would make it some cases of ‘he’ in order to describe her pragmatically true due to the fact that she still exists as a male on the digital platform. This causes an existential strife which she actually brings up in her video on Shapiro:

Sometimes things that make you feel bad are true. It makes me feel bad that I used to be a sexy, sexy boy with rippling abs, but too fucking bad for me, because there I am, indelibly exhibited on Youtube.

Put another way: for someone who has only seen Natalie’s first 10 videos, the use of he in referring to Natalie would be pragmatically true in their local experience.

I cannot think of another reason why Wynn would have so elegantly shown the problems with Ben’s position, only to shy away from the solution that she herself offers. I think that this is a testament to the truly radical dimension of truth that the pragmatic approach offers: radical in the sense that it is purely subjective, and therefore completely contingent on how other people react to your own self-presentation. In Wynn’s case, this is a self-presentation which was at some points in time male, so the permanence of the Internet retains some pragmatic truth of her male identity.

Conclusion

The biggest irony of Shapiro’s position on gender pronouns is that he uses the very same philosophy which has all but extinguished religious faith in the West: scientific materialism, which presupposes God as an external reality then defines the truth as that which can be objectively verified. The fact that he finds an ally with this philosophical framework on the topic of gender pronouns should be enough to give him pause and reassess his position.

It will be pragmatic truth and not scientific truth that will guide the progression of the transgender movement. Our society will continue to accept and include transgender individuals so long as they cohere to our intuitive use of whatever gender they strive for. And this intuition itself is not static, but will change according to popular culture, given to us by television, social media, and so on.

In the end, Shapiro’s idea of an ‘objective she’ will be no less outdated than phrenology, and perhaps just as dangerous. Consider his policy for referring to transgenders in his publication The Daily Wire: defaulting to the biological sex of the person, irrespective of their gender presentation. No doubt that, as more and more of his writers interact with trans individuals and build up an intuitive sense to use the pronoun of their presentation, this policy will become increasingly stifling and nonsensical. When this rule continues to frustrate his writers’ intuitive use of the gender pronoun they have in mind — in other words, when the pragmatic truth of their intuitive use conflicts with the ‘scientific truth’ demanded by Shapiro’s editorial standards– it will certainly become outdated.

When it comes to the use of transgender pronouns, Shapiro finds himself on the wrong side of history. But what do I know? Only time will tell.

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