As I completed my nightly rounds of Twitter on Monday, I was disoriented when screenshots of various Princetonians being blocked by professor Robert George flooded my timeline. Eventually, I came upon the poll tweeted by George that resulted in such ruckus: “By listing their ‘preferred pronouns’ people are making sure that others know their: sex, gender [or] ideology.”
One of the first replies I noticed was from Topaz Winters ’23, in which they stated, “I have my pronouns in my bio simply so that people know how to refer to me. The main thing we learn from a question like this is which professors & departments on campus are unsafe, which we should avoid, & which will throw students under the bus in the name of ‘academic debate’!”
This was the response that resulted in George blocking them. While scrolling further through my timeline, I realized this was a common pattern for several students, despite the fact that they were, in fact, answering the question George posed.
It is uncomfortable to consider that George had no intention of learning, but nonetheless posed this poll as a means to condescend. I don’t understand how one is unable to understand that there’s a point where “free speech” borders on obsession, one we often see illustrated within the church’s attitude towards the bodies of queer and trans folks, especially women.
Quite frankly, there is no point in explaining to him why people decide to specify their pronouns, given that George was never interested in an actual answer. Queer and trans folks have been explaining their choices to a cisheternormative society for generations, and if someone poses such a question, they are simply ignorant and an example of the consequences that come from viewing queer folks as afterthoughts. George is not interested in understanding; he merely intends to tyrannize.
The only explanation I can find for such an action is hatred, and it really doesn’t get any deeper than that. This obsession with the queer community is not driven by lack of understanding or disagreement, but rather hatred. I disagree with the tenets of Catholicism, in which George holds his faith. It has inflicted unforgivable trauma on my upbringing, the consequences of which I still grapple with today. I believe the Catholic institution, along with all other Christian denominations, should be held responsible for the damage they have inflicted on the lives of an incalculable number of queer folks, many to the point where they took their own lives.
Despite my beliefs, I don’t go out of my way to tweet a sarcastic poll asking my followers what one’s declaration of their Catholicism in their Twitter bio (as George in fact does) reveals about them. I’m not interested in making my Catholic friends or followers feel as though they are unwelcome in my life or that their identity should constantly be contested. Admittedly, this comparison doesn’t stand the whole truth, as they are welcome in my life, and I wholeheartedly believe that their identities are valid, unlike George’s beliefs about people who want to explain why they display their pronouns.
When I have dinner with a Catholic friend and they ask me to close my eyes for a moment of silence, I do it. Why? Because it’s goddamn respect. Not for a god I don’t believe in, but rather for their belief in their god. How does this concept of respect suddenly become complicated when someone asks you to acknowledge their preferred pronouns?
This notion of respect should not come as news to George. During a conversation with Professor Emeritus Cornel West GS ’80 this summer regarding free speech, he emphasized the idea of “mutual respect.” Where is this “mutual respect” now, Professor George?
I speak for myself and, I think, many other queer and trans folks, when I say that I’m uninterested in being understood or misunderstood by society, especially by a white cis straight man. I simply want to be left alone.
Why do the identities of queer and trans folks concern you, Professor George? Leave us alone. In the same way I close my eyes and respect the belief of those who believe steadfastly in a god that has never been quite kind to me, just refer to people by their preferred pronouns. No one is interested in you understanding or agreeing with their identities. People want to be left alone.
There is no ignoring the similarities between the comments made by George and professor Joshua Katz, in that they seem to desire to proclaim that they have been “cancelled.” Katz drew national attention to himself by referring to the Black Justice League as a “terrorist organization,” just to, within days of receiving criticism, claim that he has survived “cancel culture.” I’m confused as to how either professor has survived “cancel culture” when countless students on campus support such racist bigotry and when they’re simultaneously protected by tenure.
Similarly, George posted this poll and seemingly waited for a comment that stated, “the vitriol you’re receiving for simply posting a poll is… interesting.” He then replied to this tweet: “... when confronted with a question (in this case a poll) that does that [reveal true motives], the natural reaction is to attack the question — and the person who dares ask it.”
The “attack” George claims is being inflicted upon him runs parallel to Katz’s claim of being “cancelled.” Here, we have two white cis straight men, who cannot bear not to be the center of discussion, as they have so historically been. Instead, they must victimize themselves, claiming to be “attacked” and attempting to make themselves relevant once more in our lives.
As George claims to be “attacked,” we certainly see him blocking his “attackers,” such as Winters and several other Princetonians who have merely engaged him in a discussion. What then is the purpose of academia if not agreeing and disagreeing with each other? Does Princeton not aim to develop critical thinkers who can engage in difficult conversations? As a professor at a university that values fostering brilliance in the nation’s future leaders, what lessons is George passing on through his refusal to engage with these students?
I urge us all to revisit Remy Reya’s article, in which he so eloquently weighs the pros and cons of “the Twitter professoriate.” Through George’s mocking and malicious intent in tweeting that poll, Reya’s warnings about professors’ responsibility to move conversations forward and the consequences of “unproductive dialogue” come into focus.
George’s partaking in this “unproductive dialogue” reveals he was never interested in learning about the importance of pronouns. His tweet is, in the words of Audre Lorde, “an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns.”
Queer folks should not be burdened with the task of explaining their existence to anyone, especially not to a white cis straight man. If he was really interested, he should have resorted to the internet.
As crucial as pronouns are, they are the very tip of what queer and trans liberation looks like. We don’t need to explain ourselves any more than we already have; we need to question why George is so preoccupied with queer and trans folks that he took to his 63,000-follower base on Twitter to pose that poll. That is the real question at hand. Anything else is merely a distraction from the efforts for trans and queer liberation.
Kristal Grant is a first-year from Kingston, Jamaica, who includes she/her pronouns in her twitter bio because she is aware that one’s perceived appearance does not equate to their gender identity. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.