Prominent conservative professor Robert P. George received backlash on social media last week after posting a poll that questioned pronoun usage, which multiple students who spoke to The Daily Princetonian found transphobic and invalidating of nonbinary and gender-nonconforming experiences.
George, Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions and McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, received further criticism for blocking the Twitter accounts of current and former students who condemned the poll. Some considered George’s actions hypocritical, given his vocal advocacy for free speech and the open exchange of ideas.
George pushed back on both of these sentiments, arguing that the views many students deemed bigoted ought to be respected and refuting the accusation that he blocked users who criticized his viewpoint.
With this latest dispute, the University community continues to grapple with reconciling free speech and inclusivity, particularly when those missions seem at odds.
Alluding to more than pronouns
In a Dec. 14 Twitter post, George asked his followers, who number more than 63,000, if “by listing or stating their ‘preferred pronouns’ people are making sure that others know their: sex, gender, [or] ideology.”
Much of the backlash centered around George’s assertion that pronoun use could be a matter of “ideology,” the option that over half of the poll’s 5,128 respondents chose. Multiple current and former students who replied to George described his assertion that pronoun use can be “ideological” as transphobic.
Given the professor’s past rhetoric, some students felt the poll alluded to more than pronoun usage.
In 2016, George tweeted, “There are few superstitious beliefs as absurd as the idea that a woman can be trapped in a man’s body & [vice-versa].” A year later, he wrote, “to regard a man as a woman is to misunderstand biology.”
“Pronouns are a microcosm of the large issue at hand, which is trans / nonbinary / [gender-nonconforming] acceptance,” said Griffin Brooks ’23, who described the recent poll as invalidating queer people’s identities.
Still, George stood by his views on gender and his argument that “reasonable people of goodwill” can disagree on fundamental issues of sexuality and gender identity.
“There is a temptation for people on both the right and left to suppose that no reasonable person of goodwill could possibly disagree with them or doubt the premises of their views,“ he wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’ “Yielding to that temptation, some on the right think that anyone who disagrees with them is a libertine; some on the left think that anyone who disagrees with them is a bigot. They are equally wrong.”
In response to a supportive Twitter reply about receiving vitriol “for simply posting a poll,” George characterized the backlash as a “natural reaction” to “attack the question — and the person who dares to ask it.”
While conceding that George might have intended to start a conversation, Priyanka Aiyer ’23, who publishes poetry under the name Topaz Winters, told the ‘Prince’ she felt it is “not productive to have a debate like this.”
“We’re talking about pronouns, but that’s not actually what we’re talking about. We’re really talking about the existence and the validity of people whose gender is not the same as the one they were assigned at birth,” she added.
In Aiyer’s view important and interesting scholarly questions in the realm of gender identity, including elements of trans rights, gender topics, and what it means to move through the world as a queer person, are worth exploring and debating. She pushed back, however, on the notion that reasonable people of goodwill can disagree on the existence of trans and nonbinary individuals.
“The existence and validity of people who clearly exist, to me, I just don’t think it’s necessarily what I’m interested in engaging with,” she said.
Josiah Gouker ’22 viewed the post as a “thinly-veiled attack” on people of trans and non-binary identities and felt it demonstrated a lack of self-consciousness.
“It’s very ironic that professors like Professor George seem to lack the self-awareness in saying what they say. If you’re going to say people who use pronouns are promoting an ‘ideology’ — and it’s very easy to throw that out there as a softball to stoke transphobia among his followers — when you throw that softball out there, you are very much promoting an ideology,” he said.
“And as it turns out, this ideology is greatly more violent,” Gouker added.
Pronouns in the classroom and beyond
Individuals who list their pronouns, whether in a classroom setting, social-media profile, or email signature, commonly do so to normalize the practice and thus help prevent misgendering of trans and gender-nonconforming people without putting them on the spot.
“Making it a standard to share your pronouns with people will help undo the outdated notion that people identify how you perceive them, instead of how they perceive themselves,” Brooks noted.
The LGBT Center’s guide on “Pronouns in the Classroom” explains that the practice “signals to trans and gender-nonconforming students that you know they exist and care about their experience in the classroom,” “sparks proactive thought of gender identity,” and helps avoid misgendering students, which “often leads to stress.” The Center encourages faculty members to ask students to share pronouns in first-day introductions and to consider including pronouns in email signatures as “pronoun best practices.”
Asked whether he abides by these “best practices” in the classroom, George wrote, “in any area which deep and significant moral and philosophical differences are implicated, people need to be guided by their best judgments.”
“Of course, anyone can make suggestions and say what they regard as best, and it’s always good to hear other people’s ideas; but one must think and judge for oneself since in such areas no one has authority to dictate what are to count as best practices,” he wrote.
“I’m sure no one at Princeton is claiming such authority,” he added.
University Spokesperson Ben Chang told the ‘Prince’ that the University considers proper usage of pronouns a fundamental sign of respect.
“We value a community that is fully equitable and inclusive of all identities, where people of all sexual orientations and gender identities feel heard, affirmed, valued, and respected,” Chang wrote.
“Using a person’s chosen pronouns is a basic courtesy and sign of respect for one member of our community to show another,” he added.
Some students felt George inhibited the very conversation he claimed to encourage. Multiple students and recent alumni, including a former student who took one of George’s courses, saw their Twitter accounts blocked by the professor shortly after either replying to or “quoting” the post.
Of the over 100 replies to the post, some contained abusive language and imagery, including pornographic images. Multiple blocked students felt, however, that they had engaged productively by calling out transphobic rhetoric.
George blocked Gouker after he referred to the poll as bigoted, transphobic, willfully ignorant, and demonstrative of “false victimhood.” Aiyer found her account blocked after implying that George was “throw[ing] students under the bus in the name of ‘academic debate.’”
“He talks very often about free speech, and yet when he posts something that people think is at best problematic — and at worst absolutely dehumanizing — and he receives any backlash for it, he wants to silence those voices who are promoting their own ideas in the ‘free marketplace of ideas,’” Gouker said.
“I don’t think that academic debate is possible on this topic,” Aiyer added. “But I do believe that if you’re someone who does think that academic debate should be fostered — and we should be speaking about and having discourse around this — blocking people is not exactly the most productive way to go about that.”
George said he was unaware of which commenters were students, but believes “there are, regrettably, many reasons for blocking on social media,” including obscene language, “gratuitous insults,” “organized Twitter storming,” “attacking others while hiding behind anonymity,” or “bad faith (which can be hard to judge sometimes, and mistaken judgements are possible).”
“If you look at my Twitter account, including the very poll you asked about, you will see many unblocked critical — even hostile — comments,” he wrote. “If my policy were to block people simply for disagreeing with me, there would be no way of accounting for that fact.”
Free speech and violent language
The controversy comes amid a broader conversation about how the University has responded to students and professors’ use of derogatory and offensive language.
In July, a column in which Classics professor Joshua Katz described the Black Justice League (BJL), a now-disbanded student activist group, as a “local terrorist organization” garnered national attention. After colleagues within and beyond Katz’s department condemned the piece, President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 told the ‘Prince’ he “personally and strongly” objected to Katz’s language.
Despite facing no disciplinary action, Katz has since spoken about “surviving cancellation” in several public forums, including a U.S. Department of Education event earlier this month aimed at confronting a “culture of censorship.”
In August, a white student’s use of the n-word on social media sparked a student petition calling for the University to take disciplinary action. In response, administrators wrote to students that the University permits certain uses of offensive slurs — including language that runs “contrary to Princeton’s commitment to stand for inclusivity and against racism.”
The perception that George’s remarks last Monday target the very identities of trans and nonbinary individuals has led some to call for an institutional response, though such students are pessimistic that Nassau Hall will take action.
“Princeton markets itself as a safe place for queer people, and given that they are often ranked highly in LGBTQ-acceptance, they have the responsibility to uphold those standards if they want to keep that title,” Brooks wrote.
They said, however, “Given Princeton’s recent emphasis on protecting the ‘free speech’ of people who use said right to actively discriminate against queer people, people of color, and other minorities I would not be surprised if they take no action at all.”
Akhil Rajasekar ’21, publisher of the conservative Princeton Tory and member of the newly-reinstated Princeton Open Campus Coalition (POCC), said he views calls for disciplinary action as “beyond ridiculous.” The Heterodox Academy, an academic group whose Advisory Council includes George and Professor Emeritus Cornel West GS ’80, recently recognized the POCC for its contributions to open inquiry and viewpoint diversity.
“Yes, there are people who strongly disagree with you and your most deeply cherished worldviews — that is hardly grounds for rebuke or punishment,” Rajasekar wrote to the ‘Prince.’
The University did not directly respond on whether formal complaints have been made against George. Along with a statement in support of students of all identities, Chang emphasized the institution’s support of free speech and community members’ right to express their personal views.
Citing a ‘Prince’ op-ed that Eisgruber wrote shortly after Katz’s column, Chang advocated for rigorous, respectful debate.
“As President Eisgruber has stated, we need the benefit of multiple voices and perspectives, and we call for real engagement among them. ‘We need to build a public space where disagreement does not automatically paint someone as an enemy’ – whether a student, professor, or staff member,” he wrote.
“Support of inclusivity and support of free speech in our community are not incompatible, but core to our mission and values, and are a hallmark of this educational institution,” Chang added.
The debate over what to do when those values come into tension remains contested.