On the first day of my political philosophy class at Shawnee State University in the spring of 2019, a biologically male student raised his hand and I called on him, unwittingly using the now-incendiary words, “Yes, sir.”
As a professor of philosophy, I view the classroom as a place of dynamic discussion and exchange. And I work hard to foster an atmosphere of civility and rational discourse, a place where students can seek truth. This student approached me after class and said that he identified as a woman and demanded, from that point on, that I refer to him as a woman, using feminine terms.
In the ensuing weeks and months, I offered to accommodate him by referring to him only by his name. But the university administration informed me that, on pain of disciplinary action, including termination, I must call him and all students by their preferred non-biological pronouns (including recently concocted ones like “ze”, “xe” or “ter”), or I would have to eliminate any terms that refer to a person’s gender from my vocabulary at all times, on campus or off, with any students.
This would mean purging all pronouns, terms like “Mr.” and “Ms.,” and even words like “brother” and “sister,” “father” and “mother.” This would require me to speak the English language as it has never been spoken in the history of Western civilization.
So why not simply call students what they wish to be called? I was willing to do so with this student and with any student who asks me to. His chosen name, though not his birth name, is feminine, and I was willing to call him this, since using a person’s proper name doesn’t imply anything about what one believes or what is true.
What I cannot do, however, is to speak in such a way that implies that a man is a woman or a woman a man. In other words, to refer to a student in such a way that I imply something that is not true, that I know to be false, to effectively lie, and so violate my conscience as a philosopher and as a Christian.
That the university administration requires this of me, and that major LGBTQ rights organizations have joined to oppose me in the lawsuit I filed against the university through my Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys, belies the claim that this is a simple case of obliging a student’s request. Whether expressly or tacitly, we all agree on one thing: I must bow to the new orthodoxy.
One recent critic, law professor Andrew Koppelman, criticized my view as “free speech gone wild.” But that trivializes an extremely momentous issue. As anyone who follows higher education knows, many campuses are firmly in the grip of identity politics — from the “cancel culture” of student demonstrations and the shouting down of conservative speakers invited to speak on campus, to the “safe spaces” where students can be assured that no one will disagree with them, to the “speech zones” where the ruling leftist ideology provides a fig-leaf of protection to those who dare disagree with their moral certainties as long as they are safely tucked away where no one can hear them.
Many campuses do not have even one professor who has the temerity to identify openly and emphatically as a conservative or a Christian. Some leftist faculty will state openly that the purpose of a university education is to disabuse students of antiquated understandings of faith and accept that the nuclear family and traditional views on human sexuality are “retrograde and oppressive,” as one of them stated without the slightest hesitation to me.
Core requirements include indoctrination in only one point of view, such as University of Pittsburgh’s required course titled “Anti-Black Racism: History, Ideology, and Resistance,” which includes not one black dissenting voice, such as Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele or John McWhorter. As a consequence, leftist professors and students enjoy enormous leeway, protected from any message that might question their views or “offend” them. But conservative and traditionally religious professors and students who dare cross the leftist party line, such as the requirement to speak precisely as “woke” ideology demands, are subject to discriminatory policies and even dismissal.
I wonder if my critics would say that a Jewish professor who is fired for refusing to respond to a neo-Nazi student with a Sieg Heil salute, or that a feminist professor under discipline for refusing to use the titles “Miss” and “Mrs.” with female students, are simply “spoiling for a fight,” as they accuse me of doing? Or do they think only conservatives and Christians should lose their First Amendment rights and academic freedom in the college classroom?
As for the sensibilities of the students who encounter voices that can’t endorse their chosen identities, I can only offer my own experience in college. I cannot recall a single professor who identified with my Protestant orthodoxy. One well-respected professor gave a public lecture on campus about how people like me are destroying the planet. And I could provide several other examples. My reaction at the time? “It’s college. I can’t expect everyone to agree with me, and I hope they extend the same courtesy to me.” Regrettably, that hope has not materialized.
The threat the leftist regime now poses to freedom of speech and academic freedom – and thus the mission of the university in a free society – is incalculable. That my critics would ignore this dynamic, and belittle resistance to the juggernaut of political correctness as a personal pique, is frankly inconceivable. Unless, of course, they’re not ignoring it, but succumbing to it.
Nicholas Meriwether is a professor of philosophy at Shawnee State University, where he has taught for 23 years.