Published by The Telegraph on 13/12/16
Who is ze?” used to be a phrase most commonly associated with French foreign exchange trips. Now the term “ze” is set to become institutionalised at the University of Oxford.
According to a report in the Times, Oxford’s student union has issued a leaflet exhorting students to scrap “he” and “she” for the gender-neutral pronoun “ze”. The students apparently hope to reduce the risk of transgender students feeling insulted and excluded by being exposed to people using traditional pronouns.
Gender neutral pronouns have become the new cause for the campus language police. The use of “ze” has become widespread on US campuses. Predictably it was only a matter of time before sanctimonious student unions in the UK embraced the new vocabulary.
But students at Oxford don’t just want “ze” to be restricted to their chia seed-infused student hangouts. The union also expressed its hope that gender neutral pronouns will be used in lectures and seminars. And this is where the use of “ze” stops being silly and becomes worrying.
It’s all very well if, traumatised by the use of “he” or a “she”, a person asks a mate to call them “ze”, much as it’s no big deal if Jack, the bloke from Surrey who spent his gap yah in Montmartre and sits next to you in Comparative Literature, asks you to call him Jean-Paul.
But expecting institutions to adopt gender neutral pronouns marks the tacit acceptance of an Orwellian Newspeak, where the meanings of words can be altered to satisfy those who insist that it offends them.
Once words can be expunged, it is only a matter of time before the manipulation of language becomes normal practice and the meaning of words becomes trivialised to suit the user’s needs.
Under the guise of celebrating the empowerment of transgender students, demanding the use of “ze” is as much a violation of individual rights as a defence of it. It forgets that most students prefer to be a “he” or a “she”, rather than a Star Trek-sounding student union construct.
Words emerge not because they are oppressive, but because they capture a reality. The term “he” was devised to describe those with, well, male genitalia; while “’she was used to describe those with the other sort.
And while we should certainly take seriously how people want to be addressed, the proposed universal introduction of the word “ze” imposes a meaning that implicitly, and increasingly explicitly, calls into question the identity possessed by the vast majority of the population: most of us consider ourselves male or female.
Ultimately, “ze” is the natural culmination of the rise of identity politics sweeping across university campuses. Where once a student’s identity was determined by their membership of a dubious political society or their pint-sinking abilities, a small group of unrepresentative students maintain that what’s between their legs is what’s most important. It is students’ biological makeup, as opposed to their views on that week’s set texts, that become the most important element of a seminar.
Perhaps if Oxford’s student union spent less time focusing on how lecturers should address their students, they would recognise the irony of the world’s oldest English-speaking university seeking to undermine the meaning of that language. Enough with campus ze-alotry.