I’ve often asserted (and people are often surprised or skeptical to hear this) that comments on YouTube videos about language are for the most part positive—and often over-the-top enthusiastic! If someone is sharing some thoughts about “Philadelphia Street Names,” “Common Welsh Phrases,” or “How to Speak Singlish,” for example, most comment threads will unfurl with agreement, praise of the language portrayal, or provision of a few more examples or personal anecdotes to support the points being made. Most viewers give “thumbs up” to the videos and to any positive comments. “Thumbs down” are rare.
There is, however, at least one set of language-related posts that has emerged as a glaring exception: Posts discussing gender pronouns. Take this video, by a YouTuber Jake Edwards, “Gender Pronouns: Get Them Right!”, for example:
Despite what seems to me to be a relatively even-handed discussion of gender pronouns (including “singular they”) this video’s thumbs up, thumbs down ratio is starkly negative: 138 thumbs up to over one thousand thumbs down. And, the comment thread is equally dark. The first and most thumbed-up comment (at 210) reads: “How to generate dislikes.”
Paradoxically, it seems this YouTube video has turned into a site for affiliation—but not around respectful use of gender pronouns. Instead, there is a different group building strong affiliations here: Those who feel strongly opposed to any non-binary framing of gender, those who consider Jake a representative of the “snowflake” generation, and those who see no reason why their personal “freedom of speech” should be restricted to attend to the needs of a “small minority” of people who want to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns.
How did this happen? Why aren’t there more voices here chiming in on Jake’s side? Sure, there are a few comments that try to counter the thumbs-downers, but they are a small minority. Whatever your feelings about this issue, doesn’t it seem odd that the dis-likers are out in such force? Maybe Jake foregrounds the gender issue too much and too abstractly and this takes the discussion away from issues of language and from his own personal experiences, usually big draws for positivity on language videos.
This led me to a search for other sites, where affiliation around gender-neutral pronouns might, I imagined, come more freely. Sites where members of the LGBTQ community told their own stories or anecdotes about pronoun use and how it made them feel. I found a few of these, including one for the Chronical of Higher Education and from my own University. But, almost universally, such sites have their comments disabled.
No doubt they feared the same treatment as Jake Edwards. Are there no outlets for non-produced, positively affiliative public voices commenting on this issue? Thirsty for some more refreshing citizen sociolinguistic dialogue on gender-neutral pronouns, I pressed on.
Maybe, I thought, there would be more even-handed dialogue around the use of gender-neutral pronouns if I found a YouTuber who addressed this even more explicitly as a language issue, and down-played the gender-identity aspect. Along those lines, here is Tom Scott’s video, episode 7 in Tom’s Language Files, “Gender Neutral Pronouns: They’re Here, Get Used to Them.” Despite having a title strikingly similar to Jake’s (the “they/them” word-play seems irresistible), the focus on what he calls “grammatical gender”, its role as part of his “language files” series, Tom’s much more mainstream look, and his proper British pronunciation, suggest a more, erm, neutral approach to gender neutrality.
This video is very popular—over 1 million views—and the thumbs up and down ratio is more balanced—31,000 thumbs up to 17,000 thumbs down. And, scanning down the comments, I found some very appreciative and personal remarks, receiving many thumbs up, like this one:
Then, Tom’s own pinned comment caught my eye. It explained the more positive ratio—and the age (posted 2 or more years ago) of the positive comments I had noticed:
To his credit, 4.2 thousand people like Tom’s comment here. But to me, looking for real dialogue and for personal engagement around this issue, the kind I’ve grown used to around other citizen socioliguistic videos, this seemed sad. What happened to fuel such a dramatic change in comment content that he felt forced to disable them?
A simple glance to the “recommended videos” on the right margin of my computer screen provided the answer. Or rather, the name: Jordan Peterson. He is a Canadian Psychology professor who made news when he posted this YouTube video (a power-point lecture with voice-over) criticizing a bill in Canada that would include gender identity and expression as subject to human rights protections. Being legally forced to call people by gender neutral pronouns, Peterson asserted, was a violation of his freedom of speech.
He has since blanketed the internet with his views. His followers have also mastered the art and science of trolling, attacking anyone who dares speak out about their own experiences as a non-gender-conforming individual. For Jordan Peterson gender neutral pronouns are no longer an issue about language and linguistics. Instead, language here is a proxy for other prejudices—and “freedom” not to use gender-nuetral pronouns has become a means for suppression of difference. Peterson’s quest for his own “Free Speech,” as an individual—a white, male, Psychology Professor from Canada—has, de facto, resulted in lack of free speech for those who hold views different from his own. Dialogue has ceased. It seems that Jordan Peterson’s internet empire and the way it has emboldened those expressing hate and fear of difference has led to comments sections being disabled on most of those sites where individuals try to speak for themselves about gender pronouns in their own lives.
You may be wondering, what’s so bad about having the comments disabled, as long as people are still posting videos? This is bad because when comments are disabled, the community building and knowledge-sharing fostered by citizen sociolinguists stops. The conversations and annecdotes, the supportive comments and encouragement, have no home. As I’ve illustrated in many posts on this site, everyday conversation about language usually turns into a way to affiliate with a certain community. Some South Philadelphian’s, for example, might coalesce around the insider knowledge of how to pronounce “Passyunk Avenue,” order a cheesesteak “wit,” fight off their cold with some ARnge Juice, or cheer on the Iggles. This is a tiny minority of speakers, and their dialogue generates shared pride and awareness of their groupiness. Sharing anecdotes or language opinions are bids for affiliation. Haters need not apply. But if they do, and if “comments are disabled” all that affiliation is subverted.
The potential power of citizen sociolinguistics lies in its ability to air points of view that otherwise might not be heard, to foreground local forms of expertise, and to build common ground. Often these forms of expertise might be held by a small minority of people. That is certainly the case with the group of citizen sociolinguists who would like to talk about gender-neutral pronouns. We need to hear from them and about their experience. They are the experts. And they need each other! We do not need Jordan Peterson speaking about these issues with which he has no experience or expertise, obfuscating, in the guise of philosophizing, silencing civic dialogue in the name of freedom of speech.
The old ways of dictating language via standardizing institutions and documents may be losing their hold on how we think about language—and hurray for citizen sociolinguists who are sharing their nuanced and local expertise, building community and affiliation through conversations about words and ways of speaking. But what happens when trolls and negative attention-seekers lead us to “disable comments”? When this happens—as it seems to have in the case of gender pronouns—the control over how we use language and discuss it may have become more insidious than even the most prescriptive grammarian or authorizing institution.
What alternatives are there to disabling comments? Is it possible to counter the negative-affiliative power of huge troll movements? Please share your ideas in the comment section below!