Photo by Anastasiia Yanishevska

The pronoun ritual

How has it taken over society?

Artillery Row

To me, “comrade” is one of those words that evokes dismal memories of sipping tepid tea in damp meeting rooms, whilst dull men droned on about changing the world with leaflets. To Eggen, a friend who grew up in Slovakia, the term has very different associations.

“We were expected to use it all the time, even referring to our teachers as ‘comrade teacher’,” she told me over a beer in her adopted city of Prague. Eggen talked at length about the suffocating and deeply patriarchal regime of her childhood.

The alien and unwieldy terminology Eggen remembers was imposed by a communist government. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, tongues were untied, and the tortuous phraseology of compelled speech quickly withered away. Today it lives only in the memory of those who were forced to use it.

This week, the words of a judge here in England reminded me of my conversation with Eggen. At the commencement of Professor Jo Phoenix’s employment tribunal against the Open University (OU) for alleged discrimination because of her gender critical beliefs, Lady Justice Young asked the opposing counsels to state their preferred pronouns. Some might view this request as a small and costless courtesy. The context of Phoenix’s case, however, shows why the demand is anything but.

Phoenix, a criminologist, says that her OU colleagues twice compared her belief that sex matters, and that it can’t be changed, to racism. Over 360 of her colleagues signed a public letter condemning the Gender Critical Research Network, which she founded. After a shining career in academia, Phoenix says she has been “given suspiciously few opportunities at work given my seniority and experience”.

The vilification has taken a toll, as Phoenix explains on her fundraising page: “The OU has shattered my dreams because it has failed to protect me, despite my repeated pleas for them to remove discriminatory and hate-filled statements that my colleagues have published on the OU’s websites.” For the past few months she says she has been too unwell to work, receiving a diagnosis of “acute PTSD”.

Outside of woke workplaces and the student union, it’s rare to encounter what might be termed the “pronoun ritual”. It is somewhat surprising to say the least that a judge, in a case specifically examining discrimination for holding gender critical beliefs, thinks it appropriate to ask counsel to express their acceptance of, and obeisance to, gender identity.

When the judge’s request was shared on social media, the legal eagles swooped, albeit with claws cautiously retracted. Lawyer and director of Gay Men’s Network Dennis Kavanagh posted on X that he understood the request to be “irregular” and that “in the context of the issues in this case could well be taken to be an expression of support for the very ideology at the heart of this dispute”. Meanwhile others suggested there were grounds for the judge to recuse herself.

This is far from the only example of genuinely troubling speech from the bench. Fair Cop co-founder Robert Jessel (who, for full disclosure, is a friend) recalls the first High Court hearing in Harry Miller’s fight against the police’s recording of “non-crime hate incidents”, when one of the court ushers wore a lanyard in the Pride colours. According to Jessel, there was no way of proving whether this was worn “in defiance or merely out of habit”.

Ideological capture is now written into policies that rule court officials

“It doesn’t matter which … the rainbow is an overt political statement. Had he worn a Tory tie pin, it would have seemed equally out of place in the Palace of Reason and Impartiality that is our country’s second-highest court,” he says.

For those with the inclination to look, evidence of ideological capture is not just in the signs and rituals undertaken within courts. It is now written into the policies and procedures that rule the actions and behaviours of every court official. The Equal Treatment Bench Book is the guidance to which judges refer in court on matters of equality. The section on transgender identities is packed with references to research by transgender lobby groups, including Stonewall and Press for Change. Questionable statistics about suicide rates and the acute vulnerability of trans-identifying people pepper the guidance. This is the book responsible for multiple judges’ infamous remarks referring to male rapists and child abusers as “she”. Unravelling such an embedded ideology may prove every bit as tough as weeding the ideological bias and language out of the former Communist Bloc countries.

This week, the Prime Minister made the once unremarkable statement to his party’s conference that it is “common sense” that “a man is a man and a woman is a woman”. For all his posturing, it is clear that public officials aggressively disagree. Their guidance certainly does.

Today in Britain, just as during Eggen’s childhood under a communist dictatorship, ordinary citizens are being forced to participate in rituals by those in positions of authority. Public buildings and even uniforms are marked with the symbols and colours of one side of an ideological campaign. Guidance is being informed by the interests of lobby groups. Gender ideology might now be on the retreat, but the battle to regain control of public institutions is only just beginning.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover