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Can You Commit a Thoughtcrime by Using the Wrong Pronoun?

Maureen Collins
Published on
Could something you post on the internet make you guilty of a 'thoughtcrime?'

What you think is your business.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to be in a free society. But lately, there have been several instances of people accused of committing so-called “thoughtcrimes.”

The word “thoughtcrime” comes from George Orwell’s classic novel 1984. In the book, citizens of a totalitarian society could commit crimes against the government just by thinking negative thoughts about it. This is a disturbing scenario for one obvious reason: Your thoughts are the most personal possession that you have.

Unfortunately, this scenario is no longer relegated to the pages of dystopian literature. It’s playing out in real time.

We are seeing a disturbing trend of the government forcing people to speak words with which they disagree. That’s called compelled speech, and it’s a blatant violation of the First Amendment. But the problem is deeper than that. What you say is how you express your thoughts to the world. And when someone tries to control your speech, they are one step away from trying to control what you think.

Right now, this threat is hiding behind the seemingly innocuous use of pronouns.


Twitter Thoughtcrimes

Did you know that if you refer to a person who identifies as the opposite sex with pronouns consistent with his or her biological sex you could get into a lot of trouble?

Take for example the case of actor Drake Bell. When Bell posted a tweet about Bruce Jenner, the former Olympic gold medalist who now identifies as a woman, he used male pronouns.

That’s when the Twitter mobs came for Bell. “You are a disgusting person,” said one. “You’re a joke kid,” said another. It went on and on until Bell was forced to apologize.

The American actor didn’t face any civil consequences for his tweet. But if he lived in the United Kingdom, he might have. Last year, British journalist Caroline Farrow was investigated by the Surrey, U.K. police. Why? Because she tweeted about transgender activist Jackie Green using male pronouns. Jackie Green is a biological male who identifies as a woman.

Both Drake Bell and Caroline Farrow were accused of verbalizing the thoughtcrime of believing that biological sex matters. This sort of intolerance for certain orthodoxies is bad enough coming from keyboard warriors—it’s terrifying and unconstitutional when launched by those with government authority.


We Need to Speak Up

Forcing people to speak words with which they disagree is just as much a violation of the First Amendment as censorship.

And we can’t pretend that widespread compulsion of preferred gender pronouns isn’t on its way.

Look at Alliance Defending Freedom client Peter Vlaming. Peter lost his job as a high school French teacher because he declined to refer to a female student using male pronouns. Instead, he made a good-faith effort to respect the student’s beliefs while not violating his own, by politely using her chosen name and avoiding using pronouns when possible. But that wasn’t enough; he was fired anyway.

Those who argue that we should be forced to use transgender pronouns usually make two arguments.

  1. First, they argue that it’s “just polite” to refer to a man who identifies as a woman with female pronouns, for example. But like Mr. Vlaming, you can be polite without violating your conscience. While we should always address those we speak to with respect, there is never an instance where that respect requires you to say something you don’t believe. And for those that believe the scientific fact that biological sex is unchangeable and fixed at birth, using female pronouns for a biological male is doing just that.
  2. The second argument activists make is that to refuse to use transgender pronouns is to commit violence against others. This is false. Speech is not violence. Perhaps the use of certain pronouns might make an individual feel bothered. But in many cases, truth makes people uncomfortable—it doesn’t mean we stop telling the truth to those around us. Especially if we care about them.

So, what can we do about the threat of compelled speech through transgender pronouns?


The answer is more speech.

We need to respectfully share our perspective on sex and gender identity with those around us—especially with those who may disagree. If we can have an honest and open discussion with our neighbors about why we believe what we do, there should be no need to force anyone to say things they don’t believe.

Discussions like this are the basis of a free society. And in a free society, there is no place for thoughtcrimes.

Maureen Collins
Maureen Collins
Web Editor & SEO Manager
Maureen Collins serves as the Web Editor and SEO Manager at Alliance Defending Freedom.