On January 19, talk show host Phil McGraw stepped out of his comfort zone and invited transgender rights activists Addison Rose Vincent and Ethan Alexander to give a presentation about pronouns on his show Dr. Phil. To the guests’ surprise, only ten minutes before the show, they were informed that conservative commentator Matt Walsh would show up to “debate” them.
A fair fight?
In an Instagram comment, Ethan wrote,
. . . We went into the show believing we would be sharing our story and doing a presentation on gender pronouns. 10 minutes before we went live they came into our room to let us know what’s his face would be in the panel along with other guests. We would have never agreed to do this show had we known ahead of time, our existence is not up for debate.
That said, it’s not like the show planned a sensible episode without Walsh either. The very idea that there’s a debate to be had over whether someone’s identity is valid or not doesn’t need a “both sides” presentation. More to the point, people like Walsh, who espouse harmful transphobic views for a living, don’t deserve a platform on a show like this when he brings nothing to the table except inflammatory rhetoric.
The show wasn’t a dumpster fire the entire time. McGraw began by presenting the idea of using gender neutral pronouns as something that was understandably confusing for his older, mostly conservative, audience, but he did express that it was something they should try and understand. While he didn’t seem to follow Addison and Ethan’s logic as they explained why and how people should share their pronouns, he gave them the floor to offer their perspectives.
When it went sour
All that goodwill went out the window, however, when Walsh showed up and said,
Just to clarify, with all due respect, most of what we just heard in the previous segment was total nonsense, which is why when you were pushing for definitions and that sort of thing that they were not able to provide it, because it’s just nonsensical.
After his predictable tirade on why he believes the word “woman” can only be defined as “adult human female,” the right-wing talking points kept pouring out and hit their peak when he used an analogy to refute the entire concept of using personal pronouns:
You don’t get your own pronouns, just like you don’t get your own prepositions or your own adjectives. It’s like if I were to tell you my adjectives are handsome and brilliant, and no matter what, whenever you’re talking about me you have to describe me as handsome and brilliant because that’s how I identify, makes no sense. You don’t get your own pronouns. That’s grammar. That’s language.
Walsh’s false confidence
That’s not grammar or language. It’s not a 1:1 comparison. You don’t get your own adjectives — which is what Walsh offered — but you do get your own pronouns. Everyone does, including Walsh. His pronouns are he/him. He might not be mortally offended if you refuse to call him handsome and brilliant, but he’d almost certainly flip out if I resolved to only use she/her pronouns for him. Pronouns are a substitute for your name, and you have a right to tell people how to refer to you.
Others calling you by your chosen name is a form of respect. The same principle applies to pronouns.
Walsh also acted like language was on his side here. It’s not. Language is not some ancient objective truth. It changes and evolves. It has been doing that long before it was verbal. When another guest, Dr. Suzy D’Enbeau, a gender and communication expert from Kent State University, called Walsh’s views extreme, he countered,
She began by saying that my view is extreme. Okay, so the view that every single person on Earth has held up until 15 seconds ago is extreme, and the view that almost everyone does right now still still hold is extreme, apparently, according to her.
An extreme, offensive belief held by many people can still be extreme and offensive.
Bursting Walsh’s Eurocentric bubble
This argument is the same as when someone says that the Bible is true because it’s the “best-selling” book of all time. That wouldn’t make it true. But even on Walsh’s point, he wasn’t right. Earlier in the episode, McGraw shared survey results showing that Americans are split nearly 50/50 on whether they are comfortable sharing and using preferred pronouns. Fifty percent of the United States, Walsh might be surprised to learn, is not even close to “every single person on Earth.”
But more importantly, the idea of being gender non-conforming is a thousands-of-years-old idea which Indigenous cultures have embraced since long before our country existed. Societal acceptance of gender non-conformity is much older than the Western and European idea of a strict gender binary that we imposed on Indigenous Americans when we invaded their land. Matt Walsh is a perfect example of what happens when we don’t teach people that history and they subsequently internalize it as though cultural norms of predominantly white Americans are the only cultural norms the world has ever seen.