Why Professor Meriwether is wrong

A Christian Professor has sued an American university for requiring him to use preferred gender in addressing a student. The issue is that the professor uses “the Socratic method” which involves addressing everyone very formally as Mr or Miss (last name). And so, while he agreed to use just the name for that one student, the University did not accept it as the student was singled out.

I believe the Professor is wrong. Not just in his beliefs about gender – this is a contentious debate. I belong to a more liberal denomination than he does, as the Church of Ireland ordains women. So we may never see eye to eye on this and I recognize his freedom to believe what he does.

He is wrong about his behaviour even *granted* his beliefs about gender! And I would gladly debate this with him, and will send him a link to this text.

To start with, there is exactly nothing in Holy Scripture that mandates or prohibits the use of any pronouns or any addresses. Except possibly “brother” and “sister”, but the professor did not use those. (There is also that debated prohibition on using “father”, also beside the point in this case)

There are, of course, some places that differentiate men and women. But these refer to life in church and marriage. A university is neither. The university being secular, Romans 13 might be read as calling for compliance.

But most importantly, the professor can, and in my view should, comply without even using the addresses and pronouns that he rejects.

He is said to teach using the Socratic Method and for that purpose, to use Mr/Miss, which created the entire issue. But I would suggest that he is misapplying the Socratic Method. We have received the method from Plato, and Plato – unlike conservative evangelicals – believed in a full dualism of body and soul. The Socratic Method should be as close as possible to a dialogue of disembodied, “Platonic” souls. Referring to a student’s sex defeats the purpose. *Any* student’s sex, that is, not just that one student. We humans have a subconscious bias, we process opinions of men and women in different ways, and so, to minimize the bias, we should make this distinction invisible in Socratic philosophic dialogue.

The Professor should therefore use a sex-neutral address and reference for all students. Such an address and reference can be modeled on British Parliamentary ways, where “the Honourable member…” and “my honourable friend…” are typical. And in British courts, the words “my learned friend” are routinely used to address or refer to another lowyer. A similar formula, or “my honorable student”, should be used for proper Socratic debate.

Alternatively, of course, the Professor can reject Platonic dualism and insist on a Christian understanding – but then he should follow this all the way and replace the Socratic method with the traditional Christian dialogue form, which uses first names, as Our Lord did. He never went for formal honorifics, not even to Herod or Pilate. Nor did the Apostle Paul go for anything more formal than just “King Agrippa” when facing a monarch in Acts 26 – and for non-monarchs, apparently not even that. Look at Acts 24, where Tertullus says “most excellent Felix”, but Paul, despite being a prisoner (and also a Roman citizen), says nothing of the sort.

So if the Christian tradition is followed, one can just use  first names – this also avoids the problem.

I call the Professor to offer a defense of his choice of using “Mr” and “Miss” in philosophical dialogue. These terms highlight the bodily sex of the student (in the view of the Professor) or the gender identity of the student (in the view of the University). However, none of these things are relevant for philosophical discussion. Therefore, I posit he should not be using such address.

And if the use of any gendered (or sexed) address in shown to be unneeded, then the lawsuit becomes moot, without any need for the Professor to alter or suppress his views on gender.


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