I am large. I contain multitudes. —Walt Whitman
"We will note that they has been in consistent use as a singular pronoun since the late 1300s; that the development of singular they mirrors the development of the singular you from the plural you, yet we don’t complain that singular you is ungrammatical; and that regardless of what detractors say, nearly everyone uses the singular they in casual conversation and often in formal writing.
They is taking on a new use, however: as a pronoun of choice for someone who doesn’t identify as either male or female. This is a different use than the traditional singular they, which is used to refer to a person whose gender isn’t known or isn’t important in the context. The new use of they is direct, and it is for a person whose gender is known, but who does not identify as male or female. If I were introducing a friend who preferred to use the pronoun they, I would say, “This is my friend, Jay. I met them at work.”
That historical context is really important. When I first heard about the singular they for non binary individuals my initial reaction was to question the usage. I wasn’t aware of the long usage of the singular they to be fair. My concern was in pluralizing an individual.
The concern there is a concern with the dark side of postmodernism, i.e. pluralization without a guiding normative framework leads to a great deal of relativism and can ultimately lead to nihilism. The postmodern brings diversity, hybrid identities, multiplicities of being. It often however struggles to find an organizing center of this plurality which while respecting the plurality also creates organizing resilient adaptive intelligence. Absent such a center, things falls apart.
You can think of pluralization and the breakdown of social normativity in the postmodern area through any number of contexts. In digital media think the breakdown of the older 3 channel era of the 60s into the mass diversity of cable stations, Netflix, Hulu, etc. I’m not nostalgically looking back to the good old days of enforced social conformity. There’s plenty to appreciate in the mass pluralization of the digital media space but, on the down side, it does create social fragmentation. It both expresses the fragmentation but it also exacerbates that fragmentation.
So when it comes to the singular they we have a pluralizing of the individual. As in the digital example there are positives to this trend. It allows for greater appreciation of the diversity of cultures, sexual & gender expressions, and so on. But it also opens up fragmentation.
Modern Western philosophy bases itself on the billiard ball like separated singular ego of a Descartes. That or the selfless pure empiricist materiality of contemporary neuroscience, the latest descendant of Hume. Modernity is based on binary, a one (Descartes’ cogito) or zero (Hume/neuroscience), never two or more.
In contrast to this the postmodern era opened up multiplicity. We started to grasp not only the multiplicity of genders and cultures and languages and histories and social formations but also intra-multiplicities. That is to say the multiplicity within an individual and not just multiplicities within differing groupings of individuals.
Where modernity appreciated homogenization, stability, objectivity, and uniformity, postmodernity reveals in hybridity, heterogeneity, fluidity, and social construction.
When applied to an individual the singular they reveals the pluralization within a person. Non binary here means not simply another option different than male or female but the “queering” of the entire binary itself, breaking down the logic of zero or one into multiple possibilities simultaneously.
Again there are positives here and there are limitations with potentials for serious fragmentation and relativization, a problem that is rife in social activist circles, (pseudo?)left spaces, and postmodern-inflected movements more broadly.
Postmodernism very often ends up in a series of performative contradictions. If postmodernism values hybridity, what is "non-hybrid" is the valuation of hybridity. Postmodernism sees everything as fluid and changing and morphing—except it’s own statement that everything is fluid, changing, and morphing which is itself a very static, unchanging, non-fluid view.
Postmodernism is universally against universals.
By denying universals postmodernism leaves itself open to being worked by universals As a concrete example, one of the most glaring weaknesses of postmodernism is that it typically struggles against the major force in the world that is universal and inflexible in its ultimate aims and logic: namely global capitalism.
A regression back to modernity (or even premodern traditionalism) is not a viable response to that situation. That’s the approach being taken (on the whole) by libertarians, the alt-right backlash, and contemporary classical liberals (e.g. Jordan Peterson). These folks end up criticizing the weak sides of postmodernity but they do so a) without acknowledging postmodernism's value nor b) recognizing the limitations of their own worldview which birthed postmodernism in the first place.
This is where Whitman’s quotation becomes so important I believe. I want to explore it and come back to the singular they.
“I contain multitudes.”
Each of those three words carries significant depth and meaning.
This is the diversity and pluralization we’ve been speaking of—each of us is made up of multiple identities, life experiences, emotional responses. All of us are full of ambiguity, nuance, ambivalence. We all interact with the moral grey zones of our lives. We are different people to different people in our lives. We have multiple dimensions to our being human: psychological, emotional, sensory, cultural, psychological, biological, etc.
Who is this I?
On the surface this would seem to be the Cartesian ego but given that this ego contains multitudes that works against the notion of the standard Cartesian billiard ball-esque ego.
Given the multitudinous nature of this I, it could be the “I”, the subject of postmodernity. Though in postmodernity there really is no such thing as an “I”. There is rather an “i” or perhaps rather multiple “I-s”. The “I” in postmodernism isn’t a coherent whole. It’s a series of performative actions. The I or self is a fleeting, conditional, malleable, series of performances. (This view weirdly can be combined with materialist neuroscience as each “self” is rather seen as a neurochemically conditioned response mechanism).
But I would argue for a third possibility. I think it is something more, something more beautiful, whole, subtle and yet complex. I base that on the verb contain.
This is the key term. To contain the multitudes is to hold them as simultaneously unique and distinct aspects while also creating coherence between and among the various parts. Containing the multitudes is not imposing a hegemonic oppressive order on top of the parts, forcing them into submission. It’s not a fascistic kind of Supra-I dominating the rest, manipulating them into conformity.
Yet there is some containment, precisely the thing that postmodernism lacks. Postmodern movements end up in deep and deeper splitting & fragmentation. Postmodernism leads to dispersion and flattening.
Whitman says I am large; I contain multitudes. The largeness is important here. The multitudes are not reduced to some single unity. Rather the unity (the containment) is created precisely in and though the integration of all the various diverse parts.
In that containment the I of Whitman’s statement is neither the modernist Cartesian ego nor is it the postmodern anti-ego. It is a maturer, more creative, flexible, resilient, and adaptive I. Whitman’s I is the personal self of what will come after postmodernism. It grows beyond the limitations of postmodernism without regressing back into modern libertarian contractualism nor will it fall back into traditionalist fundamentalism nor even revert back to tribalism.
Looked at it in light of the Whitman quotation, I believe the singular they takes on a potentially new and interesting wrinkle. The singular they can be viewed as a composite individual, i.e. an individual (whole) that contains multitudes.
The singular they is a singular plural. A composite individual. An I who contains multitudes.
An individual who is large and contains multitudes. Again not repressing those multitudes and falling back into some conformist unitary self but neither are they falling into dispersed, fragmented, pluralization. They maintain a center around which the various parts of themselves may orbit, creating something like their own inner galaxy of being.
I maintain that the singular plural is crucial to any movement that is going to take us beyond our current philosophical and cultural impasse without some nostalgic return to some mythic bygone era (which was never so romantically perfect in the first place).
The return of the self, the return of (quasi)universals, and the return of subjectivity—though in a new form—are key elements of philosophy after and beyond postmodernity. In figures like Timothy Morton, Alain Badiou, Roy Bhaskar, Graham Harman, and Slavoj Zizek (among others). It not a return to a simplistic Cartesian or Humean modernity but it is clearly a movement beyond the flux and endless pluralizing tendencies of postmodernity. (It also, by the way, has strong resonance with the tradition of process philosophy in say a Whitehead or Hartshorne.)
To be clear, I’m not necessarily suggesting that cisgender individuals en masse should start adopting the singular they as their gender identity. What I am suggesting is to see a philosophical opening in and through the phenomenon and giving proper respect to those who first brought it forward. Without necessarily needing (or wanting) everyone to adopt it, I do think it’s pointing to something crucial for all of us to deeply consider.