NIH and the Tyranny of Compelled Speech

How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.”

“Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”

He laid his head back against the pillow and sighed deeply. He was not any nearer to understanding O’Brien’s mind, but it had become more and more obvious that he was dealing, in some way or another, with the Party’s most characteristic mental disease—the belief that reality is not only describable in terms of matter-of-fact, but can be changed by the human will.

—George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

From the Sexual & Gender Minority Research Office of the National Institutes of Health (NIH): “Intentional refusal to use someone’s correct pronouns is equivalent to harassment and a violation of one’s civil rights.” Note the assumption conveyed by the adjective I have italicized. The relevance of this will become clear as the analysis unfolds.

The main point of the essay concerns the claim that misgendering is a civil rights violation. In fact, compelling a person to use preferred pronouns is a violation of civil and human rights. Punishment for characterizing pronouns as “preferred” or “chosen,” wrong adjectives, as this directive explains, is also a civil rights violation. As the reader will learn today, employees at NIH are being compelled to affirm with their utterances tenets of gender ideology.

Source: Gender Pronouns & Their Use in Workplace Communications

The NIH cites as its authority Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, among other things, expressly prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of sex. In 2020, a majority of the United States Supreme Court ruled (three dissenting) that Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination includes discrimination based on an employee’s gender identity or sexual orientation.

The Court’s decision in Bostock v. Clayton County is among its worst, standing alongside such notorious rulings as Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), Schenck v. United States (1919), and Buck v. Bell (1927).

While sexual orientation is reasonably part of what we mean by the term sex, a matter of objective reality (what gametes are produced), gender identity apart from a person’s sex is a subjective matter. It is a feeling. Today, a person may identify as a gender opposite their sex and gain access to sex-based resources intended or reserved for the other sex, compelling men and women to regard men as women and all that entails.

Leveraging the opportunity created by this decision to press gender ideology into the state bureaucracy, the NIH guidance would have its employees believe that “misgendering” a person (rendered in quotes here because by calling either sex the gender of the other it is literally the opposite of misgendering) is a civil rights violation when in fact the rule is the violation of civil rights at its most fundamental level.

To clarify, this has nothing to do with content of speech. It doesn’t matter whether a person believes that a man can be a woman. One is free to believe that if he wishes. This has everything to do with fundamental rights to speech and conscience and whether the government can make a person speak as if a man can be a woman. The same right that allows a man to present himself as a woman (as long as this is not for the purposes of committing fraud), makes it wrong to compel others to regard him as such.

Ask yourself whether it would be appropriate for the government to tell a man he cannot believe he is a woman. Again, a man can believe anything he wishes. Men believe men have souls. Men are convinced men did not land on the moon. (Wouldn’t it be something if that were true?)

It is terribly worrisome that the administrators and bureaucrats at a public institution in a constitutional republic with a bill of rights that explicitly identifies freedom of speech and conscience as paramount among those rights either don’t understand the principle at hand or mean to disregard the principle altogether (as we will see, it is both).

Compelling an employee to use “correct” pronouns, i.e., those pronouns preferred by another person, by discipling (and this includes mandatory DEI training), punishing, or terminating an employee for refusing to do so is a violation of civil and human rights for what ought to be obvious reasons. But since it too often is not, I will provide the reasons.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution (also known as Article One of the United States Bill of Rights) states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

These rights have been applied to all persons under the authority of the United States government through a process known as incorporation involving the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, which states that no state may deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.

Initially, the Bill of Rights did not apply to state governments. However, over time, through a series of Supreme Court decisions, many of the provisions in the Bill of Rights have been made applicable to the states. This means that states must also uphold and protect the same fundamental rights and protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, such as freedom of speech and religion.

In the mid-20th century, the Court applied the First Amendment’s protection of religion to state and local governments. In the landmark case Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the Court held that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from establishing an official religion, applied to state and local governments through the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court reasoned that the First Amendment’s protections of religious freedom were “fundamental” to the American way of life and therefore applied to all levels of government.

Since Everson, the Court has continued to interpret the First Amendment’s protections of assembly, free speech, petition, press, and religion to apply to state and local governments through the doctrine of incorporation. The principle is that these fundamental rights are “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty” and are therefore protected from infringement at all and by all levels of government.

(And while the First Amendment to the United States Constitution does not specifically mention freedom of conscience, it was assumed in its formulation and agreed upon during debate that freedom of conscience is a vital aspect of the broader protections for freedom of expression, religion, and thought enshrined in the amendment. Think of your right to privacy: not mentioned in the Bill of Rights, but necessarily assumed for the Fourth Amendment to work.)

This is a powerful package of rights. The framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were committed to limiting the power of the government and protecting the individual rights of citizens from the government and tyranny of the majority. The First Amendment was seen as a key safeguard against government overreach and the suppression of dissenting and offensive opinions.

It is as clear as anything could be that compelling a person to regard a man as a woman is government overreach and the suppression of dissenting and offensive views. It is just as clear that the mob can’t compel such a thing, as well.

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects speech and thought as fundamental rights, too. Article 19 of the declaration states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Freedom to express one’s beliefs, ideas, and opinions means doing so without fear of censorship or retaliation. The right to free speech and thought is a cornerstone of democratic societies and is essential for the advancement of knowledge and understanding, exchange of ideas and information, and the promotion of individual liberty.

Moreover, the preceding right in this document protects freedom of conscience as a fundamental human right. Article 18 of the declaration states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Article 18 emphasizes, among other things, the right to express the tenets of one’s conscience without fear of discrimination or persecution. The right to freedom of conscience is essential for the promotion of diversity, individual liberty, and tolerance.

If a woman expresses her view that a man is not a woman and, furthermore, insists that she will not regard a man as such in the utterances she makes in describing the world and in advocacy, as a matter of free thought or conscience, disciplining, punishing, or terminating her employment would constitute a violation of her civil and human rights.

Yet the administrators and bureaucrats at the NIH will tell you that it is the other way around. The institution’s policy upends civil and human rights.

The administrators and bureaucrats at NIH are telling the public that the failure to discipline, punish, reprimand, or terminate the employment of the person refusing to comply with demands violative of her civil and human rights violates the rights of a man who seeks to compel her to regard him as a woman, a right that exists nowhere in the fundamental law I have been citing nor, if supposed by abstract argument surrounding them, cannot stand over the right to speech and conscience.

A woman’s right to describe reality cannot be justifiably trumped by the power to force her to lie. Such power has no authority in law and is therefore illegitimate.

* * *

Compelled speech, which is precisely what a rule forcing an individual to use another person’s preferred pronouns when he does not wish to constitutes, is a violation of the right to free speech and freedom of conscience because it forces the individual to express views or beliefs that are not his own, or that he find objectionable or offensive. It forces him to act in bad faith.

The right to free speech includes not only the freedom to express one’s own ideas and opinions, but also the freedom not to speak or express views with which that person does not agree. The right to freedom of conscience includes the right to hold and practice one’s own beliefs without interference or coercion.

Of course the right to be free to express ones views is at the same time the right to be free from expressing the views of others.

When individuals are compelled to speak or express views that are not their own, this not only violates their freedom of speech and conscience, but it also has a chilling effect on dissent. Compelled speech creates an environment in which individuals are afraid to speak out or express their own views for fear of reprisals or punishment, forcing them into bad faith, making them to lie about the world.

That this situation carries harmful effects diversity of thought, exchange of ideas, and individual liberty—all essential components of a free and democratic society—is so obvious that having to remind people of it tells us that we are far down the road to tyranny. The NIH hopes people don’t consider their rights.

A free man has no more of an obligation to affirm the gender identity of another person as he has to affirm the existence of the angels and devils that populate the religious worldview of a colleague. It violates his freedom to think and speaks according to his beliefs and values to force him to think and speak according to someone else’s beliefs and values. It corrupts the integrity of his person to compel him to think and speak according to somebody else’s “truth.” It dehumanizes him.

* * *

Sample signature blocks from the NIH document. not the pronouns “Elle, let.” Willow wants to make others refer to her by pronouns she has invented. These are called “neo-pronouns.” It is unclear what Willow identified as. Perhaps a cat. Or a tree.

Changing how people think in ways that would not naturally occur to them and for the sake of others at the expense of themselves is tricky business. Check this out:

“Encouraging the disclosure and use of gender pronouns can create inclusive and welcoming work environments for SGM employees and their allies,” the NIH document states.

“One of the simplest ways to promote the appropriate and correct use of pronouns is by being open about your own in everyday communications (introductions, PPT slides, etc). Disclosing personal pronouns at the start of a conversation or adding them to one’s email signature block may make others more comfortable to disclose their own and prevent misgendering in the workplace.”

Here we see the demands of compelled speech as part of a systematic effort as changing the culture of belief for the sake of a particular doctrine, i.e., gender ideology. Thus the policy assumes as given that which demands debate.

One might object to my argument by noting that the document reassures employees that “pronoun disclosure remains an individual choice and not a mandate.” But this is not because it would be wrong to make employees do so. “An employee may not be ready to ‘come out’ and disclose their gender identity to their colleagues, and a mandate would create unnecessary pressure and stress.” Did you think the directive was centering you and your concerns?

Furthermore, the document continues, soaked in the jargon of woke progressivism, “mandating all employees to use pronouns may come off as performative allyship, especially if employees are uncertain or unable to articulate why correct pronoun usage is important.”

“Performative allyship” is a term used to describe when someone outwardly expresses support for a marginalized group, but their actions or actual beliefs do not align with their words. This occurs when someone performs allyship for the sake of appearing to be an ally, rather than truly committing to doing the work of being an ally and advocating for change. It occurs when someone engages in acts of charity or tokenism without addressing the systemic and institutional forces and practices that perpetuate discrimination and inequities.

Performative allyship is harmful, we’re told, because it gives the impression of support without actually doing anything to create real change. It also centers the ally’s feelings and need for validation, rather than the needs and experiences of the marginalized group they claim to be supporting. True allyship involves an ongoing commitment to learning, listening, and actively working to dismantle systems of oppression, rather than simply performing support for appearances.

Given widespread prejudice against trans people, the unwashed are regarded suspiciously by the clergy. When individuals are forced to identify their gender for the sake of appearing to be committed to an ideology, it may be the case that they are really doing so out of fear or are acting opportunistically rather than actually believing in the doctrine.

In other words: Don’t fake it. Believe it. The powers-that-be want more than bad faith; they want obsession with privilege checking.

There appears here a concern with what Orwell calls “doublethink,” suggested by the passage from Nineteen Eighty-Four quotes above.

Orwell tells us about a conversation between Winston and O’Brien where Winston’s “mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.”

Like the Inner Party, those who wish to change our minds really do not want exercises in bad faith. They want changed minds. They want true believers.

* * *

I noted earlier that employees are warned about using “preferred” or “chosen” to characterize pronouns. “Using either word suggests that gender identity is a preference or a choice, when it is neither.” According to who?

We find once more a government agency assuming as true a claim that has not been proven. On what empirical grounds is it true that pronouns are not in the case of a trans gender person preferred or chosen? What is the evidence that a person is born with a gender that does not align with his sex? What is a gender if it is not the species-specific name of a sex genotype?

Are employees being told that there are no cases in which a man identifies as a woman as a matter of choice, for example, for opportunistic reasons? I find it incredible that there are no cases in which a man lies about who he is to get something he wants. I’m a criminologist. My profession demands that I grasp this. Criminology is the scientific study of, among other things, men who lie about who they are to get things they want.

But don’t worry about that. Worry about this non-exhaustive list of “correct pronouns”:

Some examples of pronouns provided by NIH. The chart is adapted from Gender Pronouns Guide from UW Milwaukee LGBTQ+ Resource Center(link is external).

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.