When I wrote about the ACLU’s attempt to twist the meaning of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s words, I avoided addressing the elephant in the quote. It has since become a “big deal,” forcing ACLU’s reimaginative executive director Anthony Romero to apologize.
Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Monday that he regretted that a tweet sent out recently by his organization altered the words of a well-known quote by the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“We won’t be altering people’s quotes,” Mr. Romero said in an interview on Monday evening. “It was a mistake among the digital team. Changing quotes is not something we ever did.”
But, of course, they did exactly that, the thing they never did, except that they did.
While my concern was more about the substance than the shenanigans, which struck me as sufficiently obvious as to not require noting, Michelle Goldberg seized upon it.
This was a mistake for two reasons, one that’s easy to talk about, and one that’s hard.
The easy one is this: It’s somewhat Orwellian to rewrite historical utterances to conform to modern sensitivities. No one that I’m aware of used gender-neutral language to talk about pregnancy and abortion in 1993; it wasn’t until 2008 that Thomas Beatie became famous as what headlines sometimes called the “First Pregnant Man.” There’s a difference between substituting the phrase “pregnant people” for “pregnant women” now, and pretending that we have always spoken of “pregnant people.”
It’s easy, but is that what the ACLU was doing, pretending that progressive heroes always used “inclusive language”? If they hadn’t put the changed words in brackets, then yes, but they did. They made it clear that they changed the words, and that these were not the words Ginsburg used. They made it clear that these were the changes they made, the words the ACLU used to substitute for Ginsburg’s.
What’s more difficult to discuss is how making Ginsburg’s words gender-neutral alters their meaning. That requires coming to terms with a contentious shift in how progressives think and talk about sex and reproduction. Changing Ginsburg’s words treats what was once a core feminist insight — that women are oppressed on the basis of their reproductive capacity — as an embarrassing anachronism. The question then becomes: Is it?
Goldberg’s point is stronger here, since Ginsburg was speaking very specifically about women and addressing a core feminist issue. But had Ginsburg uttered these words today, would she have been more circumspect, more “inclusive” so that the experience of trans men, persons with vaginas, birthing persons, been included within the scope of her concern?
Plenty of activists, especially young ones, find gender-neutral language for reproduction, and the conceptual revolution it represents, liberating. The utopian goal of many feminists, after all, is a society that’s not built around the gender binary, a type of society that, as far as I know, exists nowhere on earth (though many cultures make room for a small number of people who exist outside the male/female dichotomy).
Much as they have put RBG on their pedestal, would she want to be their “person with vagina” hero? It’s highly unlikely, both given Ginsburg’s focus and the fact that she didn’t really care much for the mush-minded lingual nonsense pushed by progressives. The ACLU didn’t really care when it changed the words. It wasn’t really about Ginsburg but about the ACLU.
On Monday, Anthony Romero, executive director of the A.C.L.U., told me he regrets the R.B.G. tweet, and that in the future the organization won’t substantively alter anyone’s quotes. Still, he said, “Having spent time with Justice Ginsburg, I would like to believe that if she were alive today, she would encourage us to evolve our language to encompass a broader vision of gender, identity and sexuality.”
Romero “would like to believe,” as would every person who wants to believe that their now-deceased cultural or religious icons would have been in complete agreement with something they never agreed with when they were alive. What if the Notorious RBG would have called bullshit on this childish indulgence, as she did on the Title IX survivor attacks on due process?
What the ACLU did her wasn’t so much put words in Ginsburg’s mouth, but reimagine Ginsburg as a supporter of its woke vision, something she never did and never was. Do they get to do that? Does anyone? Do the believers get to reimagine their preferred historical figures in their own image?
*Tuesday Talk rules apply.