We know how some conservative culture warriors are quick to show disdain for those whose lifestyles betray their core traditional values. But curiously, some seem to harbor an even stronger disdain for those whose personal lives hew to their core values, but who actively seek greater peace instead of war over those values in the public square. While these brawls might entertain political spectators, they may overwhelm the institutions of deliberative democracy.

This persecution of the peacemakers was on display this past week as Tucker Carlson at Fox News, Nate Hochman at National Review and some clever video editors went after Utah’s Republican governor, Spencer Cox.

So why are Fox and National Review coming after the popularly elected and overwhelmingly popular governor of one of America’s most Republican states?

Because of pronouns.

But before we get to the offending pronouns, we need some context. First, consider Cox’s personal and policy conservatism.

Cox lives on a family farm in the rural town of his birth, Fairview, Utah, a place where there are far more sheep than its estimated 1,300 or so residents. A former lay Latter-day Saint bishop in a Fairview congregation, Cox is married to his high school sweetheart, Abby, and they have four children. He is a lifelong pro-life Republican who has championed rural economic developmentSecond Amendment rights, increased domestic oil and gas productiongreater local control over federal public landseconomic deregulation and tax cuts.

The American Enterprise Institute, a right-of-center think tank, praised Utah under Cox’s watch for having “one of the best responses to Covid, without leaning heavily on some of the mandates that became points of division.”

Now, about those pronouns. Consider the context.

One year ago, Cox held a virtual town hall over Zoom with students across Utah. In it, students peppered the first-term governor with tough questions about the most controversial issues of the day: mask mandates in public schools, sex education, environmental threats to lands held sacred by Native Americans, gun violence at schools.

Some of the students on the call used a social-media convention of putting in parentheses, just after their visible name, their “preferred pronouns.” Many now use this convention to clarify for those interacting with them how they self-identify with regard to gender.

Halfway into this wide-ranging half-hour conversation, a student interlocutor politely introduced herself by sharing her name and, without missing a beat, added, “my pronouns are she/her/hers, and I’m in 12th grade at the Tuacahn School for the Arts.”

She recited the sobering statistics gathered by Utah’s Student Health and Risk Prevention survey regarding disproportionately poor mental health outcomes for LGBTQ+ youth, identified herself as bisexual, and asked, “What is the state’s plan to get more mental health therapists into each school?” 

To answer her question, Cox summarized legislation that enhances funding and access to mental health resources in each school, including the expansion of telehealth resources that can support remote areas of the state.

But before he gave his policy response, he thanked her for her courage in asking difficult questions and then offered: “My preferred pronouns are he/him/his — so thank you for sharing yours.”

He demonstrated his own familiarity with the SHARP data, explained how the issues of increasing anxiety, depression and suicide concern all teens, and acknowledged their disproportionate impact on LGBTQ+ students. He expressed the importance of creating a greater sense of belonging, and emphasized that all need to feel welcome and included, saying, “You do belong, you do matter, no matter what you might be feeling.”

This town hall went unremarked on the governor’s website for a full year until a video editor grabbed the segment where Cox shares his biologically accurate pronouns and spliced that sentence into Cox’s overall introduction of the event. That decontextualized version creates the misimpression that Cox proffers up his “preferred pronouns” as a matter of course.

In today’s culture wars, “preferred pronouns” are a shibboleth — an otherwise unremarkable use of words that to others reveal whether you are on the inside or the outside of a particular warring faction.

Consequently, for those who earn their living by stoking contention, they knew that Cox’s “he/him/his” would be far less sensational if shared within the full context of an empathetic governor building rapport with an LBGTQ+ student worried about teen mental health and self-harm.

Hence the misleading nature of the clip.

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But even with the context, Cox poses a threat to the perpetual outrage machine that whirs on contemporary cable television and social media. Why? Because Cox exemplifies a yearslong effort of local businesses, nonprofits and faith leaders in the state to lower the temperature and depolarize emotional issues surrounding a host of issues.

As Utah’s lieutenant governor to then-Gov. Gary Herbert, Cox was involved with Utah’s pathbreaking compromise to ban discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in housing and employment, while also protecting the rights of religious institutions. Herbert tapped Cox to spearhead a teen suicide prevention task force that championed significant increased support for teen mental health. As Cox became even more familiar with the complex mental health challenges affecting LGBTQ+ youth, he made it a point to reach out and encourage at-risk youth with messages of hope while seeking to promote evidence-based public health policy.

Cox’s principled but conciliatory approach to contentious issues, alongside his more traditionally conservative advocacy for economic freedom and government accountability, has mostly won him plaudits, making him one of the nation’s most popular governors.

But during Utah’s most recent legislative session, a negotiated effort to forge an innovative Utah compromise around the issue of transgender athlete participation in high school sports stalled and was thrown out in the very last hours of the legislative session in favor of an outright ban on transgender girls participating in girls prep sports.

Cox vetoed the ban and sent legislative leadership a strongly worded veto letter. Most of the letter takes the legislature to task over its violation of process norms and its failure to attend to the fiscal and organizational fallout of its outright ban. But the clincher is Cox’s turn to the plight of trans kids themselves, citing a study that shows that 86% of trans teenagers struggle with suicidality and 56% have attempted suicide. And then he notes that there are currently only four trans athletes in Utah’s high schools and only one of them participates in girls sports.

“Four kids and only one of them playing girls sports. That’s what all of this is about. Four kids who aren’t dominating or winning trophies or taking scholarships. Four kids who are just trying to find some friends and feel like they are a part of something. Four kids trying to get through each day. Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few. I don’t understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do. But I want them to live.”

Cox’s veto was summarily overridden.

The often marginalized issues of transgenderism are complex, contentious and consequential. They have real implications for parental rights, for the gendered spaces of our culture and for physical safety in those situations where biological sex matters. Such issues of privacy, sanctity and safety are precisely the kind of issues subject to “the turbulency and weakness of unruly passions” that James Madison warned could destroy democracies if there were not mechanisms put into place to slow down the process of lawmaking through structured deliberation, fact-finding and compromise.

Unfortunately, the deliberative framework that the founders established for good governance on contentious issues stands in direct opposition to what makes for good ratings on cable television and widespread sharing through social media, where lighting up our brain’s center for emotional response is the winning strategy.

Cox, a poster child for a potential generational-shifting conservatism, fought his way to the top of a very competitive party nominating process through an effective social media campaign laden with nostalgia and positivity. 

But by daring to interpose the institution of his office in order to provide some process and protection for a misunderstood vulnerable minority, he has thrown chum into the water of opponents who are far less benign in how they engage the medium.

And the fabricated outrage is not only a tool for those claiming to be to the right of Cox. In the wake of Carlson’s rant against Cox, one left-learning advocacy group texted out a fundraising appeal that read in part: “Let’s elect the kind of candidates that FOX will fume about for years.”

Madison observed that we are so vulnerable to polarization that “where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”

Culture warriors on all sides have discovered that there are fortunes to be made by weaponizing “frivolous and fanciful” distinctions. Heaven help the peacemakers who threaten culture war profiteers.

Paul S. Edwards is director of the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University.