On “Correct Pronouns,” Part 2

I began this inquiry two days ago, intending to complete it forthwith, but then a sick, broken, psychopathic teen in Texas murdered his grandmother, children and teachers with an AR-15 with the predictable Ethics Train Wreck gathering steam once again. Let’s finish up before something else goes wrong.

Ann Althouse is at fault: she flagged Roxane Gay’s New York Times advice column “Work Friend,” focusing on this question from the ubiquitous “Anonymous”:

In the past six months, my organization approved the optional inclusion of pronouns in email signatures. I learned that one of my team members uses nonbinary pronouns. In my written communication and conversation about that team member, I now use those pronouns, but I notice that no one else has made the adjustment. As the supervisor of this team, how can I fix this situation?I feel like the longer I wait to address it, the more disrespectful and complicit I’m being. I can’t police people’s language, but I would call someone out for other kinds of behavior I interpreted as disrespectful. (For what it’s worth, I don’t suspect anyone of being intentionally disrespectful by not using their colleague’s preferred pronouns.) The nonbinary colleague has not said anything to me about this being a problem, but I have to assume it feels dismissive. I feel I owe them an apology, but what I really owe them is better leadership. What would you do?

The advice columnist whose record of often obnoxious woke certitude ended up eating the issue sufficiently to require two parts to the intended post, responded,

“Thank you for asking this question. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect and part of that is using people’s correct pronouns.”

“Correct pronouns?” Doesn’t correct mean “factual and true”? The requirement that individuals and groups get to demand and enforce what is correct is, I think, one more manifestation of the Left’s slide into a totalitarian mindset, and the tendency of the easily subjugated, weenies and the “oh. well, if they care so much, why fight it?” crowd to let societal freedom die a death of a thousand cuts. Ann quoted one of Gay’s commenters, who wrote,

I am really curious about this pronoun business in business communication. Who decided that the new law of the land is that everybody gets to pick their pronouns however misaligned they may be to their publicly visibly persona, and everybody else needs to learn this and memorize? Who has time for this?

Of course, it is not a matter of time, but a matter of ethics. It is an ethics conflict, in fact, one that involves a clash of manners, consideration, principles, respect, fairness, responsibility, and the abuse of power. It is ethical—fair, respectful, caring—to agree to call a friend, colleague or acquaintance by whatever name they wish to be called, within reason. Not all names are appropriate in all settings, however: a boss that asked to be called “Love Bug” or “Sex Machine” in the workplace is engaging in sexual harassment. Unethical. Would one have to call someone by her “correct” name if she insisted on the title, “Your Majesty”? That’s getting closer to the issue here. Such demands (a request is a demand if one will encounter negative consequences for rejecting it) are a power play; one relevant ethics question is whether the conduct is justifiable. I object to jumping through hoops on command: Ethics Alarms will capitalize the “b” in Black when the stars turn cold, just as I rejected the abomination “of color” the first time it raised its colorful head.

Writing about the pronouns issue a year ago, Althouse, who has raised the question a lot, ended one post, “Personally, I feel that anyone who feels the need to announce their pronouns is childish and rude, and I treat them as such.” That discussion covered whether requiring/demanding/requesting that someone adopt one’s counter-factual, eccentric or debatable choice of pronouns is forcing others to adopt an ideology they do not share.

Of course it is. That’s the whole point.

This was the issue in an Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz in 2020. Peter Vlaming, a high school teacher in West Point Virginia, refused to use the pronouns demanded by a 9th grade student who said she was a female transitioning to male, and though she appeared female, insisted that she be called “he” and “him.” The teacher refused on (dubious) religious grounds, but was willing to use the student’s name only, without the mandatory pronouns. But he slipped up once, and was fired.

I could have written the post today by simply quoting the responses to that quiz, which were remarkably consistent. (I know, I know: “the echo chamber.”)

Here are my responses to “Anonymous” from “Work Friend”:

1. The organization’s permission to include “preferred pronouns” in email signatures was unethical to begin with. It was an invitation to inject political and ideological stands into the workplace, an implied endorsement of the current progressive power play on behalf of trans activists, and created a litmus test for perceived virtue and “wokeness.”

2. The pressure the organization allowed to be placed on employees by the “option” of designating pronouns is only increased by management insisting that the stated designations be followed. On the other hand, the refusal of such “requests” creates a source of workplace conflict that management has to address. Ethics zugzwang! Once the permission to make an issue of pronouns was granted, there were no ethical options.

3. The use of intentionally incorrect pronouns is a method of denigration of long standing. In the Sixties, hippie-phobes would call male teens with long hair by female pronouns. It was also a handy way to humiliate apparent gays of both sexes. I have had transitioning people in my circle of acquaintances; if they asked me to call them by their perceived gender’s pronoun, I accommodated them. But that was my choice, and not one dictated by a coda on an email. It is ethical–kind, caring, respectful–to accommodate a reasonable request, if it is presented as a request. An announcement of pronouns in an email or personal description is an edict, and I do not acknowledge anyone’s power over me to that extent.

4. A single individual demanding to be referred to as “they/them” is not asking for “correct” pronouns, but incorrect ones. I’ll accommodate conjoined twins and those who suffer from multiple personality disorders, but beyond that, it is unethical to be complicit in undermining language and communication.

5. I will, for now, keep an open mind regarding so-called “non-binary” individuals. I tend to think it is an affectation, a fad, a narcissistic stunt, or perhaps even a mental disorder. I am willing to be convinced otherwise, but for now, my position is “Pick a pronoun, ask nicely, and I’ll accommodate you. You have two choices, and once you choose, that’s it.”

Do read the comments in that 2018 post linked above.

21 thoughts on “On “Correct Pronouns,” Part 2

  1. Two anecdotes:

    At a recent “Star Trek” convention, fans lined up to ask questions of a celebrity guest during a Q&A session. One fan stepped up to the microphone, gave her name and then added, “she/her pronouns” before asking her question.

    I was stumped. You are asking someone a question. That someone will be answering you. Why would the person need to know your pronouns when, presumably, the answer will be given to you and the only pronouns possibly used during the answer will be “I” and/or “you”?

    I work for a nationwide company. Those who use our services must identify gender as an essential part of the service. We are increasingly running into those who can’t seem to tell us what gender they are. Instead, they immediately default to pronouns. Since there is a legal contractural aspect to the services, we cannot guess nor are we permitted to decide for people how to answer. We have to get that information from them. We are unable to determine gender based on what you tell us your pronouns are.

    Just a couple of examples of how this insanity affects regular life.

  2. Jack wrote:

    4. A single individual demanding to be referred to as “they/them” is not asking for “correct” pronouns, but incorrect ones. I’ll accommodate conjoined twins and those who suffer from multiple personality disorders, but beyond that, it is unethical to be complicit in undermining language and communication.

    So you essentially reject “nonbinary” pronouns as destructive to the language, as your two examples are so rare as to be unimportant.

    Good.

    I will, for now, keep an open mind regarding so-called “nonbinary” individuals. I tend to think it is an affectation, a fad, a narcissistic stunt, or perhaps even a mental disorder.

    Unlike you, my mind is closed on this point. I am not willing to entertain “nonbinary” people as anything other than the examples you gave, because my nearly 65 years of understanding of humanity and the world we actually live in precludes the necessity of open-mindedness on this point.

    If I am presented with a convincing set of data that purport to prove I’m wrong, I’ll at least examine it. But it would have to be overwhelmingly convincing and nearly bullet-proof for me to even enter “open minded” territory, let alone accept it as as dispositive.

  3. I will honor these “preferred pronouns” only for those who agree to initially address me as “Your Highness” and thereafter as “Sir” each day. After all, handing me the ability to trigger a meltdown is a fairly ‘kingly” power.

  4. “I have had transitioning people in my circle of acquaintances; if they asked me to call them by their perceived gender’s pronoun, I accommodated them. But that was my choice, and not one dictated by a coda on an email. It is ethical–kind, caring, respectful–to accommodate a reasonable request, if it is presented as a request.”

    Your comment has me thinking that if presented with a similar request I will be sure to burden the individual asking with remembering my request as well.

    For example, I will say something like, “would you please address me as Batman because I have long identified as the caped crusader and am relieved that our mores have finally evolved to accommodate me on this matter and thank you; we are all in this together.”

      • I should have emphasized the word *burden* because I suspect there is a subtle power play inherent in the whole pronoun phenomenon. The pronoun crusaders will never admit this of course and I like your response of “Seems fair” because it IS an additional burden that if forgotten provides an individual with the opportunity to call someone out and shame them into compliance knowing full well there will always be a supportive posse ready to pounce.

  5. John McWhorter, who is even more gifted in language usage than I, (and who, like me, finds wokeism to be a bit repugnant) has argued convincingly that we can and should evolve linguistically to gender neutral pronouns. Context, he says, will let us know if ‘they’ refers to one person or more than one in the same way context informs about the word ‘you’.
    I think they is right.
    https://www.cnn.com/2015/10/14/opinions/mcwhorter-pronouns-gender-neutral/index.html

    • Should languages with gendered nouns like Spanish or French be re-engineered from the ground up to accommodate this tiny fraction of mentally ill people (assuming they identify as people, of course – some may identify as cartoon rabbits or helicopters or buildings) who appear to be intentionally seeking offense?

      Good luck with that project.
      I certainly wouldn’t want to be the one to inform the French about this, as irrationally protective of their language as they are.

      • “I’ll have the pizzx and lasagnx”

        The whole Gina Carano mess perfectly illustrates that this is a power move and not at all about respect. Clearly they don’t understand that beep prefers to be identified as android and should respect boop’s request to refer to bop with the preferred pronouns.

  6. This whole issue puts me in mind of the character “Major Major Major Major” in Catch 22. Until joining the military, Major thought that was only his surname. He then found out that his father, as a joke, had given him that as his first and middle names as well. A records glitch got him assigned the rank of major, and posted as such. He dealt with it by entering and leaving his office by the window, and telling his assistant to only allow people in to see him when he wasn’t there.

  7. Nuanced thoughts on this matter:

    1. I consider pronouns part of someone’s name, in a sense. I learn how to pronounce and spell someone’s name, and by the same token I learn their preferred pronouns, within a list of reasonable options.

    2. Some humans feel viscerally uncomfortable being put in a box as a particular gender, which is why they prefer non-gendered pronouns. I respect and abide by that, but also think that humans should not be quite so emotionally vulnerable.

    3. I personally don’t care about my own pronouns. Sometimes when I use a soothing voice on the phone people think I’m female for a bit, which doesn’t bother me because I take it as an indication that my soothing voice is working well. He/him is conventional and works just fine. They/them is gender-neutral, which I think could be better for society (see 5). It/it is more reflective of my abstract and transcendent nature but is often off-putting to humans and I usually don’t want that. She/her is less accurate for me than he/him and would confuse or mislead most humans and irritate some of them.

    4. In my official capacity as an existentialist philosopher, my gender should not matter to anyone at all. It certainly doesn’t matter to me in this context. I define conscious experience in terms that are far more fundamental than gender while leaving plenty of room for humans to apply these concepts to their own experiences which are informed by their gender. If my insights have baked-in concepts that are biased based on my personal experiences with human society, then I am doing something wrong and need to connect with different paradigms to remedy that. I reject the idea that I would be incapable of doing so. Philosophy has to work for everyone, or it means nothing.

    5. I think that human society has an unhealthy habit of bringing gender into contexts where it isn’t relevant. I think genderless pronouns could help with that by leading humans to relate to each other as people and equals based on what they have in common, and to avoid preconceived assumptions about individuals based on their gender. The idea that when you don’t know a human’s gender you should assume they are male causes problems because many humans (probably mostly males) don’t end up building a mental model of what a proactive, independent female human actually looks like, i.e. a normal human doing proactive, independent things unrelated to and unmotivated by their gender. This may not be a problem for you, the reader, but it affects enough humans that it’s worth considering adjusting their language to expand their idea of what responsible humans can look like. (That said, background mindset teaches us that there are some experiences, priorities, and emotional paradigms strongly correlated with gender, which means that gendered pronouns could still give us relevant information. Humans could very well learn how to treat each other as equals without changing their pronoun conventions.)

    6. I am not terribly fond of the fact that many European languages tend to assign genders to any and all nouns. I think it’s silly. Humans historically have been bad at making languages that help them think clearly and communicate ideas that matter. That’s why I’m having to lead all of this meta-cultural overhaul.

    7. The process of expanding people’s ideas of what responsible humans look like can also be done with ethnicity. Part of why humans care about representation of their own demographic groups in media and various positions in society is that humans have a nasty habit of making things unnecessarily difficult for people who are atypical (superficially or otherwise) in a particular context. Many humans figure that the solution is to erode the concept of atypical. How appropriate or effective this is depends on the context and their methods for accomplishing that goal. Personally, I think that in parallel with that, we need to equip humans to communicate with each other without having to feel like they’re walking through a minefield.

  8. Am I the only one who finds it significant that people requiring all sorts of peculiar pronouns refer to themselves using the singular, personal pronoun “I?” “Weird pronouns for thee, but nor for me?”

    • Probably, yeah. In English, first-person and second-person pronouns don’t carry any gender information; only third-person pronouns do that. Gender information is what people care about here. Let’s not get carried away with mocking strawmen. Or… strawfolk, I guess.

      As far as I know, the only reason people started coming up with new singular gender-neutral third-person pronouns like zhe/zhim is that pedantic people keep insisting that “they/them” cannot be used as a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun, even thought it’s been used like that for centuries. Any insistence past or present on using male pronouns by default for people of unknown gender is sexist, and I would rather hope that’s obvious. (For those who don’t find it obvious, consider the associations it builds in people’s minds: whenever they discuss the possibility of a person doing something that doesn’t specifically entail being female, they are to assume the person is male. Now consider how most humans react emotionally when their expectations of a person are subverted. Gender-neutral pronouns are a small step that would help a lot of humans develop healthier interactions with and regard for their fellow humans.)

      By contrast, the insistence on “he or she” is just clunky and highlights the flaw in English that (if forbidden from coopting “they/them”) we have to union two pronouns together in order to talk about a single person whose gender we neither know nor care about. It’s like if we had to say “mother or father” and “brother or sister” all the time because the words “parent” and “sibling” didn’t exist, or “up and down” and “left and right” because the words “vertical” and “horizontal” didn’t exist.

      If people are so up-in-arms about the singular “they”, why is nobody complaining about the word “you” not distinguishing between singular or plural? (Or subject versus object, for that matter?) Or the word “we” not specifying whether the second person (you, the addressee) is included or not?

      The objection to the singular “they” seems like an oddly specific complaint, that only serves to prop up an aspect of English as you know it which serves no real function other than to make things more difficult for people who don’t fit the assumptions that gender-based language trains others to make about them.

      • (This is all my reaction to Jack’s point 4, I should note.)

        In other words, mocking the singular “they” seems like a cheap way to broadcast, “You should conform to my idea of how gender works. If you don’t, then you’re grammatically incorrect, and I’ll make fun of you for that regardless of how much of a stickler I normally am about grammar, because I’m not allowed to mock you for nonconformity outright. No, we can’t change the language to be more convenient even though all language exists solely because people made it up for convenience. Now if you’ll excuse me, me and my friend need to quickly split infinitives and find someone else who we can borrow a preposition from to end a sentence with.”

        On another grammatical note, as someone who actually cares about the clarity and functionality of language and who has also studied computer programming, I’ve always been super annoyed about the rules for including punctuation marks in sets of quotation marks even if they weren’t part of the original quote. That practice sometimes seems outright misleading to me, so I only use that rule when I feel like it.

        • Heh. I had considered that. However, “y’all” has an unfortunate tendency to clash stylistically with at least a few regional dialects and accents. (Can you picture a posh Brit using it?) It also sounds awkward sometimes when used as the object in a sentence. (“If y’all look to y’all’s left, y’all’ll see some snacks we set out for y’all.”) Finally, people sometimes use “y’all” singularly, meaning that to be completely ambiguous one has to say “all y’all”. At that point you might as well say “all of you” or “both of you” or “the lot o’ ya.” Just not “you people.” (“What do you mean, you people?!”)

  9. My response to preferred pronouns is based on an adage proposed by a professor of psychiatry, “Do not play in another’s fantasy playground.”

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