Here is a really weird question posed to “The Ethicist,” offered not for the issue raised (which is not exactly a tough one) but for the manner in which it is presented. The bolding is mine:
When my father died, my family took photos of his body before he was cremated. The photos were of him at home, peaceful in bed; my mother wanted to tenderly remember him both in life and in his death. My partner at the time uploaded these photos to their computer, storing these and other images in their cloud server as we archived memories from the trip home to say goodbye to my father.
One evening later that year, my then-partner pulled up the photos and did a slide show of our trip for their family. When my partner got to the images of my father’s dead body, they went through every image instead of skipping over them. It was immensely painful, compounded by the fact that my father is a Black man and these images were being shown to an affluent white family. The race and class dynamics here were staggering — it felt as if this white family was viewing these images as entertainment. This was among the incidents that triggered my ending the relationship; my ex didn’t quite understand why this was inappropriate or painful.
As we were breaking up, I asked that they erase the images from their drive. Since that time, they’ve made a million excuses as to why they can’t erase the images — the drive is in storage, they’ve moved, etc. It’s now been nearly six years. Still, I am deeply disturbed by the lack of control I have over these images. Currently my ex lives in the U.K., and I live in the U.S. What is the correct course of action here? Do I let it go? Seek legal action? My great fear is that these images will circulate into the future without my or my family’s consent. — Name Withheld
Language is supposed to communicate, not be distorted to satisfy narcissistic eccentricities and grandstanding. Who or what “moved,” the ex-, her family, or the photos? The account is absurdly ambiguous, although if you pause long enough along the way and think hard, you probably can figure it out—except that human communication is not supposed to be like Rubik’s Cube.
Compounding this offense against language and civilization, the Ethicist, being a good little Useful Idiot, panders to the politically correct foolishness and continues the jargon, writing, for example, “Whether or not your ex understood your reaction, they should have complied with your request.” Endorsing and perpetuating this faddish and woke destruction of coherence in language isn’t ethical. It’s also annoying and stupid…. and cowardly.
[For the record, of course the ex- should return the photo of the dead father, and of course she shouldn’t have shown it to her family. On the other hand, I am temped to say that there is a “Putting a Post-Mortem Photo of a Family Member in the Cloud Principle.” If the creepy thing is accessible to more than one person, this scenario (or worse ones) are hardly unlikely. The morbid family is primarily at fault for a breach of life and cyber competence.” That’s 85 words. Kwame Anthony Appiah’s response took 431.]
36 thoughts on “Exhibit A On Why “They/Them” Preferred Pronouns Must Be Mocked And Rejected Rather Than Respected”
Let’s assume that the intent is to hide the sex of the former partner. The good news is that the English language is sophisticated enough to handle that without resorting to wacky plural pronouns:
“When my father died, my family took photos of his body before he was cremated. The photos were of him at home, peaceful in bed; my mother wanted to tenderly remember him both in life and in his death. At the time, these photos were uploaded to the personal computer and stored, with other photos, in the cloud server of my partner at the time as we archived memories from the trip home to say goodbye to my father.
While socializing with my partner’s family one evening later that year, photos of the trip were pulled up as a slide-show for my partner’s family. When the images of my father’s dead body appeared, every image was displayed instead of skipped over. It was immensely painful, compounded by the fact that my father is a Black man and these images were being shown to an affluent white family. The race and class dynamics here were staggering – it felt as if this white family was viewing these images as entertainment. This was among the incidents that triggered my ending the relationship; my ex didn’t quite understand why this was inappropriate or painful.
As we were breaking up, I asked that the images be erased from my former partner’s drive. Since that time, I’ve been given a million excuses as to why the images can’t be erased – the drive is in storage, my former partner has moved, etc. It’s now been nearly six years. Still, I am deeply disturbed by the lack of control I have over these images. Currently my ex lives in the U.K. and I live in the U.S. What is the correct course of action here? Do I let it go? Seek legal action? My great fear is that these images will circulate into the future without my or family’s consent. – Name Witheld.”
Note that not a single pronoun is used in reference to the former partner and the gist of the letter is still there. Anyone reading it understands what happened.
* The letter writer capitalized the word “black” and not the word “white”.
* The letter writer didn’t consider that, perhaps, the former partner’s family might have been uncomfortable viewing a photo of a dead body, as opposed to being entertained by the photo of a dead black man.
* The letter writer apparently didn’t have the technical know-how to remove these photos from the former partner’s pc prior to ending the relationship.
* Photos of dead bodies back in my great grandfather’s day were actually a thing – We have a group photo at home of my great-grandfather’s family in which the photographer managed to splice in an image of a brother who had already died so it looks like the whole family was present. Creepy? You betcha. But it allowed my great-great-grandparents to have a photo of all of their children with them. I had no idea some people still did that, though.
The families are referred to as “they” and the individual is “they” and the photos are “they.” That’s the problem. Sure, as I said, one can figure out what is being asked, but language competency isn’t measured by minimum standard. I could have written that last sentence, “zur, azai sed, wun cn figgr owt wad is bean askd, bt lngaj comptee iznt mezred bi minmum stndurz” and you could have understood it, with a littel extra effort. Is that really where we want to lower our standards to? Really?
Agreed. Your point is excellent and your observations are correct. Language should communicate information so that the reader can understand what is being said. In the immortal words of Neil Peart in “Chemistry”, “Signals transmitted, message received.” I don’t know if there is a communications razor on point here, but perhaps the writer is using common jargon/vernacular and not really paying attention to the details, as it lazy writing because, well, it’s a letter to an advice column. Perhaps, the writer did actually write that way. I can’t really say, but I have read enough comments on the internet that lead me to conclude that it is lazy writing (which, in my never-to-be-humble opinion is awful). I see it in emails, from and to clients. I berated (well . . . gently criticized) a law clerk (3rd year law student, graduating in May, 2023) for sloppy writing in a motion draft. I said, ” Young lad, you are a law student, about to graduate. You are about to be licensed to practice law as a lawyer. Write and think like one. You are not one of the Great Unwashed Masses. You in the top 5 percent of the educated public. Your writing, arguments, and thinking should reflect that.”
Infinitely more readable, allowing us to reflect on the actual matter at hand rather than being caught up in the mental contortions needed to untangle the original mess.
Though I dislike the whole “my pronouns” nonsense, I’m going to play at least partial devil’s advocate on this one.
I totally excuse Appiah. Because of the questioner’s vagueness, he had no way of knowing the (Is it sex or gender? I’ve lost track.) of the person being referenced, and employing “they” when it is unknown or indeterminate has been acceptable usage for some time now in preference to the awkwardly repeated “he or she”, the generic “he”, or the somewhat stilted “one”. People understand this and it doesn’t signal anything else in particular.
Half a pass for the questioner. It’s annoying, but in this case the sex of either person isn’t relevant to the issue, so no harm outside of encouraging the furtherance the stupidity of the pronoun game.
I wasn’t referring to the gender issue at all! The problem with “they” and “them” here is that it’s impossible to tell whether the question or the answer is referring to the family or the ex-! “My partner at the time uploaded these photos to their computer”—whose computer? The questioner’s family’s computer, or the ex’s computer? I can be sure; can you? That’s why this is so ridiculous.
Appiah can and should have used “his or her,” thus signaling his rejection of the trope.
I misunderstood then. You’re right, even if the writer was fixed on using they/them for the partner, the other parties involved should have been clearly identified where applicable.
As a bit of a writing pedant myself, I’m of two minds on this issue.
In this particular case, the use of plural pronouns did make for a confusing read. Skilled rewording and use of the passive voice, as AM Golden demonstrates, would have helped.
In other cases, though, as when discussing a man, a woman and a non-binary person, it CAN be easier and clearer to indicate who is referred to if all of “he”, “she” and “they” are available as third-person singulars.
I do think, the way language currently stands, I (and the vast majority of readers) would trip over “they/them” being used to refer to a single non-binary person. I do find that annoying (but am *I* the problem?). I do, however, understand why language descriptivists don’t think we should let that get in the way of the language evolving.
I don’t. Language evolving is useful and beneficial if it aids communication. Language devolving, like eliminating the distinctions between “bring” and “take,” or insure, assure and ensure, or using “like” for no purpose, are devolution, and to be avoided in the interest of clarity and thought.
Yep. Although, one day in law school, as I was trundling down the hall, I saw a professor and cordially said, “Good afternoon, Professor Treece.” He responded with, “How y’all doin’?” I was the only one in the hall. I wondered if I had finally become outwardly schizophrenic. It could happen, you know.
Different language: Southern.
Right, but even so, a bit more precise than the usual singular or plural “you”. Usually “y’all” used when addressing one person would at least hint at the message being meant to include the subject’s family or associates.
Language is a wonderful tool that has been given to humanity. They need to be respected and cared for. How many non-human beings on earth can communicate to the degree humans are capable of doing? Being a sort of writer and having practiced law for twenty years and thus having been a paid wordsmith, I feel as if I’m the equivalent of a shop teacher sternly telling students: “Respect your tools!”
The passive voice has its own issues; for instance i obscures who showed the slideshow. Unlike a gun that kills people, the slideshow presumably didn’t start itself and dwell on the deceased grandfather’s.
Yup. Definitely requires skilled use.
Speaking of the pronoun circus to which I refuse to buy a ticket, I’d like to solicit opinions from this erudite group, if I may, on something that happened to me very recently.
I have moved into tech week in which I am the deck captain for a theatrical production. As this was the first time the crew was meeting the cast, designers, and director, it was announced that we would have to go around the room and announce our preferred pronouns to all who were present (and who had apparently already covered this ground amongst themselves.). As my position is a paid position for which I signed a contract, I couldn’t tell them to go “f” themselves and walk out the door had I simply been a volunteer.
When my turn came, I looked at the entire room, gave my best attempt at a contemptuous half chuckle and said “call me anything you want. I could not possibly care less” and went back to whatever it was I was doing on my phone at the moment. I have since been corrected for “mis-gendering” the director; a grown ass man with a (rather impressive) beard.
Question: what were my options? I’m honestly asking. How does one maintain professionalism while refusing to play along?
Thanks in advance.
This is going on in St. Croix County WESconsin?
But it’s in THE THEATER, Paulie, a parallel universe that raises its ugly head any- and everywhere. The theater is inhabited by … THEATER PEOPLE. These are not mere mortals Alicia is dealing with. I feel her pain. All I can suggest she do is … RUN AWAY! I did after acting in one play as a college sophomore. And I think live theater is one of the greatest art forms going.
Working and/or performing in live theater has been a life long passion of mine (if even as a hobby.). The theater is truly where my soul resides. But I’ve noticed huge changes even in just the last year or so. The alphabet mafia has made working in the theater almost intolerable. It’s a shame. And it makes me angry; because I’m good at what I do and there is nowhere else I’d rather spend my time.
A shame indeed. Hang in there.
“All I can suggest she do is … RUN AWAY!”
IMO, sanity exists (thrives, actually) ~ 177 clicks NE in Iron County WESconsin
Glass half full?
You can always count on the inimitable Babylon Bee to nail manifest insanity:
HE’S GOT A GUN Bystander Arrested For MISGENDERING Non-Binary Shooter
Wasn’t The Onion a Wesconsin product? Very sad it went to the dark side. If it can happen in a satire editorial room, it can happen anywhere. Praise Allah for The Bee. They do really good work. That article is tremendous, all The Onion used to be. May it rest in peace.
Just repeatedly use the person’s actual name in place of any pronouns at all. If it sounds goofy and annoys them, tough. You can always say that you can’t remember everybody’s preferences and don’t want to make mistakes.
Great work around: proper nouns! Brilliant! Is this a great language or what?
My pronouns are I, me, and my. They work great for me. Now, make the director use them in the contemporary manner of ‘preferred pronouns’. Let the games begin.
Well, as a currently inactive theater professional who operated a professional theater company for 20 years, my first question would be, “Who asked everyone to do this?” If it was the producer, that was inappropriate. If it was the director, it was inappropriate. If it was the chairman of the board, it was inappropriate, and as a theater ethicist, I hereby volunteer my services to explain to that organization why.
That is a political and sexually charged question at this time, and raising it injects a point of tension and a distraction into the artistic process, which is difficult enough as it is. Any production of mine in the era would be held with the understanding that personal issues and politically controversial positions are to be kept out of the rehearsals and production. I did not tolerate sexual harassment, and I would not tolerate political bullying. If you have gender issues, deal with them privately. If you can’t function without making them an issue in the production, leave.
And paid or not, I would declare the above as part of a full-on efforts to stop the “preferred pronoun” stunt if whoever was launching it rejected my request to have a private discussion before continuing. Springing this in tech week is unconscionable.
My phone number is 703-548-5229.
Of course, Alicia may never get hired there again. Without explanation.
Since you really care about theater, you have to decide if you want to fight this issue for the good of theater—indeed, its survival as a mainstream art and activity, or just give up and go with the flow. Since the over-due liberalizing of attitudes towards gays, an unfortunate unanticipated consequence (among many) is that the LGPTQ community, always over-represented in the performing arts, decided that theater and especially musical theater, was their domain, and straight artists were only passing through. This has been a disaster for theater generally, and non-gays increasingly regard the theater as hostile territory. In too many cases, it is. The most famed and successful of my community’s small pro theaters was founded by an openly and ostentatiously gay man who made gay vibes a fetish backstage and on-stage as well. Straight actors (OK, “cis'”) had tales of being discriminated against and harassed; eventually, they stopped participating. After decades of getting the Kings Pass, the company’s artistic director was finally accused of sexual harassment so serious that the board finally fired him. Of course, they could have and should have addressed the issue long ago, but being all-gay, the members didn’t care until it became a financial threat.
My company got the reputation as having the most non-gay artists in the area. I didn’t pay any attention to the sexual orientation of the artists; it wasn’t a factor, because it shouldn’t be. The gay director of our production of “The Boys in the Band” agreed with me that nobody auditioning should have to reveal their sexual orientation; the company was literally not interested (not that it was tough to discern in many instances.)
Broadway is committing cultural suicide by presenting a public image of being an LGTBQ lobbying genre. On the Sirius-XM Broadway channel, all of the hosts are either female or ostentatiously gay, notably Seth Rudetsky, a talented musician and writer who might be the gayest-sounding human being alive. That’s the public image of musical theater.
The battle may be lost; if you love theater, you can be forgiven for just going with the flow, but understand that if this isn’t moderated, it will hasten live theater’s demise.
You got that right: an ass-man. Oh, and for what it’s worth, I think you handled that perfectly. I would have succumbed to the irresistible temptation to say something like “you can call me Alicia, just like most normal people do”.
If you really want to jiu-jitsu this pronoun nonsense, you can always demand that anyone who wants to play this game must use your pronouns when referring to you. Then tell them your pronouns are “I/me/mine”. The brain rejects such usage instinctively, and communication becomes impossible immediately. Using “they/them/theirs” as singular pronouns might be sand in the gears of language, but using “I/me/mine” as third-person pronouns is a hand grenade tied to a monkey wrench.
You hit this on the head when you mentioned narcissism. When everything in this garbage culture has conspired to inculcate narcissism in our children, especially technology and social media, we have to be helping people into the next stage of emotional development, where we learn that we’re not actually the center of the universe. This is supposed to happen at around age 8, not age 40.
Thank you all so much for your input. It is very appreciated. As I was completely caught off guard that evening, having no idea that the question would be coming, I did the best I could in the moment.
There is a wrap up survey of sorts after the close of each production. I will be formulating your input into a response that makes it clear that I will not be subjected to that question, or any question like it, again. It will also go into my contract.
Oh, and they’ll hire me again. (Incoming humble brag.) They sought me out 6 years ago because of my reputation in the local theater scene. The board of directors, actors, crew, artistic directors, etc. – they know I’m good. I’ll be back.
And thanks, Jack.
Addendum: That director making an issue of “misgendering” marks him as unfit to direct in my book. He’s not there to advocate political and social positions unless its through the material in the script.