I read a very interesting article by Rachel Mankowitz on the problems that languages have with the changed views we now hold about gender in society. This an interesting read about language, religion and gender focussing mainly on Hebrew and it is well worth a read. It certainly made me think about the muddle we have created for ourselves with the issue of pronouns.
There are areas that I think have been clearly problematic with pronoun use. This I when they have been used to promote gender roles inappropriately. Sentences like “The nurse felt her heart race as the doctor raised his scalpel to make the first incision” are potentially harmful to society, as they portray, and foster, job stereotypes – nurses are women and surgeons are men. As a society we have really progressed from the idea that a certain chromosome mix, or specific genital anatomy, is important for a job or a task (other than the realms or childbirth, breastfeeding or possibly types of prostitution). We should be careful when we use gendered pronouns to relates to large groups as they create assumptions we may not intend.
However, most of the time we use pronouns it is to try and use a shorthand to identify an individual by reducing the options but without unnecessary specificity. The sentence “Alan left Alan’s clothes in Alan’s house” sounds far too hectoring or emphatic compared to “He left his clothes in his house”. Describing gossip or arguments with “he said, she said” is much easier than “Mr. Smith said, Mrs. Smith said“. We use pronouns to reduce the likelihood of errors in communication often by using one of the most basic of differences we notice about people. Often apparent gender is enough but sometimes not (e.g. “Her, her on the left with the red hair”). If one was to look at a group of 10 men and be asked “Who took the ball ?” to answer “he did” will not be adequate. We all use pronouns and adjectives instinctively like this; we use words to convey what we want to communicate as clearly as we can.
This not where the problems lie. The problems occur when people feel the need to select their pronouns. The statement “My preferred pronouns are ..” is problematic.
The first problem is minor. This problem arises when someone expressed this statement completely unnecessarily. Someone, often a stale white guy in a position of authority or a celebrity with falling ratings, will announce “My preferred pronouns are He/Him” as if there had been any prior doubts whatsoever. There was no need to advise us, we knew what pronouns to use, and the only reason this statement is made is to attract positive attention. The hope is that we will now think “He is a cool and aware dude not the boring old fart I had thought“. This actually rarely works in any event, most people can see through this, it is about as effective as a elderly vicar wearing jeans and a Limp Bizkit T-shirt saying ‘Yo ! I’m gettin’ down with the kids‘. Unless people have transitioned, or are in the process of doing so, there must be relatively few times this is necessary. I don’t like this but it is a minor irritation.
It is often felt that this statement is used to avoid hurt and insult during future conversations. Thankfully most of us have no intention of being insulting or disrespectful to others and in our conversations we will try and be polite and friendly. I am sure that if I met Trump or Boris I’d probably have a conversation that didn’t use the terms buffoon or egotistical maniac even once. Even when we disagree, we rarely insult people face to face; it is counter productive. But even if one actively wanted to be hurtful pronouns are not the issue here, because in English the first and second person pronouns are not gendered. If you refer back to the statement “My preferred pronouns.. ” it is clear that my pronouns are “I / Me” and the second person pronouns are “You / Yours“, so in any conversation there is no need to use a gendered pronoun at all. Unless you are unpleasant and nasty enough there is unlikely to be any accidental misgendering or insult – “Shall I pass you your clothes ? When did you start your job?” – you would have to work at being unpleasant to do it through the medium of pronouns. This statement about pronouns is rarely to prevent hurt or insult.
The real reason behind this request, and the reason for my objection to it, is that it is compels others to speak in a specific way about a third party. This is the insistence that, when a first person speaks to a second person about a third person then, the first person must use specific pronouns. This compulsion is rarely necessary ; if somebody looks as if they are living in the female gender role, or have told us they are, then we will probably use “she/ her”, and apparent occupant of the male gender role will likely be referred to as “he/him”. If the situation means we don’t know the gender , or feel that the situation is ambiguous, then we will probably use non-gendered terms such as “they / their” or “person/ people”. We are lucky in English that the third person “they/ their” can be used in the singular and plural. This is not always easy in other languages, in Welsh for example ‘they/their’ ( nhw/ eu) is always plural and requires plural noun forms. But again there are non-gendered placeholders that can be used.
Nobody has the right to insist that others talk about them in a specific manner. No minister of religion can insist on being called “reverend”, no politician can insist on being termed “the respected”, no one can insist on any particular adjectives or pronouns. Unless we threaten or slander or libel others we are free to communicate as we wish. Thankfully nearly all of us speak clearly and kindly. However, we would be foolish if we thought that the answer to racism, misogyny, homophobia, or any other hateful idea is to ban the speech that people can use. These ideas will die when they are confronted and exposed not when words are banned or specific pronouns are demanded.
A final irritation I have about this trend is that it appears a further step on the road to defining ourselves by a very limited aspect of ourselves. This statement tends to say that “The most important thing about me is where I fit in the current range of genders“. Now, unless I am thinking of wooing you to capture your sexual favours, this may be the least important aspect of you to me. I might prefer to think of you as “the vet” or “the lawyer” rather than as “Xi / Xim” or “She / Her”.
If I can see the gender role you present I’ll probably use the apt gendered pronoun, on the other hand it if it is very ambiguous I’ll probably be cautious. The third person, under discussion, by their words and behaviour will be able to help me choose. Conversations let us navigate these difficulties and find ways to talk to each other civilly. It is better to find this out together than to think we can prescribe what language other can use about us.
I could imagine that if I heard my overheard my neighbours talking about me and saying “Have you seen the state of the sheep on dickhead’s farm ?” then I might be upset. I would have two strategies I could consider. I could try to stop being a “dickhead” or I could insist that they called me “the wise one”; I know which strategy might have some hopes of success.