My preferred pronouns are .. ..

My preferred pronouns are .. ..

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.

Recollections of Misgendering

Recollections of Misgendering

I was watching a video which has been doing the rounds. It is of a fracas in a shop when a customer feels they have been “misgendered” by a sales assistant. As I watched them argue about the use of “Sir” and “Ma’am”, and saw their emotions rise, I had the thought that this is a very modern problem. My instinctive response was another nostalgic thought of  “In my day we never .. ..  ..“and so on. I allowed myself to imagine that such problems never really occurred  when I was young, and that I, and my age cohort, had a much easier time. Though, in Britain, we would still have been upset it anyone had used the term “ma’am” as we would have felt they were being deliberately sarcastic. But later, when out running, I recovered the memories of when I had been “misgendered” in my youth. I had thought that times had changed but perhaps not.

About two generations ago, in the seventies, there was  a veritable frenzy of misgendering. I was an adolesecent, thin, and boyish. I was waiting for my facial hair to arrive and longing for  reason to shave. I knew I didn’t look manly or macho therefore I needed an alternative style to appear winsome and interesting to the opposite sex. It was the time of psychadelia and I leapt into this trend’s music, books, drama and fashion with gusto. Surely no one would fail to see that I was a mature man with knowledge and discernment when I immersed myself in this counter-culture. Surely no-one, or at least one person, at least one female person, could see how interesting I was and would want to start a relationship with me.

Unfortunately I had not thought this strategy through adequately. While knowing the music of Cream and Jefferson Airplane, being familiar with the books of Huxley and Thompson, and having sat through the films of Bunuel and Antonioni were valuable plus points. This knowledge did gain me entry to many conversations at parties. I was able to hang out with other wise and enlightened people. But the strategy did not work out as I had anticipated. Unfortunately the fashions amplified my problems. I grew my hair long (The hair on top of my head that is) and I bought bell bottomed trousers and cheesecloth shirts. Togged up in my purple bell bottoms, multicoloured tie-dye short, with my long freshly-shampooed hair dropping down the back of my Afghan coat, it was pretty difficult, especially at a distance, to know what I was – a boy, a man, a girl or a woman ? The psychedelic fashions rather than make me look like an adult manly-man had made me look like a young girly-boy. This was not the outcome I had planned.

I can recall many times, in queues, people behind me passing by with a jaunty “excuse me Miss“. Similarly  people in lectures calling out to the “girl up there in the back. Yes, you, the girl with the long hair“. These were mortifying events for a young man insecure in his masculinity. They were public and embarassing. However, the only anger I recall feeling was with myself for my lack of machismo, or at the world for the unfairness of having this late developing physique. I knew there was no malevolence from the person doing the misgendering. I knew they had made a mistake and could even entertain the possibility that they had a twinge of embarassment. I never argued with them, the sooner this episode passed the better. I had no desire to prolong the embarrassment or to invite more people to be aware of what was happening. The less people who were aware the better for all concerned. I am so glad this was before the days of social media where my discomfort could be spread around the globe in minutes

There were of course times when the misgendering was deliberate. I recall that the barmen in the harder city pubs would make a point of noticing the long hair that I and my friends sported (“Will you ladies be having Babycham then?”). Likewise, after arrest by the police at demonstrations I never doubted that the mistakes the policemen made (“Excuse me miss is this your placard ?“) were anything but deliberate. In this situation we would generally play to the audience as we were on ‘the right side of history’ and part of the countercultural revolution. We would play up to their errors as flamboyantly as Mike Jagger could strut his ambiguous stuff on stage. On these occasions their faux misgendering was just grist to the mill and a sign that we were winning. This was not upsetting, they hadn’t made a mistake, they knew our gender they were just upset that we didn’t play to their rules.

Although I can understand the distress caused by misgendering I presume most occasions occur by accident rather then design. In these circumstances tolerance and respectful apologies seem the obvious course of action. Between civilised people these errors need not cause more than minor momentary distress. When it occurs deliberately, and without provocation, then like any other insult anger and ire are the appropriate response. Though I would still wager that maintaining the civilised posture is more likely to win the day.

I never get misgendered now. Age came and took the dubiety away. Everyone, even at quite a distance and without spectacles, clearly sees an old man. I’d be flattered to be mistaken for a boy or a youth, or even a girl, but I’m fairly certain that this is not going to happen. However, I am also happy to know that now I have left the age where  I believe aspects of my identity should and do define me. It is no longer important to me whether you think I’m old or young, male or female, straight or gay, black or white, or any other distinction. The only thing that concerns me now  is what you think of what I say and do and whether I think, on reflection, I have said or done the right thing.