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.

Let’s say a big thank you to all the w@nkers !

Let’s say a big thank you to all the w@nkers !

I know that my blog title appears possibly crude, especially the inclusion of an ampersand in the text. However, I have no wish to offend and do indeed want to offer my thanks to people who have been horribly maligned over many years. I had been thinking recently about the importance of attitudes to sexual behaviour in our modern society. We have known for many years how potent the sexual drive is in guiding human behaviour. This potency has lead been used to sell everything from apples to zinc baths, advertisers know that the our sexual urge is one of the strongest tools in their armoury. Generations of young men and women have striven and improved themselves in the hope of attracting mates and society has had untold benefits from this as they sublimated their sexual urges into self improvement, artistic endeavours, sporting success or charity. Unfortunately it has also been used to drive men to war and nations into conflict. It is indeed our primal and basic drive.

I have been concerned, however, on a rather different method of influencing us by our sexual desires. For millennia the state, usually through religious bodies, has used sexual desire to control us. It has stated that some very basic impulses are to be shunned, to be avoided and to be shameful. By telling us that those who fornicate wrongly, and don’t limit their desires to the prescribed form and frequency, are damned and the lowest of the low they created shame and fearfulness. Every young boy or girl whose hand slid to their waist knew they faced hellfire and eternal suffering. Or, if they escaped the horrors of hell then they would succumb to the secular terrors of insanity or blindness. Indeed after the priests had lost their hold over the public the medical experts were there ready to step into the breach and warn us of the terrible fates that would befall us if we were one of these morally weak degenerates.

The intention of these concerns about sexual behaviour was never the well being of the individual, despite the medicalization of the ‘problem’. The intention was always precisely to cause anxiety and doubt. To take something everyone did (to lust after a beauty, to fantasize over others) and to make it shameful turned us all into sinners whose only escape was to ask forgiveness from our betters. So shameful were our thoughts that we could not discuss them with our family or friends we had to admit them in the privacy of the confessional or the discuss them behind the doctor’s closed doors. It meant we all knew we were failures, we all carried a secret shame which could be revealed to our harm at any point, we all had the anxiety of being found out as morally imperfect.

This strategy is still being used today though the vendors of our shame and anxiety have changed. It is no longer the church that inculcates our doubts and shame. Now the elite in our media ensure that we know the mantras that we should repeat and the sins that we might harbour. We know, that now, it is a sin to say “A lesbian doesn’t have a penis” and hateful to exert that “Woman: noun, adult human female” might be a statement of fact. Apart from some specially chosen ‘facts’ it is now impossible to consider that there may be some innate differences between men and women. Anyone doubting this had best keep their tongue still if they wish to keep their friends and job. There is a veritable minefield of ideas about what is, and what is not, normal sexual behaviour, so difficult is this area, that it is best avoided all together.

All these statements do the same old thing. They keep the public anxious and ill-at-ease, fearful of saying the wrong thing. It makes us watchful of our superiors so we might be given the cues of what is permissible to think and to say. This keep our superiors in a position of strength over us. They hold the keys to the ideas that imprison us and can unleash the hounds when they decide we have transgressed. It can be terrifying to watch social media these days when people are pilloried for statements that would have been commonplace a decade ago. It is alarming when we see someone cast as a heretic for ideas that are similar to our own.

As in prior times, the easiest thing to do in these situations is to say nothing and keep your head down and bowed. It is even safer to agree with the inquisitors and to call out the heretics. After all while they are persecuting them they will be too busy to get round to you. This silence is now palpable. In politics across the globe the common people are afraid to voice their true opinions. They know they are viewed as the uncultured, immoral mob and worry, if they say what they think, they will be dammed. This means no one takes their opinions seriously and nobody discusses their concerns. It is adequate just to say that these are just deplorable, uneducated and unrefined folk who haven’t recognised the error of their ways. So when pollsters call, or interviews are held, we all toe the line and confirm what we know is safe to say. Many elections recently have stunned the pollsters when the results have been very different to predictions. Just as in years gone by nobody ever admitted to masturbating or lustful thoughts nowadays nobody doubts it is better today to use the term “pregnant people” rather than “pregnant women”, and that sometimes it is best to place a rapist, with a penis, in a female prison, when they are asked by someone holding a microphone or notepad.

As these inanities multiply I often become depressed and worry people are loosing their rational facilities: How can people not see the contradictions in these statements ? Why do people not speak up ? Do people believe this guff ? Then I remember the wankers; the millions of young men and women who over the years heard the dire warnings to their bodies an souls (Even today I had some trepidation using the word in the title such is the fear that has been instilled in us). downloadI remember them facing with the eternal torment of the demons and fires of hell as their parents and elders had warned them. I remember them thinking of a life of blindness or of dribbling insanity that the medical profession had clearly warned them lay ahead. I remember that despite this, these wankers slid their hands below the bedcovers and ignored them all. They knew, not with 100% certainty, that it was guff that they were being told. They doubted what the authorities told them and then went and did what came naturally.

So I am optimistic that as we move forward people will still think that their desires are normal, their common sense is indeed sensible and common to most of us, that though our superiors may demand lip-service to current sexual shibboleths we know they are wrong and maybe in the future we might be able to talk honestly about our opinions. We will look back, have a laugh, and feel sheepish about what we said. Perhaps one day the time will come when we can recognise that we don’t need this guidance and we can talk and interact as free individuals, unashamed to express our opinions. Then, if our opinions are wrong, we have a fighting chance of learning this and correcting them, rather than spouting the incorrect opinions of others.

Boys will probably be boys.

Boys will probably be boys.

I am obliged to go against the current cozy consensus, to say something different to the accepted viewpoint and, in the process, lay myself open for criticism. I am going to say something that is shocking, probably heretical, and in the current climate may lead to my being ostracized. I am going to say that there are differences between women and men, between boys and girls, which are not socially created but relate to our biology. There are innate differences in a some of our behaviours, our drives and our instincts which arose after millennia of evolution as a species. There, I have said it, let the heavens open. This is simply a fact, although unusually for one of my opinions, a fact with which most of science agrees.

Why have I found myself spouting heresies today ? Well, it all has to do with a racing car driver. I can confess that I actually felt rather sorry for Lewis Hamilton today. Why do I feel sorry for the handsome, wealthy, skilled and famous car racing star ? I felt sorry for him as he was forced to make an apology for a piece of playfulness with his nephew which revealed he did not toe the party line. In a piece of family banter, in a jovial mock-angry voice he said that “boys don’t wear princess dresses” while teasing his nephew, who seemed to be enjoying the attention from his famous uncle. Cue synthetic shock and horror from the social media watchmen who called out his “horrific” “transphobia“. After a short period of sustained attack, Lewis Hamilton came back with the required abject grovelling apology. However, it seems that this may not have been an adequate Mea Culpa as he is now being criticised  for inadequate sincerity in his shame. The intolerance of the social media clerisy is quite remarkable, they will not tolerate any views which deviate from the current accepted norms, no alternative views will be brooked.

Now I think Lewis Hamilton was wrong, of the things which might be social constructs I am pretty certain that styles of clothing is amongst them. In different cultures, and across different times, that which is suitable for girls and boys to wear has varied; style sense is not inherited (Although I can’t think of a culture promoting princess apparel to its boys). But it does not matter that he is wrong. He expressed his opinion and he has hurt no-one. He should be free to do this without the fear of mock outrage. Further, it is the family’s role to rear children and to instil values and attitudes in them – nobody else has that right. I disagree with many religions but believe that religious parents  have the right to instruct their children as they wish. I disagree with my conservative voting neighbours but do not feel that I have any right to stop them passing their opinions onto their children. Indeed, as long as they are not harming their children, I want families to instruct their offspring as it is them who teach the young how to be good, how to be moral, how to be a good man or a good woman. Sometimes their views on morality and goodness will not concur with mine, but these differences are the grit in the oyster of our culture which generates discussion and change. Tolerating these differences is one of the hallmarks of a civilised and open society. Watching people publicly shamed for unfashionable opinions is reminiscent of the stocks or the show trials and should cause free thinking people to be concerned.

The rights of the individual are closely allied to the family unit. The family unit allows us to act and exist outside of the state and the state has, for a long time, had an ambivalent view of the family : positive in that it cares for the young and the sick, negative as it may instil ideas of which it disapproves. It is still largely within the family that we develop our moral compass although the state’s roles in education and healthcare have reduced this somewhat. Capitalism sees less need for the nuclear or extended family, from the market’s viewpoint the more people producing and the more people consuming the better. Traditional families are perhaps inefficient in market terms in the developed west, the family model works best as a unit of production rather than as a unit of consumption. Socialist thinking has been more generally hostile to the family, it recognised that the family is a place of education and instruction which is not under state control and therefore potentially problematic. In 1920 Alexandra Kollontai wrote the set text on family organisation under communism. She wrote :-

The old family, narrow and petty, where the parents quarrel and are only interested in their own offspring, is not capable of educating the “new person”. The playgrounds, gardens, homes and other amenities where the child will spend the greater part of the day under the supervision of qualified educators will, on the other hand, offer an environment in which the child can grow up a conscious communist who recognises the need for solidarity, comradeship, mutual help and loyalty to the collective.

 and promised that :-
She need have no anxiety about her children. The workers’ state will assume responsibility for them
The woman who takes up the struggle for the liberation of the working class must learn to understand that there is no more room for the old proprietary attitude which says: “These are my children, I owe them all my maternal solicitude and affection; those are your children, they are no concern of mine and I don’t care if they go hungry and cold – I have no time for other children.” The worker-mother must learn not to differentiate between yours and mine; she must remember that there are only our children, the children of Russia’s communist workers.
Unfortunately it seems that this attack on the family where different opinions might flower continues. If we allow this censorious and intolerant development our future abilities to recognise and defeat authoritarianism will be sorely damaged.  Policing the family has always been a priority for authoritarian regimes, recall the importance given to the Hitlerjugend and the Komsomol in Germany and the Soviet Union, and remember that these were very early developments of fascist societies. A society which will not allow dodgy joke between family members is treading a dangerous path.