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The Lowdown on the Pronoun Throwdown
My instinctive response to each perspective was useful in helping me clarify my own position.
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Back when Johnny Carson was the host of The Tonight Show, he had a guest—name escapes me—who said something like, “75 years ago, being gay was a criminal offense, 50 years ago it was decriminalized, 25 years ago it was made legal and now they want to legalize gay marriage. I think it’s time for me to get out of America.” Carson asks, “Why? What’s wrong with legalizing gay marriage?” The guest responds: “Oh, nothing! I just want to get out before they make it compulsory.”
This got big laughs: so often the case when an apparent absurdity is instantly perceived as merely an exaggeration of a trend. The guest nailed the coiled serpent of the totalitarian temptation at the heart of the gender-rights movement, but would have been amazed to learn that pronouns would turn out to be the “compulsion” vehicle for its expression. And even more amazed at the speed and ease of its cultural penetration.
Dissent is vigorous, but pursued at the margins, because our mainstream bandwidth has been captured by the pronounists. The recent “Pronoun Throwdown” roundtable in this substack is a testament to the fact that highly intelligent people have a lot to say on the issue, but can only meet in highly select safe spaces.
I am personally grateful for this discussion, because I’m as caught up in the hot and sticky pronoun tar baby as they are. Completely open to any strategies that combine principle with practicality, civility and genuine respect for the truly dysphoric (rare, often lost in the shuffle amongst the LARPers, the contagion-infected and the kinky), I found my instinctive responses to the individual perspectives extremely useful in helping me clarify my own position.
Eva Kurilova quite rightly identifies the existential element behind pronoun coercion as gender ideologues’ determination to control speech in order to manipulate perception. They have succeeded. Pronouns were invented to meet the need to refer to the sex of a person. Sex and gender are now hopelessly confused in common parlance, and the average person uses the same pronoun for both. But I sympathize with her decision to use the opposite-sex pronouns when it comes to personal relationships with trans-identified friends. We are human beings. Our impulse is to oil the wheels of friendship, not throw sand in its gears. The existential necessity is the freedom to make those choices, not the necessity for consistency.
Kara Dansky says sex-neutral pronouns like “they/them” and “ze/zir” are nonsensical, and I agree. But she goes further and will also never use “preferred pronouns,” which is how she characterizes the opposite-sex pronouns adopted by trans-identified people. She is correct in that designation. And she makes many excellent points about the cost of using “preferred pronouns.” She says that the easiest course is not to use them under any circumstances, but to substitute the person’s name where you would normally use a pronoun. I do that myself in my writing. But it can be cumbersome, and it takes added mental effort. Moreover, readers are generally aware of the subterfuge, which only draws more attention to your ploy, and away from the more important points you are trying to make. Kara’s logic is unassailable, but human relations cannot be governed by logic alone.
Being trans, Sara Higdon takes a more nuanced position. She will use the pronouns that accord with the person’s presentation. I am sympathetic to this view, especially when the person—a transwoman like Blair White for example—is to my eyes so feminine I cannot immediately see any masculinity at all, so that it takes more of an effort to say “he” than “she.” (Please note that unlike many purists who insist on “trans-identified”, I will use the words “transwoman” and “transman,” but only as a compound noun; when you say “trans woman,” as Sara does, you are modifying “woman.” When you say “transwoman” you are alluding to a singular phenomenon. Just as you would never say “fire man” to define a man who fights fires, a “transwoman” is by definition, for me anyway, a man who identifies as a woman.)
Dawn Ennis, also trans, brings up the biblical Golden Rule, “Treat others how you would want to be treated.” Dawn asks that we “be kind.” The problem with the Golden Rule in this debate is that no matter its cultural provenance, it invariably refers to one individual’s treatment of another. Likewise “be kind.” In the era of identity politics, collective identities rule. Some, including those who identify as trans, are allotted entitlements in the name of group rights that make a mockery of “be kind.”
That is because once groups are permitted to set the terms of their own rights, they can so easily become impervious to the harms done to individuals who are collateral damage to those alleged rights. Trans rights activists’ demand for “inclusion” in spaces created for women’s privacy and safety impinge on women’s rights to safety and fairness. The Golden Rule may be a fine rubric for murder, robbery, rape and fraud, but it is no help whatsoever when ideology privileges political truths over empirical ones. One cannot “be kind” to a faceless mass that contains within it vulnerable people asking for kindness in good faith, but also—as we see daily—angry misogynists who hurl ugly epithets and threaten violence against women.
I think it is pretty clear by now that the insistence on the universal use of pronouns has nothing to do with kindness, and everything to do with compelled homage to—for many of us—a false and alienating belief system. So my position here is to be kind to individuals where I can be without betraying women as a unique “identity” group.
Wilfred Reilly’s robustly stated position on public pronoun displays as a form of participation in a “quasi-religious ritual” resonated deeply with my own feelings. This is not a theocracy, and “bullying is against the rules.” Politeness rather than logic may dictate one’s private dealings with individuals, and that is both practical and sensible. In my opinion, one has to distinguish between irritations to be borne as an accommodation to colleagues or friends, and hills to die on. As Wilfred notes, it costs nothing for a Christian to wish Jews a Happy Hannukah, and nothing to call someone by a new name they have chosen. In doing so, you haven’t committed yourself to advancing the interests of a belief system you don’t share.
But it does cost something to wear a badge with your pronouns, or add pronouns to your email signature. Here’s where the Johnny Carson show guest’s joke about leaving America before gay marriage becomes compulsory comes into play.
When you add your pronouns to your signature, you are telling the world you have accepted the terms of usage as interpreted by the activists. Namely, that you are committed to playing the pronoun game according to their terms, no matter where it leads. And where they insist it leads is to acceptance that a “transwoman is a woman,” with all the legal rights such a definition entails. But the statement is a lie. So I won’t wear the badge.
What starts with alleged courtesy toward a political “truth” rather than objective reality often ends in voluntary sabotage of one’s own self-respect. Establishing one’s own bright line is difficult, but I have over time, and with the help of forums like this one, arrived at a principle that works for me.
My rule of thumb is to “be kind” when the pronoun reflects the individual’s gendered self-presentation to the world. I’ll say of a transwoman who has done everything possible to approximate the look of a typical woman, “She works for the Board of Commerce,” or, for a transman, “he is training as a paramedic,” or whatever. I haven’t been challenged so far on the “they/them” front, but if I were, I’d ask my interlocutor to choose between “he” and “she”; meeting resistance, I would go with the pronoun that best suited their self-representation. But if I’m writing a story of rapist who has allegedly transitioned and has asked for transfer to a women’s prison, I won’t do that, even if he has acquired feminine self-lamination, because here the issue is sex, not gender. I also won’t write “Her prostate is enlarged” or “he breastfed his baby.”
Sometimes you need to think outside the box. When high performance coach Linda Blade and I were writing our book, Unsporting: How Trans Activism and Science Denial Are Destroying Sport, we wrestled with the pronoun problem, because sport is always about biology. It was simply untenable to continually repeat a trans-identified athlete’s name. Linda came up with a non-threatening solution. When referring to a male who identifies as female, we added a circumflex to the pronoun. For a woman, “she.” For a transwoman, “sheˆ, likewise with “he” and “heˆ.” It saved a lot of awkward evasions, signalled the distinction with unobtrusive neutrality, kept the reader’s eye on the polemical ball, and allowed us to maintain our self-respect.
Detransitioner Michelle Alleva has lived both sides of the debate, and I salute her courage and persistence in plowing her own commendable furrow in arriving at a position that accords with her conscience. If anyone has earned the right to “use whatever pronouns come naturally to me in the moment,” it is this woman.
Like Kara Dansky, Sall Grover is a logic purist, so my response to Kara’s argument applies here.
Anchoring the roundtable debate, Colin Wright’s opinions—closely aligned to my own—are eloquently articulated. He speaks for me in his summing-up: “Truth and compassion are not necessarily in zero sum conflict with each other, and by paying attention to context I believe we can maximize both.”