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Can You Guess My Preferred Pronoun?
By Charles Lipson
It is passing strange to receive emails from people who highlight their personal pronouns. Yes, James, I made a wild stab and guessed yours are “he, him.” Thanks for letting me know. My preferred sandwich is a pastrami on rye.
Preferred sandwiches are still rare in official email signatures, but “preferred pronouns” are not. They are now commonplace at woke institutions and are gradually spreading to all professional workplaces. Even though it’s a small issue, it points to a bigger problem. The insistent direction to use my “preferred pronoun,” even when that word is already obvious, is yet another step into the deepening quicksand of cultural hectoring, turning every aspect of daily life into a political battlefield. That quicksand is spreading fast, and far too many are sinking beneath it without a murmur. It’s time to call it out.
The movement to make “preferred pronouns” standard features of professional signatures began with transgender advocates. They were soon joined by people who identified as neither men nor women. Their concern was understandable. They want to be addressed in the way they prefer. That’s absolutely fine. So is letting people know how to address you, if the answer is not already clear from your name. The goal should be to make interaction easier, not to preen or harass.
The oddity is why so many other people for whom the right pronoun is obvious now include it in their e-mail. What’s the point? For some, it is the now-conventional virtue signaling, spreading their peacock tails for all to admire. For others, it’s simply following whatever their colleagues do or their boss demands. Resistance, they know all too well, can be fatal to careers.
Here’s a typical example, from a recent email to me. The sender's name is a common female one, and her email signature at the bottom of the note reads as follows:
Development Editor: Editorial Research
Content, Resources, and Development
Major international publishing company
Please consider the environment before printing this email.
As an aside, there’s a delicious note of irony here, even though the sender missed it. (Irony and humor are not strong points in Woke World.) If printing is such a blot on the environment, what about her own profession? She works for a publishing company, for heaven’s sake. Is she a mere tool of the deforestation-literacy complex? A foolish consistency must be the hobgoblin of woke minds.
In the case of personal pronouns, we seldom need to be told which ones to use. Who, pray tell, is confused that Nicholas is “he” and Nicole is “she”? When James Morris, who wrote a fine trilogy on the British Empire, became Jan Morris, everyone switched smoothly from “he” to “her.” We didn’t need the hall monitor’s wagging finger to tell us. Jan’s new name made the correct pronoun clear. Such clarity is not enough for woke culture. To appease them, you must state your preferred pronouns publicly and repeatedly, no matter how obvious your name makes them—or pay the price for refusal. In fact, the wokest of the woke go even further, as this Forbes columnist did. Drop the term “preferred” because it is entirely too mild. Instead, demand these pronouns.
Three Reasons to Raise the Issue
This combination of virtue signaling and hectoring is worth considering for three reasons:
– First, people are afraid to mention it for fear of being branded apostates. (These ideologies are quasi-religious. Violators are damned for their wickedness.) It’s far easier to go along quietly, without any questions.
– Second, “preferred pronouns” are dividing us by class. Gender-pronoun signatures have become omnipresent at elite institutions, such as universities, publishing houses, intellectual journals and progressive philanthropies. Rare is the administrator who doesn’t inform you that he is a “he” or she is a “she.” The practice has now spread to big law firms and other professions. At the same time, it is still rare among plumbers, carpenters and truckers.
– Third, this insistence on displaying pronouns is part of a broader cultural-political program to reframe how we talk and think about gender. That’s why Penn State has banned the term “freshman.” It contains the verboten word, “man.” Can Manchester United survive the purge? And what about the Isle of Man or, worse, the Isle of Wight? Debating these social issues is perfectly fine. What’s not fine is the harsh insistence that we must talk one way or face the cultural firing squad.
Please Call People What They Prefer
In considering these issues, let’s begin with a basic point of civility and mutual tolerance. We ought to call people by the names and pronouns they choose. Doing so shouldn’t be subject to government regulation, as some in Canada have tried to make it, but it should be a common courtesy. Most people demonstrate such courtesy and have done so for decades. We did it when a boxer wanted to be called Muhammed Ali, not Cassius Clay, or a basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, not Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor. People adapted quickly and respectfully—although Ali’s name change was more controversial because it was part of a larger political conflict over the Vietnam War, the military draft and race relations.
We should show the same respect for people who change genders. Again, nearly everyone does. In fact, what is remarkable—and praiseworthy—is how rapidly most people have adapted. No one should call Caitlyn Jenner by her former name, Bruce, and almost no one does. That’s common decency. The same applies to pronouns. Caitlyn is now “she.” Although it shouldn’t be a crime to call her by the wrong pronoun, decent people should condemn anyone who tries to demean her.
There is already near-unanimity on these basic points of courtesy, tolerance and respect. They command broad social support. The only outliers are a few mean-spirited people, and most of us recognize them for what they are. This shared sense of mutual respect is worth celebrating, especially because our society is so divided on so many issues.
Calling an individual “they” (indicating neither male nor female) is a little trickier because it leads to an unavoidable linguistic problem: you have to utter sentences like, “They is coming to dinner.” Perhaps they is, but such a verbal compost heap is bound to fluster anyone accustomed to normal subject-predicate agreement in English. On the other hand, it’s easy to say, “Invite them into the office,” even if “them” refers only to a single person.
Most of us want to do the right thing and call people what they want to be called. The only problem, aside from awkward phrases like “they is,” is that we might make occasional, innocent mistakes when the right word is unfamiliar. Those can be corrected easily enough and should be handled without rancor, unless they are meant as terms of abuse. Call out insults, but don’t confuse mistakes for deliberate cruelty. Don’t treat them as if they are the same.
Occasionally, We Do Need To Know Your Pronouns—But Not Often
Are there any sensible reasons to put these lists of pronouns into email signatures? Yes, but only when it’s not obvious which pronouns the recipient should use in reply. For most people, that means anyone the recipient doesn’t already know and whose gender cannot be inferred from the name itself. My working assumption is that Christopher and Patrick are men, Christine and Patricia are women. If that’s wrong, tell me.
There are three cases where I might be uncertain, unless I already know the person:
– Nicknames that are commonly used for both men and women, such as Chris, Pat or Kelly.
– First names that are drawn from family heritage, like “Pryor,” “Shannon” or “Mallory.”
– Unfamiliar names in foreign languages.
In each case, it helps to know what pronoun to use. One more thing about foreign languages: It helps to clarify which name is your first name and which is your family name. Oddly, emails from foreign senders almost never clarify either one. On exams, I ask all students to write their family name in CAPS. It’s a simple expedient that works in emails, too. Occasionally, I need a helping hand like this, and I’m happy to receive it. Most folks are. Why not begin with that benign presumption?
What about “helping” us when we clearly don’t need it? No. Please don’t. It’s like reading a student paper that says, “As Albert Einstein, the famous scientist, once said….” Thanks, I was wondering who that guy was. Most “pronoun signatures” are not meant to help the recipients at all. They are meant to signal superior virtue, conformity to woke norms or eagerness to camouflage the atypical pronouns a few people use, which might stand out if no one else included theirs.
To repeat, there’s nothing wrong with using whatever pronouns you prefer or asking others to use them in addressing you. But there is something odd—and socially coercive—about making everybody else write down their all-too-obvious pronouns just so a few people won’t stand out. It carries the same stench of self-congratulation that all displays of superior moral virtue do.
The Cost of This Preening Wokeness and Cultural Quicksand
This linguistic pantomime comes at a cost. If everyone must obey these self-appointed hall monitors, if we have to tiptoe through conversations lest we slip into unpardonable error, how can we possibly hold genuine discussions about important issues, or genuine discussions about anything? If innocent language choices pose career risks, how can we hold freewheeling conversations, disagree intelligently and learn from those disagreements? We can’t. And, increasingly, we don’t.
Although the problem is exemplified by “preferred pronouns,” it goes well beyond them. The hall monitors are now policing all our language, with a clear ideological agenda. In this new toxic environment, how can law students discuss court cases that involve racial epithets, as some cases do? They can’t, so those cases are seldom taught these days. Law professors know they risk termination for mentioning the disparaging words in the case itself. How can students and teachers discuss great literature, like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? They can’t. Those texts are gone, too, since teachers fear—quite rightly—that hyper-politicized students will complain and that school administrators will side with the students. Why take the chance?
So, these zealous hall monitors block class discussions and group emails, just as hecklers stop speeches they don’t like. Shrewd administrators go one step further. They move quietly behind the scenes to prevent anyone from scheduling those speeches.
This woke coalition is doing its best to kill free speech, debate and inquiry. They did it first on campus, with very little opposition and near-total success across the country. Now the same ideology is spreading, unchecked, to corporations, non-profits and the media, constricting our public sphere. Traditional liberals, once stalwart defenders of free speech, are largely missing in action.
We can—and should—call people what they wish, without forcing everybody to declare their pronouns at the bottom of each e-mail. We can—and should—encourage people to express a variety of views, including unpopular ones, so we can learn from the debate. We can—and should—analyze difficult legal cases and great novels, even those that use troubling vernacular language. These goals shouldn’t be contentious, but, alas, they are. Our country and our culture are significantly poorer for it. Orwell weeps.