Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

pronoun trouble

“Hah! That’s it! Hold it right there!” And then, knowledgeably, confidentially, to the audience: “Pronoun trouble.

Yes, we’re having lots of pronoun trouble these days — for instance, at the University of Toronto. That story quotes “A. W. Peet, a physics professor who identifies as non-binary and uses the pronoun ‘they.’” This is a topic on which plenty of people have plenty of intemperate things to say, which means that a good many of the important underlying issues typically haven’t been explored very thoughtfully. Let me try to identify a couple of them.

The first thing to note is that, so far anyway, the debates haven't been about all pronouns: they have focused only on third person singular pronouns, or what might substitute for the third person singular pronoun — as in the case of Professor Peet, above. That is, the gendered pronouns in English. (As a number of commenters have pointed out, these debates would be almost impossible to have in most of the other European languages, into which gender distinctions are woven so much more densely — and in which, therefore, paradoxically enough, they don't seem to carry as much identity-bearing weight.)

For the Ontario Human Rights Commission, gender identity is “each person’s internal and individual experience of gender. It is their sense of being a woman, a man, both, neither, or anywhere along the gender spectrum,” and everyone has a right to declare where they are on that spectrum — but, more important, also to have that declaration accepted and acknowledged by others.

I have some questions and thoughts.

1) How would I feel if I had a boss — my Dean, say, or Provost (hi Tom, hi Greg) — who persistently referred to me as “she”? And ignored me when I said “That should be ‘he’”? I’d be pretty pissed off. But I’m not sure the best way to describe such language is as a violation of my human rights. Nor do I think it should be seen as a criminal act. Might there be some less extreme language to describe it?

2) Would the experience for someone whose “individual experience of gender” is less traditional than my own be morally and legally different? If so, why?

3) Some people — for instance, here’s the story of Paige Abendroth — claim to experience a “flip” of their “individual experience of gender” from time to time, unpredictably. How responsible should Paige’s coworkers be for keeping up with the flipping? How much tolerance would, or should, the Ontario Human Rights Commission have for any co-workers of Paige who struggled to get it right? Conversely, does Paige have the responsibility to inform everyone in the workplace that such flipping occurs, and to announce to them when it has occurred so that they can start using the proper pronouns?

4) Why should gender be the only relevant consideration here? Suppose I come to experience, as some people do, a complete detachment from myself — a kind of alienation powerful enough that it feels wrong to speak of myself as “I,” and deeply uncomfortable to be addressed as “you” — an existential, not just a rhetorical, illeism. Would my human rights be violated if my co-workers continued to employ the pronoun “you” when addressing me directly, if I wished them not to do so? Surely someone will object that if I were to have this experience it would be a sign of psychological disorder, but why? By what reasoning can we say that that kind of experience is disordered but the experience of Paige Abendroth isn’t? This is not a rhetorical question: I’d really like to know what the argument would look like.

5) We’ve been here before: just ask the theologians. The way many of them have addressed the “pronoun trouble” posed when they talk about God is, I think a harbinger of the future. Many theologians say things like “How God experiences Godself is an unfathomable mystery” and “We must not think of God as utterly independent of God’s creation” — which is to say, they avoid pronouns altogether, gendered ones anyway. As pronoun preference comes to be more and more frequently enshrined within the discourse of human rights, people will become more and more fearful of the consequences of getting pronouns wrong; and the best way to avoid getting the pronouns wrong is to stop using them altogether.

I bet that’s where we’re headed. And I don't even think it will be all that hard to manage. If someone says "Paige needs to do what's best for Paige" instead of "Paige needs to do what's best for her," no one would even notice. When I first started thinking about how all this might apply to me, I realized how rarely, in a classroom setting, I have cause to use third-person singular pronouns. If Alison makes an interesting comment and I want to get a response, I say "What do y'all think about Alison's argument?" not "What do y'all think about her argument?" — the latter would seem rude, I think. Moreover, the good people at Language Log have spent years rehabilitating the singular "they." I can easily imagine the use of third-person singular pronouns gradually all but disappearing from our everyday language — though it will be easier to achieve in speech than in writing.

And then the world will move on to the next gross violation of human rights.


  • The debate over God's pronoun has always seemed silly to me. After all, he introduces himself via Scripture (via the authors) as male, he incarnates himself as male, and even Jesus himself calls God "Father" and the Spirit "him." If masculine pronouns are good enough for the Son, then they're good enough for me. Yes, we can argue about what those pronouns _mean_ about God himself, but I can't imagine any of those arguments then precluding me from using masculine pronouns for him. God being called by a masculine pronoun does not mean that God does not have other traditionally non-masculine traits or even limited to binary descriptions. Pronouns are just a tool to talk to and about him, and I don't think God is offended by limiting him in this way.

    I think God's approach is instructive for how we humans should approach this issue. Just as with God, maybe one isn't particularly man-ish or woman-ish, but it's reasonable and convenient for one to present oneself as man or woman or something else altogether. This must be made clear, though, as God does for us. We can also admit that calling one by "he" or "you," or whatever, we don't necessarily pack those pronouns with greater meaning. Just as when we call God "He" we don't suggest that God has human limitations, is more prone to masculine rather than feminine traits, or has a penis. I think God has the good grace to recognize what we're trying to do by calling him "him," and indeed he invites and instructs us to use that verbiage. Humans should follow God's suit.

    Either way, I have no problem with eschewing pronouns totally. I think it's a silly solution to a silly problem, but whatever.

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