Linguistic Landmines, Part II: Is the Toteboard Anti- Pronoun? Or Pro- Antinoun?

Note: This is the first of the occasional sequel to Linguistic Landmines, Part I.

It is clear that any kind of name is nothing but a sign attached from outside by some accident to a material substance of fact. The name and the substance, therefore, are definitely unrelated to one another. The name is a differentiating insignia which assumes the role to bring willy-nilly into the spotlight of the intellect something anonymous that has been dwelling in chaos. But the actor’s role always ends in failure; for, whenever that which is anonymous is brought into the light of intellection, its original nature or substance is metamorphized and takes on a quite different character. -Nanrei Sōhaku Kobori

A good friend was recently describing how, a month or two earlier, he had attended a work-related Zoom meeting, where participants (who did not all know one another) were asked to indicate their preferred pronouns next to their names in their respective video windows. While most of the participants chose the relatively standard permutations of “she/her/hers,” “he/him/his,” or “they/them/their,” Craig instead typed in “I/me/mine,” which passed without comment either during or after the meeting.


However, when he recounted this story, his precocious tween-age daughter took exception, having found his action arrogant and condescending. “You’re just making fun of them,” she snapped.


Nevertheless, when asked why he selected those specific pronouns, he replied that because he was being asked to express his individual preferences, he simply took that as an opportunity to express . . . his individuality. An individual statement, as it were, of individuality. And no, he later acknowledged, he had never heard of the Beatles song.


Language can sometimes be a tricky thing. Here is a case where a trio of tiny monosyllabic words and a pair of slash lines prompted what could have been a serious misunderstanding between father and daughter, a father and daughter who are, we might add, philosophically and emotionally Sympatico on most matters (though she gravitates toward Schopenhauer a bit more than he does). In Inherit the Wind, the Clarence Darrow character says, “Language is a poor enough means of communication. I think we should use all the words we've got. Besides, there are damn few words that anybody understands.” Apparently, even using words everybody understands is not always enough to prevent miscommunication.


But of course, part of the unstated background here is that the matter of stipulating pronouns – a practice that has become commonplace in some circles, and remains unheard of in others – is itself a highly charged political and emotional issue. When Kamala Harris politely stated her pronouns, as well as what she was wearing, at a meeting with disability advocates, her right-wing critics took a nutty. Ted Cruz even responded that his pronoun was “kiss my ass,” which was an oddly self-referential moment from one of the country’s most flaming assholes.


But this installment of the Toteboard is about language, not about politics, and so this might be a good time to slow things down a bit, to take a collective deep breath, and to examine certain social dynamics just a little more closely. So let’s start with a straightforward question. Why is there a growing expectation in some circles that certain types of professional or public interactions call for participants to disclose their pronouns?


For those who get it, the answers are pretty obvious. People who are transgender, or nonbinary, or intersex, or who for any other reason depart from traditional gender norms, should have the right to disclose how they identify themselves, and should be able to expect that others will respect those identifications. And when people who conform more closely to traditional gender norms disclose their pronouns as well, they (we hope) do so in the spirit of inclusion, i.e., to show support for and to avoid stigmatizing colleagues who don’t happen to be cisgender men and woman.


All of this seems to make a great deal of sense. We’re talking here about people who, through no fault of their own, probably endure some combination of bullying, ostracism, workplace discrimination, dead-naming, and/or sexual harassment, and who as a group experience disproportionate incidence of depression, suicide attempts, and the like. Contributing to a supportive and inclusive environment for those members of our community seems like a pretty damn good idea.


But that’s not the end of the story, and there is another reason why the disclosure of pronouns is rapidly (if selectively) becoming de rigueur, why it is even a “thing,” so to speak. This reason is so basic and so elemental, that most people don’t even notice it and probably shrug their shoulders indifferently when it is called to their attention. But it is not a trivial matter. One of the reasons why there is so much at stake in the employment of pronouns is that third-person pronouns in the English language are gendered. Think about that for a minute. If the third person pronouns we employ every day did not specify gender, we would not be having any of these conversations. And Craig would not have had that tiff with his daughter.


No, the Toteboard is not going to suggest major changes to the English language, but it would like to point out that the way the language employs pronouns is by no means universal, especially with regard to gender. For instance, the Chinese words that translate respectively as “he” and “she” are both pronounced the same (although they are written slightly differently), which helps explain why many Chinese who are first learning English have some difficulty keeping their genders straight. And then there are languages that embed even more gender into their pronouns than we do in English. While the English third-person plural is not gendered, the French distinguish between the “male they” and the “female they.” And in Hebrew, a gender distinction that doesn’t exist in English extends to second-person pronouns, i.e., a distinction between a male “you” and a female “you.” In fact, it’s actually kind of strange that English is so persnickety about first- and third-person pronouns, but turns pretty blasé about the second-person. That is to say, we employ the word “you” for both genders, and for both singular and plural (well, Southerners do differentiate between “y’all” and “all y’all”), when French actually has distinct words for the singular subject “you” (tu) and the singular object “you” (toi), but has yet a different word for the plural subject “you” and plural object “you” (vous). Then again, as long as we’re talking about case, the Chinese do not distinguish between subject and object – e.g., there are not separate words for “I” and “me,” or for “he” and “him” – and German actually has four cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, and dative), half of which don’t even really exist in in English. Throw in the differences between formal and informal pronouns in languages like German and Japanese, and the possibilities seem to increase exponentially. Yes, English is an idiosyncratic language sometimes, and its pronouns make up an especially idiosyncratic part of that.


What this little multi-lingual romp through various declensions illustrates is how words and the categories they delimit are constructions, not simply passive conduits of some objective reality “out there.” They reflect cognitive and linguistic choices. And they implicitly reflect principles of selection. For example, we have created distinct colloquial terms for all of our individual fingers, but not for our individual toes, presumably because we don’t discern those toes as having specific functions. But not all linguistic distinctions are derived exclusively from function. Some systems of classification also emerge based on structure, aesthetic, contiguity, and even resemblance. Yiddish and some other languages refer to toes simply as “foot fingers,” a construction that the Toteboard absolutely adores (and urges its readers to adopt for the sheer fun of it). In any event, there is no inherent rationale why third-person pronouns – or first- or second-person pronouns, for that matter – need to be gendered. That’s just the way many languages have shaken out over time.


Once we establish all this, we come to a really interesting and important question, one which oddly enough has not yet produced much of a blip on the public’s radar. Apart from those pesky pronouns, is there any legitimate reason why professional meetings and similar public interactions would necessitate that participants disclose their gender identities (or, more accurately, how they construct their gender identities)? We don’t ask people to disclose their ethnicity, or age, or country of origin, or religious affiliation, or marital status, or sexual preference, because none of those matters is relevant to the business at hand, and none of it should have any bearing on how colleagues treat one another. In fact, departments of human resources and other guardians of “best practices” would be quick to point out how inappropriate (and possibly illegal) it would be for meeting organizers to ask participants to disclose any of that information, and there really does not appear to be any obvious reason why gender identity would fall into a different category, other than the fact that we tend to have difficulty engaging in conversations without utilizing pronouns. But that seems to be an egregious case of the tail wagging the dog or, more appropriately, of the pronouns wagging the policy. We ask people to disclose their gender identities – but not their ethnicity, age, country of origin, religious affiliation, marital status, or sexual preference – not because the situation actually calls for it, but simply because of the way English pronouns happen to be configured. And make no mistake about it: to ask for pronouns is effectively to ask for gender identities. We volunteer or solicit pronouns not to avoid “mis-pronouning” people, but to avoid mis-gendering them. To trot out what philosophers like to call a “thought experiment,” imagine for a moment how our conversations would go (and what we would stipulate in our Zoom video windows) if our pronouns did not indicate “that male person,” “that female person,” or “that nonbinary person or person of indeterminate gender,” and instead indicated “that old person” or “that married person,” or, for that matter, “that smart person” or “that fat person.”


To be clear, this is not in any way challenging whether people should have the right to volunteer their gender identities (they should), or whether people should respect the gender identities their colleagues volunteer (again, they should). Rather, the Toteboard is questioning the emerging expectation that people divulge that information in ordinary professional interactions, and is questioning the propriety of various powers-that-be (i.e., employers, supervisors, conference organizers, etc.) soliciting that information (often in implicitly hierarchic situations) as though it were simply a routine matter. But gender is no longer a routine matter, and the Toteboard actually has certain sympathies for individuals who might find such a solicitation to be somewhat invasive, to be something of a violation of privacy. “You know, I don’t really know a lot of the people at this meeting, and some of them I don’t even particularly like. I’m not sure how comfortable I am divulging to them any irrelevant personal information, let alone how I construct my gender identity, even if most of them probably already assume that I’m a cisgender male (or female).” Perhaps that line of thought actually contributed to Craig’s decision to choose a more “individualistic” response to the request for his pronouns. Perhaps not.


Now just to throw a monkey-wrench into the works, is it possible that there is, in fact, a widespread assumption in American society that gender identity is not a private matter at all, but that it is supposed to be a matter for public scrutiny? In the past – actually, it’s starting to seem like a long time ago – people were expected to signal their gender by their first names, length of hair, choice of clothing, and so forth. It certainly might explain why some people don’t think twice about asking for pronouns, but also why some people (presumably not regular Toteboard readers) feel entitled to police other people’s genders, and why they get so seriously bent out of shape (sometimes to the point of abusiveness) when others declare a new or shifting gender identity. And perhaps one could even argue that the act of entering a sex-segregated restroom or joining a single-sex athletic team amounts to a public declaration of gender. To be honest, the Toteboard is highly skeptical about any of this, but the point is that there has not really been a public conversation – a calm, rational, adult conversation – about how obligated people are (or are not) to share how they construct their own genders, and under what circumstances they are obligated to do so, now that the world we inhabit is becoming increasingly, well, nonbinary.


And believe it or not, the Toteboard doesn’t really even have a horse in that particular race, though it tends to default to the side of those who would like to exercise control over what personal information they do or do not disclose in different situations. Again, the main point here is about language, i.e., the way that our reliance on gender-specific third-person pronouns has indirectly forced the issue of public gender disclosure. And ironically, it has at the same time more-or-less enabled an end-run around actual discussions of that issue. That is to say, pronouns have so “set the agenda,” that it seems like no one has particularly noticed any of this.


But where the Toteboard does have a horse in the race is in its conviction that the public and private good are both served better when people make critical, self-aware choices – and set public policy and establish workplace practices – based on substance, and on sound reasoning, and not on odd little random or accidental quirks of language. Let’s act responsibly, let’s treat others with respect, let’s strive to be good citizens of our communities and our planet. But let’s also not let ourselves get pushed around by our own language’s pronouns.

The most difficult thing we as finite beings have to experience is that whenever a name is given to something, we take it to be something that has a form, and hence we make puppets of ourselves with the tools of our own making. We are afraid and anxious, and finally we turn into schizophrenics. Not only individually, but collectively, modern man (sic) is not of sound mind, he trembles before the symbolic phantoms of his own imagination. -D.T. Suzuki