Jordan Peterson may have made a career out of refusing to use made-up personal pronouns, but the demand that others use each individual’s choice of pronoun hasn’t fallen by the wayside in fits of laughter over the silliness of the self-indulgent. In fact, the New York Times is back on the case.
Using an analogy that only xe could endure. Barnard English prof Jennifer Finney Boylan throws out the underhanded pitch.
Mrs. Sonny Bono, Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Donald J. Trump walk into a bar. Assuming you’re the bartender, by what names will you address them?
Oh, wait, that’s easy. Call them “Cher,” “Your Holiness” and “Mr. President.”
Because those are the names by which they are known.
See what she did there? This is why she doesn’t teach logic. Putting aside “her truth” that Mrs. Sonny Bono is Cher, as opposed to Mary Whitaker, she conflated proper names with third-person pronouns. This might have escaped your notice, but since Boylan is an English prof, it probably didn’t escape hers.
“Hers”? Is that the pronoun she would prefer I use to discuss her? Because the use of third-person pronouns isn’t the same as speaking to “her” directly, where I would use her proper name.
Yes, pronouns. Even though Barnard is a women’s college, it’s routine for there to be students in the room who don’t use “she.” In part, this is because men from Columbia (our sibling institution) routinely cross Broadway to enroll in a class at Barnard, and also because I might have a few transgender students in one of my classes. (Barnard admits students who identify as female at the time of their application to the college; students coming out as trans men while matriculating continue to be welcomed as part of the community.) Still other students use the gender nonspecific singular “they,” or the gender-neutral pronouns “ze” or “hir” or “xem.”
Boylan isn’t so foolish as to make her pitch on the basis of any claim to violence, and instead says she, calling herself a “grammar snob,” shares our pain. But it’s a simple matter of respect.
This would be the moment some readers — especially those, like me, who were painstakingly trained to be grammar snobs — might lament the atrociousness of the singular they, not to mention the strangeness of invented pronouns like ze and hir. There was a time when, if I heard an individual refer to himself or herself as “they,” I would have assumed ze might be crackers.
But I use the singular they all the time now — as well as other nonbinary pronouns — because the absence of a gender nonspecific singular pronoun in English really does present a problem, not just for transgender folks but for all people who feel that every word out of their mouths need not necessarily reveal the mysteries of their underpants.
If Boylan, the grammar snob, can do it, who are we to question?
And while conservatives — and others for whom the vexing issue of gender identity is considered a problem of no importance — might well resent any evolution in the mother tongue, it’s worth remembering that English has a long history of adapting to cultural change. That’s something we should celebrate, not lament.
The language is constantly evolving, so stop clinging to tradition, you dinosaur. Which is a great argument for language that better serves its function, to communicate ideas more precisely. Boylan makes a slightly better point when raising the introduction of the word “Ms.” to eliminate the distinction between married and unwed women.
The honorific “Ms.,” first proposed in an issue of The Sunday Republican of Springfield, Mass., in 1901, was finally adopted by The New York Times in 1986.
Except Ms. was finally accepted as a social convention that applied to all women, with the caveat that women who objected to it would be given the honorific of their choice if known. The better analogy would be to say the default pronoun from this point forward will be “xe” rather than “he,” but that’s not what she’s saying.
More simply, though, I’ll call my students they, or “xir,” or “e” (the pronoun coined by the mathematician Michael Spivak) simply because calling people by the names they prefer is a matter of respect. (Even calling them “preferred” pronouns does a disservice, because people aren’t choosing their identities out of fussiness or caprice; they are doing so, usually, as part of a hard-fought search for truth.) Using this language doesn’t mean that I see the world through their eyes. But it does mean I greet them with an open heart.
In other words, if you fail or refuse to use a person’s chosen pronoun, you are being disrespectful and greet them with a closed heart. Bear in mind, you’re not talking to them, but about them to others. And yet, each of them not only gets to dictate the words you use, but gets to compel you to speak in tongues to others about them or be branded a hater.
Why fight it? Why not just acquiesce to whatever pleases others as a sign of “respect” for their feelings? Forget for a moment the silliness of a language, a means of communication, reduced to confusion under the guise of other people’s feelings. Why can’t we just use the words that would be more pleasing to another person? Would it kill us to be kind?
This is a teachable moment. The word Boylan abuses isn’t “he” or “her,” or even the singular “they,” but “respect.” If you fail to use the words that please another, you are a bad person because you have chosen to be disrespectful of their feelings. Their feelings, therefore, are more important than our common language. They are entitled to decide what you are then obliged to say, and your failure to adhere to their desires makes you disrespectful.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
While every young and sensitive soul may be master of xis own domain, is each to be master of your words? It’s better to teach them to respect the language than feel entitled to be its master.