Preferred Pronouns: Neo-Etiquette or Conspiracy of Self-Rejection?
Last week the Registrar at my university sent out a memo to all students and faculty inviting us to add “preferred pronouns” to our academic profiles. This was followed quickly (about two hours later) by an apologetic correction in which she expressed regret for the “problematic” usage of the word “preferred” and reiterated the message without that “outdated” term. So in one day the school came on strong in promotion of pronouns, then pivoted and came on even stronger. It was at this university where I first encountered the pronoun trend in real life (as opposed to online): during a group interview for prospective students, we were asked to include our pronouns along with our names as we introduced ourselves. I was surprised and dismayed that a graduate level counseling psychology program would participate in a practice that seemed blatantly mentally unhealthy, though it took me some time to articulate precisely why I found it so disturbing.
Since my first encounter with the pronoun question, the movement has only intensified. Everywhere you look it seems people are talking about pronouns. Pronouns in online bios, email signatures, on name tags; peppy educational videos about how to use pronouns and why they’re important; memos from your office or school. So what are these pronouns we are being asked to specify? What is the purpose of specifying one’s pronouns? And what does all of this mean for individuals and the broader culture? I argue that the modern social obsession with pronouns represents a collective collusion to misrepresent reality motivated by misguided empathy, and that rather than protecting people it breeds fragility and narcissism as it sows seeds of gender confusion in today’s youth.
You probably don’t need this part, but please humor me. Basic refresher: a pronoun is a word that takes the place of a singular or plural noun (person, place, or thing), like me, whom, it, they, he, etc. First person pronouns are those one uses to refer to oneself, like I, mine, we, us. Second person pronouns are used to address the person or people to whom one is speaking and include you, yours, and my favorite: y’all. And then we have third person pronouns, which we use when we talk about someone who is not in the conversation directly; these include she, them, who, etc. It is these third person pronouns everyone is obsessing over. When we are asked for our pronouns, we are asked not how we would like to be addressed directly, but how we expect other people to talk to each other about us.
What is the purpose of specifying our third person pronouns? In a word: gender. When we talk about a person who is not present, we typically use masculine or feminine third person pronouns to say “he this…” or “she that…” If an individual’s appearance offers conflicting cues about gender, and an interlocutor wishes to avoid inadvertently causing offense, “what are your pronouns” can be a gentle euphemism for “are you a boy or a girl?” This is especially true if it is a commonplace question asked of everyone, regardless of gendered appearance. Indeed, the more asking for pronouns is normalized, the less awkwardness it creates for androgynous-appearing individuals and those who wish to speak about them politely and intentionally. With contemporary trends in political correctness demanding that people conspicuously and continually demonstrate empathy for those in special identity categories, Social Justice activists naturally want to get everyone on board with this circumlocution.
So in short, offering up a set of third person pronouns is code for: I want you to perceive me as male, or as female, or as neither male nor female, or at least to pretend as if you do when you talk about me. If your appearance tends to match your sex, as is true for most people, the only reason for you to engage in pronoun play is to signal deference to those declaring themselves exempt from biological norms. It is an emerging cultural bargain in which the Woke conspire to protect individuals who try to appear as the opposite sex through cosmetic interventions from the awkwardness of failing to convincingly “pass,” and to protect those who wish to pretend that humans are not sexually dimorphic from facing the disappointment of reality. The pronoun game is a wink and a nod. No one is fooled, they’re just playing along.
If it’s all a well-intentioned and empathic bit of neo-etiquette then why should we not adopt the pronoun game as a universal custom? I’ll offer several reasons why I believe we should not: because it undermines self-confidence and resilience by asserting that one’s self-concept is rightly dependent upon external-validation, it endorses and encourages narcissistic behavior, and it creates a world of bizarre and unnecessary confusion for children around the topics of sex and gender. Put simply: it does more harm than good both to those it seeks to aid and everyone else.
I was in a group counseling class a couple of years ago when the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” came up. Most of the other students vehemently rejected the adage as offensive and tone-deaf (notably, my two foreign-born classmates from non-western cultures did not agree: they found it encouraging and inspirational). And what ever happened to “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?” This old aphorism was used for ages by mothers as they brushed tears off their children’s cheeks, teaching them to look within for strength and not let the insults of others shake their foundations. While of course these idioms are unrealistic in a literal sense- painful experiences and the judgements of others can and do hurt us- the underlying goal is admirable: fostering self-reliance and ego strength in the face of a fickle world in which we will inevitably meet hardship and criticism.
This present-day pronoun craze represents a complete reversal of this theme and is part of what appears to be an anti-resilience, pro-fragility movement in Western culture. Not only must we be VERY concerned with what others think of us, we must micromanage the exact words they are to use. A quick search for the term “misgendering,” or failing to use the third person pronouns a person desires, reveals a plethora of articles claiming it is “a not-so silent killer,” and “an act of violence that needs to stop,” and that it is “a harmful, awful experience.” That the feeling of not having one’s inner self-concept affirmed should hurt so badly is truly unfortunate and no compassionate person wants to see another human being suffer from mental health or self-confidence issues. However, why are we not asking deeper questions about what is happening here? If some individuals are unhappy enough with their secondary sexual characteristics that they engage in a radical form of self-rejection through a spectrum of cosmetic and medical interventions, AND require consistent affirmation from others in order to complete the illusion lest their mental health suffer… is pretending to see what they want us to see really helping them to become healthier and happier or is it merely an act of codependency which enables dysfunction and fosters fragility?
By teaching people to dictate how others speak about them in the third person, we are also coaching them to adopt narcissistic traits such as interpersonally exploitative behavior (I am using you as a mirror to reflect the image of myself I wish to see), entitlement (you owe it to me to affirm what I say), lack of empathy (I don’t care what you really think/feel), and arrogance (I demand that you bend to my will or I will say you are harming me). So by pushing the pronoun charade, we are encouraging not only fragility and codependency, but also narcissism and entitlement. Is it any wonder then, that advocates of gender-interventionism are so viciously determined to “cancel” all who disagree with their perspective?
I don’t condemn the choice to use cosmetic, medical, and/or linguistic tools to deal with feelings of discomfort with one’s natal sex, on the contrary I believe in each individual’s right to make their own lifestyle choices, as long as they don’t violate the rights of others. I sympathize with people struggling with gender dysphoria, and can relate to it personally, as well. In general, I do try to respect others’ wishes when it comes to acknowledging their stated gender identities. But I will not be adding pronouns to my name tag, my email signature, or any online profile in order to further the illusion that male/female is just a mental state. Coercively insisting through institutional policies that we all play the pronoun game is a form of compelled speech that violates free speech ethics and forces people to participate in a cognitive distortion. Worse, it solidifies the notion that the only acceptable way to deviate from stereotypical male or female is to change how one categorizes oneself. When this is incorporated into education for young children, the consequences are potentially devastating.
The focus on categorization, labeling, and demanding affirmation for one’s chosen gender labels is an inversion of the liberal principle of self-acceptance that says whether you are male or female you can be as masculine or feminine as you like, and love who you love, and that’s just fine. This new ideological spin reframes that, so that if a boy is not masculine enough he’s not a boy at all, and he must change his appearance through puberty-blocking pharmaceuticals and/or social transition in order to become acceptable. A girl who is not feminine enough must not be a girl: she is a trans-boy, or non-binary. As Social Emotional Learning and Critical Social Justice ideologies are taking over school curricula, this new radical body-phobia is not being taught as ONE way to understand ourselves in the world, but THE way. If you disagree you must be “transphobic,” or a “TERF.”