You’ve probably seen a “preferred pronouns” notice in people’s email signatures and elsewhere. This practice is a frequent topic of conversation, and I’m often asked questions like, Is it a fad? or What’s wrong with pronouns the way they are? What’s the big deal?
Aristotle rightly pointed out that, of all the ways we interact with the world and each other, the most pervasive is language. There’s a lot of great philosophy to do concerning language, but let’s take a simple observation as the starting point for our pronoun discussion: Language is almost never merely descriptive. Language has many functions, one of which is what we might call performative. Don’t take this the wrong way: It’s not about “acting” — meaning, it’s not about misleading or falsifying (though language is obviously used to mislead and falsify!). I’ll summarize J. L. Austin here and say that performative language is intended to act in and on the world — briefly, talking makes things happen.
Think about an ordinary situation: Assuming we’re genuine, when we introduce ourselves, what we tell others about who we are is not merely descriptively accurate; it’s also intended to accomplish something: put ourselves into a context or a relation with others, carve out our territory, as it were — or even stake a claim. I’ll give you one of my favorite examples of effecting change in the world. In gatherings, I always identify myself as a philosopher, rather than other roles I could identify with — like being a professor or a dean, or a musician or truck driver. And when I do, in some situations I get a lot of (mostly kind) teasing about devoting my life to a “useless” pursuit such as philosophy. When people really push the envelope and get a bit nasty, I respond: “I do philosophy mainly to stave off boredom while I’m waiting to die. How about you?” What am I trying to accomplish with this sort of response? Well, if I’m honest, the goal is a speedy end to the conversation — and it’s never failed.
The use of language to “perform” some of a sense of identity will resonate with you if you’ve been engaged in our discussion of the narrative self. Often, the stories we decide to tell others not only reveal who we are; in a peculiar sense, they also constitute who we are. The role I choose to lead with in my self-introduction reinforces my own sense of self, by retelling a narrative about me. So it makes sense to pay attention to the stories we tell about ourselves. And it’s a very short step from paying attention to those stories to paying attention to the language we choose to narrate our stories.
The use of language to narrate ourselves to the world (and to ourselves!) is what pronoun etiquette is all about. For many people, it’s uncomfortable to use terms like “birth sex” or “biological sex” — for reasons that should become clear momentarily — but think about this: Each of us comes into this world as a complex biological matrix, but who we are is as much a about the way that matrix interacts with the environment as about its “nature.” In fact, our “nature” is to be biologically unfinished qua persons and to require the company of others on that journey.
Now think of the kid who feels that his destiny is to be a philosopher but whose mom insists that he should be something “real” — like a physician or a lawyer, at least. (I’ll let you guess who I have in mind. 😉 It is certainly obvious, when we think of this kind of situation, that our social environment can feel at odds with who we experience ourselves as being. There’s nothing about my “nature” as a biological organism that would prevent me from becoming a physician; I didn’t want to, and, more importantly, I experienced myself as something else.
If you can empathize with that kind of conflict, then consider this: We can experience ourselves at odds with what Nature hands us, just as we can experience ourselves at odds with what our social environment tells us. In fact, those work together. This is a gross oversimplification, but we’ve come to understand that “gender” is not mere biology; each of us is a much more complex matrix than a checkbox on a form. We’ve already seen that perhaps the most important way we can lay claim to our own identity is to talk about ourselves, and the language we choose is a way to stake a claim to our own sense of self. That’s why pronouns are a meaningful part of laying claim to the narrative self.
So, you might conclude, that’s fine for people who are at odds with nature or with what society is telling them to be — but I’m not one of those, so I’m off the hook, right?
Not so fast. Ask yourself: Do you want to be accepted for who you are and who you want to be? Do you want to be “seen” as the person you are becoming, and not as someone else wants you to be? Would you resist being reduced to an elaboration of a biological packet that was complete on delivery? If so, then you’ll see why adopting the convention of stating our preferred pronouns is important: It’s a way of acknowledging others in their quest for a sense of authentic selfhood — through language. Even if you personally have little or no conflict about your gender, you can let others know that you see them. And just being able to see others who are different is one of the basic skills for a genuinely pluralistic society.
Now, some of you may read this and respond, “Ok, I see your point — but I don’t want to seem like one of those people, always promoting their own hipness and righteousness. I don’t want to be a poser.”
If so, good for you! You prize authenticity, and you should give yourself credit for that. Now examine your motives: Are you concerned that other people may see you as a “snowflake”? That you’ll stand out and feel awkward and people will talk about you behind your back? Excellent: You have exactly the inner experience that can help you become more empathic about how it feels to be “the Other.” If you don’t want to feel like that, why wouldn’t you take some simple steps to create a society in which others don’t have to feel like that either?
Want to explore the depths hidden in pronouns? Let’s talk.