Multiple people have been tripped up by my claims in a recent post that “demanding that people call you by incorrect pronouns counts as bullying and harassment.” This is in answer to that.
I went through a lot of titles for this one before settling on “How They/Them Hurts.” The all started with “How They/Them Hurts” but they had different endings.
“How They/Them Hurts Good People With Bad Brains”
“How They/Them Hurts The Neurodivergent”
“How They/Them Hurts The Marginalized”
“How They/Them Hurts The Hurting”
There is a trend here, besides the names getting shorted until the shortest won. This is the story of a non-typical brain architecture. Sometimes it’s called a pathology or a disorder, but I much prefer just “bad brain” because I don’t want my brain medicalized. Making it a medical thing may encourage people to drug it into becoming more typical, and I prefer to just have it be bad in this way. I have a bad laptop too, but it works well enough for me and I don’t want to change it.1
1. Moral Scrupulosity
I think of this Brain Thing as caring strongly about not lying. But apparently it’s one of the variants of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, according to some fancy lab-coat-wearing MFers. “Moral Scrupulosity OCD” (Ten thousand EA’s just sneezed). Symptoms include “pathological guilt, obsession associated with moral or religious issues, over-responsibility for others, fear of offending others, etc”
Let’s play You Might Be Scrupulous If
You Might Be Scrupulous If:
- You sincerely believe that “When you say, “This is not my responsibility,” all you really mean is, “I am not willing to do anything to make this turn out right.”” is a literally true statement in all situations, and applies to things like people being murdered in the next city over, or people ruining their lives with drugs and alcohol, or being not having enough to eat at any time and in any place on earth. And you accept that this is true about yourself in 99.99% of situations, because you literally aren’t doing anything to correct those problems right now.
- The presence of so much evil convinced you that all life should be extinguished, and it took something like Atlas Shrugged to make you realize one could live and be moral at the same time.
- You believe that the optimal society is one of complete transparency, wherein anyone can see anything that anyone is doing at any time, both live-streaming and recordings of the past, and this would solve most of the world’s non-resource-dependent problems. To the point that one had to be convinced that the NSA gathering every bit of information about everyone was net bad (and that this is primarily because they don’t release it).
- You don’t want to have children because there’s a 50% chance you’ll have a male child, and males are “a collection of predators. Driven by an animal nature to destroy and defile and consume.”
- If you always feel guilty when you’re not working. And you feel equally guilty when what you’re working on is creating art, because what you’re doing is creating a drug. One of your favorite essays is the one that reminds you that reading is harmful and authors are drug pushers.
- You constantly doubt your own goodness, and always believe people who think badly of you may have a point, so you should take their criticism seriously and engage them in good faith.
- You have a mild crisis about returning shopping carts.
- Lying hurts. Even white lies. You tried, and still long for, Radical Honesty
2. Compulsive Honesty
The big one for the purposes of this post is Compulsive Honesty.
Scrupulous people really hate the feeling of lying. Hate it! We do it, of course, sometimes. You can’t avoid it. But even white lies feel really bad.
In fact, white lies often feel extra bad, because you are stuck either telling a lie (bad!) or hurting someone you care about (also bad!). Which one is worse? It’s very hard to tell! Generally we err on the side of white lies, because those are socially approved of.
There are, however, some lies that are too big to swallow. Lies like “God exists and loves us.” Those lies must be expelled even at great personal cost.
There are lies that are smaller than the God lie, but that are still a source of significant pain. To quote myself:
When I was young and my brain was being molded, the language parts of my brain were hooked up to the sex-recognition parts of my brain via methods that have been refined through cultural evolution to hook those two parts together very strongly. And it took.
When one insists others use pronouns that contradict with the one’s sexual presentation, I am required to overrule my own lying eyes and instead use arbitrary terms picked by that person. It feels like I am being told there are five lights every single time. Last time it was my church and parents who were telling me there were five lights. Now it’s my friends. :( I am being forced to lie every time I speak of them, and I despise it.
I’m not unique in this. I’ve spoken with others that have the same problem. It’s a maddening jabbing in your heart. It’s having a brain sitting on your shoulder screaming ‘THAT’S A WOMAN’ or ‘THAT’S A MAN’ into your ear. It’s the feeling you get when you realize you have to make a car payment of $200 and you need to refill your drug prescriptions for $150, and you only have $220 in the bank, and it’s 13 days until payday. Every. Single. Fucking. Time. that you have to refer to the person.2
3. Comparative Pain Studies
Here’s the thing. This pain is bearable. We bear it often. In addition to this, we understand that trans people also feel pain. They live with the pain of being in the wrong bodies every day. They deal with the pain of hormone injections, surgeries, and slowly reshaping their bodies in a long awkward process. And if there’s one thing scrupulous people are good at, it’s bearing pain for the greater good.
Therefore, most scrupulous people who feel pain at mis-matching pronouns will nevertheless use them in almost all cases. We want to not cause pain to others, and to alleviate pain when we can. It’s Moral Scrupulosity OCD’s whole thing. Especially when the people whose pain we’re preventing are our friends and family.
And indeed, not all scrupulous-honesty pain is the same! The less something feels like lying, the less painful it is! The absolute easiest case scenario is someone who is literally just a man-ish woman or effeminate man, who was mis-classified at first observation. They just say “I’m actually X.” There is a great deal of embarrassment and apologizing. But the mental model is updated very rapidly, and the switch to using correct pronouns can be painless nearly instantly.
A little harder can be people with hormonal or genetic disorders. My unconscious categorization software will often continue throwing errors for some time, and it can take a period of sustained effort over a long time to correct for it. Like when you meet someone with a facial deformity, and you have to try very hard not to look at it for the first dozen-ish hours that you spend around them. Eventually it fades to the background, and the brain accepts the correction, but it takes effort and a long period of discomfort. Again, absolutely worth it to make someone’s life easier. Especially because it’s not something they can control, they got fucked by life.
The non-passing trans person that is still going through transition is harder. The error flags never fully stop until the transition is succesful. But… part of a successful transition is encouraging your friends. When someone is of ambiguous sex, one of the cues that helps strangers with categorization is how people nearby refer to the ambiguous subject. Eventually it won’t be a lie to use what is currently the “wrong” pronoun, so it’s less bad to start using it early.
These are the things you tell your brain. They make it easier to push through the feeling of lying. It’s for the greater good.
And heck, some of those people are kind enough to allow (or prefer!) the use of Ambiguous They. This helps greatly with alleviating the pain of feeling like I am lying, because I’ve already internalized it as a truthful way to refer to ambiguity! (see previous post)
But then there’s the friggin trolls.
4. Friggin Trolls
I am getting better about my brain issues. Over the last decade, I’ve been able to shed some of the guilt and attendant pathologies. I’ll never be fully neurotypical, but I don’t want to be, that seems really lame. I just want to be more functional, and I’m getting there.
But I don’t want to shed my loathing of, and reflexive pain to, the act of lying. It’s served me well. I think it’s net-good, and I wish more people had it. It will cause me pain sometimes, but I’m willing to take that pain.
Most of the time.
This post is long, but you’re almost at the end! Read the last several bits, including the crux of the argument, at my substack. Free, of course.