Aug 072019

I find myself distressed by the casual fading of my They friends.

I know a number of people who have jumped on the They train. I don’t care what anyone calls themselves, so at first I was all “OK, whatever, you do you.” But not long after that, several of these friends have made it clear they find anyone who doesn’t adopt their new pronouns to be moral degenerates.

I will not do that. I noped out of that game when I abandoned fundamentalist Christianity in my teen years, and I’m not about to bend over for the latest dominance move just because now it’s people on my side asserting moral superiority. But I also like my friends, and seek their acceptance and approval. Until I can figure out what to do about this, I’ve instead stopped using pronouns to refer to them at all.

In their presence, this is super easy. Generally you address people you’re with directly, with things like “Hey, what did you think about that latest episode?” and pronouns never come into it.

But when a friend isn’t present, I refer to them only by their name now. Or simply drop the pronoun from the sentence altogether in a sort of abbreviated slang. Both of these things are very inconvenient. They require constant self-censorship and interrupt the through process, which is a major cost in itself. Perhaps even worse, they remind me every time I want to mention this friend that they’ve joined with the moralizing puritans and are now part of a group that wishes me harm, which hurts.

So I’ve found myself simply not talking about these friends at all. Their existence fades out of my casual conversation altogether. I didn’t notice it at first, and I’m writing this blog post now because I realized just this week that this was happening.

I find that really depressing. It’s counter to one of the things I really like about friendships. :/

  9 Responses to “The Disappearing Thems”

  1. I admit I’m a bit confused by this post. In my mind using someone’s preferred pronouns is just a matter of politeness. Deliberately misgendering people is fairly hurtful since it’s undermining their identity. I think I’d compare it to calling a gay person another three letter word I won’t mention. I admit I was never exposed to the massive guilt of a fundamentalist faith so I can’t fully understand your position, that said perhaps this is a situation where reversed stupidity is not intelligence.

    • The key to what this post describes seems to be this sentence:

      But not long after that, several of these friends have made it clear they find anyone who doesn’t adopt their new pronouns to be moral degenerates.

      The author’s problem is that some of their friends are responding to what you claim is “just a matter of politeness” by judging the impolite as “moral degenerates”. I agree with the author that that’s an inappropriate response to someone being impolite.

      But then the rest of your comment makes it seem like you don’t in fact think “using someone’s preferred pronouns is just a matter of politeness”:

      Deliberately misgendering people is fairly hurtful since it’s undermining their identity. I think I’d compare it to calling a gay person another three letter word I won’t mention.

      It seems unreasonable to me to both claim that “using someone’s preferred pronouns is just a matter of politeness” but that its’s also like “calling a gay person another three letter word I won’t mention”.

      Not using slurs to address someone isn’t a “matter of politeness” in any reasonable sense. People shouldn’t, generally, be ostracized or lose their jobs for being ‘impolite’ – ‘offensive’ or ‘hurtful’ maybe.

  2. Just about everyone I’m aware of who uses gender-neutral pronouns claims to do so because they find being referred to with other pronouns to be distressing or include gender dysphoria or in some other way inauthentic to who they are; to people for whom this effect is strong, it seems reasonable to assert that using their pronouns is the moral thing to do.

    The claim that they’re all doing it to assert social dominance and lying about their motives is pretty strong, IMO; surely the hypothesis “these people are doing their best to describe their own subjective experience and have reasonable feelings about how they should be treated” deserves some consideration before rejecting “they” pronouns as a pure status grab?

    • I think it would be possible to express “please use ‘they’ pronouns for me” in a way that makes it seem more like a dominance thing or a moralising posture; you could express anything that way if you wanted (“umm, sweaty, just a reminder that murder is preeeeeetty problematic?? Yikes”). Assuming this is the case: why then not just use ‘they’ anyway? If they’re not going to know either way, spiting their moralism is just wasted effort.

    • The post seems pretty clear. The author’s problem isn’t with wanting people to use others preferred pronouns. It’s with some of them – the author’s friends too – going on to have “made it clear they find anyone who doesn’t adopt their new pronouns to be moral degenerates”. It’s that extra judgment of people that either fail or refuse to use other’s preferred pronouns that to which the author is objecting.

  3. I kinda feel the same way. A friend of mine was a “he” for most of the time I’ve known her and is a “she” now. Since I was used to saying “he” it was strenuous to keep reminding myself to say “she” in conversations – and, as you said, it’s not in front of that friend, it’s only when talking with mutual other friends.

    I think the problem is, that in my mind there’s the concept of this friend saved somewhere and gender is just a very small variable in that. Other things, that are more important, are what actually shapes that concept. So the change in gender didn’t really register on the subconscious level and therefore I have to actively remind myself of that in conversations.

    The two problems with it are, that it takes effort and when you slip up, which occasionally happens, you feel guilty. That makes those conversations unpleasant and, as usual when something is unpleasant, you start avoiding them (the conversations, not the people).

  4. So, buried in a comment on your blog seems as good a place as any to share my own related thoughts on this. And I first of all want to say “yay” for expressing your thoughts on this. I mostly feel, living in the Bay Area, it would be very uncool of me to say these thoughts because it strikes against what is currently held as a sacred value. Also for that reason my comment is semi-anonymous to avoid any backlash on this, since it’s not a hill I want to die on if this goes badly.

    I agree with your concerns about anyone asking to be called by different pronouns as not a dominance move, but as a request to control my thinking. Not just with “they”, but any request that I use the pronoun someone prefers I use for them feels like a request to control my thinking. There’s a direct link from how I see a person to what pronoun I produce to describe them, and asking for a different pronouns requests me to doublethink myself into believing something I don’t. That feels violent.

    My preferred stance on pronouns is that I use the pronoun that you present as. If you look sufficiently masculine, he. If you look sufficiently feminine, she. And if I can’t make a clear determination, they.

    Yes, I realize some people suffer distress at being gendered other than they would prefer. I am not unsympathetic to that. I am pretty willing to not be rude or go out of my way to misgender someone who is obviously trying to present otherwise, but I also feel not excited about trying to call someone by a pronoun that clearly doesn’t match their presentation. That’s perhaps not maximally supportive, and maybe I would make exceptions for friends I am especially close to, but to do otherwise is to constantly ask us to allow others to make claims to our own mental categories.

  5. Well, I started typing up a reply, and then it got long and it’s not done and I have to leave town for the weekend, so I guess I’ll post something Monday or Tuesday.

  6. As always (economics FTW!), there are tradeoffs. I don’t know anyone that I interact with directly that is (or that I know to be) transgender or non-binary or otherwise not cisgendered, so I’m not personally bearing any significant costs in using or trying to use someone’s preferred pronouns. I wouldn’t have a problem with someone requesting that I use non-standard pronouns when addressing them or referring to them but I’d be very upset if they expected perfection immediately or tried to make me feel guilty if I slipped-up. I’d be pretty upset, like you seem to be, if they denounced others, even others that refused to use their preferred pronouns, as “moral degenerates”; that’s much to extreme a judgement.

    But I’d hope that anyone with preferred pronouns that aren’t obvious to other people would be patient and sympathetic with other people learning to use them fluently. The request is a fairly radical linguistic change (even in English; I’d be surprised if in some other languages it isn’t even more radical). Yes, some people will resist or refuse or even be hostile about doing so – that’s sad (for everyone involved). But I think I agree with you that treating everyone that fails some implicit level of fluency in using everyone’s preferred pronouns as “moral degenerates” is itself (mildly) immoral, but, worse, bad strategy.

    People regularly mispronounce my first name and it’s a fairly standard name – it’s the handle I’m using now. It’s annoying, but I’m pretty sure it’s an ‘honest mistake’, so it definitely doesn’t seem immoral. If someone insisted on calling me the wrong name, and I strongly believed that they knew my ‘real’ name, I’d think they were an asshole and it’d be evidence that they might in fact me a “moral degenerate”. But I’d think less badly of someone that insisted on calling me “Kenneth”. I’d be even more sympathetic to someone that failed to, or even refused to, pronounce my name in a non-standard way, even if that was my preference.

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