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It’s time to talk about pronouns

May 17, 2023

How long is it since it became normal – indeed, in some quarters, praiseworthy – to stipulate which personal pronouns you want other people use to talk about you when you’re not there? I am not sure. But I took a two-year hiatus from this blog at the end of 2020 and the practice wasn’t widespread enough then that I felt it worthy of comment. Two-and-a-half years later, it is. 

A few weeks ago I went along to a service in a synagogue in Stoke Newington. (I’m not Jewish, but my wife is, and I occasionally accompany her.) The rabbi asked us all to introduce ourselves (we only numbered about a dozen) with, if we wished, our preferred pronouns. She herself, though clearly a woman, in fact a heavily pregnant woman, claimed her pronouns as she/they. 

I want to ask what the point of this charade is. I know the answer, but I still want to ask. Obviously, the pronoun one expects people to use to address one is you. I’d feel slighted if I was actually present and people were talking about me in the third person. The pronoun question only arises when you’re not there. Well, then, if you are trans, you will no doubt want people to use your preferred pronoun in your absence: you want your gender identity to be respected. But if you’re not trans? Then really, who cares? I would expect people to use he when they’re talking about me, because my name is Brandon, and I have a beard. But if they were to call me she or they I really wouldn’t give a bugger. In fact, I probably wouldn’t even know. 

Now, I said I know the answer, and I do. People think they are showing how kind they are. But I can’t see the sense in that. In the first place, pretending pronouns are important to you when they’re not has nothing to do with supporting trans rights. (Incidentally, I’d like to point out here that not accepting every claim made by extremist trans activists – eg that transwomen should be allowed to participate in natal women’s sport – does not mean one is ‘transphobic’.) In the second place, making public claims to be kind has no bearing at all on whether one really is kind. Following polite norms is no guarantee of virtue. Isn’t that fairly widely known? (And by the way, since when did kindness become the only virtue that counts? Honesty and courage are important virtues too.)

So I didn’t give my pronouns at the synagogue and I don’t announce them in other situations, either. The whole thing feels to me like, as I said, a charade. It’s embarrassing. The problem is that if declaring pronouns becomes even more widespread, at some point not giving them will be interpreted as a deliberate statement. It will come to mean ‘I’m transphobic.’ That’s the problem. Will I eventually have to succumb, just to prove I’m not a bastard? But shouldn’t that be the default assumption anyway? 

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