This is the third video in a series exploring pronouns and the silly mess we’ve made of something that really should not be a big deal at all.
In the first part I looked at the bad advice schools are promoting that centralize pronouns by always announcing and inquiring on someone’s pronouns. I explored how we are creating an environment where we are teaching children that pronouns are core to their identity. We are enforcing that this is something that people should get upset about if they don’t like the words used to describe them.
In the second part I took that principle further and explored how our attitudes towards pronouns creates fragility amongst transgender individuals. By teaching transgender individuals to place affirmation in the pronouns people use towards them, we are setting them up to be devastated whenever what’s spoken isn’t what they would like to receive.
Today, I want to talk about compelled speech and the scary place we’ve landed with respect to pronouns.
I personally strive to use the pronouns that others prefers when I speak with them. Why? Because I don’t enjoy making people feel uncomfortable. For me it’s that simple. As I mentioned in part 2, I understand how it feels when you are living in a place where you rely on pronouns for affirmation. I don’t think that’s a healthy place to live and I want to support transgender people moving to more stable ground. But forcing undesired pronouns upon someone isn’t going to fix this for them—like anything mental health concern related they will need to address this themselves. For my part, I have the opportunity to be kind and gentle with my language and I like to choose that option.
But what key to note is that this is a choice that I make. And in order for it to actually be a choice, I need to have had the ability make a different choice as well. Without alternative options, what is said is meaningless because it’s compelled.
It reminds me of our absurd gift giving tradition where you must give gifts to certain people on special occasions. Gift giving is awesome and I love when I find the perfect thing that I believe will have a positive impact on someone I love.
But I’ve all too often seen gift giving digress to siblings visiting the mall together and each sibling ‘picks’ a $20 item they would like to purchase for themselves. They then turn their back while their sister buys it for her. They then do the same for their sibling. The economist in me screams that it would be way more efficient if people just bought the item they wanted with their own $20. Why the weird ritual?
Anyway, I’ll visit that topic again at Christmas. Back to pronouns.
For some people, the choice might be to not use the pronouns that someone prefers. Sometimes this is because of a cognitive dissonance they have a tough time resolving. Other times it’s because they’ve decided that biological males are the epitome of everything that’s wrong in their life and that sparing even one stray ‘she’ towards someone biologically male will erode the fabric of our gendered society to deleterious result. Of course, there are many other perspectives on pronouns as well.
I don’t agree with that second perspective, but I do believe that mandating or legislating a certain way of speaking doesn’t work. I’m not convinced hardline individuals have it right, but I may not be right either. It’s humbling to remember that we are all learning and growing together and our perspectives regularly change over time. In order for natural growth to occur, we need to be able to encounter alternative perspectives.
What many people seem to overlook is that civil liberties such as freedom of speech only work when we protect it both ways. It can be so easy to ignore infringement on freedom of speech, or even advocate for such restriction, when the circumstances conveniently support our own cause. But if these tenets of our democracy matter to us then we need to apply them impartially, because sooner or later your speech will be what has become compelled.
I discovered that principle this year in the pronoun debate when Catherine Kronas and I visited Chanel Pfahl at her house for a podcast discussion on pronouns. In that discussion, Chanel and Catherine both referred to me as she/her as part of a larger ‘what is a women’ discussion.
I didn’t even notice when we filmed because none of us care that much about pronouns. Chanel, Catherine and I have never discussed how I should be referred. I don’t make asks for people to use a particular set of pronouns, and they likewise had not asked my preference. This just… happened organically. And it wasn’t a big deal to any of the three of us.
But when we released a snippet of the episode there was a firestorm of backlash against Chanel and Catherine for their choice of language. There was a not insignificant portion of their following who was up in arms that they would dare choose to refer to me, a biological male as ‘she’.
I know that for so many of you this pronoun debate is tantalizing and I fully expect that the comment thread of this video will—as usual—degrade into a debate on whether Julia should or should not be referred to as ‘she’. But the point I want to highlight is that those who argue I can’t ever be referred to as she and police others for selecting that language are creating compelled speech in the exact same way as those who insist I must always be referred to as she. Both are compelled, and neither has a place in a liberal democracy.
I can’t touch compelled speech without briefly mentioning hate, even though it’s something I’ve covered in other videos. Whenever compelled speech or restrictions to freedom of speech come up, someone inevitably raises the valid concern that unfettered speech can lead to people being allowed to say truly repulsive and dehumanizing statements about others.
Here’s my answer to that concern: Yes, we do need to draw a line at hate. We need a bar to censor truly dehumanizing discourse. But that bar should be much higher than it’s been made to be, especially in the gender discussion. Critical social justice has brought us to a place where certain words are deemed hateful if even uttered, regardless of the context they are being used. I’d mention some of those words for illustration, but even mentioning them in this contextual discussion may result in my video being deplatformed. When we behave like that, we give words power by treating them as something more than what they are: language.
Individual words are not hateful, but their usage can be. You can absolutely express true contempt and disdain with language, and pronouns might be part of that verbal abuse. But it’s not the pronouns, it’s the undertone of the message being delivered. Suggesting that merely selecting a particular pronoun constitutes hate makes people scared to interact with transgender individuals out of fear of messing up. And when people are uncomfortable, they’ll protect themselves and just choose not to engage with people like me at all.
We’d all be a whole lot better off if we stopped focusing on the ‘gotchas’ of language usage and instead placed on efforts on condemning the most egregious hate where it does exist. Our ‘gotcha’ culture reminds me of the police offer who sits in a car on the side of the road in a speed trap just waiting to catch someone who has veered slightly over the speed limit. Why do officers spend their time condemning that well-meaning driver while someone else is speed racing down the freeway?
If we all focused our effort on making pronouns mean a whole lot less to ourselves in our interactions, and showed a little more grace towards others and how they use them, I think we’d all be a lot better off.