Pronouns are about power
The pronoun brigadiers, and what they really mean. Guest post by Angus Fox
A friend told me a story a few months back. A woman she knew had gone back to teaching after many years of career hiatus raising her own kids. She dipped her toe back into the didactic waters with an evening art class for teenage kids, which she taught as a volunteer. It went brilliantly, especially given how long she’d been out of the profession — or so she thought. The next day, a complaint came down from head office: she hadn’t begun the session with a pronoun circle, a concept which was then explained to her. Not one kid said anything during the class itself. Not one of them appeared to be in any observable state of gender transition, gender distress, gender snazziness or even gender notability. No-one said a single word which included the syllable ‘trans’. She felt awful. No-one had told her this was now a requirement for non-bigots.
There are two fields of study of meaning within language. Semantics, we all know about: the meaning of words. A good example of semantics is the new definition of woman, which is that a woman is someone who feels like a woman is someone who feels like a woman is someone who [to be continued]. However, there’s another field of study called pragmatics, which is the study of language — and its meaning — in use. Semantically, ‘dinner’s on the table’ means ‘a typically hot meal, served towards the end of the day, is on a flat-surfaced piece of furniture designed for seated humans.’ Pragmatically, it means ‘come and eat.’ You can see that semantics isn’t always the most useful of the two.
The semantic meaning of ‘my pronouns are’ airdrops us directly into the mangroves of gender identity. But what does ‘my pronouns are’ mean pragmatically? More often than not, it’s simply: look at me. Centre me. Make this about me. Did the art teacher cause anyone discomfort by not engaging in a preemptive grammatical campfire singsong? I can’t say for certain, as I wasn’t there. But why wouldn’t someone just raise a hand and ask? Because that’s not the point of the pronoun circle. The point of the pronoun circle is this: Nice art class you have, here. Shame if someone were to — *smashes a small vase* — ruin it. Like the mafioso threatening the shopkeeper unless ‘protection’ money is paid, the idea is to show who’s in charge. I know that this might be seen as a controversial take, but I can think of no other reason that the complaint was lodged retroactively, rather than raised at the time. It feels like a power-play.
And what happens in the real world, where there isn’t a bio floating above your head to demonstrate your identitarian status? I don’t see a realistic way to communicate these linguistic demands to people in shops or pubs or cinemas or lecture halls, unless we’re all to wear badges. Sooner or later, the obvious solution is advanced: everyone has to be ‘they’, because that’s safer. Never mind how absurd it is to the vast majority of us who don’t want to be deprived of our right to be seen, and understood, as men and women. What happens when young Ruby, whose woke parents have raised her to think that she can’t tell someone’s gender by looking at them, wants to borrow young Andy’s purple crayon? She can’t say ‘his crayon’, because she could be misgendering. It won’t take long for a kindergarten teacher somewhere to ban ‘him’ and ‘her’ altogether. In fact, that’s just been proposed by the council of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole — of all places. People move to the Dorset coast to retire. It’s no Portland.
‘Singular they’ seems to be getting more and more common: often as a marker of non-conformity; often, as in the case from Dorset above, as a sort of safe word which protects the speaker from accusations of gender ignorance. But it’s mind-bogglingly difficult to follow for basically every English speaker who isn’t on Twitter. Consider the following: ‘I asked Katya to come, and they said they’d think about it.’ It just doesn’t make sense for most of us to relate ‘they’ back to ‘Katya’, whether the activists like it or not. We’re left wondering: who said they’d think about it? Have I missed something? This is where some gender warriors get downright dishonest. ‘Shakespeare used singular they!’ they cry. Well, yes and no. He used it to refer to a person of unknown identity, and thus unknown sex — as in, ‘if someone comes, tell them to wait’. In fairness, it’s a little less clunky than ‘tell him or her to wait.’ But Shakespeare never claimed that Lear or Goneril were struggling with a non-binary identity. I’m no expert, but I’m fairly sure this wasn’t a common problem at the time. Ask a pronoun brigadier exactly which character Shakespeare referred to using the pronoun ‘they’; I guarantee that the answer won’t be an actual name.
In writing all this, I don’t mean to be snitty: I can see myself behaving this way, if I’d been born twenty years later. After all, what else is a teenager to do? Start a small ceramics business, even though the cost of a couple of hand-crafted bowls will be more than an entire Chinese-made dinner service plus the cost of petrol for the return trip to Ikea? Go to art school and hope that someone notices your unique, intriguing style of portraiture, while a banana taped to a wall sells for a six-figure price tag? Kids look for meaning. In particular, they try and define meaning negatively in relation to their parents’ generation. They want to be part of something new. We should sympathize — to a point.
But the version of meaning conjured by the pronoun brigadiers has gone all the way through silly into downright destructive. Watching the revolutionary mob who came for Gina Carano was like watching one of those shudder-inducing videos where an army of flesh-eating ants strips an animal to its bones in thirty seconds flat. This is power for its own sake — and it’s easy. It’s easier than becoming a talented cartoonist, or a qualified civil engineer. It’s certainly easier than raising a child. You can even do it in your underpants. The dopamine cycle activated by the defenestration of celebrities like Gina Carano is ruthlessly addictive. Revising for exams just isn’t.
I’m not the first person to point out the low-investment-high-return nature of the so-called cancel culture. But what often goes unsaid about this zealotry is the way in which it picks on easy targets. There’s never an attempt to get, say, Ben Shapiro or Sarah Palin to pronoun up their Twitter bios, because they’d just say ‘nope,’ and that would be that. It’s student unions and arts organizations that are now insisting that their staff members include pronoun footnotes in their email signatures, not bike repair shops or chicken processing plants. The mob comes for those who give the benefit of the doubt; for those who care about feelings of belonging and alienation; for those with open minds and open hearts. Those in the artistic professions — the actors, the gamers, the writers — have become the victims of their own responsiveness.
And in a funny kind of way, so has the English language itself. ‘They’ identities just don’t work in French, where all third person plurals are either male or female. All you’re doing is adding an S. Yet the pronoun brigadiers aren’t marching on Paris, demanding an end to the cisnormative fascism of French grammar. Teaching materials in the US now regularly use ‘Latinx’, despite the fact that it’s not really clear how this should be pronounced. (Latineks? Latinks? In the absence of guidance, I opt for the International Phonetic Alphabet pronunciation, which feels like a solid, internationalist compromise: Latinkh, where the ‘kh’ is a guttural, as in ‘loch’.) Yet in their Spanish translations, the grammatically masculine ‘latinos’ serves as a generic, sex-neutral plural. No-one seems to care. Among the world’s languages, English is becoming the HR department: a petri-dish for diversity-oriented experiments, while everyone else just gets on with it.
In truth, the new politicization of pronouns is screamingly Anglocentric. Personally, I think it’s quite reasonable for English speakers to be a little Anglocentric: one of the great challenges of being an English speaker these days is getting someone from another country to help you practice speaking their language. Whether they’re Chinese or Czech, they’ll just want to talk in English. Again, who can blame them? It’s the language of everything, from international diplomacy and air traffic control to edit wars and pirated TV. But then, I’m not one of the people rampaging around cyberspace to find the latest example of Anglo-American hegemony. Do these pronoun warriors understand that pronouns don’t work the same in all languages?
Here’s a few facts of note. Besides French, Spanish and the Romance languages more widely, plenty of languages the world over distinguish male and female third person plural forms. Kiss goodbye to your shiny, bespoke ‘they/them’ pronouns: you’re still male. On the other hand, many languages (like spoken Chinese) make no gender distinction in pronouns at all. Have our activist friends considered how peculiar they’d sound in a Chinese seminar hall, asking people to describe them as plural when that has no implications for either gender or sex whatsoever? I’m guessing not. Then there are languages like Japanese, which arguably don’t have third-person pronouns at all. The most frequent referential strategy in Japanese is to say nothing at all and allow the information to be implied. Allowing information to be implied is not something Twitter bios excel at.
I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of this isn’t really about gender identity, so much as status. This, too, sounds snitty, and I’m not arguing that it’s consciously about status: I do think the young gender activists believe that they’re on the right side of history in dismantling… whatever it is they think they’re dismantling. But take a moment to consider the whole idea of plurality in pronouns. When French speakers say ‘vous’ instead of ‘tu’ to single addressees, they’re conferring higher status by pluralizing. It makes sense, conceptually: I respect you, therefore I multiply you. You are more than I am. This pattern repeats, from French and German to Tagalog and Tamil. To my knowledge, there isn’t a single language in the world which shows respect by turning a plural into a singular, but plenty do the reverse. Think of cats going up on their hind legs and puffing up their fur to make themselves look bigger.
So, is that what our they-friends are subconsciously doing? Are we dealing with a generation of children whose self-worth is so low that their only remedial strategy is to spawn grammatical copies of themselves? And, if so, doesn’t that imply that their pronominal identities aren’t really authentic at all? Well, maybe that’s also unfair. But they’re not authentically about grammatical gender, nor biological sex. They are an authentic — if bizarrely misdirected — cry for meaning in a meaningless world. Round the corner lurk financial crashes, housing crises, hyper-inflation and extremist movements. There’s safety in numbers: and, in an atomized, sedentary, screen-captured world, you can just create your own numbers if all else fails. When ‘he’ becomes ‘they’, perhaps the ‘I’ beneath it subconsciously becomes a ‘we’. Hey, it works for the royals.
I’ve written elsewhere about the broader linguistic issues of the new trans moment, and in particular on the radical nature of the changes being made to our language:
But Trans-English isn’t just the addition of new words to the body of the lexicon. Pronouns are switching from a closed class (like prepositions) to an open one (like verbs), to which words can be added at will. Just as I can create the verb ‘to Pelosify’ (pick your meaning according to your political bias), so many speakers of Trans-English create ‘zer’ and ‘xim’. Equally, nouns have gone from uncountable (‘puberty’) to countable (‘a puberty I don’t want’), for ideological reasons indicating a deeper cognitive and even spiritual shift below. This is far more than a jargon; it is a change in syntax. Trans-English is a dialect.
One possible counterargument to this is that languages do change, and ours is no exception. Its nouns, for instance, do become countable: we now have ‘trainings’, rather than just ‘training’. But such grammatical changes are rarely made consciously; and where they are, it usually sounds weird, as in the wacky decision that the English plural of Euro should be Euro, even though we never have this type of plural for currencies unless they come from East Asia. And, to my knowledge, the attempt to prize open a closed part of speech, creating a new class of words to which new forms can be added at will, is unique within world history. We don’t do this. Think how odd it would be to say, ‘hey, I’ve been thinking of adding a new preposition. Glud. It means underneath, but only partly underneath. As in: my legs are glud the desk.’ Conscious interference of this type only happens when an ideological movement is trying to crowbar its way into your brain. That’s why it sounds so odd.
And this is certainly crowbarring. Besides pronouns, so much of the new Trans-English is ideologically motivated. It imbues ‘gender identities’ with a sense of permanence by rejecting verbs for adjectives and adjectives for nouns, making identity seem immutable and unquestionable in the process. It creates ever more boutique labels, allowing adherents of the ideology to sort into sects and subsects. The innovated use of pronouns matters to those of us on the outside of the transgender communities not just because we’re being asked (told) to behave in a certain way, but because it’s an attempt to gaslight us into thinking things have always been this way. They haven’t. We have no history of barking orders at one another to use certain syntax.
I work a lot with parents of young men who want to become young women, and think they can do precisely that. When they find out that they can’t, it’s often too late — and parents, especially mothers, feel the sharpness of that pain no less than their sons do. A lot of these boys want people to call them ‘she’; some want ‘they’. Very occasionally, nonsense syllables are mooted — although these tend, in my experience, to be short-lived. These kids want to make a statement. I don’t think this statement-making can be allowed to delete women (or men, for that matter) as a biological class, nor weaponize the unique challenges faced by intersex people as battering rams in the culture war.
But nor should we deny that the quest for meaning is very real, no less so for our pseudo-tolerant young friends as it is for us. Bluntly, we need to give them something else to do. There has to be more to life than the acquisition of power, whether it’s institutional, cultural or linguistic. Language-learning should be a serious option, here: not only might it open their eyes to the Anglocentricity of their hyper-important identities, but it could also get them off social media. I know this might sound flippant, but I mean it quite genuinely. Parents with kids obsessing over pronouns would, in my opinion, do well to sit them down with a beginner’s guide to Mandarin. If this century is starting as it means to go on, it might turn out to be useful. There’s no reason to assume that the global dominance of English will be eternal.
It’s with this sense of meaning in mind that I have reached my settled view on pronouns: stop telling me what to do. I don’t know how popular this view will be, but stop telling me what to do goes in both directions. It’s not just about trans rights activists telling me that I have to call the beardy bloke ‘she,’ to paraphrase Douglas Murray. It’s also anyone who tells me that I have to cross-examine someone about dysphoria or chromosomes or surgical records or bone structure before I can open my mouth. Frankly, I’m not going to call Rose of Dawn ‘he’ out of biological essentialism, because Rose of Dawn seems like a decent person who I’d quite like to meet one day and life’s too damn short. My policy is the Golden Rule: do as you would be done by. Treat me like a decent human being with a right to act autonomously, and I’ll do my best to reciprocate. Yell at me, and I’m likely to do the opposite of what you want.
I’ll leave you with this thought. In George Lakoff’s book ‘Women, Fire and Dangerous Things,’ the reader is introduced to the Australian language Dyirbal, which has four noun classes — effectively, four grammatical genders. One is fairly general and is used for most inanimate things. One is for edible fruit and vegetables. The third is used for men, and for most living beings. And the fourth? Women, fire and dangerous things.
And that’s in Australia, which isn’t exactly short of deadly animals. Oof.
Angus Fox (a pseudonym) is an academic working in an unrelated field. He accidentally became a journalist when he worked out what was being done in the name of ‘LGBT rights'. You can read more of his work at angusfox.substack.com.