The Pronoun Wars




As America faces collapsing banks, closing hospitals, and radioactive waste contaminating elementary schools, most Republicans are laser focused on their war on woke and pugilism against pronouns. This is eminently rational on their part since addressing these other problems would risk the ire of their financial backers, rejection by their base, and put them at odds with their professed ideology. But let us look at the pronoun wars.

While the pronoun war is largely a conflict manufactured by the right using the straw man and nut picking tactics, there is a tiny bit of truth buried deep under all the hyperbole. There are some cases in which people do appear to be acting in extreme ways about pronoun usage and these can be weaponized to “argue” that the left is looney about pronouns. But, of course, this is fallacious reasoning.

I do also get that people can seem to be engaged in pompous virtue signaling about pronouns and that other people can find this annoying. This is analogous to the stereotype of vegans annoyingly telling everyone they are vegans—even if people are fine with veganism, the posturing is annoying. There are also stereotypes of religious goody two shoes telling everyone that they are goody two shoes. Again, it is the posturing that is annoying. But tolerating annoying behavior by having a proportional response is part of being a mature, decent person. People do like to signal that they are virtuous, and people do have a right to express their values, even if other people are mildly annoyed by this. As such, the right thing to do is politely tolerate such mild virtue signaling. But what about cases in which a person is serious (and not just virtue signaling) about their pronouns? My view of this is shaped by the “Mikey Likes It” commercial for Life cereal.

While my name is “Michael” I usually go by “Mike.” I do know some Michaels who go by “Mickey”, but I do not. As far as I can recall, no one has tried to call me “Mickey.” But, as you have probably guessed, people have called me “Mikey.” I do not like that.

The reason why I don’t like being called “Mikey” is that when people use “Mikey” they have almost always been trying to insult or provoke me. I have usually responded by politely saying that I do not go by “Mikey”. If they keep pushing it, it just becomes ever more evident they are doing it to insult or provoke me. People have, of course, claimed that they do not understand why I am taking offense at being called “Mikey” and some have even said that they can call me whatever they want. It has, of course, been a while since this has happened but the pronoun wars reminded me of how much I hated being called “Mikey” by people trying to mess with me in my youth.

Looked at philosophically, my view is that my name is my name and I have the right to decide what name I will respond to. It is not up to other people to decide. This is especially true when they are misnaming me with malicious intent: they are engaged in attempting to insult or provoke me. Obviously, I don’t think this is a serious offense against me—it is on par with other insults or verbal provocations. But it is still a hostile action, motivated by malice or cruelty.

When I hear of people insisting that they be called by their chosen pronouns, I get it—I think of people trying to insult or provoke me by calling me “Mikey.” Their pronouns belong to them and thus they have the right to refuse to respond to pronouns they do not accept. People attempting to impose pronouns on them are most likely trying to insult them, be cruel, or provoke them—and hence are to be condemned in their misdeeds. But wait, someone might say, isn’t forcing people to accept your pronouns forcing them to accept your values?

When made in good faith, there is an interesting issue here of whether accepting a person’s pronouns entails accepting a specific value system about identity.

On the one hand, it can be argued that it is like me expecting people to call me “Mike” rather than “Mikey.” I am not forcing people who believe that “Mikey” is the right short version of “Michael” to adopt my world view about my name; I just expect them to respect my name when they talk to me. If this is too much for them, they can just call me “Michael.” Likewise, if a person has “they” as their pronoun, no one is forced to accept whatever world view might lie behind that choice—the other person can either use “they” or avoid pronouns if they have a sincere commitment against using pronouns in ways, they do not want to use them.

On the other hand, one could argue that using a person’s preferred pronouns is to endorse or at least tolerate the values that are purported to lie behind their choice. For example, a person might use “she/her” and someone talking to them might have a conceptual scheme in which that person is a “he/him.” As such, if they use “she/her”, then they would be respecting the other person’s pronoun choice at the expense of their own professed belief. Likewise, if a person had a sincere belief that “Mikey” is the correct short form of “Michael” then they would be respecting my choice at the expense of their own professed belief.

As another example, imagine that Sally is divorced and changed her name from Mrs. Sally Jones back to Ms. Sally Smith. Now, suppose that Sally is talking to Ted at the DMV and Ted has sincere believes about marriage such that he does not recognize divorce, that he believes that a married woman must go by Mrs., and that a woman must take and keep her husband’s name. Sally is trying to get a new driver’s license as Ms. Sally Smith. Because of Ted’s beliefs about marriage, as a person he refuses to refer to her as “Ms. Sally Smith” and, as a DMV worker, refuses to issue her a new driver’s license. His belief is profound and sincere, but it would be absurd to say that he thus has the right to refuse to accept her choice just because he has a different conception of marriage than her (and almost everyone else). Likewise, one could say it would be absurd for someone to just impose pronouns on people based on their conception of proper pronoun use—even if this is based on sincere beliefs. After all, it is not Ted’s beliefs that should decide how Sally refers to herself.

A person could, of course, be both respectful of the other person and act in accord with their beliefs by simply not using pronouns. After all, if the person asked to use pronouns they do not want to use sees it as an imposition on them, then they would also have to accept that applying pronouns that people do not accept would also be an imposition on them. If someone insists on imposing pronouns on others, then it might be suspected that they are motivated by malice or cruelty.  Obviously, misusing pronouns for the sake of being cruel or from malice would be wrong, even if the person professed that they had sincere beliefs about correct pronoun usage.

In closing, I obviously don’t think that people should be able to use the right to choose their pronouns and name to engage in identity theft, etc. I also do not think that people would identify themselves as attack helicopters or whatever—I say this to show that I am familiar with the rhetoric used in the “debate.” It does no more harm to use the pronouns that people wish to use than it does to use the name they prefer. If it is asking too much to do this, then the easy fix is to simply not use pronouns.

Originally appeared on A Philosopher’s Blog Read More