The other day I got an email from a woman I know. Not a friend, just an acquaintance. For various reasons, we communicate via email occasionally. The text of the email itself was nothing earth-shattering – in fact, now I can’t remember what it was about. I scrolled all the way down and glanced at the usual ID stuff…name, title, address, name of organization, phone, fax, etc. At the bottom of this mix were two words: “she” and “her.” I pondered that for a few seconds then went on to other things.
A few days later it dawned on me what it was. I was watching some YouTube videos of college kids at political meetings. Upon being given a microphone, each one would announce name, class status (freshman, sophomore, etc.), and finish off with the pronoun of preference. It was completely ludicrous since everyone I saw was readily identifiable as male or female. Just more laughable loony left nonsense. If you didn’t see it and hear it with your own eyes and ears, you wouldn’t believe it. Oh, these kids today.
But the woman who sent me the email is not a goofy college kid. And there’s no doubt she is a bona fide adult human female. There is nothing in her dress or demeanor to suggest otherwise. Even if you saw her from a block away, you would have no doubt about that. She doesn’t have one of those unisex first names like Terry or Chris. Yet she apparently feels it is necessary to include her preferred pronouns on email correspondence. This is a first for me. As is sadly the case today, when something like this happens, one can’t help but wonder how long before it becomes part of the woodwork. In more progressive niches of society, it may already be SOP.
No one wants to reinvent the wheel, so why is it necessary to reinvent the pronoun?
Well, upon reflection, I realized that the woman who sent me that email is involved in some, let’s say, trendy, arty organizations. In that world, it may well be de rigueur to include one’s pronouns on emails to signify to everyone on your list that you’re a wokenik too. Dogs can sniff each other’s butts to verify who’s who, but humans can’t do that…well, they can, but not in emails.
On the other hand, the presence of pronoun preferences in an email could be useful for other reasons. Suppose you are compiling an email list for, say, the Re-Elect President Trump campaign. You would probably do well to avoid adding anyone who feels it necessary to advertise his/her/whatever pronouns in the ID block.
If pronoun preferences are now part and parcel of emails, have they invaded other spaces? One wonders…do job applications now include a check box for preferred pronoun? You know…male, female, other. Then a blank line to fill in a custom pronoun. If you were taking applications for prospective performers at a transvestite bar, it might be understandable. Otherwise, what’s the point? Thank God the second person singular pronoun of “you” still works for everyone. Just be sure you don’t add “people” after “you” when speaking in the second person plural.
I won’t attempt to list all the alternative unisexual/asexual/pansexual pronouns floating around these days. The list would probably be obsolete before this article is posted. Come to think of it, what about all those languages with masculine and feminine nouns? Are they due for makeovers? The German language has masculine, feminine, and neutral nouns. Will there one day be a movement declaring all nouns neutral for the purpose of making the German volk woke? And if you refuse to go along with the program? “Ve haff vays to make you talk mitout zexism.”
Thankfully, one doesn’t need to learn a new alphabet – though that doesn’t mean the status quo is safe. Somewhere in darkest academia there may be a smarty-pants Marxist who has determined that putting things in alphabetical order is oppressive! A goes to the front of the line while B must wait behind and bide his….er, her…er, its time. And Z? Don’t even ask about poor marginalized Z! In the interest of justice, if we are to keep the alphabet, we should end the tyranny of alphabetical order and have randomized letters, sort of like picking letters in Scrabble. And if A doesn’t like it, if’s off to the gulag or the guillotine.
Actually, pronouns have been troublesome things for a while now. One of the biggest no-nos is using “he” or “his” when referring to a generic individual in the third person, e.g., “anyone can do it if he wants to.” I don’t know what today’s English workbooks are like (maybe they don’t have them anymore, seeing as speaking proper English is considered elitist in some circles, and in the most enlightened realms, the very concept of proper English is denigrated) but there was a day when “he” was meant to apply to a man or a woman simply because English has no gender-neutral pronoun. A woman reading a phrase such as “no one should take himself that seriously” readily understood that the statement applied to her as well as to a man. But somewhere along the line someone or some group decided the generic “he” was another manifestation of systemic male privilege. So then we got the more cumbersome “he or she” and “his or hers” – or even worse, “s/he.” And that’s not all…
The worst-case scenario occurs when he and she are both woven into the text alternatively. For example, “Ask your doctor if she will…” or “If your attorney doesn’t provide you with her fee schedule” to go along with similar constructions using male pronouns, resulting in a roughly 50/50 breakdown of male/female pronouns. This is particularly popular when referring to people in high-status professions. I have yet to see anything along the lines of “When the ditch-digger arrives at your property to install the gas line, be sure to ask her…”
I don’t know what’s going on in editorial offices today. If I were to submit an article to a magazine with conventional pronoun usage, would it be rewritten? And if I objected? Would it be kicked back to me? “Hey, great article, Doug, but, man, your pronouns suck!”
The binary world used to be so easy…too easy, I guess. It has served us well at all times and in all places. Of course, there always have been and always will be the exceptions, the FUBAR folk, the ones who inspire double-takes…you know the ones…more given to bimorphism than dimorphism. Even with most of them, however, a closer inspection will reveal which side of the line they fall on. There are precious few who are neither here nor there, though a lot of them are not all there. The language mavens never catered to then before, so why now?
It seems the goal is to eliminate misfits – in fact , much like pervert, the word itself may be taboo. If you can’t fit the square peg into the round hole, then it’s not the peg’s fault. Get out your chisel and chip away at the round hole until it the peg fits. In days of old, the misfit used to heed the beat of that different drummer. Used to be almost a badge of honor, kind of like MGTOW.
The misfit used to be satisfied if he was not persecuted. Today that’s not enough. Now the misfit is not just recognized but embraced by the mainstream. You can’t be too inclusive, you know.
But in mainstreaming the misfit, the majority must bend over backwards to cater to his whims. If mainstream pronouns aren’t good enough for the misfit, then we’ll be happy to change them. Eight billion people in the world, but if there’s the slightest chance that one person anywhere in the world might be offended, the other 7,999,999,999 have to modify their behavior.
The contemporary misfit wants it both ways, to be part of the mainstream and to be special. By eschewing the normal pronouns that work for 99% of the people, one avows that one is special and can’t be saddled with a mere “he” or “she,” or any other manifestation of babbitry.
Thinking back to the email I got, I wouldn’t be surprised if some corporate entities aren’t already putting the gender preference thing in the email signatures of their employees. The bigger the corporation, the more likely it is to do so.
But isn’t all this fuss and feathers about “he” and “she” really a waste of time? If we have to resort to a gender-neutral pronoun, we have that old reliable “it” to fall back on. I know it sounds dehumanizing. In common parlance, “it” is usually used in reference to inanimate objects. When it is used in reference to living things, they are usually monsters. Just look at how the word “it” is employed in horror film titles:
From Hell It Came (a mobile tree stump);
It Came From Beneath the Sea (a giant octopus, gender unspecified);
It Came From Outer Space (jellyfish people, gender unspecified, who can assume human form);
It Conquered the World (a cave-dwelling Venusian, gender unspecified);
It! The Terror From Beyond Space (a Martian, humanoid but gender unspecified); and Stephen King’s It! (a shape-shifter, usually in the form of a male clown, but presumably gender-fluid).
And we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge Cousin Itt (a disembodied hand, gender unspecified) from the Addams Family. And while we’re at it, let’s not forget The Thing (from Another World), humanoid in appearance but gender is irrelevant because it’s a vegetable. Sure, it’s tall enough to play center for the Knicks, but that doesn’t mean it’s a “he.”
Then there’s the Elephant Man, who had a monstrous appearance, but insisted he was no monster. “I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!” He might have added “I am not an ‘it’!”
As useful as “it” is in everyday speech, it just doesn’t cut the mustard as a pronoun for human beings. It’s the old human dignity thing, I guess.
Now if I had to come up with an alternate third person pronoun for myself, I know what I would choose. I think it would be fitting if people referred to me not as “he/him” but as “his excellency.”
Or does that sound too privileged?