Pronouns the Third …

Okay, yes, I’m going to do it. I’m going to wade into the whole “preferred pronouns” debate, mostly because I think there’s some interesting philosophical issues around it that, as usual, are getting completely ignored while people scream at each other based on emotional assessments.

Jordan Peterson is now a relatively well-known personage around the world, and he has gone on record opposing, to some extent, using or being forced to use the preferred pronouns of trans individuals. Depending on who you believe, he objects to using preferred pronouns in general, or to using the new invented ones like “xe/xir” or whatever they are asking for now. You can find more details throughout the comments section of the post that I’m linking this one comment to, although I want to focus on this specific comment from gijoel:

@Danny Husar. So Jordan wouldn’t mind if I referred to it as it? It would understand that I refuse to bow to its ridiculous demands, and use pronouns that it prefers. Surely it would.

Now, in the context of the discussion, my immediate answer would be that it should be fine as long as gijoel uses “it” to refer to everyone. If that’s the third-person pronoun that gijoel wishes to use for all people, then at least no one can assume gijoel of aiming to mislabel or insult Peterson specifically. We might want to know the reason why they chose that specific pronoun to use, but surely Peterson ought not take that usage personally, if it is just gijoel’s specific usage.

This, then, reveals an issue with preferred pronouns. By definition, the preferred pronouns that we’re talking about are third-person pronouns, which means that no one uses them — or at least ought not use them — when talking to the person themselves. This would be how they, in fact, refer to people who are, well, not there and are being referred to indirectly. Given that, why should we worry about that person prefers to be referred to indirectly? It’s indirect. Moreover, if people are inventing new pronouns that they happen to want used, then this would force someone to keep a huge list of these special cases and remember which person wants to be referred to by which pronoun when they are, in fact, not talking to them and the person is not around. If these new pronouns have a purpose, then shouldn’t the people inventing them simply use them themselves to refer to everyone and try to convince other people that they are the better pronouns to use? Even by their standards, this doesn’t seem to be something that individuals should individually impose on others; either people should always use these pronouns to refer to everyone, or else everyone should be able to decide what pronouns they want to use to refer to others for themselves without imposition from others (assuming the choice is made in good faith).

And yet, there tends to be at least the risk of offense if the “wrong” pronouns are used. I have often worked with people from China, and it turns out that in one of the common languages — Mandarin? — while the third-person pronouns for he and she have different characters, they in fact are pronounced the same. Thus, people coming from China and learning English often end up using the wrong pronoun, because they pick the wrong pronunciation. For at least one of my co-workers, I corrected her when she did that, and I did so primarily on the basis that referring to a woman as “he” can be insulting. If that’s true, then perhaps there is reason to think that how you use third-person pronouns can, in fact, be something that a person takes personally even if you’re consistent in how you use it.

The same thing can apply to the comment above. If gijoel referred to me as “it” — like Shale in Dragon Age Origins — I’d probably be a bit offended. But the reason for that is interesting. For Shale, it was an indication that she didn’t consider humans to be actual people, or at least not on the same level as Shale was. It’s a big moment in the companion story when Shale admits that “you” were good to her. Thus, Shale eschewed personal pronouns entirely, thus reflecting that she didn’t think of her companions as people. That, of course, can offend those who think of themselves as people, and thus can seem like an attempt to diminish them, and treat them as less than others, or at least less than the speaker.

The same reasoning applies to “he/she”. For the longest time, those have been strongly gendered. Thus, if you use “he” to refer to someone, you are implicitly saying that they are “male”, whatever that means. If that person is female, and you know that, then that can be insulting. And this is relevant to trans people because their preferred pronouns — if you’re using “he” and “she” — generally are chosen to reflect what they believe themselves to be. If you don’t use the appropriate pronoun, then you would be implicitly saying that you don’t think that’s true. At a minimum, you’d be opening yourself up for a debate over whether or not that is true, and at worst you’d be denying their identity and denying who they are. So, similar to the case of it, we can see why they would take that implication personally.

However, this doesn’t apply to invented pronouns, and in fact to any pronoun that is not, itself, gendered. If gijoel decided that this whole gender thing is ridiculous and he’s going to use “it” because it’s completely non-gendered, no one should be offended by that. I myself have, in general, adopted the “they” usage for people whose gender I don’t know, and if looking at the various gender options I decided to say “Screw it!” and simply always use that to avoid any possibility of misgendering, then again no one should have any reason to be offended. There is no implication of personhood or gender in those pronouns, given the reason they were adopted. So, if their usage is gender neutral and they use the pronouns consistently, then there are no personal implications and so no reason for personal offense.

So then the only case left is when someone insists on using the traditional “he/she” pronouns. The comment section implies that Peterson would insist on using those pronouns and using them to reflect gender, but that he would align his usage with the gender that the person he’s talking about believes they are (or identifies as, if that makes more sense to you). Since this is what trans activists want, there’s no reason for personal offense here, even if that person prefers to use different pronouns. Again, they get to choose what pronouns they want to use for everyone, and everyone else gets to choose what pronouns they use for everyone, and there’s no reason for personal offense unless there are personal implications. However, if someone refuses to align their usage of those pronouns with what a person identifies with, then it means that they are actually in disagreement over something, and there’s a clash in fundamental beliefs that drives the disconnect. So what we have, then, are two people who have a fundamental disagreement in philosophy, and that disagreement is driving their usages and their perceived offense. So let’s look at what these disagreements might be.

It could be because the person disagrees that “he/she” are actually gendered. Given the new philosophical arguments that are being espoused because of trans issues, they could insist that the pronouns always referred to biological sex and so that merely “presenting” as a gender is insufficient to force a change in pronouns. Given this, the only way to object to it is by insisting that the pronouns really do have to align with gender, which would require argument. Additionally, one could argue that doing so will look like simple misgendering unless people know that that is how the pronouns are being used, and that deliberate misgendering — assuming that they accept the idea of transgender, which we should assume in this case — is indeed something that should be considered insulting, and so their solution might not be the best one. But they can still insist that despite the ambiguity in their positions, their view is indeed still right and that that is what they mean by it, and in that case all they are saying is something true that no one should be offended by.

But, of course, it also could be the case that they deny that there is even such a thing as being transgender, that the gender one has is the one that either aligns with their biological sex or is the one assigned at birth, and that’s it. This, of course, is a very fundamental clash of ideas, and even the pragmatic argument above doesn’t work because they are saying and really do mean what that usage implies.

So, if we end up in the case where the the usage and offense are both driven by fundamentally incompatible views, should we force them — either by law or by social consequences — to use the “preferred” pronouns of the other person? Well, you either have to believe that if you do that then that will either cause them to change their beliefs or it won’t. If it won’t, then all you’ve done is bury the discussion; forcing them to use the preferred pronouns is not going to convince them that that view is correct, and is in fact more likely to double down on that specific belief because they had to be forced into it by people who they feel couldn’t make a good argument for their view in the first place. If, however, you think that eventually they’ll change their beliefs once they start using those preferred pronouns, then what you’d be trying to do is force them to change their beliefs without being able to make a strong, convincing argument — at least to them — why they should. If usage of words matters so much that it can shape the hearts and minds of people, then you’d be insisting on the usage for the main purpose of changing those beliefs, and changing it “against their will”, not through arguments but through various types of force. I don’t know about most people, but I’m very wary of trying to change language for the sole purpose of changing people’s beliefs when a number of people strongly disagree. It strikes me as being the precise opposite of what we should do if we want a free and open society.

So, let’s cycle back to the original starting point: Is it reasonable for someone else to determine what third-person pronoun I should refer to them as, or should I get to determine what third-person pronouns I use in general? For pragmatic purposes, it seems unreasonable to ask someone to have to remember the precise third-person pronoun someone for some reason wants them to use, and since those pronouns can have meanings and implications even philosophically it seems like I should be the one deciding that, not them. But those usages can have personal implications, and those personal implications can be offensive. As long as someone is consistent and has a non-personal reason for using what they use, then these personal implications should no longer be present, although in practice there can be some unintentional ones that can make life difficult for people who use them, or at least force them to continually explain why they use the pronouns they do. This consistency would include using gender-based pronouns while making sure that if one accepts identified gender that they refer to people using the gender they identify as. All that’s left are cases where the usage has a personal implication, but that personal implication reflects a disagreement over facts or philosophy. In those cases, a person should be able to speak in such a way that reflects their own views, and not be forced to falsely conform to the views of others. Argument is required to settle the disagreement, at which point the usage ought to change as well, if in nothing else than implication.

So, at the end of the day, I’m unconvinced that anyone should ever try to use someone’s “preferred pronouns”. One should not deliberately misgender someone, but that’s not the same thing, especially if someone is inventing new pronouns that they like better. They can use the pronouns they like, others can use the pronouns they like, and as long as we try to understand why people have the usages they have there should be no implications worth taking offense at.

2 Responses to “Pronouns the Third …”

  1. natewinchester Says:

    By his own testimony (and as far as I can tell, no counter cases) he’s fine with referring to people how they wish, his objection is to the law mandating language. Because it’s a gross violation of the principle of freedom of speech as is banning language.

    As for the guy you quoted, Peterson would point out (and has done so several times), how he feels doesn’t matter and feelings shouldn’t matter when it comes to a society’s principles. But then when i saw the link was to “freethought blogs” (you get what you pay for) I chuckled a bit. They are rather infamous for completely misunderstanding what the debate is about.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Yeah, they certainly are. The main reason I jumped on this one was not because I thought that feelings in and of themselves matter — as a Stoic, that would be an odd line for me to take [grin] — but that at times the feelings could be indicating something else that was a more valid point.

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