Don’t dogpile, even if the pronoun is wrong

A friend was talking to me recently about how he had inadvertently used “he” when the person involved wanted to be referred to as “them/they”, speaking in an academic seminar setting on zoom, and had promptly got dogpiled in the chat section by people saying that he had “committed an act of violence” towards the individual in question. Of course, he apologised promptly, but apparently that wasn’t enough. He was, to me entirely understandably, very upset by this, partly because it ruined his learning experience and effectively silenced him for the rest of the session – and he’s now paranoid about it, and feels that he almost can’t speak at all, for fear of getting it wrong again.

Takeaway #1 – don’t cripple someone’s learning experience.

But look, I can also understand that for people whose gender identity is not simply allocatable to “he/him” or “she/her”, it is galling to be forced back into answering to pronouns which not only don’t fit, but are a reminder of a stereotype which they’ve had to struggle very hard to overcome. And yes, they also may have had their learning experience ruined, at least temporarily. They might even feel silenced by the wish not to have the error repeated. Yes, I was brought up with the phrase “sticks and stones may break my bones but words cannot hurt me” being dinned into me – and I decided at an early age that that was garbage, because I was easily hurt myself by other people’s words, and could see that others felt much as I did. “Man up” was not a helpful thing to say to me at that point (the person who said it is now dead, so that issue is sort of over…)

My friend is of similar age to myself, maybe a year or two younger. In my own case, I only woke up to the fact that people were really concerned about other people’s use of pronouns for them about 9 years ago (OK, in my defence, the previous ten plus years I’d been so focused on my own psychology and recovery that I wasn’t participating in any venues where it was an issue). Perhaps I should have woken up to this move in language earlier, at least had I been connecting with the rest of humanity. That means that I, at least, spent something like 60 years being acculturated into the use of he/him and she/her, and it is VERY difficult to change habits which have taken that long to be instilled. For what it’s worth, my father (born 1920) left some writings which I’m only now getting round to going through, 21 years after his death, and 8 after my mother died and left me the sole custodian. Some of the language he uses of other races leaves, shall we say, a lot to be desired, and although he was in general a very broad minded individual and made friends with a number of people not of white anglo-saxon stock (including nearly marrying an Indian lady) his language never became wholly politically correct. My mother for many years fought a losing rearguard action against the use of “gay” for those of same-sex orientation. She grew up with “gay” meaning happy and carefree, and resented having that meaning taken away from her – even though it was obsolete language by the time I was in my teens, and she died when I was 61.

I have got people’s pronouns wrong on occasion, been told about it, apologised and moved on, to try harder where that person is involved in a conversation. In all cases, my apology has been accepted, the person involved said they understood that it was difficult, and I tried harder. But I haven’t been dogpiled, particularly by people being offended on behalf of someone else (which, to me, seems wrong). If I were, I fancy I might have my defence mechanisms kick in without any conscious move on my part and say something REALLY unforgivable. Or I might just never talk to those people ever again, as I have a huge avoidant streak. In any event, it would ruin my engagement with them thereafter.

I fancy my friend is in much the same position, and commend him on not being strident in opposition to the dogpiling.

I got used to using the pronouns appropriate to a person’s outward appearance rather than enquiring more about gender fairly early on, and acted as lawyer for, on my calculation, all of the transsexuals in my (rather small and provincial) town at one time. They liked our (myself and staff’s) open mindedness and lack of judgment – and, of course, the fact that we were using the “right” pronouns for them. I’ve always had more problem with those whose appearance is ambiguous. Certainly I take offence at people who want to call nonbinary people “it” – that is obviously offensive (and, sadly, removes one of the possibilities for my referring to God, even though “he” is a deeply problematic usage and “she” just looks like an attempt to over-correct – I know plenty of people who are happy to say that, for instance, gravity is an “it”, but not God, even if they don’t really think of God as personal). The trouble is, “they” and “them” have a collossal association with being plural in my subconscious, and are very difficult for me to slip into using naturally, if I’m actually thinking about the content of what I’m trying to convey rather than about being politically correct (and I find it more and more difficult with age to do both at the same time). The recent fabrications like ze/zir/zirs are horribly difficult for me, not least because I can’t remember them or pronounce them with confidence, although the fact that I don’t actually interact with anyone who uses those in order to get practice may be the most important. What I generally try to do is just use the given name as much as my brain is capable of.

So, to anyone I may inadvertently offend this way in the future (and I probably will), I apologise. I do try, but it is very difficult for us old people to manage. Let’s face it, many of my generation haven’t got to grips with metric units yet, and they came in in the 1970s and the process was pretty much complete by 1980.

Takeaway #2 – older people have more difficulty with this than younger ones. Try for a bit of forgiveness – you know, love your neighbour as yourself, even if they get things wrong.

And I do really question whether people other than those who have actually been called something they don’t like are actually as offended as they claim, or whether they are actually making a power play to silence older people (i.e., in this case, my friend). After all, I used to knock around with a group of gay friends in my 20s, and had to get used to the fact that they referred to everyone female or male as “she/her”, including me (which was jarring for, say, half an hour…). OK, despite having now been happily married to one woman for some 40 years, I did have a period of some gender confusion in my early teens, am very impatient with male gender stereotypes (which I often don’t fit well) and I could for some time after puberty have best been described as “bisexual”, looking at sexual partners – so perhaps I was less wedded to a “he/him” identity than many. Add to that the fact that side effects of the medications which are keeping me alive and somewhat sane have rendered me effectively asexual, with neither capability nor libido (so I’ve gone from one of the “A”s in LGBTQIAA+ to another), and I’m honestly not worried what gendered or non-gendered pronouns you use for me, as long as I recognise they’re meant to refer to me. Which I probably won’t if it’s “ze/zir/zirs or the like.

I also see it as just plain bullying when more than one person does this. If someone is down, don’t keep kicking them.

I also think I detect a strong element of “virtue signalling”, and of demonstrating that “these are my people”. I understand that, but if you make it more and more difficult for people to be fully on board with your views, you are going to end up an increasingly tiny group. Politics 101 says you need to make alliances with those who are similar but not the same as you. So for goodness sake, cut people some slack…

Takeway #3 – if it isn’t your pronoun, it’s probably not your business.

(Yes, I’m fully aware that I’m taking up arms to support someone who I perceived as hurt by someone’s action, even though it isn’t me who is hurt. I felt sympathy for him, but also a level of indignation at the bullying aspect which might, on reflection, be over-the-top. But I’m not doing it in an environment which is calculated to silence anyone. Nor am I virtue signalling – indeed, perhaps the opposite, as this post will probably annoy some people who otherwise think very similarly to me.)

Takeaway #4 – don’t be a bully.

But don’t call people “it”… And yes, I’d be offended if someone in my presence called any human being “it”. But if it wasn’t me, I’d probably not call them out on it. I maybe wouldn’t even if it were me.

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