“What are your pronouns?”, the young clerk asked me after introducing themself by their full name and stating their preference.
You must understand that I don’t watch television. I’m not on instagram and steal but furtive glances at other social media platforms. In other words, I try to live exclusively in the geographically immediate “real world” or my inner landscape. So the clerk’s proclamation and request left me quite baffled. Last I checked, gender fluidity was something that happens at a co-ed pool.
“We,” I replied.
“The royal we, you know the editorial…”
Ok, I actually said my name and stated my preference for “he/him”. Though upon leaving the store I immediately regretted not quoting “The Big Lebowski” as I do above. I embellish here in the retelling for your amusement and mine.
The rest of the conversation was quite pleasant, and I felt more connected to a stranger than I had in some time. Maybe there’s something to this new pronoun thing, if for no other reason than creating an immediate intimacy that is sorely lacking in Western society.
None of it’s real
“They/them” is of course nonsense.
But so is “I/me”. Every pronoun, noun, and words in general are just conveniences. They expedite communication, but we confuse these words for the things themselves. The word “man” is not and never will be a man. Labeling serves to satisfy that uniquely human folly — the desire to know.
Words are mere descriptions that we unfortunately treat as definitions. Every word fails to ultimately define any thing or any one. Even scientific definition is not static, it is redefined every few years as we explore deeper. Using words to define a person, an entity that is evolving in every moment, is likewise ridiculous.
I can understand the desire to have an identity. I proudly wear mine:
I am in one sense, all of these things. In another sense, I am none of them, because I don’t exist. The concept of my separate self is a useful mental projection. It is based in large part on this list of beliefs and labels that I accept or impose on myself. But when I stop to think, how helpful are these words really? They create connection that should be present anyway, for no other reason than we are all breathing and alive together. Why do we rely on labels to lower our defenses and create connections? The labels we each wear are a tiny subset of a nearly infinite master list of labels, which means that they are more apt to disconnect than to connect.
This “I” — based on labels, values, thoughts, and beliefs — exists primarily to assuage our fears in an uncertain world. The sense of self provides all of us humans with an illusory semblance of solidity and therfore security.
(In this section I paraphrase Alan Watts, who himself poetically assimilates and reframes the words of countless sages. You can read more on this subject here. )
If white, heterosexual men get to create a simplified and illusory sense of self by donning a solipsistic syllable, if for nothing more than to glide through the world with seeming ease and confidence, everyone else should be able to. So go ahead, you don’t need my permission to wear whatever label makes you comfortable.
I do propose a better way, though. A pronoun, like any noun or word for that matter, is a convention. It’s designed to makes things easy. Does it though? And if so, is that prefered?
Words is hard
This new convention of gender fluidity and its ensuing naming conventions were designed by a younger generation for whom, it seems, brevity is their thing. (Dude!) Sharing information mainly via, images, videos, and 280 character limits, has trained the mind to flit rather than float.
Why further confuse matters by using pronouns? As it is, most people are terrible at remembering names. I’m guilty of this too, even though when I meet someone new I repeat their name once or twice while holding on to their hand and making awkward, prolonged eye contact. We rely on technology to recollect details like names for us, technology that is simultaneously reducing our attention span to that of a single-celled organism.
So why not just use somebody’s name? Every time? What could be more intimate than that? Our name is perhaps the greatest label to which we identify, and by using it instead of a gendered reference we remove any chance of insulting somebody. If you really want to go gender-neutral, the safest bet is to remove pronouns altogether.
“Susan is standing over there taking selfies. Susan’s profile photo is two days old, and looks terrible, so Susan definitely needs to update it. Oh hi Susan! You look amazing!”
It sounds a bit like See Jane Run, but that’s fine. What’s called for here is clearly a re-education.
“Ok”, you say. “You’re an insensitive prick”, you say.
Well if that’s true, it only proves my point that creating the concept of a separate self, especially via pronouns, makes people feel isolated and more callous. What else you got?
“David, pronouns do indeed make communication easier. They are necessary in this world.”
Yes and no. The dilemma we now face is that communication is too easy. Which is why there’s so god-damned much of it, yet so few seem to be saying anything of substance.
One need look no further than politics, where arguably the most important decisions are popular because of an elected representative’s penchant for pithiness. No facts are necessary so long as the official is able to appeal to our emotions with a clever quip. If you ask me, the problem with politics today is one of language. There’s no sweet pulp beneath all that pith.
We need more words, not less. For a generation that is firing off tweets and texts, saying or writing a person’s full name every time offers a much-needed opportunity to slow things down.
Today the game is to communicate as much as possible as quickly as possible, via the myriad methods of electronic communication bombarding our senses. We’ve retreated from the convention of using long elegant prose, which can no longer profoundly elevate the spirit, the emotions, and the understanding of a reader. Instead, the now ubiquitous use of emojis and acronyms have made communication sterile and cheap.
“LOL” you say?
“Shut the fuck up”, says I.
See how much more powerful that is than STFU?
I know I feel better.
Please don’t mistake my shorthanded shenanigans for bigotry. Everyone should be treated equally under the law regardless of classification, and the gender fluid are no exception.
Beyond legal equality, there is also acceptance. I think that’s what’s really being asked for here. To refuse someone service because of their gender, to berate them, or behave violently against them is outrageous and despicable. We certainly have a long way to go in terms of women, people of color, LGBT folks, and members of other marginalized groups having an equal seat at the table. So I see the point that if labels and stereotypes are used against people, why not use them to regain power?
But in the end, who gives a shit if society accepts you? Our society chose a megalomaniac as its leader. Is that who you want or need to validate you? The only person you need acceptance from is you. When you have that, what anyone calls you doesn’t make a lick of difference.