Many arguments in politics quickly descend into language games. As the American hack likes to say, there’s a lot to ‘unpack’ in how we talk about things. And with English grads running things we’re doing more unboxing than an Amazon returns department.
Perhaps this is never truer than with arcane and ever-changing politically correct speech. Terms that were acceptable yesterday are today derogatory or hateful. ‘Person of colour’ is fine; ‘coloured person’ deeply offensive. The euphemism treadmill keeps turning, and it’s not the only machine in the gym.
The current imbroglio over pronouns is among the best examples of this. Ridiculous modern coinages aside, the main event is people’s negotiation to be referred to as their preferred gender – or lack thereof in the case of non-binary people.
I think it’s generally polite and cost-free to comply with this request even if you don’t believe it reflects the truth. But this rule is inadequate for more complicated requests, such as that given by the writer Laurie Penny recently on Twitter:
By the way! I would appreciate it, if you know me, if you’d make the effort to remember that my preferred pronouns are ‘they/them.’ My attitude to pronouns is pretty personal: ‘she/her’ = accurate, kinda, but more formal and stiff. Like ‘tu/vous.’
When I’m being a Feminist In Public I’ll use she. I earned that pronoun with a lot of hard work. I have friends with PhDs, but I don’t call them ‘doctor’ when we’re chatting on the phone. But if you know me or it’s a non-professional setting, ‘they/them’ feels right. Thank you.
To be fair to Penny, this is a more courteous request on pronouns than many you see online, where ‘misgendering’ is often treated as a hate crime. But her “pretty personal” rule that ‘she/her’ be treated as a formal address and ‘they/them’ as informal is unique. This is not a compliment when you’re discussing communication.
What – to paraphrase the economist John Kay – is it all for? Penny’s two tweets raise more questions than they answer. The most generous interpretation is that she (or they) identifies as non-binary but has pragmatically accepted she’s female to most eyes, although it doesn’t fit her view that she has “earned” the right to be called a ‘she’ through “a lot of hard work”.
Perhaps it’s best not to worry, but these skirmishes tend to reflect broader fault lines in our politics. Language, being about mutual understanding, has to be decided ultimately by consensus. You can’t singlehandedly import some formal/informal distinction from French and expect people to understand you.
For example, an editor once tried to convince me that ‘utilise’ was different from ‘use’. Different dictionaries dispute the point, but more important was the fact that nobody else on the desk recognised the distinction. If readers don’t understand a nuance you believe a word communicates then it doesn’t communicate that.
Likewise, a word can’t be offensive just because one activist declares it to be so, but if it gathers offensive connotations among a decent slice of the population then a speaker can’t deny that’s the case. In general usage, language is an ongoing negotiation among the whole population.
Perhaps Penny can make a decent case for her unique interpretation of pronouns. But she has to make it, and enough people have to agree with her for it to be so. If we want to understand each other there can be no unilateral declarations of independence.