Declaration of pronouns is a relatively new corporate practice in this country and one that has been embraced with surprisingly little debate. Not only has it become quite commonplace to put pronouns in email signatures and in bios on LinkedIn, and other social media, but it has been readily accepted as a sign of ‘inclusive’ language without any discussion as to what it really means. I have received many questions/queries about this, and so I have decided to explain why I will not be adding my pronouns to my bio on social media, email or anywhere else.
When you look at it objectively it is a rather odd practice. I have been working in the diversity space for a long time. If we had seen a name with he/him/his next to it ten years ago we would have thought it strange. No one did it because we had not been asked to and no one would have known what it was for or what it meant. Back in 2016 I read about the furore surrounding Professor Jordan Peterson’s refusal to comply with the practice of using preferred pronouns at the University of Toronto saying it was compelled speech. I considered it pretty extreme and thought it would stay confined to North America, Canada and student campuses. But here we are with the rather bizarre practice now being accepted by organisations as a positive sign of inclusion. But basic questions have been bypassed. So I am asking them.
Firstly are pronoun declarations in bios useful? Whether we are male or female shouldn’t really be very important and women often wish it wasn’t. But let’s assume it is considered important. With reference to bios, we may have both photos and names, even titles to guide us as to the sex of the person. Some names are neither male or female e.g. Robin, and these are often mistaken without a photo to guide us but that has always been the case and it doesn’t cause offence. If you have one of those names you are used to it. Historically women have used male names so as to be taken more seriously and many women still don’t want to draw attention to their sex. For 99% of the population our sex is very clear so for the less than 1% of the population in the workforce who may want to identify as a different sex to the one they were born as is it necessary for them to put pronouns after their name? Do they want to? Perhaps if they have a male or gender neutral name and they are living as a woman they may like to. That’s fine although most men who transition adopt female names which helps others to identify them as women, and women adopt male names on transition.
So the situations where the presence of she/her or he/his is really informative are very, very few. And declaring one’s pronouns has little practical purpose in most scenarios, given that we do not refer to individuals by their pronouns unless we are talking about them, rather than to them. So I think we can agree this isn’t about providing others with useful information.
What are the reasons then? There seem to be two groups of people who are doing so: for one group it is personal choice to show support for trans people and the second group have been encouraged, even compelled to do so by their employer which also wants to show support for trans people. In this second situation it has become increasingly difficult to not abide by your employers’ suggested practice even though you are under absolutely no legal requirement to do so.
We have been told that the practice signals support for trans people, that it shows you are an ally and many believe that it is a harmless but kind and inclusive thing to do. Some may have also seen others do it, people they respect and therefore they also believe it is the right thing to do. Fair enough. Employers have been told by certain lobby groups that in order to show they are an inclusive organisation their employees should put pronouns in bios and email signatures. Stonewall recommends it as a policy which will earn its members marks in their LGBT workplace index scheme. The case goes something like this “By adding pronouns to your signature it will show that you have thought about what it means to others, it opens you up as a safe and understanding person to anyone who is gender-non conforming in some way”.
The certainty that one is being kind and inclusive to transitioning individuals has been challenged as some transitioned people have specifically said that the practice doesn’t help them at all, indeed it can put them on the spot if they haven’t yet reached a point of making their transition public. It can also highlight their transition when they may just want to blend in and not have the subject drawn attention to at every meeting (as is happening in some firms) or in every communication.
And the wider question is why do we want to flag up an ‘allyship’ in this way in a public space like social media or our work emails. We don’t flag up any other ‘allyship’ we may have. Men do not show they are women’s allies by putting a symbol in their bio nor do able-bodied people feel they need to announce that they are understanding of disabled people. In fact we don’t signal any other aspect of ourselves to show other under-represented groups that we are an ally. So why this particularly small group? And why do we show it by doing something that is a lot more than inserting a symbol, but actually changes the meaning of our language?
Pronouns are simply a linguistic tool to help people describe what they see. In English this means he for man, she for woman and they for plural of both and indeed sometimes they when the sex of the subject isn’t really important or we don’t know. The recent use of pronouns as declarations of identity changes our understanding of language – so that pronouns are used to tell us what we may not see, i.e. they describe subjective feelings rather than observable facts – and that changes the way we think. Which is why declaration of pronouns is not just a passive response, it is an active participation in an ideology.
In fact the declaration of pronouns is a very specific vehicle to proclaim your belief in gender identity ideology – the belief that all human beings are born with an innate sense of whether they are a man or a woman and that this feeling takes priority over biological sex. It is not an ideology in which I believe nor do I want to subscribe to it.
I see no reason why human beings as a species should throw out the categories of biological males and biological females in 2022. The foundation of feminism is the existence of a constant universalistic and ahistorical category of woman. This cannot include biological males or it isn’t feminism. Women everywhere are oppressed on the basis of their sex not their gender identity.
Changing the meaning of pronouns from an observable description to a subjective feeling has consequences. Three years ago I came across an article with the dramatic title ‘Pronouns are Rohipnol’ by Barra Kerr that caught my attention and made me think. It is described as a thought -provoking article looking at the psychological impact of using preferred pronouns. The author argues that far from being harmless, the use of preferred pronouns, i.e. pronouns which indicate the opposite sex to the one you see before you does harm us. She likens it to memorising a colour the name of which is written down in another colour.
“Forcing our brains to ignore the evidence of our eyes, to ignore a conflict between what we see and know to be true, and what we are expected to say, affects us. USING preferred pronouns does the same. It alters your attention, your speed of processing, your automaticity. You may find it makes you anxious. You pay less heed to what you want to say, and more to what is expected of you. It slows you down, confuses you, makes you less reactive. That’s not a good thing.”
Essentially her argument is that since time began human beings have used their senses to distinguish between the sexes. Human beings learn to distinguish male from female at a very early age via face, gait and voice. Research shows that babies as young as three months can distinguish between the sexes and we ignore this inbuilt capability at our peril. This is most important of course for women and girls because men sometimes present a threat to our safety. Who hasn’t been walking down an empty road at midnight and seen the figure of someone walking towards them only to see that it was another woman and breathe a sigh of relief? Pronouns and gender identity here are irrelevant. Men commit almost all stranger violence not women. We are taught this from an early age and awareness of potential danger informs all our movements almost without conscious thought. Gender identity ideology that teaches girls that boys and men may be girls and women and vice versa because their real sex is how they feel inside goes against nature and our deepest instincts. The obvious example of this is the media practice of using preferred pronouns for a male rapist who ‘identifies’ as a woman.
I am certainly not advocating that people should never use people’s preferred pronouns in everyday interactions but as stated above we only really use them when talking about someone not talking to someone. I do this as a common courtesy to those I know and if it was a situation in which I felt uncomfortable doing so I would get round it by referring to them by their name.
The corporate practice of consistent declaration of everyone’s own pronouns in bios is different. It is a symbolic act. If you believe and support gender identity ideology then of course you are free to put pronouns in your bio. But I agree with Debbie Hayton, a trans woman who said “It is part of a campaign to change human society. It is not a neutral act, and it is not necessarily kind,” and as I do not want to be part of that campaign, I will not be doing so.