Featured Philosophers: Robin Dembroff & Daniel Wodak

19401535_10155876211473797_1103945132_o.jpg

Robin Dembroff is an Assistant Professor at Yale University. They received their PhD from Princeton University after completing their MA at the University of Notre Dame. Robin’s research focuses on feminist philosophy and metaphysics, with a particular emphasis on the social construction of gender and sexual orientation.

Daniel Wodak is an Assistant Professor at Virginia Tech. They received their PhD from Princeton University. Daniel’s research focuses on metaethics and philosophy of law, with a particular emphasis on moral and social norms.

More importantly, Robin and Daniel love dogs. They both, along with Sukaina Hirji, founded the blog Philosodogs.  

The Problem with Pronouns

Robin Dembroff and Daniel Wodak

Some languages—Hungarian, Finnish, Malay, Armenian, Bengali, Yoruba—have no gender-specific pronouns or grammatical gender. We think that English speakers should adopt the long-term goal of making English like these languages: we should stop using pronouns like he and she, and adopt gender-neutral pronouns like they or ze for everyone.

We acknowledge that this is a controversial and provocative thesis, but we think it is one worth talking about. For this reason, while we discuss some of the reasons supporting it, we hope this piece will foster critical discussion.

Consider a familiar scenario. You’re a professor. You have a fresh batch of undergraduates this semester. You start the first class by asking students to introduce themselves, including their names and preferred pronouns.

We think there’s something wrong with asking this question. To see why, suppose that you have a genderqueer student: i.e., a student who does not exclusively identify as a man or woman, and so falls outside of the traditional gender binary. That this student is genderqueer might not be publicly known or evident from their gender performance. What should the student do? They could answer honestly: they prefer they. To do this, though, would disclose their gender identity. It is not part of the semantic meaning of the singular they that it refers to a genderqueer person (by contrast, he presupposes that the referent is a man; ditto for she and women). But given the background assumption that he is for men and she is for women, using they for someone often pragmatically implicates that they do not identify as a man or a woman.

There is nothing wrong with someone disclosing that they are genderqueer. But there is something wrong with forcing someone to disclose this information. Your student should get to choose whether and when they disclose their gender identity to others; you should not force them to disclose this information to strangers, partly out of respect for their autonomy, and partly to protect them from serious risks of stigmatization and discrimination. (Some might object that gender-specific pronouns are used to mark so-called ‘biological gender’, rather than gender identity. If true, that wouldn’t justify your conduct. As Talia Bettcher has compellingly argued, people also shouldn’t be forced to publically disclose their sexed anatomy.)

At this point, you might think that you did not force your student to disclose this information, since they could have said she (or he, or whatever gender-specific pronoun would raise fewer questions given their gender performance). True. But to do so would be to lie about their gender identity. And there are many legitimate reasons why your student might not want to lie. They might care about their integrity. Or, since stigmatized gender minorities are already often treated as delusional or deceitful, they might worry that if they are later ‘outed’ their past use of pronouns will fuel such bigotry.

So, in effect, your student is forced to either disclose private information or deceive others: a seemingly innocuous question left them with no good option.

There’s nothing special about the context of the classroom. By using gender-specific pronouns in general we frequently force others to either disclose or deceive others about their gender identities. In fact, we force them to disclose or deceive others about their sexual orientations too: if you use she to refer to a gay man’s romantic partner, you force that man to either correct you (disclosing that they’re gay) or tacitly affirm your assertion and thereby deceive others. That’s wrong too.

Worse yet, because gender-specific pronouns presuppose information about gender identity, you may well violate people’s privacy in a wide range of contexts without recognizing it. Describing a job candidate as she, or their romantic partner as he, discloses information about gender identity or sexual orientation in contexts where such information should not be considered.

These problems are made inevitable by our system of gender-specific pronouns, as such pronouns are very difficult to avoid without conspicuous circumlocutions. We think this is a good reason to adopt the long-term goal of abandoning that system and adopting gender-neutral pronouns like they for everyone.

But it’s not the only reason to adopt that goal. Return to the start of your seminar. Say your student discloses their gender identity by answering ‘they’. There’s something further that’s problematic here. Men can answer ‘he’ and thereby disclose their specific gender identity. Women can answer ‘she’ and thereby disclose their specific gender identity. But ‘they’ does not disclose a specific gender identity. ‘Genderqueer’ is just an umbrella term for a large list of specific non-binary gender identities.

Why is that problematic? Having specific pronouns for two majority gender groups and a third catchall for a large list of minority gender groups is inegalitarian. It is like reserving marriage for a majority sexuality and a legally similar but less esteemed relationship status for folks with any other sexuality.

You might think the solution to this is to add more specific pronouns: one for each gender identity. But proliferating pronouns is infeasible. Pronouns, like prepositions, are ‘closed class’ words. It’s hard to learn a new pronoun. Learning thirty odd new pronouns is far harder still. And we don’t just need you to do this. For these pronouns to be accepted and understood, we need the whole linguistic community to do so too. Moreover, we think that even if this change were feasible, it would be too risky. Think how often you use gender-specific pronouns for strangers (like your students). How often would you make mistakes, and thereby misgender others, if you had to track 30-something gender pronouns?

Note that both of these concerns are easily addressed by ceasing to use he and she for anyone. Using they (or another pronoun, like ze) for everyone is egalitarian, feasible, and does not risk misgendering anyone because they is gender-neutral.

That’s a brief sketch of our positive case for adopting our long-term goal. Now let’s shift to playing defense.

A common worry for this proposal is that it seems at first glance to overlook the significance of gender-specific pronouns for transgender persons. For a transgender woman, for example, it may be incredibly important to be referred to as she, because she acknowledges that person’s gender identity, and using any other pronoun – even a gender neutral one – would deny that identity.

We agree. In any circumstances where using a gender-neutral pronoun misrepresents someone’s gender identity, we think the considerations in favor of using a gender-neutral pronoun clearly are outweighed. This follows from one of the central reasons for only using gender-neutral pronouns: to avoid communicating false information about individual’s gender identities. Using gender-specific pronouns to refer to genderqueer persons or closeted transgender persons is likely to misgender them. But it’s also undeniable that, in many current contexts, refusing to use she to refer to a trans woman almost certainly communicates a rejection of that person’s identity.

That said, one of these types of misgendering is easier to fix than the other. While gender-neutral pronouns can misgender in practice, they do not semantically convey misinformation about gender identities: the very definition of a gender-neutral pronoun is one that does not presuppose information about the subject’s gender identity. The problem, then, is not with the pronouns themselves, but with the fact that we have created an expectation that all women will be called she, and all men will be called he. Only within the context of this expectation can gender-neutral pronouns in effect misgender trans persons. The best way to get rid of this expectation is by pursuing a long-term goal of eschewing gender-specific pronouns. Plausibly, a trans woman wants to be called she because of the continued practice of using she for cisgender women; it is a preference to be treated like all other women. If we abandoned the practice of using she for cisgender women, this preference for she may well disappear.

Even someone sympathetic with what we’ve said so far might object that using they to refer to an individual is grammatically incorrect and potentially confusing. But this objection is hogwash (or as Justice Scalia would say, ‘pure applesauce’). English already contains a gender-neutral pronoun that is used both in the plural and the singular: you. In response, language has regionally adapted so as to mark when the term is intended as plural (e.g., y’all, youse, you guys). Why expect different in the case of they?

More importantly, though, this objection is premised on the idea that the moral duty to not misgender is secondary to grammatical duties. The term ‘grammar Nazi’ has never made so much sense: a moral should clearly defeats any grammatical should. Even if using they slightly complicates communication, it is preferable to further maligning minority gender groups. And anyway, someone truly worried about the corruption of grammar could advocate for adopting a new gender-neutral pronoun rather than expanding our use of they.

Philosophers have been relentless in pointing out that we often act using only words. Reliance upon gender-specific pronouns creates situations where we (often unknowingly) unnecessarily misgender and marginalize others. Maybe it’s time to find different words.

 

8 responses

  1. This argument seems to prove too much. Here, for example, is an excerpt of a key bit of text slightly modified so as to generate an argument against asking people their names:

    Consider a familiar scenario. You’re a professor. You have a fresh batch of undergraduates this semester. You start the first class by asking students to introduce themselves, including their names. We think there’s something wrong with asking this question. To see why, suppose that you have an ethnically Slavic student. That this student is Slavic might not be publicly known or evident from their appearance. What should the student do? They could answer honestly: ”My name is Milos Novacek”. To do this, though, would disclose their ethnic background.

    There is nothing wrong with someone disclosing that they are ethnically Slavic. But there is something wrong with forcing someone to disclose this information. Your student should get to choose whether and when they disclose their ethnic identity to others; you should not force them to disclose this information to strangers, partly out of respect for their autonomy, and partly to protect them from serious risks of stigmatization and discrimination.

  2. Milena, I’m really not seeing how the argument proves too much. There are a lot of problems with your attempted reductio, but the most obvious is in the final sentence. What “serious risks of stigmatization and discrimination” do students face upon being discovered to have a name that happens to be of Slavic origin? The stigmatization and discrimination that trans and genderqueer students face isn’t some detail in a thought experiment. It’s actual. People face risks of violence upon being discovered to be trans or genderqueer. This shouldn’t be trivialized. So if you don’t think that your example trivializes these risks, please say more. And if you do think that there are comparable risks for students with ethnically Slavic names, why do you think that this is obviously reductio?

    To be clear, even if there are corresponding risks for students with ethnically Slavic names, the reductio doesn’t work because of the many important differences between pronouns and proper names. Consider the next paragraph of our argument. For a transgender man or genderqueer person to answer that their pronoun is “she” would be taking to be deceptive. There’s no corresponding deception when someone coins a nickname. I’ve had many students offer Anglophone names in class that don’t match the name on the role; this is a common practice to which no one objects, in large part because names don’t function like pronouns. They aren’t closed class words, and they don’t presuppose information about ethnic origins.

  3. Thanks for the response, Daniel.

    I just used ’Slavic’ as sort of a placeholder. I took it as obvious that there are ethnic groups that are stigmatized in one way or another. A better example might have been an obviously Jewish name. Anti-semites exist. There may not be many of them (depending on what geographical region we’re talking about), but I don’t think there are many people who would harass, judge, or abuse a gender non-conforming student either (which is not to say that such people do not exist). And, yes, a nickname might (non-deceptively) conceal an ethnic firstname, but it wouldn’t work for, say, an obviously Jewish lastname.

    I don’t want to get too sidetracked by the details of this case, though. The worry I have is more general. There is all sorts of information about ourselves that get revealed in ordinary, everyday interactions. Some of that information one might have good reason to wish to conceal. Simply by speaking, for example, you can learn a lot about me. By my accent you might discern that I am not a native English speaker or that I am a native speaker of, say, Spanish. I can think of many situations where one might reasonably be reluctant to reveal that fact (due to various forms of stigmatization). Does this mean that we ought to avoid ’forcing’ someone to speak (by, say, asking them for directions), thereby ’forcing’ them to reveal something about their national origin?

    Bottom line: the fact that some people might have good reason to want to keep their gender identity secret does not seem like a very compelling reason to think that asking what pronouns they prefer is problematic. (Just like the fact that someone might have good reason to want not to reveal their ethnicity does not mean that asking someone’s last name is problematic).

  4. If the reductio is meant to be that on our view you shouldn’t ask students to reveal that they have obviously Jewish last names in a context where there is a well-grounded fear that this would lead to anti-Semitic discrimination and violence, then I’m really not seeing the force of it. Subjecting other people to such *needless* risks of harm seems pretty immoral. And note that *needless* is doing some work here. You can quite easily not ask people to reveal such information. Likewise, you can default to using gender-neutral pronouns and just not ask another person to reveal information about their gender identity or sexual orientation. There might be some information that we wish to conceal that is inevitably revealed in ordinary, everyday interactions. A related way in which these cases are different turns on what we mean by “reveal” in the contexts we’re discussing: namely, that information is either a part of semantic meaning or a clear pragmatic implicature. What you mean by “reveal” is much looser: a possible inference that could be formed by others.

    In short, what we’re focused on isn’t at all akin to never speaking to anyone ever just in case that happens to say anything that might hypothetically lead someone to infer something that might have some marginal risk of leading to a bad thing.

  5. Many of your problems here are created by the wrong idea that these pronouns convey gender or gender identity – they don’t.

    The relevant personal pronouns (e.g., he, she, him, her) are used to communicate information about the maleness or femaleness of the referent, both of which are analyzed in terms of sex. We don’t use pronouns based upon the preference of the referent. That’s just not how pronouns work (I can cite a lot of English grammar books, if you like). Likewise, those relevant pronouns don’t assign gender or gender identity to persons: the only things that are gendered here are the pronouns themselves – and that’s *grammatical* gender.

    Consequently, persons who identify as transgender or genderqueer are not “misgendered” when we use the pronoun that conveys their objective sex, for their gender or gender identity was not considered, ever. It would have been refreshing to hear the authors convey this point, if only to help secure a proper understanding of how pronouns work in Standard English. But no, instead we get this: “Using gender-specific pronouns to refer to genderqueer persons or closeted transgender persons is likely to misgender them.” That’s misleading: There can be no misgendering or risk of misgendering if those pronouns don’t refer to gender or gender identity.

    And here authors also write:

    “Plausibly, a trans woman wants to be called she because of the continued practice of using she for cisgender women; it is a preference to be treated like all other women.”

    No, that’s wrong. The practice is that we use those pronouns to refer to any sexed-female, not “cisgender” females.

    The authors write: “But it’s also undeniable that, in many current contexts, refusing to use she to refer to a trans woman almost certainly communicates a rejection of that person’s identity.”

    A rejection of or a refusal to endorse a trans-identity, perhaps. Or it could just be an insistence to use pronouns properly *and* not convey information that is false (namely, that the trans-person here is a sexed-female).

    The authors write: “Describing a job candidate as she, or their romantic partner as he, discloses information about gender identity or sexual orientation in contexts where such information should not be considered.”

    I agree – it shouldn’t be considered in many contexts, largely in employment. But merely learning that so-and-so is a man or that so-and-so has a male spouse doesn’t suggest that this information will be considered in any detrimental way. If it is, the problem is what they do with that information, not with the information itself.

    Regarding whether someone should be “forced” to reveal his sex, that’s a bit of a stretch. We can accomodate those people who wish to keep that information private by not using those pronouns or simply use a gender-neutral pronoun when in reference to that private person. But I will resist any notion of dissolving the traditional pronouns, because they serve a useful function in the recognizition of sexual difference and identity. I’m not so captivated by your egalitarian ideal, one that strives to make us so equal that we begin to lose recognition of the important differences between men and women.

  6. But you aren’t just saying that you should avoid using gendered pronouns/asking about pronouns *in contexts where there is a well-grounded fear that this would lead to discrimination or violence.* You’re saying that *in general* we ought to avoid such language and that’s what I’m taking issue with. Hence my example. It would be like me saying that since in *some* contexts there is a well-grounded fear that revealing an ethnic surname could lead to discrimination, we ought in general to avoid surnames. But that would be absurd.

  7. Milena, this is very helpful for better understanding the upshot of your responses above. I take it that you didn’t take the cases you presented to be analogous to the example we presented in the post, but thought that there will be many cases where using gender-specific pronouns carries much less risk. Is that the line that you’re pushing? If so, sorry that I misunderstood this above. I think this line is very plausible. But we still think that English speakers should avoid using gender-specific pronouns in general, for a few reasons. The most salient here are that (a) it’s very hard to change your linguistic dispositions with respect to pronoun-usage in a highly context-specific manner; and (b) many of the harmful features of gender-specific pronouns turn on the general expectation that they will be used for men and women–this generates the implicature that a specific use of a gender-neutral pronoun refers to a genderqueer person–and we think we have to change our general linguistic practices to undermine that expectation. Neither feature applies to uses of surnames.

    Michael, clearly we disagree about whether gender-specific pronouns convey information about gender. But suppose that you’re right about this. Why would it undermine our conclusions? As we said in the post: “Some might object that gender-specific pronouns are used to mark so-called ‘biological gender’, rather than gender identity. If true, that wouldn’t justify your conduct. As Talia Bettcher has compellingly argued, people also shouldn’t be forced to publically disclose their sexed anatomy.” Moreover, many of the concerns we raise about how gender-specific pronouns affect genderqueer people would arise again with intersex people. Even if we assume that you’re right that “he” applies to males and “she” applies to females, where these are understood in terms of a person’s sex, not everyone is exclusively a male or exclusively a female.

  8. First, thanks to the authors – I appreciate that y’all are thinking about non-binary gender identity. It would be great to see an increase in thoughtful discourse about this topic within Philosophy. Now for my critique!

    It seems that the argument above sets up “they” as a category for all to use that does not communicate anything about gender. Here’s an excerpt: “the very definition of a gender-neutral pronoun is one that does not presuppose information about the subject’s gender identity.” However, this is not the way most people I know, or I, use “they” as a pronoun. There are many who feel most comfortable using “they” because it functions as an intentional indicator to others present that the individual identifies as genderqueer (which, for me anyway, is not the same as being absent gender). If a person is AFAB (assigned female at birth) and consistently interpolated as a woman but actually identifies as genderqueer, might not the ability to state a “they” pronoun be important and powerful for this individual? Isn’t there power in an additional pronoun for those who don’t identify as “he” or “she” and isn’t something lost for those of us who choose this pronoun with intention if you advocate for all people to use the pronoun “they”? What makes you believe that if everyone used “they” I wouldn’t still be stuck in the same system of binary gender since the vast majority of people are cisgender and binarily gendered? I am AFAB and identify as genderqueer so I assume I would still be interpolated as “woman” by most people in the world, just as I am now, even if they finally used the correct pronoun. Moreover, the usage of the correct pronoun wouldn’t have the same meaning/affirmation since “they” would be the pronoun used for everyone indiscriminately.

    I also am not clear on the point about “they” being a catch all for a variety of genders that are non-binary, as opposed to “he” and “she” which supposedly aren’t. Isn’t “he” a catch all for a vast variety of ways of being a man, and “she” a catch all for a vast variety of ways of being a woman? In what way(s) is “they” different?

    This last critique may come from my location as a non-philosopher, but I also wonder if this argument isn’t misguided in the sense that it focuses on the wrong problem. While I would certainly find it useful if the rest of the world could understand that “they” singular is a pronoun, and would use it correctly, I have concerns about the emphasis on changing the language broadly in the way the authors suggest, and personally would rather advocate for changing the ugliest parts of how gender functions, which arguably would not change even if we changed our language and all used “they” pronouns. For example, would using “they” for everyone result in less misogyny? Fewer deaths amongst trans people – especially trans women of color? Would it stop LGBTQ people experiencing mental health issues or committing suicide in greater numbers than their non-LGBTQ counterparts?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: