by Samira KawashNovember 2022The Pronoun Ritual by Samira Kawash | Articles | First Things
Last fall, when I took my daughter to her college orientation, all new students had been issued ID lanyards, to which they were invited to affix pronoun stickers. To opt out would be conspicuous—and based on my observation, no one did. A week later, I too was subjected to the same demand. The new director of my community choral group had just returned from a workshop on “diversity and inclusion,” and she insisted that I and nine other middle-aged women in the group introduce ourselves around the circle with our “names and pronouns.” The point was obviously not that anyone needed any pronoun clarification. The point was to say the words.
And so the pronouns creep in, just a tiny word here, a little checkbox there. Our nation’s first female vice president has elevated the practice to unofficial national policy. At a public meeting at the White House on July 26, 2022, she announced: “I am Kamala Harris, my pronouns are she and her, and I am a woman sitting at the table wearing a blue suit.” It is difficult to see why I should not go along. Stating my pronouns doesn’t seem to conflict with living in truth—unlike, say, a girl’s suddenly wanting me to call her “him” or “them” or “zim.” What is wrong, for normies like me, with stating the obvious?
I have no problem declaring my proper name; in fact, I have long been a huge fan of nametags. Maybe because my name is unfamiliar to many people, I’m sensitive to the potential difficulties and embarrassments of communicating it to a new acquaintance, and eager for interventions that make this task easier. Nametags and verbal self-introductions are useful because proper names do not reveal themselves in any other way. You could not possibly know my name just by looking at me. My name is unique to me, and at the same time, entirely contingent—that is to say, my name could be anything else, and it would still be my name.
Now our nametags and self-introductions and email signatures are obliged to include our pronouns. To appease the reactionary dinosaurs like me who protest that my pronouns are self-evident, this innovation is usually framed in the language of inclusion and welcome. Those whose pronouns are not self-evident will presumably feel more included if we all state our pronouns. To refuse, in this light, is simply mean, an act of hostility. The screw has tightened again: I do violence to the transgendered and the gender non-conforming if I refuse to use their “preferred pronouns,” and I do violence if I refuse to state my own.
But is the risk of “exclusion” or “unkindness” the entirety of the issue? It seems to me that as we yoke pronouns to proper names, and add a more or less subtle element of social compulsion to the ritual of stating “names and pronouns,” the basic function of pronouns is altered. For those of us who do not accept the radical gender ideology, male and female pronouns correspond to the essential male and female reality of human beings. Despite attempts by ideologues to muddy the waters with rare exceptions and variations, biological sex is determined at the moment of conception and is unchangeable. Human bodies, like the bodies of all sexually reproducing animals and plants, are fundamentally organized around the production of either large immobile gametes (eggs) or small mobile gametes (sperm). There is no neutral or in-between or both or neither. “She” and “he” cover everybody. This has been the primary basis of the Christian refusal to conform language to stated pronoun preferences: A pronoun is not subject to preference. There are social contexts in which pronoun use and true sex may diverge. Transsexuals may change their appearance and their social identity, “passing” for the opposite sex. Even where social conventions accommodate such exceptions, the fact remains that our binary pronouns correspond to male and female, which are real and true.
This is what makes the “name and pronouns” ritual so insidious. When Ashley and Rebecca and I each in turn intone “I use she/her pronouns,” or when Mark and Zach and Evan add “he/him” stickers to their nametags, we are subtly undermining the truth and changing what a pronoun is. If each person must be qualified with a particular pronoun, then the pronoun is effectively as contingent and specific as the name. It is as if, in the moment before I state them, my pronouns were up for grabs, every single time.
At the limit, there might be as many pronouns as there are persons. Gender, which began as a binary, multiplies and individualizes as well. Neologisms such as xie/xer, xe/xim, or ey/em are only the tip of the wedge being driven into our sense of sexual reality. At the extreme, TikTok personalities describe their gender as “cake” or “bog” or “cat,” leaving the grammatically minded in a desperate state of perplexity. Gender has become entirely detached from sex or the truth of the body. It is inverted from a universalizing commonality to a particular eccentricity. We each have our own genders, which are like no one else’s. In fact, some “gender-fluid” individuals insist that their pronouns may change from day to day or hour to hour. The essential sexual duality and complementarity of male and female are shattered, litter on the floor of the gender funhouse.
The rhetoric of kindness and inclusion obscures what is really at stake in the “pronoun wars.” Pronoun rituals are the necessary social recognition of an underlying thesis: that sex itself is a social construction, “assigned at birth” but no more real or necessary than my proper name. I must tell you my pronouns because you cannot read my gender from my body, and only I know what gender I feel. This shift from fact to feeling is how we become ensnared by pronouns. For what is assumed as the cause of pronoun rituals—the unreality of sex—is in fact the intended effect. As doubt and instability overtake the pronoun in the name of “preference” and “respect,” kindness becomes a weapon wielded against the firm foundations of sexual truth.
This is why so much social pressure is brought to bear on conformity to the pronoun ritual. The radical gender ideology that is reflected in the pronoun ritual is a brute attack on reality, and enforcing universal assent is the only way to shore up the illusion. With such seemingly insignificant acts, ordinary people are made unwitting accomplices in the social destruction being wrought in the name of diversity, inclusion, and kindness.
Samira Kawash is professor emerita at Rutgers University.