OK, here’s the thing. A certain candidate for federal office posted a bunch of stuff yesterday about ‘pronouns’. That stuff was ridiculous, and people are mocking her for it, and rightly so. And yet…
OK, here’s the social media account in question, and some of the stuff posted: “I have never used a pronoun in my life…” “There are no pronouns in the Constitution. There are no pronouns in the Bible.” “I don’t care what y’all do but don’t put me in this pronoun mess…”
And, in my opinion most tellingly: “I can't believe how far some of y'all have gone down the rabbit hole with these pronouns. Gd bless your hearts!”
So, what’s going on and why am I bothering to write about it? First of all, let me be clear: this is ridiculous stuff, and it is fine to mock it for being ridiculous. Secondly, though, it’s important to recognize that this is trolling, and is clearly intended to rile people up, attract attention, and then revel in (and possibly monetize) their ridicule. That’s not a reason not to ridicule her! Probably. It’s something to keep in mind, though.
Third, though, is this: language is a thing, and communication is a thing, and people might want to try to get a handle on how it works. The person posting this stuff clearly is not using the word ‘pronoun’ in the grammatical sense. She is using it in a relatively new sense—when I put my ‘pronouns’ on a name tag or email, I am specifying my preference for other people to use in addressing and describing me. When she says she has never used a pronoun, it’s entirely clear that she means that she has never used a pronoun in that way. There is no confusion here—the ridicule comes from deliberately misreading her intention, and is invited by how infelicitous her phrasing is, and how easy it is to misread. I think it’s somewhat dishonest, in the sense that most cheap shots are somewhat dishonest, but also: she said there are no pronouns in the Constitution, which begins with the word We.
But why am I bothering telling you so? Because she’s wrong even if you don’t misread her, and the way she’s wrong is important: there are pronouns in the Bible in the sense she means.
Or, rather, Scripture uses language to indicate the gender identity of—well, of everybody. I am pretty sure that the candidate could say Adam’s gender identity, and Eve’s. And that of Moses and Miriam, and that of Mary and Martha. Joshua is referred to as male, and Esther as female, and these are not remotely controversial identities. Right? As a rule, in the Tanach at any rate, characters are introduced with gender identifiers: Boaz is eesh gabor, a man of wealth; Deborah is eeshah n’veeyah, a woman and prophetess. When David is brought before Samuel, the Divine says koom m’shakhaykhoo, kee-zeh hoo, rise and anoint him, for this is he.
And when she says that she has never used a pronoun—meaning, clearly, that she has never formally asked people to use she/her in referring to her—she does indicate her preferred gender address in a whole variety of ways. Her hair, cosmetics, name, jewelry, clothes and vocal style all are highly gendered, and say in a variety of ways: she/her. In one of her videos, she says: “Congress better get ready for a real woman who will tell it like it is.”
She is using pronouns.
She’s not using them the way that I use them, exactly. Or, rather, in addition to my using hairstyle, name, jewelry, clothes and vocal style to indicate my preferred pronouns, I also will explicitly put them on emails and name tags and such. I do that, explicitly, so that other people will feel more comfortable explicitly telling me their preferred pronouns, so that if they choose not to (or are unable to) indicate their preferred pronouns in all of those ways as clearly as I do, they can do so in that simple and clear way. Or so that they can present gender in a more complicated or ambiguous or playful fashion, and still make it easy for me to write about them. And that’s a good thing, and worth doing, and I would like it if many more people used pronouns the way I do.
And this person disagrees with that, pretty clearly—I infer from her social media count and campaign page that she does not want more people to present gender in complicated or ambiguous or playful ways, and does not appear, at any rate, concerned about those who cannot happily perform gender in ways she finds clear. That is what she is saying, when she says that she has never used a pronoun in her life, isn’t it?
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,