We live in identity-obsessed times. Everyone seems to be a demi-queer, pan-sapio something or other. There are so many sexual and gender identities, it’s hard to keep track. yet they are not independent of one another. Together, these identities form a group, and that group is greater than the sum of its identifiers.
Identifiers have become pretty creative, and there are myriad combinations of boy, girl, non-binary, or non-conforming, to choose from. From a relativist point of view, all of this is perfectly fine. Everyone is free to present themselves however they please. When it becomes difficult is when presenting as you choose isn’t enough, and you demand to be perceived in that specific way, as well.
If you think you’re a man, but you’re biologically a woman or vice versa, then say so. Self-expression doesn’t infringe on the rights of others. If you identify as a sub-Saharan elephant, perhaps it gives you a nice feeling, and you’re more than welcome to it. Even though if you can read this, you are definitely not a sub-Saharan elephant.
In a lot of ways, identifiers have the feel of fashion, not social progress. Unfortunately, it’s also become fashionable to try to ruin someone’s life, take away their job, or take them to court because they don’t like the way you wear your fashion.
Fashion is what airhead pop star Sam Smith was expressing when he boldly declared, to international accolades, that he is now a “they” and a “them.” It was the release of a video where he (or they, we suppose) engages in seductive choreography that led to his notion that he had a fabulous woman inside of him waiting to get out. Maybe that’s why he is now plural, although the reason why it takes being a woman to dance seductively has not been explained. In announcing his intentions to be perceived other than male, Smith also proclaimed the intention to be part of the group that contains these identities.
Adoption of pronouns that are not representative of biological sex is a way to gain entry into a group identity. Prior to this pronoun change, Smith was part of the group “male.” This is a group that suffers from lots of bad press these days, and it’s not fashionable to go around identifying as male if in fact you actually are male. But, with a little switch, Smith can go from being part of a group with which he would rather not be identified, to identifying with a group that gets love, not hate.
Sam Smith, no longer bound by the binary, got more press for his statement of preferred pronouns than he has for any of this music. Artistic accomplishment is secondary to adherence to group identity these days. It’s hard to comprehend, but the editorial choice to use the he/him pronoun when referring to Smith is considered an act of violence by many in our culture. No, that’s not an exaggeration. The hive is harsh.
There’s more to a person than a pronoun. As a matter of fact, if you stop to think about it, you’ll realize that a pronoun is way less than a person. It’s literally a substitute or stand-in for one’s proper name. It’s less than a name and it should, logically, mean less. The unit of language which is a generic stand-in for your name is now considered the ultimate signifier of your individuality.
But chosen pronouns are not so much a self expression as a declaring of belonging to a group. They are not a product of individuality, but of group conformity. Choosing pronouns that uphold a group identity is a mark of a concept called “self-consistency theory.”
This theory “posits that people are always striving to create a world in which their idea of themselves make sense. We are motivated, sometimes above any sense of morality or personal gain, simply to hold our view of ourselves constant. This allows us to maintain a coherent sense of order, even if it means doing things the rest of the world would see as counterproductive.” This idea was explored in The Atlantic as a means of trying to figure out why Trump voters are so hung up on being Trump voters. The logic of this theory of why a person would so adamantly advocate for the prevalence of their group identity makes perfect sense when applied to pronoun dictation.
Your name is not as personal as your pronoun, and while your name may be given, your pronouns are specifically requested. When you offer your pronoun it is a solemn statement, a demand that you be referred to with this specific language and no other. It is a way for you to state so much more than who you are, but where you belong. And in today’s political climate, when ideologies come in sets, and holding one political belief is often taken as a signal as to which adjacent political beliefs you hold, pronouns are a way of stating your group, your ideological set of beliefs, and your lack of individuality.
Media, big tech, basically all corporations, have gotten fully on board with this group identification. Why might this be? Even once-serious civil liberties organizations want you to identify as less of yourself and more of a generic group of hes, shes, xes, xirs, or thems.
What could the end game possibly be? What’s so wrong with just being Sam Smith? Or John or Jane Smith for that matter?
The fad of using pronouns as a means of self-identification is an act of profound unidentification. By proudly proclaiming your pronouns, by claiming that you are now to be referred to exclusively as “xir,” you herd yourself into an ever-expanding tent of “xirs” and strip yourself of your individuality, replacing it with the identity of the group.
This makes you much easier to market to, because you can be marketed to as part of your group. It also makes it easier for you to know where you belong, how you should act, and what views you should hold. Simply ask another member of your group, and they can inform you as to what the group thinks. That way you don’t have to think it through for yourself.
Identifiers aren’t so much about who you are, but what identity you subscribe to. Pronouns are a marker to identify a person to a given group, and for the group to be identified as a collection of same identifying individuals. Individuals within a group must comply with the group’s thinking.
When you hear things like “why does x group vote against their interests?” What you are hearing is that those persons have been identified as belonging to an identity group, and they ought to subscribe to it. Or when trans persons refuse to subscribe to trans ideology, choosing to think things through a different way, and are badgered. Or the trouble faced by conservatives who are either not wealthy or are part of a minority group.
You wouldn’t think that compliance is the driver, given how prevalently these little tiny words are pushed on us. We’re asked to define our pronouns, to announce them, to stick them on our name badges, to add them to our email signatures. We’re asked to ask other people their pronouns, to respect them, to remember them, to make sure we don’t use the wrong one. It’s as though we’re meant to believe that individuals can be defined and identified by the pronoun they want us to use in reference to them. But what does it really mean to put so much meaning on a selection of micro-identifiers? What do pronouns really tell us?
When you deconstruct the preferred pronoun movement, it quickly reveals itself to be the most incoherent cultural gesture of our time. Instead of fighting for individual rights and representation, we are pushing for the rights of the group. But that’s sort of the point. With everyone less of an individual and more of a tribe member, it’s easier to gain obedience.