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Artillery Row

The hidden cost of pronoun politeness

Using untruthful pronouns is not the same as complimenting a bad haircut

Scarlet Blake — the convicted murderer who put a cat in a blender — is a man. As Jean Hatchet wrote in The Critic last week, it was obscene to see news outlets reporting his crimes as though they were committed by a woman, let alone to find that they were being categorised as female. There are serious consequences to such misrepresentations, not least in creating the impression that there are more violent women than previously thought. But what about situations in which the stakes do not seem to be so high? 

The Scarlet Blake case — like that of double rapist Isla Bryson, or that of Kurtis Mawson, who was caught filming women in public toilets and “put on a high pitched voice” to claim he was female — has exposed an obvious problem with the principles of gender self-identification.  A woman is anyone who says they are a woman, right up to the point when they are not. Most male people who claim to be women are nothing like Blake, Bryson or Mawson. Even so, the basic standard upon which their claim to being female rests — nothing more than uttering the statement “I am a woman” — remains the same for all. 

It is perhaps a sign of progress that some politicians and journalists are willing to see the problem here — or at least, part of it. It turns out that sometimes, it’s not okay for anyone to demand the use of female pronouns. As Humza Yousaf said of Bryson, some are clearly just “at it”. Sometimes, the magic words aren’t magic. At other times, though, we are still meant to believe that they are, or at least to act as though that is the case. I often hear it suggested that apart from in the most serious situations — those involving men such as Bryson and Blake — pronouns are a matter of courtesy. I don’t actually think this is true. 

To be clear, I’m conscious that women who say this are often dismissed as extremists, absolutists, people who would rather lose the battle than compromise at all. I’m also conscious that those who make the case for courtesy can find themselves called handmaidens and traitors to the feminist cause. I don’t believe either characterisation to be accurate. The latter ignores the degree to which women have always been forced to adapt to get their voices heard at all. “I’m being polite” can be code for “I’m doing what I have to do to get this published/broadcast/uttered at all”. With the former, though, I fear we belittle just how much of a sacrifice it is for women to call any male people women, too. It is not just politeness. It only looks that way because we are so used to women putting male feelings ahead of our own. 

Like many women I know, I once thought that while it was irritating for any male person to claim ownership of a female inner life, if this was a tiny minority of males — and if these males were really, really sad — I’d go along with using pronouns that didn’t correspond to my perception of reality. I’d put my own feelings to one side and be nice. I’d take the hit of being reduced to a feminine gender identity rather than cause a fuss. After a while, however, I started to notice that many of these supposedly sad males were actually rather demanding. Pronouns were not enough; suddenly I had to say I was cis privileged, and agree that these males were the most oppressed women of all. It began to feel more and more unjust to be using language which completely erased what I still experienced as a highly gendered relationship (in the old, males-bossing-females sense of the word). 

To add insult to injury, there was never any recognition that I had made any sacrifice in the first place

To add insult to injury, there was never any recognition that I had made any sacrifice in the first place. It was all very familiar: you go along with a man’s perception of reality in order to humour him, and he sees it as confirmation that is the only reality. You forgive him his rudeness, and he thinks you are apologising. You stop using the words you want to use, and all he hears are the things he wants you to say. This is not how politeness works. On the contrary, it’s about control. 

There are polite lies that we tell all the time. Supporting someone else’s belief that they are the same sex as you — when clearly they are not — is not the same as laughing at someone’s bad jokes or saying their terrible haircut is lovely, all the while knowing they’d do the same for you. Deferring to someone else’s beliefs about how you both stand in relation to one another cannot be a reciprocal act. It is not the same as using a nickname. If you use “she” for a male person, then it ceases to apply exclusively to a female person; you are changing the meaning of yourself. 

This is not to say that I go around calling all male people “men” whenever I feel like it. I don’t. This is not about politeness or kindness, though. For many women — especially women who live with abusive men who use female pronouns — it is neither kind nor polite for others to go along with these men’s demands. The trouble is, we have reached a point where it is viewed as mean, spiteful or bullying to use the correct sex-based pronouns for everyone, hence we are meant to make some impossible judgement as to whether someone who utters the magic words “deserves” to be called a woman or not. Get it “wrong”, and all people will see is what a terrible person you are. It doesn’t matter how many times you suppressed your own perceptions of reality before then. Like all “cis” women’s work, all that has been taken for granted. 

There is an enormous cost to the linguistic contortions that are sold to women as “just” being polite. From a broader feminist perspective, they impede the analysis of a problem. At the moment I am researching the topic of kindness. My aim is to describe the way in which gendered assumptions about who should be kind to whom affect women in particular. It is actually quite hard to do this if you are assuming that women are a gender identity, and not a sex class subjected to a particular set of expectations in order to meet the standards of femininity. It becomes a little like saying “the innately submissive, masochistic people are expected to be submissive and masochistic” (well, what would be the problem with that?). This short-circuiting of feminist thought is often overlooked by self-styled reasonable people who tell us they are willing to call rapists men, and to defend female-only sports, but come on, could we stop making a fuss about words? As though just being about to speak, write and think freely about our own selves is a bit of a luxury, especially when there are other, more important people who want those words, too. 

I want all the words back, though. Not just as concessions in extreme situations, but all the time, because women — in the way you know I mean “women” — matter all the time. I don’t think this is an extremist, absolutist position. Like all women who look as though they are always saying what they think, I, too, spend a lot of time having to resort to code. Such is the female — old-style meaning — lot. I am happy to compromise, but compromise is letting other people believe what they believe. It is not telling the rest of us that it is polite to pretend to believe it as well.

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