Many people have heard about the guidelines instituted by the New York City Commission on Human Rights, allowing fines of up to $250,000 for addressing someone using ‘the wrong pronouns’.
Or they’ve heard about Canadian Bill C-16, which made even the inadvertent use of ‘the wrong pronouns’ a class of hate speech, punishable by law.
Or perhaps they’ve heard about the Virginia teacher who was fired, not for using the wrong pronouns, but for not using pronouns at all when addressing a student.
Apart from philosophical considerations of compelled speech, there’s a more practical reason why this trend terrifies me.
When I tried learning German (first in college, then again a couple of years ago), I found that I was simply unable to cope with the fact that there are so many damned pronouns, and that to use them correctly you have to keep track of which nouns have which genders.
Mark Twain had the same problem, as he explained in his wonderful essay, ‘The Awful German Language’:
Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has.
Throwing pronouns into the mix made it worse:
Well, after the student has learned the sex of a great number of nouns, he is still in a difficulty, because he finds it impossible to persuade his tongue to refer to things as ‘he‘ and ‘she’, and ‘him‘ and ‘her’, which it has been always accustomed to refer to it as ‘it’. When he even frames a German sentence in his mind, with the hims and hers in the right places, and then works up his courage to the utterance-point, it is no use — the moment he begins to speak his tongue flies the track and all those labored males and females come out as ‘its’.
So here’s my problem: I honestly don’t care what pronouns people want to use to refer to themselves, but how am I supposed to keep track?
I don’t have ‘a memory like a memorandum-book’. Seriously, I have trouble remembering the proper names of people I’ve met several times. In college, I worked with someone several days a week for two years, and couldn’t come up with her name except by luck.
So there’s just no way that I’m going to be able to remember people’s pronouns, unless they wear those on name tags, preferably on their foreheads where I’ll be sure to see them as I look at their eyes and lips in the course of normal conversation.
And there’s no just way to fine or otherwise punish me for failures of memory that are beyond my control.
I have a friend who suffers from prosopagnosia, which is an inability to recall or recognize faces, even the faces of people who are familiar to you. (Brad Pitt also suffers from this, apparently.)
When I first heard about it, I thought: Hey, I’m good with faces, but I can’t recall names. What’s the diagnostic term for that? It turns out to be a special case of a more general condition called anomic aphasia. This isn’t just laziness on my part. It’s part of my wiring. It’s a disability.
So I’ve decided that if anyone tries to give me crap for not using their pronouns, I’m going to give them crap right back for not respecting my disability.
If you suffer from the same disability, maybe Skip can make up a placard that you can wear, right next to the one proclaiming that your medical condition excuses you from wearing a mask.
Or you know those charm bracelets for mothers, where each charm celebrates one child or grandchild? I can see Granite Grok raising funds with a similar non-profit business, except where each charm indicates an exemption to some particularly odious, insidious, or simply inane law…