When I was in grad school, at Princeton there was a grammar joke about a ghetto kid who comes to Princeton. The kid asks, “Where’s the library at?” and is told, “This is an ivy league school. One does not end one’s sentences with a preposition here.” So the kid rephrase: “Where’s the library at, asshole?” What makes this joke poignant was that I found language divides class, and is a weapon of class war, too. At Princeton, I was of lower economic class along with virtually all of the grad school. It was not that we had less spending money, but we came from public schools, while the undergraduates were virtually all from private, “prep school”. It showed in wardrobe, tastes, and especially language.
To the prep-schooler, the working class was cheap because they were racist, or apartheid, and the preppy was trying to remedy this through activism. Rarely mentioned was that daddy was a major landlord, a college president or ambassador to Chad, or that they planned to go off to jobs in finance, law, or politics as soon as they were done rallying against class, racism, and the system. I imagine that their radical politics was partially sincere, but partially a social tool to keep the unwashed bourgeois at arm’s length. The best answer, I thought then, and now, is in grammar: we are not stingy racists, just being frugal.
The sexist label of today seems similar to the racist label of those days: partly sincere, partly a social tool built on fear, and the answer too, I think is grammar. Most people see no problem with a name change (just file the paperwork), or with a change in driver’s license sex indicator (who knows or cares?). The problem comes in with the loudly gender fluid: those who’re male today and female tomorrow and want to be respected for it. Are they a legitimate 3rd gender, or an over-pampered minority with no good claim to victimhood or anything else.
In this, and all such cases, I think it pays to respond to the legitimate complainant first and see if that answers all. One popular option is to use the words “they” or “them” when male or female labels don’t fit. Thus: “I gave my homework to them,” even though only one person received it. This is bad in my mind as it solves one problem but creates at least two others. It’s confusing to call one person many, and gives that person’s opinion extra weight. “They voted yea”, implies many people, not just one. Most Americans cringe when the queen of England says, “We request…” The queen gives her request extra weight by speaking in the plural. Similarly, “L’État, c’est moi.”
More republican would be to avoid all pronouns and use the person’s name, e.g. “I gave it to Dennis”. But this can be awkward if the name is long (Hermione) or repetitively used, or if the person’s name is in flux too. What to do with someone who’s Ernestine to some, Dr. Peters to others (and Ernest in the country). Once a person settles on a single gender the grammatical problem pretty well resolves: good manners suggest one use the pronoun “him” for one who dresses male and calls himself Alphonse, not Alice.
There is thus a need for a good singular pronoun for the gender-fluid, and the socialists have one ready: call all people “comrade,” a word specifically chosen to be gender neutral. It further implied political solidarity and economic unity. This is fine, for some, but uncomfortable for a capitalist. Another option, one Karl Marx himself used, is “citizen.” But this word carries its own baggage from revolutionary France. Instead, I suggest “mate” or “lately” based on pirate lingo: ‘I gave me homework over to yer mate.’ It’s strange, but works. Give it a try on “talk like a pirate day,” September 16 every year.
It’s now to be asked, have we addressed the broader problem of those who see any gender identification as an injustice of the capitalist, repressive system? I answer, does it matter? I suspect these folks are unhappy with themselves, and will never be otherwise, but that’s just a suspicion. Even unhappy folks do good, even when they do bad too. Here’s a poem “International Women’s Day” (1920) by–Alexandra Kollontai (1920).
Down with the world of Property and the Power of Capital! Away with Inequality, Lack of Rights and the Oppression of Women – The Legacy of the Bourgeois World! Forward To the International Unity of Working Women and Male. Workers in the Struggle for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat: The Proletariat of Both Sexes!
Ms Kollontai was a main founder of Women’s day, and this is/ was a good thing. She was also a daughter of privilege and a fan of Stalin’s brand of social engineering (the sort that hung engineers from the lamp-posts as a warning to anti-proletarians). She was Soviet ambassador to Sweden, and as ambassador, kept Sweden from helping Poland or Finland when Stalin and Hitler joined forces to simultaneously invade those countries and murder the population. I find that the world is crazy, and so are the people who do things. You just have to try to take the good with the bad, and laugh if you can. You can not do otherwise.
Robert E. Buxbaum, March 30-31, 2015.