He, She, It, They

On my 10th birthday I received the #1 toy on my wish list – a remote control dune buggy.  I recall the rapture of childhood as I steered the car around my house, watching it flip when it hit a wall.  I was in heaven….until an aunt walked in and saw me playing with it.

“What are you, a BOY?” she asked in a trill voice with an unmistakably judgmental tone.

My elation turned to deflation.  That single question bore into my core with the essence of my wrongness – the wrongness of my desires, the wrongness of surrendering to utter happiness, the wrongness of ME.  I had exposed myself without any forewarning and I suffered a painful blow in consequence.  It was no longer safe to be vulnerable.

The sting of this injury to my self-esteem guided me years later when I became a mother.  Determined to do right by my own children, I subscribed to gender-neutral philosophy.  Bedrooms were painted in greens and whites, and toys were chosen for merit – not gender appeal.  A part of me wanted my first-born daughter to like ‘boy toys’ so that I could unabashedly support her in the way that I would have appreciated when I was a child.  But my darling little girl had other ideas.

One of Principessa’s early nicknames was Girly.  This photo might explain why.

Girly expressed her passion for all things pink and glittery in over-the-top style.  One almost got the impression that she had been assaulted by her dress-up box. When given the choice between a toy car or a doll carriage, she opted for the carriage and bedazzled it.

As she grew, Girly continued to live her life mostly within societal expectations for her gender.   Nonetheless, I paraded through parenting carrying a torch I adopted from 1970s feminist, Marlo Thomas. The “Free to Be You and Me” movement saluted values such as individuality, tolerance, and comfort with one’s identity.  I adore this concept and the way in which it was conveyed – through entertainment.  It was a friendly and palatable invitation to broaden limited thinking.

The same may be said about the modern movement to blur gender phraseology – except for the ‘friendly and palatable’ part.  The suggestion, or growing demand, that we alter the use of the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ to ‘they’ or ‘it’, is an attack on long-held grammatical rules. As one linguist said, pronouns are like hardware and not so easily changed as nouns which are more like software.

When one is trying to convey a point, especially one as complex as gender identity, one must make the information user-friendly.  If the audience can’t understand the language, the message is lost.  Such was the case of the student who received an acceptance letter from Brown University that referred to her as they. The girl and her family were understandably confused and off-put.

One can sympathize with those who identify with alternative gender context.  They want to be referred to in a way that feels authentic to them.  If someone called me Sir, I’d take offense because I identify as woman.  We crave self-identification but we loathe labels, especially ones that feel incorrect or offensive.  

It’s clear that binary concepts of gender are outdated, but language structure is not.  Altering language to avoid offending, may be, in theory, a righteous thing to do.  But when it meddles with comprehension and clarity, it looks more like a stunt or a passing fad.

I once knew a man who taught his dog obedience with nonsense words.  The command SIT was KETCHUP.  He had great fun with this, and his dog didn’t care because the intention was understood and unchanging.  But no one else could instruct the dog unless they had first learned the language. 

Words are just a bunch of letters thrown together for the purpose of communication.  They have no meaning except that which we assign to them.  The problem is that humans don’t always agree on meaning. We can get very emotional about words.  

Freedom, evolution, and expansion of the mind change how we think about things so we feel the need to change what we call those things.  But if we cannot agree on language, communication suffers.  If communication deteriorates, society follows suit.  The poet Margaret Atwood said, “War is what happens when language fails.”

Sometimes in war we arrive at the question, “What are we fighting for?”  Is it tolerance we’re seeking by changing the language people use to describe us?  Do we become more tolerant as a result of the language we use?  Or is it the opposite – is respectful language a result of tolerance?

This conundrum is not easily solved.  But one thing is certain, if we communicate with closed fists, we’re bound to propagate the very problem we’re trying to alter – intolerance.  Perhaps, if we focus less on words and more on intention, we will preserve not only our ability to comprehend each other, but our civility as well.

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