It’s been an interesting week. Interesting in the manner of frustrating and somewhat scary. In the “Frustrating” column is the death of the not-quite-five-year-old refrigerator. The fridge belongs to the landlord, so at least the expenses are his. However, dealing with the fall out is on us. In the “Somewhat scary” column is the tornado warning that sounded last night and the winds that blew so hard I could feel the back wall vibrating. Yeah, I was raised in earthquake country, not tornado country. This will take some getting used to.
All that aside, I’ve also been mulling over the idea of people claiming to be nonbinary, or gender neutral. It has become quite trendy among college students trying to fit in to declare themselves to be gender-neutral or non-binary. This allows them to be “different” (I have a whole post coming on conforming individualism) while avoiding more drastic measures like hormone treatments or worse.
I know of a couple of female college students who are currently dating males who have announced their non-binary status and wish others to use the pronouns “they” and “their” when talking about said individuals. One of these female college students very earnestly explained to me that her partner (she was meticulous in her use of the word “partner”) was non-binary that’s why she was using “they”. Bear in mind the partner was several hundred miles away and had no way of knowing what pronouns I might use to describe him…sorry, them. Additionally, it should be noted that each of these couples are, in fact, heterosexual. I also find it interesting that it is the males who have declared their non-binary status, not the females.
Two things about all this silliness have been floating around in my mind for a while now.
First – if you declare yourself to be non-binary, you have just created a binary set up. You, and others who might think like you, are non-binary. Thus, from your point of view, those who do not declare themselves to be non-binary, are by definition, binary. A binary structure has been created… by you, the non-binary individual. Quite a conundrum. I’m debating whether I should present this the next time somebody declares their non-binary nature to me. Hmmm.
The second thing floating around in my head (it’s a very floaty place in there) touches on the use of “they/them” pronouns by these non-binary individuals. For whatever reason it has been decided that if one doesn’t want to use the masculine or feminine pronouns, one uses third person plural pronouns of they/them. This leads me to wonder if non-binary folks are also schizophrenic. Does declaring oneself to be a “they/them” simultaneously create at least one more personality, thus necessitating the use of third person singular identifiers?
Really though, if an object or person is not identified as feminine or masculine, it is identified as neuter, or “it”, the pronoun indicating a genderless object or individual. Just look at how verbs are conjugated (bet you never thought all that sentence structure homework would come in handy someday, did you?) Verbs are conjugated based on I, you, he/she/it, we, you, they. He/she/it is third person singular, while “They” is third person (group not including you) plural – thus my previous question regarding schizophrenia… or is there a form of detached schizophrenia – those people over there who are me and yet not me?
Therefore, to be grammatically correct (yeah, yeah, I recognize the futility of that), an individual declaring themselves to be non-binary, gender neutral, should be asking friends to use “it” when talking about it in the third person singular.
The German language is very useful for this as it is one of the few to recognize nouns as being feminine, masculine, or neuter (die, der, das). Therefore, if you wish to be gender neutral you will need to now go by das – das Partner (yes, the word is the same in German). Partner is a masculine noun in German, but you now wish to be neuter.
Alternatively, a friend suggested using “he/she/it” as one option for English speakers. “Hey, have you seen Joe?” “Yeah, hesheit is over there.” Hmmm… that might work. I like the hesheit combination as it allows me to indulge the inner 12-year old boy’s sense of humor I carry around with me.
The word “neuter” also makes me think of “neutered”, a word normally used to describe something that has been rendered useless in its primary function. A neutered male pet is no longer able to impregnate females of its species. So if one declares one’s self to be gender-neutral, then have you neutered yourself? Declared your primary gender function to be useless? Historically, castrated or neutered human males were seen as less than fully male (they didn’t have the concept of “toxic masculinity” back then). Their voices didn’t deepen and they were unable to perform their primary gender purpose of impregnating human females. Yes, castrati were valued for their singing abilities, but the neutering was done when they were pre-pubescent and unable to consent; they were still viewed as males however. Females are not said to be neutered, but rather barren, to use the older term, if they are unable to have children, but they are still viewed as females. Getting confused yet? I know I am.
Okay. I’m backing away from the deep rabbit hole this is becoming. The entire binary/non-binary, gender/gender-neutral kerfuffle is just that – a silly kerfuffle. It feels like a Monty Python sketch when you start trying to follow it – “And now for something completely different… a non-binary individual creating a binary structure in which to be inclusive and non-binary!”
Oh, well. I do not have a functional refrigerator, but it’s Friday and there’s no tornados.
10 Replies to “Friday Thoughts: Non-binary, Gender neutral, or Neutered?”
Sigh… such a rabbit hole. I’ve come to the conclusion that several things are happening at once. Never underestimate the power of social contagion. I will attribute this to the younger teens. Next, we have the “individualism” that used to be seen in those who all flocked to get tattoos in order to express said individualism. And then, there are those who are straight, white, and otherwise regular who either feel ashamed because they’ve had several years of being told how terrible they are due to immutable characteristics and are therefore to blame for other’s issues. Add in a touch of boredom or a need to feel that they too have intersectional issues, and the birth of they/thems has issued forth.
Frankly, it all gives me a headache and please the the fuck away from young children.
If my partner publicly declared that ‘it’ was ‘non-binary’ I’d ask that ‘it’ go find another person to go be ‘non-binary’ with.
Maybe some of the males in these relationships are just virtue signaling, but I think mostly, when your are a male in a relationship with a woman, signaling that you are non-binary is really saying that you are open to homosexual dalliances – because if you are exclusive, there’s no need to advertise your alternative sexual orientation.
And if they (the plural of it) are open to dalliances with folks of the same sex, they probably already have few compunctions about dalliances with other women. And in either case, what does it mean to be ‘in a relationship’ with them? You are just their usual bonk, and they are actively advertising for more options.
So women in this sort of relationship should probably take their partner at ‘its’ word, and go look for a man who wants to be in sexual relationships with women in general and specifically – with HER.
“They”, “them”, yeah, right.
For these confused, mentally ill people I’ve settled on the correct pronoun:
While completely agreeing with you about the (lack of) sanity of all this, I do have to disagree with you about the technical linguistic history and trends of the English language.
As a Germanic language, English had the full panoply of gendered personal pronouns. Nonetheless, the pronouns, over time, have followed other general nominal simplifications of the sort that separate modern English from modern German.
For example, the second person plural pronoun took over for the second person singular pronoun some centuries ago, which is why we use the plural form “you, you, your, yours” for the singular “thee, thou, thy, thine” paradigm of Chaucer’s time and later. We remember “thee, thou, thy, thine” as religious, because those are the texts which have been least updated as a trend, but at heart this is simply a movement in the simplification of the language regarding gender and number which has been a feature of English for some time.
Remember that it is the speakers who define a language, not the grammarians who come along to codify the “rules for best usage”. Best usage is defined by exemplars — the best users (usually literary or religious) of a national language. Respected formal English is so defined by exemplars such as the King James Bible committee and Shakespeare, as well as more modern proponents, and back-justified by arguable “logic”. The “arguable logic” that is applied in English gives us such wonders as “don’t split an infinitive” (as if English were Latin), “don’t end a sentence with a preposition” (c.f. Winston Churchill), etc.
It also gives us “don’t use a double negative” as if language were formal logic, ignoring rhetoric such as “I ain’t never gonna do that, no way, no how” where the repeated negative is clearly used as a linguistic intensifier, not a mathematical proposition in logic.
So, with the history of language in mind, and the dubious guidance of “your class is reflected by your adherence to shibboleth rules in formal writing”, there really is something interesting going on with the 3rd person plural pronoun in English.
It is not often that you can notice a grammatical change during the time it is occurring, but — well before the wokerei existed — a similar change has been underway for the 3rd person plural pronouns in English for several decades. Intermittently in the 20th century, and more consistently since the 50s, there has been a certain discomfort in using a gendered singular pronoun in non-gendered situations. English does not have a (formal) pronoun for a non-gendered singular living being (we don’t like “it” even for animals, though we use it). For a long time, we used “he, him, his” (as we do “man”) for undefined or mixed gender, (still the formal advice), and a variety of workarounds in casual speech.
It’s clear that we (the demos — the people who speak the common language) have been zeroing in on a consensus solution for some time. When you use a sentence like this (“If anyone comes early, give them a drink”) in casual use, no one blinks an eye anymore. We are witnessing in our lifetime the growing usage of the 3rd person plural pronoun as a 3rd person gender-neutral singular pronoun for living creatures (esp. humans).
This isn’t a matter of wokerei claiming their pronouns, and it isn’t part of a formal English guidebook. It’s what the living language is doing. The formal rules will limp along in the rear for decades, no doubt.
None of this has any applicability to what the wokerie want to do with their pronouns — it has nothing to do with them. But the actual living language might just happen to sweep them up in its move indifferently. Of course, if that happens, it will apply to everyone, not just the special snowflakes. The usage of singular “them” for ungendered living creatures will just be general across the board.
Descriptive linguistics doesn’t appeal to me as the arbiter of what is correct. It’s fine as… description of use. While speakers do define the language, I believe grammarians are the guides who should try to slow down its evolution. Language is about communicating. But communicating demands clarity. And rules give that clarity.
Think of a road system with no signs, no pavement markings that tell you which side to drive on. You could still get somewhere, but it would be much slower, and there would be many more accidents.
What happens if tomorrow the demos decides that Jabberwocky and Howl are the exemplars of how English should be spoken and written? Who could communicate effectively?
In the spirit of full disclosure, I agree with you on the split infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions. “Wo gehen Sie hin?” is perfectly grammatical German, after all.
But on the issue of “they”: I don’t believe this came from some grass roots demotic discomfort. It came from pressure from the feminists. They had some good points, but on some issues, they got carried away. See the insistence on the word “herstory” when the word “history” merely includes three letters in a sequence they object to (<–see?).
Feelings matter, but clarity matters more. With clarity, one can build better thoughts and better communication.
So just out of curiosity, is the dead refrigerator a Samsung?
Nope, a Bosch.
Since this nuttiness started, I’ve suggesting using “one” instead of “they”. If one wants to express a vague gender, one can do it thus way.
If you accept the transgender paradigm, there is actually no such thing as gender. All the X number of titles are just synonyms for adult human being. All the pronouns are therefore just references to human beings. Man/woman/non-binary/Other winged dragon kin etc. have no greater specificity in meaning given there is no objective criteria to distinguish one from the other.
Think about it- if I write ‘I identify as a woman’, going by the transgender paradigm– what do you actually know about me? Assuming I’m not an AI bot.
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