Farhad Manjoo asked the readers of the New York Times to start using the pronoun “they” when discussing—already, at this point in the effort to write about it, old habits of composition get tricky—Farhad Manjoo. The day before yesterday, I would have ended that sentence by referring to Manjoo as “him.” That is how I had always referred to Manjoo, in that writer’s capacity as a male-identified public figure and acquaintance.
I wrote “his” in that previous sentence, at first, without noticing it, and had to go back and change it. Manjoo was upsetting some deeply established patterns of behavior. And this disturbance was not, the column argued, strictly a matter of individual gender expression, the way public personal-pronoun discussions tend to be. The case Manjoo was making was a broader one:
I will not be offended if you refer to me by those traditional, uselessly gendered pronouns.
But “he” is not what you should call me. If we lived in a just, rational, inclusive universe—one in which we were not all so irredeemably obsessed by the particulars of the parts dangling between our fellow humans’ legs, nor the ridiculous expectations signified by those parts about how we should act and speak and dress and feel—there would be no requirement for you to have to assume my gender just to refer to me in the common tongue.
Manjoo previously wrote a column endorsing and amplifying Hmm Daily’s argument that there should not be any billionaires. They did this on the grounds that the idea was outside of the normal bounds of discussion, and it was something they had never considered before, and it was probably correct. Manjoo’s pronoun column, it seemed to me, had those same merits.
With my own pronouns, my position is—or has been—the opposite of Manjoo’s, functionally. I have expected that people will address me with male pronouns, and that expectation has been so ingrained that it feels like some kind of pose or imposture to call it a “preference” or to actively specify it. Abandoning those pronouns is something I have never seriously considered. Or hadn’t seriously considered till now.
Yet I couldn’t see any truly convincing arguments in my favor. I could construct some reason or other about not distracting readers, or about not aggrandizing myself, or about not trivializing or appropriating the devices that other people truly need to navigate the shoals of gender identity in a hostile society—if I did, though, I would just be rationalizing the fact that I’m not personally going to start doing what is probably, on reflection, the right thing. Not right away.
I ended up arguing about the column with other people, who considered it wrong and absurd. These people were, essentially, trying to tell me reasons why my own habits were right and defensible, and they couldn’t convince me.
This is, on another level, a serious endorsement of Manjoo’s column as a column. The realm of opinion writing is full of talk about “ideological diversity,” but usually what comes out of it is tedious contrarian counterdogma—Bret Stephens smugly and sloppily telling the readers of the Times opinion page that he’s right and they’re wrong, because his own uninspected beliefs happen to contradict what he believes theirs are. I can’t really imagine a Bret Stephens column, or a Bari Weiss one, changing any thinking person’s mind, except possibly by radicalizing them against Stephens or Weiss or the entire institution of opinion writing.
Becoming a conscientious objector to gendered pronouns, however, was a subject on which the discussion hadn’t been scripted in advance. Within the normal boundaries of opinion of the readers of the New York Times, people could disagree with each other about it, or disagree with themselves. It provoked thought.
Manjoo’s argument was, after all, a logical extension of something I already believe in doing. When writing about a nonspecific person, I have, over time, steered away from “he or she” to the singular “they.” Using “they” that way felt wrong at first. It violated years of training in the rules of writing, but my training was wrong on at least two counts: “they” is not only more completely inclusive by contemporary standards, it has a long and well-documented history in published English; the so-called rule against the singular “they” is in fact a pedantic appeal to fake tradition.
Is it confusing to use the same word for the singular and the plural? You do it all the time without even noticing it. All of you do it all the time.
And if “they” is an acceptable pronoun, or the preferable pronoun, for nonspecific people of indeterminate gender, then why not try extending the word to be a gender-indeterminate pronoun for anyone? Why should the English language have to determine or specify a person’s gender to talk about them? What’s the objection to just leaving it out?
It would sound weird, yes. It’s not what people are used to doing. It’s an artificial change. All true—and all, also, in living memory, the reasons that people refused to use “Ms.” Until 1986, when executive editor A.M. Rosenthal surrendered after a 12-year defensive battle, the New York Times insisted on specifying the marital status of any woman whose name was mentioned more than once in a news story. It was unthinkable to write about a woman without identifying them as “Mrs.” or “Miss,” even if they didn’t wish to be identified that way.
To omit that information, in favor of the newly popular invention “Ms.,” would be “giving undue acceptability to usages of the moment,” Rosenthal wrote in 1974, attempting to settle the question. But the moment was more than a moment. Eventually, “Ms.” became not just an available option but the default choice at the Times, with “Mrs.” and “Miss” available at the subject’s request. The old requirement seems unimaginably archaic now.