Yesterday Emily, the Executive Director of the county Historical Society, sent out a press release announcing a "brown bag" talk by an anthropologist we've scheduled for next week. She received and forwarded to me a terse response from the editor of a newspaper serving a town about an hour's drive from Bemidji. The unsigned note said simply, "Hello, I automatically ignore any email that includes 'preferred pronouns'." Emily was shocked and completely taken by surprise. Another Board member she shared it with was "furious -- contemplating ways of public shaming them". I'm the Board President this year, so I offered to write a response that focused on the idea that the editor was "deliberately restricting their constituents’ access to information they may find valuable based on an expression of their own identity politics."
I wrote such a response, pointing out that is was actually impossible that the editor has "automatically" rejected the message, since it would have been necessary to read to the bottom to reach the place where Emily mentioned the pronouns "she -- her -- hers" in her signature block. I asked whether the townspeople his paper served had endorsed the editor's decision to prioritize identity politics and culture war over reporting the news and passing on an announcement of a historical talk some of them might have found interesting? And I said it seemed to me a bit unprofessional.
The editor responded pretty quickly, saying he would "be happy to consider any press releases from BCHS, provided said press releases do not contain any identity politics such as preferred pronouns." He did sign this message, so that seems like a bit of an improvement on the professionalism front. And he threw the ball back into my court, suggesting that the inclusion of pronouns in a signature block was the inciting incident in this particular culture battle.
Now I don't know this guy or his personal history. Maybe he has been traumatized by social justice warriors in his past. More likely, he is probably a regular guy living in a small town and editing a single-page pdf "newspaper" that is barely hanging on. Feeling like his town and his region have been passed over by both an economy and a culture that has disproportionally benefitted blue coastal states and blueish cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul. So is this entirely "white fragility" in the sense it's often expressed: as an inadmissible point of view that should not be accorded any credit or consideration?
I don't really know for sure, having never met nor talked to the guy. And I've got to admit, I'm a bit ambivalent about the obligatory use of pronouns and the assumption that we all mean the same thing when we use them. I often use them in situations where they are expected (I work for state university, so there are plenty of those). And I tend to think that there are people who have reasons to use pronouns that may not be the ones we'd expect at first glance. Since these people have often been targets of injustice in the past, it seems reasonable to lean a bit further in the direction of supporting them, even if that pendulum swing may be a bit overdone.
OTOH, I'm not 100% sure I endorse or even completely understand the constellation of statements and assertions that go with pronoun statements. I suspect that my actual beliefs are probably being misinterpreted to some extent, when people see pronouns in my name block on Zoom. I'm also not sure whether it's important to me to fully articulate my beliefs about gender identity at the very outset of every public interaction, as a way of claiming a space and waving a flag of membership or affiliation. That strikes me as not only reductive, but it seems to suggest that I agree that this is the question that defines us. Not the choice of our own gender identity, but the acceptance that this issue is more important than any other.
It's interesting that identity politics can become laser-focused this way, so that out of the thousands or millions of possible identities that create a constellation of personality or personhood, only one really counts. I'm pretty sure that saying "Hello, I automatically ignore any email that includes 'preferred pronouns'" is still a dick move. It's an odd choice of a hill to die on. But I'm not sure I want to die on that hill either. Does avoiding the potentially inflamatory help create a space where we can engage in a more nuanced, multidimensional way? Or is it just giving in and allowing people to be bullies?