My problem with pronouns

There is a trend in certain liberal circles right now to put “your preferred pronouns” on your email, on your business cards, on your name tag at conferences, etc. I don’t do it. Yet, I live in fear of being challenged for not doing it, in part because I’m a cisgender hetero white male who  runs in multiple liberal circles. And I’m sure I get perceived as being a “cranky old white dude” not willing to give up power. But I actually have two other reasons that I don’t do it.

First: Privilege. Note that the only place you see this trend is among educated elite and like-minded groups of liberals. You don’t see the cashier at Taco Bell or the grocery store worker doing this. You don’t see this trend with school custodian or manufacturing workers. And if Taco Bell did allow this, could the staff get mad at customers and correct them when they didn’t use the right pronoun? I mean Starbucks can’t get some people’s names right but I have to get their pronouns right? The reality is that advertising how they want people to interpret their gender isn’t a luxury they have. I’m not claiming to be one of them. In fact, the opposite. As a privileged straight white male, I’m not going to use my power and privilege to further dictate to people what they call me. I feel like dictating what pronouns you use to describe me is like the professor who insists you call them doctor or professor. As if you need to constantly remind them of their special place in society. Telling people to refer to me as “he” is just saying “remind yourself of my privilege.” Even the military gets tired of using ranks with people you work with all the time. On this note, I’ve noticed that it is largely women and non-gender binary folks who participate in this trend which makes me wonder how many other white males feel this way.

Second: It doesn’t function in practice. At a conference, I had a speaker pass out pronoun stickers and tell everyone to put it on their name tag. Then during her session, two minutes later, she started repeatedly said “I can’t see your name tag from up here, so I’m going to assume you use _____” from the front of the room. Not only is this the case at conferences, but we also don’t walk around with our email signatures pasted to us every day. If you really want to be inclusive in your language, don’t modify it for each person – practice saying “they” and using people’s names all the time, not just at conferences and on email. I feel bad for non-gender binary folks who have a preferred pronoun but often find people using the other one. I just don’t think telling people what pronouns you prefer is the answer to changing several thousand years of language programming. Encouraging society to adopt a single non-gender specific pronoun for every single person seems the better linguistic and practical route.

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Why does free speech only matter on college campuses?

I’m not dumb. I’ve seen the news. I realize that college campuses are a hotbed of free speech issues right now. And the backlash has primarily been directed at conservative speakers. Hence every Republican led state government is looking at some sort of “campus free speech” bill. But that is part of my point I think.

The “shout down,” “physical disruption,” and “mass intimidation” tactics that liberal students are using against conservative speakers are the very tactics many of them learned from the conservatives. Head over to your local Planned Parenthood and see how the religious zealots are handling things there.

Despite the focus on campus free speech issues there have been many more protests, counter-protests, and acts of violence related to off-campus free speech issues. But now, conservative state legislatures are suddenly worried – only because they see themselves as the victims – about campus free speech. When the crazy preacher guy is screaming at their daughters for being “sluts” for wearing shorts to class and gets shouted down by fellow students, they don’t seem to care.

What really set me off was an article about the Wisconsin legislature who wants to impose state mandated “sentencing” for those found guilty of violating free speech. Second offense gets you suspended and third gets you expelled. Yet there is no other law or campus code that has such a thing. Men found guilty of rape don’t get such a thing. Fraternities that cause the deaths of their members from hazing, drinking, and cover-ups don’t get such a thing. Let that sink in. Conservative law makers care more about not getting shouted down and harassed than they do about campus sexual assault or fraternity deaths.

The “free exchange of ideas” is a fundamental bedrock of higher education. But so is campus safety. If you are going to impose state mandated sentences, do it for all crimes and code violations. But then your rich white kids you send to those schools and join those privileged fraternities might face consequences…..better to just aim at the liberals and hope that your kids education doesn’t turn them into one of them.

 

Update: Nikki Haley, form South Carolina Governor and now Ambassador to the UN was heckled at the New York Pride parade. The woman who once defended the gay marriage ban was shocked she wasn’t welcomed with open arms. Maybe we will soon outlaw create free speech laws for parades as well.

Can straight white males be progressives?

It’s a question that as a straight white male, I have struggled with. Not to mention adding in the additional layers of being a parent, a veteran and a regular “church-goer” (to those outside UU, we are typical church). There are several lens with which to view this question. (Leave it to a philosopher to correct his own question.)

First, can I overcome my straight white maleness to see the issues of people that are historically marginalized by a society run by straight white males?

I think I’ve tried. I don’t know that I will ever be perfect at it. I don’t know that anyone is ever perfect at overcoming themselves and their own experiences. I read, watch, and listen to feminist, GLBT, and racial/ethnic minority perspectives as well as attempt to include them in my thinking. I agree with them most of the time. I’m historically literate and know that there is bias in history that leads to present-day issues.

Second, if I use my straight white male privilege to amplify the voices and perspectives of marginalized persons, am I not invoking the very privilege I’m trying to dissolve?

For instance, a couple years ago, a group of older white males were repeatedly dismissing the issues my twenty-something female colleague was bringing up in a patronizing sort of way. I fired off an emotionally charged email (rarely a good idea) about their unwillingness to deal with the problem because of who was voicing the concern. After some chastisement from my supervisors, the issue was immediately addressed and resolved. They have since listened to her repeatedly but at least initially, it was more out of fear. (They seem to listen now out of both habit and respect.) But often I don’t have the longevity to see if my use of my privilege has a lasting impact.

Third, and maybe the toughest, when it comes to employment, when I do I allow my career ambitions to take a back seat to the promotion of historically underrepresented persons?

It happens that I work in a field with a strong collection of women, racial minority, and GLBT persons. So when an opportunity for promotion comes open, there have always been candidates from these groups also applying. When I am selected over them, regardless of qualifications, I hear remarks about the persistence of the straight white males in positions of power and privilege and how it is a shame I was hired over an equally qualified person who was not a straight white male. At times, knowing a qualified colleague who was not a straight white male was putting in for a position, and wanting to support them, I have chosen to not apply and openly supported them. But how often do we expect, encourage, or accept, straight white males who are willing to do such a thing? Even when it means passing up a career opportunity or a financial incentive for a working-class family. And has mentioned in the previous question, how you do such things also has career ramifications.

Last, is the question of voice. Is my voice less valuable in the diversity conversation?

When I work with people from marginalized groups, I find I am often shunted into a role of limited agency. When I write about the history of women or African Americans, there is the inevitable question “Why is a white guy doing this work?” As if straight white male historians are limited to only straight white male history. Isn’t that the problem?

I don’t say this out of seeking some pity or “woah is me” attitude. I say it out of answering an earnest question from a colleague about why aren’t more straight white male allies of women and minorities.  There are still more straight white males in this country than any other single group. And as a whole, they are more conservative and hold more power than any other single group. It isn’t easy for a straight white male to try to offload some of that either philosophically, physically, or financially. Hence, the limits to what many are willing to do.

Lessons in Protesting: Malheur and Standing Rock

I find it interesting to compare the treatment of Standing Rock protesters in North Dakota to the Malheur Wildlife Protestors in Oregon. Both are cases of people occupying land they don’t own but to which they claim some entitlement. Both are occurring in relatively remote areas with limited mass media and public perception of the issue. There are also a number of differences (race and cause being two) but I believe there are two very key differences that aren’t being addressed.

1) Our country has a history of dealing with people who stand in the way of corporations much more harshly than those who stand in the way of the government. Historically, police and the military (usually the National Guard) are called upon to get rid of such protests as quickly as possible and by whatever means are necessary. As opposed to those strictly protesting the government (without inferring with commerce) who are often given a “wait and see” approach. The government is typically not seen as losing anything when people protest it; where as corporations are seen as losing money and therefore urgency is required. Plus corporations have the political power to ensure their concerns are heard and acted upon. For a related example, look at how the Occupy movement was often allowed into parks for days and weeks as opposed to other protests that stayed on the streets impacting businesses and commerce. The message here is that disrupting the government is apparently an American right but disrupting other Americans, particularly corporate Americans, is not.

2) I have seen several discussions about Malheur being an exercise in white-privilege, which I generally agree with. The Standing Rock protesters are not armed like the Malheur protesters were. Force is less often used against those that can readily return that use of force. Not that I am calling for them to arm themselves, but it is worth noting that I think there would be much less interest in using force on them if that were the case. Imagine how different it would have been if the Freedom Riders or Stonewall patrons had been armed. There is something to be said for how law enforcement approaches the issue when their lives are at considerably higher risk.

I will be interested to see what happens one day when a large group of non-white Americans stages an armed protest in the same way as Malheur. Hopefully, when that happens, it will end with fewer deaths than Malheur did, which only had one death associated with it.

Image courtesy of Savege #KSAV at https://goo.gl/images/Wv0l7n