September 30, 2016

HAGOPIAN | They are the World: What Pronouns Can Teach Us About Political Correctness

Print More

“I think she’s a computer science major.”

“You mean they’re a computer science major.”

“Whatever.”

The above conversation took place between my roommate and I a few weeks ago. To clarify, I used the pronoun she to refer to a mutual acquaintance of ours, and my roommate Troy corrected me, pointing out that the person I had mentioned uses they pronouns. One thing about Troy; he’s a very reasonable person. (Troy if you’re reading this, don’t get a big head. Also please take out our garbage.) After I said “whatever,” he proceeded to admonish me in a very fair and thoughtful way, which was more than I deserved considering how dismissive I was of him.

“I think, um, it’s an issue of respect,” he said earnestly, “but I get that it’s tough. I mean, everyone grows up saying he and she.”

Having my liberal credentials questioned made me very uneasy. Luckily, I was able to play off the situation with humor. At that very moment, a loud frat-boy-type person drove by our house yelling obscenities.

“Like he’s an asshole,” I said, pointing out the window.

We both laughed, and the matter was dropped. But the subject stayed with me long thereafter. I proceeded to indulge in a mental narrative I half-knew to be flawed and irresponsible. I never stooped so low as to denounce gender fluidity or transgenderism or anything of that sort. What bothered me was the perceived obligation. Using they to refer to a single person can be counter-intuitive and confusing. Who were they to demand an alteration of the English language? It seemed at the time to be a dreadful imposition.

Was I being immature? Of course. Is modern pronoun usage a completely logical undertaking in light of recent advances in our understanding of gender? Again, the answer is an obvious yes. The purpose of this article is not to debate those points. Many people in this country have a problem with political correctness in society, and it’s them I’m trying to reach by way of this anecdote. I get it. Nobody likes being told what to do, especially in the freedom-centric American zeitgeist. And I don’t think I’ll get through to you using terms like privilege or micro-aggression, even though I absolutely believe that both of those things exist. Charged words rarely lead to changed minds.

It was a few days after my conversation with my roommate that I came to a realization. Using they is not an obligation: It’s an opportunity. Certainly theys have varying life experiences just as hes and shes do. However, it’s safe to assume that many individuals who use third-person pronouns have endured some amount of anxiety about their identity. Perhaps they’ve even taken some heat for who they are or how they look. You, whenever you address such a person, have a choice to make when it comes to pronoun usage. You’re being handed on a silver platter the opportunity to make another person feel good, even to connect with them, simply by using a few words. It’s an opportunity that comes along precious little in this dismal world of ours. It’s an opportunity that, as an aspiring writer, I’ve devoted my entire life to pursuing. I suggest you take it.

Good deeds aren’t just moral, they’re utilitarian. Let’s consider Harry Potter (possibly my favorite sentence I’ve ever written). Before J.K. Rowling became a famous author, she was a single mother on benefits, the British equivalent of welfare. In fact, she has said that without government benefits, she would never have been able to begin writing the Harry Potter series. That’s why I donate money and do volunteer work; it’s not because of some abstract conception of morality. I want the next Harry Potter. To be clear, I’m not comparing correct pronoun usage to charity work. I’m merely trying to establish that being nice to others often comes around in a very tangible way.

In a dog-eat-dog world, sometimes it’s hard to be empathetic while trying to look out for yourself. Next time you might be tempted to, say, use an inaccurate pronoun or mispronounce a foreign name: be selfish. Consider what you might be able to get out of doing the right thing. I guarantee you it’s more than you think.

Ara Hagopian is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at ahagopian@cornellsun.com. Whiny Liberal appears alternating Fridays this semester.

10 thoughts on “HAGOPIAN | They are the World: What Pronouns Can Teach Us About Political Correctness

  1. The pronoun “tes” was proposed back in the 70s to serve as a singular alternative to “he” or “she” when one was desired. “tes” was thought to be better than “it” because it is for inanimate objects, not people. And “it” was used back then as a perjorative for transgender and intersex people. “They” was thought to be unsuitable for singular subjects because of verb agreement problems.

    “Tes” never made it to common use. So I try to use the actual name of everyone I can in speach and writing: subject, object and possessive when at all possible. When I don’t know the name or the petson’s preference, I tend to use an unstressed “they” in speech and “individual” or “person” or profession or something informative, but gender neutral .when writing.

    Don’t know if those practices are liberal, conservative, correct or insensitive, but I have had no complaints so far.

  2. Semantics and political correctness is all well and good. However, what is going to make a real difference in the world at large is to finish your education, get a job, volunteer, donate, and be the same person to other people that you want them to be to you. It is as simple as that and has nothing to do with he, she or they pronouns.

  3. Ending of the article is good. But the article as a whole is not so great.

    Lets take the following sentences for example: “And I don’t think I’ll get through to you using terms like privilege or micro-aggression…..” and “I never stooped so low as to denounce gender fluidity……”

    You struggled to try to not alienate the readers. It would have been better for you to keep those sentences out, and you would have sounded much better than a ridiculous liberal.

    “They” is not recreating the English language. From my experience, I found that people already use “they” in a singular way when they’re talking about a generic third person. Also, from my experience I found that people in general are more accepting and inclusive than what you write it out to be.

    • I agree with your comment.

      While the author wants people to understand that using “they” is going to help them (as transgender people will help them back), the author deliberately made remarks which are against the author’s own article.

      Similarly, while the author asks people to be accepting and inclusive, the author is pointedly putting down one group of people: frat boys.

      If you ask me, it does seem like that the author’s “privilege” allowed the author to make such comments. Nothing PC about that.

  4. I understand the concern over every person being made to feel accepted and respected. I really do. But I hope the author of this op ed understands the distinction between a microaggression (literally hundreds or thousands of which we each survive to one extent or another wrong though they may be) and MURDER. Let me spell it out. Someone, who is yet to be brought to justice, ENDED THE LIFE of blameless Anthony Nazaire FOR ESSENTIALLY NO REASON! On the Cornell campus! How can this paper not be heavily focused on the EXTREME INJUSTICE done to a fellow student? Is this not nuanced enough to be interesting? Does it not fit some larger narrative? What?

    This paper is guilty of a moral failure of huge proportions if the story of the murder investigation (which we can only guess is still active since there is no coverage by this paper) is not the subject of frequent in depth news stories and op eds.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *