September 30, 2016

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

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“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.