This was originally posted on my local workplace’s Diversity blog. That post is behind a firewall.
The following rumination is given in the same spirit as the theatrical performance that inspired it: I recently saw Straight White Men, by the extremely gifted Young Jean Lee. It’s a comedy-drama about gender norms and expectations.
This trifle addresses a new use of pronouns to show respect for an individual’s … well … individuality. To put things in context, consider the word “parent.” As recently as a hundred years ago, parent in English-speaking cultures was a noun that meant not so much a sense of filial responsibility to a child as one of possession. A parent suggested a type of owner, in a way that no longer exists in the culture.
Child labor was common then. Supporting that norm, parent pretty much meant “boss of the child.” A parent could legally force a child to toil at great risk and harm, in the fields or the factory line. Today those norms have changed, and with them, the word. It even split in two: Parent is still a noun, but it’s also now a verb. “To parent” is assumed to mean bestowing something beneficial on a child. Even to very recent ancestors, upon finding a copy of Parenting magazine beamed to them from the future, this would be supremely baffling.
As you read below, please think of how language has changed with attitudes, and how it continues to change, arguably at an accelerated pace. As we strive to better understand the needs of previously voiceless groups … in our workplaces, our homes and social settings, keep in mind that it can be a bumpy ride, linguistically speaking. We can curse those bumps, or celebrate them. I invite you, dear reader, to relax and enjoy the ride. Take delight in our world’s growing richness and diversity.
The quite wonderful and thought-provoking Steppenwolf Theater production I saw opened with two cast members, who together announced to the audience the shared preference to be referred to with the non-cisgendered “they,” and its object pronoun form, “them.” They provided much to consider. And by they I don’t mean either one of them, although this is also true, but both. It’s unusual enough for someone like me to encounter one such soul. Two is a real night on the town.
Should you be wondering, there was no suggestion that they were a romantic couple. Not because one person cannot be a couple of any sort, romantic or otherwise, but because by using “they” just then I did not mean either of them but both.
You can see why this is interesting and yes, alarming. Two individuals in the same room who both prefer to be referred to using plural pronouns has increased linguistic complexity by the precise mathematical factor of O + M + G.
For example, when they are near each other at one of the inevitable cast parties, and by “they” of course I’m not implying that either of them can, on their own, be near themselves, but both. At the party. Together.
Let me start over.
It occurred to me that if one of them were to be referenced at said party as “them,” each would be compelled to turn, point, and say, “Do you mean me or them? Or us?” At which point I for one would need to excuse myself to freshen my drink.
Will this lead to a quota of just one they and them per social gathering? I sincerely hope not. They seemed quite charming, and by they I’m not singling one of them out, but merely saying each seemed like someone I would genuinely enjoy chatting with.
Just not together … Until I get it all, as it were, straight.