• Rich Bordner

Mean Girls

She asked:

“Do y’all have suggestions on how to address another teacher refusing to use another student’s pronouns? One of my high school students asked me to notify and help remind the rest of their teachers to use they/them pronouns, but a white cis male teacher has ‘several reasons why they won’t comply.’”

One teacher timidly suggested his policy of simply using the name written on the roster (which confuses the issue, since the issue is pronouns, not names or nicknames, but nevermind that. I personally have no problem with using someone’s chosen *name,* since I do that regardless.), but he was immediately piled on. He was met with a chorus of “beyond upsetting,” “horrifying.”

Aside from that one guy, almost every other comment was some version of:

“Hey admins, it’s really time to #bootthebigots.” “Some of y’all shouldn’t be in education and it shows.” (directed at the one dissenter)
“If I had a student that went by he/him pronouns and I called them she/her that would be bigotry.” “It literally costs nothing to acknowledge people how they want to be acknowledged. Show your students the same courtesy and respect you expect from them. It is not that hard.” “You could be saving a life just by using a couple of words.” “Using preferred pronouns is suicide prevention.” “Just because we encounter what we do not understand does not mean we condemn it.” (I found this comment rather Huh Ironic.) “It costs zero dollars to respect a student’s pronouns. It’s literally suicide prevention. You don’t have to understand it. You don’t have to like it. You just have to respect the identity they’ve chosen, as they have a right to choose. If you’re uncomfortable with it, that’s a small price to pay for the mental and emotional wellbeing of an extremely vulnerable teen going through one of the hardest periods of their life.”

This was on a recent comment thread on a Dallas Teachers’ Facebook group. Not in New Haven, CT. Dallas, TX. The condemnation aimed at anyone who failed to enthusiastically assent was swift, numerous, and vitriolic. Even if you do not engage in these threads on social media, simply seeing them can be intimidating. If your kids have a smartphone and any social media presence at all, I can guarantee that they see stuff like this all the time. Aside from social media, these kinds of comments come up in regular conversations and in discussions about organization policy in the workplace. A lot of people don’t want to tow the party line. They have convictions that don’t align with this new orthodoxy. Others simply have doubts. Either way, handling conversations like the one alluded to above well can be tricky. It’s important to think through what to do and say, for when the time comes. (notice I did not say “if.” Sooner or later, this conversation will find you, whether you go looking for it or not.) Even just handling the topic in your own head is necessary. The desire to ‘go along to get along’ is very strong in most of us, so the temptation to cross a line and then rationalize later is persistent. Fighting it requires, among other things, intention, decided upon beforehand. Let me give some pointers on what to do when you find yourself in one of these kinds of conversations, and/or if you are simply trying to think through it in your own mind.

First, do some reading on the topic. Ryan T. Anderson’s When Harry Became Sally is a great place to start.

Second, perspective. Realize that almost everyone thought these ideas about gender and identity were completely crazy up until about 5 minutes ago, and now all of a sudden they are supposedly self-evident to all minimally decent and compassionate persons. No discussion in the interim. Just ex cathedra. That should be a huge red flag. Third, no, using preferred pronouns is not “just words.” It *is* a big ask. Just declaring a certain idea to be “respectful” doesn’t make it so, especially when it is done in such a ham fisted way.

With pronouns you are declaring something to be true about fundamental human nature, that our bodies are irrelevant to our identity, that our bodies are like legos, that one’s state of mind or declaration is the trump card of identity, that feelings and individual declaration determine reality, that I am what I say I am. If I feel like an X, I declare it so and that makes me an X. Period. End of story. Those who insist we use preferred pronouns are asking us to buy into all that. What’s more, some pretty gnarly consequences follow from adopting those ideas--consequences for women’s only spaces, consequences for women’s sports divisions, consequences for women’s college scholarships. So ya that’s a big ask. It is not “just a few harmless words.” All these things and more are riders on the words we choose to describe reality. Fourth, if you choose to engage in conversation, use questions, socratic style. I mention this as a game plan often. There are a ton of advantages to engaging this way, rather than trying to make statements as points. The biggest advantage in this context is that if you do it well, it forces the others in the conversation to actually articulate and defend their view at a deeper level, without resort to the usual social shaming. This is something they usually don’t do. Rather than you playing defense the whole time, make them do so; make them actually pony up for a change and bear their burden of proof. In your questions, don’t focus on the surface issue--the pronouns. Rather, get to the deeper ideas that animate the preferred pronoun view, ideas about identity and human nature. Start out by asking basic “what do you mean by that?” and “how did you come to that belief?” questions, then get confirmation from them about the ideas that seem to motivate their insistence on preferred pronouns, like: “It seems like you are saying that when it comes to identity, I am what I say I am. Period. I get to determine my identity, no one else does. Am I understanding you correctly?” They might respond with the usual one liners and slogans, repeating what they just said rather than further explaining it and justifying it. Persist, and ask again. Backing up an assertion with another assertion should not be accepted. Once you have that down, proceed to ask more penetrating questions, like: “When there is a conflict between body and mind, why think that the mind trumps the body?” (if you want to inject a bit of a barb, you might ask “aren’t you body positive?”)

“Why does someone’s feelings and declaration make their identity, to the exclusion of almost any other factor?”

“Why should ‘feeling like’ a man/woman (whatever that means) or identifying as such *make* someone a man/woman? Why does identifying as a woman literally make someone a woman? Why should someone’s self-professed identity determine reality? Our feelings don’t determine almost anything else--age/height/ etc. Why pivot on gender?”

“If gender identity is self-created, why must other people accept it as reality?” “Our bodies are real and good, yet you seem to be denying that our bodies have anything to do with our identity. Why is that?” “Isn’t it a good thing to love your body and embrace it? Yet you seem to be saying the opposite for some people--that we should celebrate the decisions of those who reject their maleness or femaleness--which is part of the body--because it doesn’t align with their mind, and that we should assist them in doing so by the words we use. Why?” Other questions you can ask are here. If they react by calling you names and heaping passive aggressive invective on you, don’t let them get away with that. Say something like “I asked you a simple question, but you responded by simply calling me a name. Name calling is not an argument. Rather than attacking me personally, can you actually give me a thoughtful answer to my question?” The emperor has no clothes, and it is not hate to point that out. Proceed with the next tip:

Fifth, notice and call out the manipulative tactics. Most of the pronouncements by folk in this crowd are simple social power grabs and attempts at shaming. They are not trying to prove and argue that you are wrong. They are trying to tarnish your reputation. Real “mean girls” stuff, like they are still in high school. Refuse to be moved, and point out their tactic for what it is. A short “that manipulation will not work on me. Note that rather than actually responding to my question/what I wrote, you are resorting to high school lunch room shaming” or something of equivalent will do. If you criticize or question the “good people,” they will ignore your point and just attack your character and your motivation, pretending to discern what your “true motives” are. They are trying to “poison the well” and make others suspicious of you so you’ll be discredited in their eyes. They don’t want to win by defeating your ideas; they want to win by tearing you down socially, and they want you to feel the same way you felt when the cool kids booted you from their lunch table in high school. It is a smear tactic, nothing more. Again, you must point out what they are doing. Don’t let them get away with it.

Their pronouncements about preferred pronouns “literally preventing suicide” are in the same boat. Feigned moral outrage; a cynical attempt at weaponizing a sensitive issue, as if the only way to care for the mental health of our youth is to affirm their mental perceptions of themselves, no questions asked. Again, with any other incongruity between body and mind (anorexia, Body Integrity Identity Disorder, race--Rachel Dolezal, anyone?) we easily see this, but with gender that notion flies out the window with no discussion.

Sixth, do not let them take the moral high ground. They cannot lay claim to that. They will pontificate as if their position is the only compassionate and kind response. Anyone who has doubts is a meany...again, no discussion, just fiat (see a pattern, here?). They do not see the risks of their own position--that it encourages impressionable minds to step onto the path to physical transition, which includes injecting hormones and medical procedures on healthy functioning organs, both of what have a lifetime of consequence and are nearly impossible to reverse. Stories of immense regret are beginning to surface with greater frequency. What’s more, it compels others to jump onto the bandwagon, not by persuasion, but by social intimidation, forcing others to assent to the notion that the emperor is fashionably dressed. No, this is not the position of a compassionate and thoughtful heart. Seventh, recognize the absurdity. They are claiming that one’s self declaration is definitive of reality, that if I say I am a woman, that *literally* means I am a woman, end of story. That is absurd. I do not recommend saying something like “so if I identified as a Tonka truck, you’d go along with it?” kind of line. That’s usually not helpful. All the same, if you pause to think about it, you will immediately recognize that the claim is false, and furthermore, there are some identities *not* worth embracing. When students confidently say to me “you do you” or “you gotta be who you are” I reply “well ya, but what if you’re a jerk?” Eighth, expect a response that is an intense attempt at shaming you. Most will a) ignore the substance of your points and will not engage with them, preferring to use social power moves to get you to fall in line and to signal to others “don’t you dare even think about stepping out of line, here,” and b) continue to be incredibly dogmatic. Live not by lies, but don’t expect it to go over well. Don’t let that push you to give into the intimidation, but do be ready for the madness of the crowd.

At the same time, most likely there are those listening in on the outskirts, who might not be active participants in the discussion, or who might hear of your stand, and be encouraged as a result. You are not alone. So: live not by lies. This might entail some consequences, social, career-wise, etc. Be ready for that. Only you can decide whether it is worth it to take a public stand and face those consequences, but in your conscience and what you affirm with your words, be not moved.

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