The Preposterous Pronoun Pantomime Of Alex Byrne

Introduction

The philosopher Alex Byrne recently published a draft paper, simply titled Pronouns — available here — which was written with a view to inclusion in The Oxford Handbook of Applied Philosophy of Language.

Whether it will ultimately appear there is questionable; suffice to say that Byrne’s publicizing of the draft paper was not quite received with universal acclaim.

An editor of The Oxford Handbook Of Applied Philosophy of Language casting doubt re: “Pronouns”

What I intend to do in this article is to walk through (only some!) of the absurdities of the language and arguments used in Pronouns, on the way noting how it is constructed around post hoc rationalizations for transphobia, including many well-worn, frequently debunked, anti-trans tropes.

What is most astonishing to contemplate, really, is that the piece was intended to establish anything other than severe reputational damage for the author.

Let’s Talk About Sex

Let’s begin with Byrne’s foundational assumption in section one:

“FM pronouns convey information about sex”

The main issue here is: they don’t. This is simply wrong, which completely undermines many of his later arguments.

{ Note: By “FM” pronouns, Byrne means “feminine/masculine” pronouns. In other words, pronouns such as she, he, her, him, and so on. }

Obvious Counter Examples

Many people are referred to with pronouns that don’t correspond with “sex”. While Byrne fixates on trans and non-binary people through the majority of the article, he fails to realise that cis people may also use pronouns in ways contrary to his expectations.

Examples such as “she/her” used by gay men or “he/him” used by butch lesbians show that Byrne’s is a narrow view of pronoun usage that doesn’t encompass queer history or practices in general.

His subjective notion that non-sex-indicative uses of pronouns break “rules” is simply quaint.

What’s A “Metaphorical” Pronoun?

We also don’t just use gendered pronouns for people. Byrne acknowledges this, but dismisses as “metaphorical” their use for inanimate objects in English, such as the use of “she” for ships or astronomical referents.

But this immediately begs the question of what distinguishes a literal from a “metaphorical” use of a pronoun? Why should we regard English as having a specific notion of literality with respect to pronouns? Some languages use gendered pronouns for all nouns: what is “metaphorical” there? Some languages use more complex sets of grammatical gender classes, which don’t neatly correspond to FM categories in Byrne’s terms: what is “metaphorical” there?

It’s clear that the uses that Byrne wants to later present as “correct” are what he regards as the “literal” ones: but that begs the question of what should be regarded as “literal” when we’re talking about a trans person — and we’ll see, later, that all of Byrne’s wrangling about “FM pronoun” usage pivots on that notion of literality.

Inflection vs. Information

Even if we were to presume that the “FM pronouns” used for a person were locked to the sex listed on their birth certificate, then we would have to contend with the simple fact that those pronouns don’t give us valid information about what sex-related characteristics that person has now.

We don’t get “information about sex” from a pronoun: we get information about which inflection a third party thinks is appropriate to use. In other words, pronoun use simply tells us which grammatical gender the speaker believes to apply — which is distinct from the socially recognised gender of the person referred to.

Gender Troubled

To try and reinforce the idea that pronouns (ought to) signal sex, not gender, Byrne spends the second section of the article riffing on the idea that “gender” and “sex” are cleanly separable.

Working from the assumption of a straightforward sex/gender separation is a standard trope of transphobic argument: but it isn’t, in fact, a well-founded position to assume that sex can be reified, and gender vapourized, by an airy reference to “metaphysics”. The words “gender” and “sex” have commingled meanings, and are used interchangeably in everyday (and legal) language.

Some odd assumptions based on this idea of separation are called upon. For example, there is no broad consensus (as Byrne claims) that nouns such as “woman” and “man” refer to gender while adjectives such as “female” and “male” are “not gender terms” that refer only to sex. That’s very much a niche notion of “gender critical” thought, and it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

As his discussion of gender doesn’t really seem to contribute anything to his subsequent arguments about pronouns in general (as Byrne himself notes), we will draw a veil over it and swiftly move on. But if you want to explore these ideas further, I’ve previously written a broad critique of “gender critical” mythologies which includes discussion of the problems with some of Byrne’s earlier writing in this vein, and “Donkeys Uncanned” which includes a discussion of the emptiness of the idea that these adjectives refer to sex.

Literal Chaos

Byrne returns to the matter of literalness in the third section of the article, discussing a hypothetical trans man, Tom:

“Did Tom’s transition literally change his sex from female to male? Of course, if it did, then the propriety of referring to Tom with feminine pronouns is a non-issue”.

If this is the hinge that Byrne’s argument about “FM pronouns” turns on, then the rest of his discussion on the matter is straightforwardly about a non-issue. Because legally and practically, people do literally change sex all the time. For example, established case law of the European Court of Human Rights means this the availability of frameworks to do so is a human rights requirement across almost 50 states. (Legal frameworks that enable a change of sex also exist in many other countries).

So literality and therefore “propriety” is well established. But Byrne ignores this body of law and practice entirely in favour of unscaffolded intuition:

“We will assume, then, that no sex change has occurred”

Byrne is unwilling to accept that humans ever change their sex, following the standard transphobe mantra that “sex is immutable”, which I have previously examined in detail in a separate article:

This assertion of immutability is an all too familiar thread within anti-trans, anti-rights rhetoric, and an idea that was recently called out as “contributing to growing human rights problems” by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in the report, “Combating rising hate against LGBTI people in Europe” (see here).

Excerpt from the PACE report which explicitly calls out notions used in “Pronouns” as anti-trans rhetoric

In the footnotes of his article Byrne states that “it should be noted that the claims about sex just made in the text are not universally accepted”. That is absolutely so; he is straightforwardly laundering an extremist position.

This all should be very problematical for anyone concerned about “propriety”.

The eternality of H. Rider Haggard’s “She” is not shared by the pronoun of the same name

Anxiety About Propriety

Private Assholery Condemned

Byrne next explores — the motivation for this is not really given beyond the fact that it is “interesting” — when “propriety” would allow for speakers to use pronouns that the person referred to might regard as inaccurate, humiliating, even hostile.

With the arrogance of the prescriptive linguist, and against common sense, he calls these “correct” pronouns; we will refer to them as “inappropriate”.

In public conversation, using inappropriate pronouns for a trans person can “out” them as trans to others. In a worst case scenario that can lead to them being in material danger of violence; and it very certainly works as a potential enabler of the kind of quotidian abuse, hostility, and maltreatment that trans people face.

(Such outcomes are obliquely, albeit grudgingly, acknowledged in passing where Byrne says: “Tom should not be gratuitously embarrassed or humiliated or accused of a crime against nature”, although this minimizes the potential bad consequences of misgendering).

Outing is beyond the bounds of propriety, so Byrne therefore discusses hypothetical “private” conversation about Tom in which it can’t occur, in which we must assume a) it is hermetically sealed from external disclosure, b) all participants acquiesce that this use of language is acceptable, and c) the use of inappropriate pronouns will not be misunderstood as having an incorrect implication e.g. that Tom approves of their use (if that is not true), or that Tom has detransitioned.

But in any such a situation, inappropriate pronouns are not going to be informative: they can give the participants no knowledge they don’t already have. So why argue for their use? Byrne’s rationalization boils down to, basically, the idea that maybe sometimes it is OK to use these inappropriate pronouns because it might be hard for the person talking to not misgender a trans person— simply because of force of habit.

Well, trans people know that many people do indeed find it hard to use appropriate pronouns. In fact, some people find it curiously harder than others, and one may readily suppose that this correlates with their acceptance of transgender people.

But Byrne’s argument would imply that any kind of assholish private reference to any kind of person is morally acceptable if the speaker finds it effortful to not use their accustomed ways of speaking about someone: racial epithets, ableist language, any kind of slur, all would be OK “behind closed doors” so long as the use of this language minimises the cognitive/emotional effort of the speaker.

Perhaps some people would be comfortable with that conclusion: many would not, emphatically. In any case, the normalization of disrespectful or contemptuous speech in private is likely to cause overspilling of that conversational practice in public; in the case of pronouns, increasing the risk of potentially dangerous misgendering occurring in public because of habit being reinforced in these private convos.

Expending effort on being respectful when talking about someone behind their back will ultimately reduce the cognitive effort required to be not-an-asshole in other venues of conversation, hopefully eliminating the need for conscious “code switching” in order to masquerade as a decent human being.

Transitive Assholery Condemned

To recap: if we posit a private conversation in which all the participants are unreconstructed assholes, can we imagine a morally justifiable kind of linguistic disregard for others? Byrne says yes. Others may disagree.

Either way, it’s apparent that his argumentation is broadly motivated by a yearning to claim that certain kinds of assholery are justifiable.

Consider, for example, Byrne’s approval for the transphobic idea that misgendering trans criminals (or even trans people who are on trial) is perfectly fine. In these cases, apparently, someone being “gratuitously embarrassed or humilated” is unproblematic. Trans people, it seems, are placed in the position of having to earn the respect and dignity that cis people get to take for granted; even a putative violation of “propriety” by a trans person is taken to justify acting as an asshole towards them, and freely disregarding their gender.

(The possibility of withdrawal of approval for trans identity is also inherent in Byrne’s repeated references to “courtesy pronouns”, a phrase almost as emetic as his use of “correct pronouns”).

But I guess I simply disagree that you are exonerated from assholery if you are being an asshole to another asshole, whether they are trans or not; I believe that transitive assholery is equally assholish.

Livid About Neutral

Byrne’s subsequent analyses of singular “they” and gender neutral neopronouns are equally unenlightening.

His approach is again that of a prescriptive grammarian, declaiming the uselessness, perniciousness, or impossibility of adopting such pronouns.

The Multiple Singular

For example, Byrne asserts:

“the traditional singular they cannot be used deictically”

Yet, he distinguishes a “non-binary they” that can so be used; a distinction which makes no sense.

Singular “they” can simply be used anywhere that “he” or “she” are not appropriate, whether that is to avoid making presuppositions about gender, because of a lack of information about whether “he” or “she” is appropriate, or because of explicit information that “he or “she” are inappropriate.

Singular “they” and non-binary “they” are not separate things, just as singular “you” does not cleave from a distinct non-binary “you” that we need to watch out for.

On The Epicene Like A Sex Machine

Let’s look at another point: Byrne notes that there are languages that have only gender-neutral pronouns — hän in Finnish, or o in Turkish, for example.

If you’re interested in which languages do or don’t have gender-neutral pronouns, you can find the information in the World Atlas Of Language Structures Online. At least in this list, languages with gender-neutral pronouns are much more common than languages with gendered pronouns, so it‘s not just the case that Finno-Ugric languages are unusual outliers.

Yet he argues:

“it is unrealistic to expect that she and he could be marginalized, let alone driven to extinction”

Why argue that “epicene” pronoun usage could/should never take hold in English? Many languages function perfectly well without “FM” inflection.

The answer appears to be once again, basically, force of habit. But harking back to the difficulties of expending cognitive effort — “bucking ingrained grammar is difficult” — does not really pertain to language change. Modern English pronouns are a world away from Anglo-Saxon, for example.

Yes, top-down language reform proposals rarely take hold: but we routinely coin new words and adapt meanings, reflecting our changing understanding of the world and social norms. As Byrne notes, the move away from the use of “he” as a default “gender neutral” pronoun is recent and pretty much absolute: which is, of course, a direct counterexample to his adjacent assertion that it is unrealistic that wilful changes to pronoun use might occur.

As always, the fulminations of prescriptivists are powerless to hold language evolution in check.

A Crass Act

Byrne’s observations and objections to patterns of pronoun use he personally disapproves of are merely, to use a British word, “chuntering”.

However, his language and observations during the course of his ruminations is frequently unforgivably crass. There is constant, egregious exhibition of three Bs: bias, bigotry, and bullshit.

Here’s a few disreputable doozies I picked out:

  • More than once, Byrne refers to “normies”; the crystal clear implication being that anyone not cisgender is abnormal.
  • “Genderqueer is the edgy way of saying non-binary” is, besides being a vehicle for transparent sneering, simply incorrect.
  • “On any intuitive understanding of identifying as one may identify as an F without being an F” is a mysterious claim, because “identifying as X” is largely synonymous with regarding oneself as “being X”. It is, though, a common trope of disingenious anti-trans writing to treat “identify” as though it is some exotic illocutionary manoeuvre rather than referring to a simple assertion of identity.
  • “Whether someone should be referred to with she or he used to be obvious, even if sometimes it was unobvious whether the pronoun matched the person’s sex” is ahistorical old fogeyism at its worst.
Excerpt from “Fanny And Stella” by Neil McKenna, a history of the Boulton & Park trial in 1871
  • A reference to “old-school transsexuals” rehearses another drearily familiar trick from anti-trans rhetoric: to suborn an imaginary class of historical “transsexuals” who always behaved in ways conveniently subservient to cisnormativity. Suffice to say, this is mythology. But it allows for Byrne to eulogise the legendary golden age when “politeness and decency brought about the desired result by themselves”.
  • “What if Frederick and his partner are invited to a barn dance at a neighboring farm?” — the hypothetical invitation of a gay couple to a barn dance is apparently one of the strongest arguments that can be mustered against the usefulness of gender neutral neopronouns.
  • Byrne opines “for a celebrity, Haze’s level of self-importance is admirably low” — apparently unlike that of, say, an MIT philosophy professor
  • The desistance myth is invoked with “social transition may make it harder
    for the child to desist later”. This is a very strange assertion, because without social transition there’s nothing to desist from. It’s worth noting that the evidence we have is that regretting transition is extremely rare, but of course Byrne weighs the prospect of a single detransition as much more significant that the prospect of a multiplicity of trans people leading fulfilled lives; a common anti-trans position.
  • Insuperable childishness is suggested via the phrase “an imperfect understanding of sex”. The argument here — that children are too immature to understand things that affect them directly — has been used in the UK to try and undermine the well-established principle of Gillick competence; more broadly, it is the same notion used to try and deny that children should receive LGBT+ inclusive education, or sex education. (Sometimes committed transphobes use the infantilization card even more determinedly, to argue that even many trans adults are not mature enough to consent to transition.)
  • “She, used of a male, can be similarly used to deceive” and elsewhere in the article the phrase “to participate in a kind of pretense” — are revealing of an attitude clearly contemptuous towards trans existence; the same attitude that propels Byrne to try to use “literal” to push a regressive viewpoint that is contrary to a human rights consensus.
  • Finally, the use of a “compelled speech” argument about pronouns is a favoured trope of those free speech advocates who support untrammelled assholery through unrestricted hate speech. It appears that “propriety” isn’t really Byrne’s concern at all.
A drawing of a Dodo

Signing Off

Fundamentally, the paper is like a wildly metastasized version of the indignant reaction that reactionaries display when confronted with the commonplace courtesy of someone stating what their pronouns are.

There are many other elements that could be mocked or debunked, but of the many ludicrous passages of motivated reasoning in the article, this is perhaps the funniest:

“Self-declared non-binary people frequently proclaim their desire to
overturn gender stereotypes, but the widespread use of non-binary they risks producing exactly the opposite result.”

Because not adhering to gender stereotypes reinforces them, apparently.

The same logic would suggest we should avoid not using sexist language as part of the fight against sexism; avoid not using racist stereotypes as part of the fight against racism; or any parallel stupidity you wish to imagine.

Imagine putting your signature to this.

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Kim Hipwell

Kim Hipwell

PhD in Cognitive Science, interested in the structures of natural and artificial languages. Thrives on atonal music and trans rights. She/her.