Language and pronouns: An education

Language and pronouns: An education

Wow. I mean, wow. This column is a handful and a half. 

I’ve known Randall for a long time. I enjoy his novels. I typically try to read his columns because they express right-wing ideas in a clear and logical manner. I disagree a lot, but I like to keep up with his views because I know they represent the views of many people and it’s important to know what they’re thinking and why. 

But this… 


I am tempted to get mad and write a withering comeback that would be entirely devastating. I know I have it in me. I have it in me because there are people in my life I love more than sunshine itself who have to live with this kind of attitude in their face every day and if there is one thing I can’t stand is that attitude that denies that which it doesn’t understand. 

Instead, calling on the white angel clinging for dear life to the strap of my Lululemon over my well-developed left trapezius, I decided to use this opportunity, as gently as I can, to explain why proper pronouns and respectful language matter. 

It’s your right to refuse to read it. But then, I’ll send my seething red devil after you. 

Here goes.

There is enormous enthusiasm in government and academe to define people by race, gender and sexual preference.

Nope. There is however a good deal of common sense and decency in acknowledging how others describe themselves and agreeing to use their preferred terminology when talking to or about them. It’s a long-ass way of spelling r-e-s-p-e-c-t.

The best way to describe people who aren’t white is apparently quite a dilemma for some, but not so much for people who aren’t white. For years, Canadians have referred to “visible minorities.” It’s a simple concept and people know what it means. Now, we are supposed to call anyone who isn’t white a “racialized person,” as if their non-whiteness was the most important thing about them.

Yeesh, OK. So first of all, non-whiteness (or whiteness) isn’t the most important thing for anyone except white supremacists. Anyone wants to fight me on that? 

The reason we use “racialized” is because race is a social construct. There. Didn’t even hurt to say it. I can say it differently: Race is too often used to “other” people, to make them feel like they don’t really belong in mainstream society. Using the word “racialized” acknowledges that and renounces it. It’s an even longer-ass (a longer-asser?) way of spelling r-e-s-p-e-c-t.

The poll suggests that so-called racialized people aren’t so keen on the new term. Forty-four per cent of Black Canadians polled prefer the term “visible minority,” with only 11.3 per cent choosing to be called “racialized.” That term is even less popular among Asian Canadians, only 3.5 per cent of whom prefer it. By contrast, 51.8 per cent like “visible minority.”

So if this new terminology is not preferred by most of the people it is intended to describe, why are we using it?

If someone prefers Black (or any other word) to racialized, of course you use that. But in the absence of stated preference, the safe thing is to use the most inclusive and least restrictive or judgmental terms. That’s also why, by the way, you don’t use “Mr” or “Ms” or she/him unless you know the gender of the person. It’s all about respect. 

The matter of pronouns is arguably more complicated, in that those who find pronouns important are quite passionate about it.

Imagine that. I don’t have the strength to argue that those of us who have been harmed by heteronormativity feel strongly about not wanting to be harmed further by it. Anyone who finds this too hard to understand may fuck all the way off. 

(Little angel almost fell off the left Lulu, excuse.)

While only 15 per cent of those polled add pronouns to their communications, of that group 59 per cent say others should be compelled to identify their pronouns. Who would enforce such a thing or what it might accomplish is unclear.

Oh! That’s super easy! It normalizes gender diversity and makes the gender-diverse feel welcome in mainstream society (that’s a good thing) without taking anything away from those who feel totally at home in their cis-gender identity.

People can certainly use any pronouns they like. It’s a free-ish country. For the same reason, no one should even contemplate making their personal choice mandatory for everyone.

Yep. Everyone has the right to be rude and disrespectful.

At least “they/them” is somewhat clearer than 2SLGBTQI+, a term used this week when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a $100-million fund to prevent discrimination against non-heterosexual people, as we once called them.

You know, sexual orientation isn’t the same as gender, gender identity or gender expression. If you’re looking for an easier, shorter term, use “gender and sexual diversity.” Nobody needs break their tongue trying to be inclusive. I’ll settle for non-bigoted.

Then there is the term “settler colonialism.” While socially conscious people feel that it’s fair to describe non-Indigenous Canadians as “settlers,” a poll done for the ACS earlier this year said that 73 per cent of Canadians don’t consider themselves settlers or colonialists.

Yeah, that’s actually part of the problem. See this.

The disagreement over just the right words is the visible tip of a much larger problem: the misguided effort to choose one characteristic about an individual and then use that characteristic to divide people into many small groups, each with its own grievance.

Wow. It’s almost like reading something from a planet where intersectionality didn’t exist. So weird. Also? That’s not what grievance means.

The point of updating language and vocabulary is to take progress into consideration and try, always, to be better than we were as a people trying to live together in society. It’s about finding ways to show each other respect. Not all the ways work. That’s why we keep evolving the language. Because what matters a lot more than specific words is the attitude that says, I see you and accept you as you are. 

Even — and I want to make that point very clearly — if you try to invalidate that which you don’t understand.