E71: re:pronouns


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By re:verb, Calvin Pollak, and Alex Helberg. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

At the recent 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), right-wing movement leaders couldn’t stop whining about “pronouns.” For example, Texas Senator Ted Cruz said that his preferred pronouns are “kiss my ass,” and former Trump official Matt Schlapp complained that instead of carrying out his “duties” like dealing with the “open border,” President Biden is “talking about pronouns.” However, 2022 was not the first CPAC in which this particular part of speech caught heat; back in 2019, Fox News contributor Michelle Malkin began her remarks, “my pronouns are ‘U-S-A’!”

Why do some conservatives attack and mock “pronouns”, and what exactly do they mean when they use the term? As our entry in the Big Rhetorical 2022 Podcast Carnival on “Spaces and Place In and Beyond the Academy”, this episode unpacks the history and politics of gendered personal pronouns such as “he” and “she,” genderless and non-binary pronouns (e.g. “they”), and various discourse practices in academic and activist circles that relate to personal pronoun usage. After analyzing some recent and relevant policy documents, Alex and Calvin explain the epistemic and ideological bases for “pronouns” as a negative ideograph–a one-word slogan encapsulating everything scary and “un-American” about the increasing tolerance of LGBTQ+ people in public life. “Pronouns,” we find, doesn’t only index a debate over present-day gender expression; it also draws from the legacies of settler-colonialism and hyper-nationalism, which have always co-constituted hierarchies of race, class, gender, and sexuality in US society. However, we also note the ironic fact that strict use of gendered pronouns such as “he” and “she,” especially to refer to a generic person or non-human objects and entities, is historically recent and linguistically arbitrary.

We conclude by shifting from history and theory to a question of action: what is the pragmatic case for putting your preferred pronouns in your social media bios and email signature lines, and giving students the opportunity to “share your name and pronouns” in classroom introductions? How do these practices make everyday learning and social action more feasible and manageable? We break down some practical benefits for teaching, political organizing, and ordinary personal interaction.

Overall, we hope this episode helps demystify and defang the issue of “pronouns”, which are really not as confusing or threatening as some make them out to be. From Connecticut to Utah, in academia and beyond, we all use them, and they haven’t caused the sky to fall (so far!).

Works and Concepts Referenced

Allen, J. M., & Faigley, L. (1995). Discursive strategies for social change: An alternative rhetoric of argument. Rhetoric Review, 14(1), 142-172.

Baron, D. (2018). A brief history of singular ‘they.’ Oxford English Dictionary blog.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge.

Conrod, K. (2018). Pronouns and gender in language. In K. Hall & R. Barrett (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Language and Sexuality. Oxford UP.

Hinchy, J. (2019). Governing gender and sexuality in colonial India: the Hijra, c. 1850–1900. Cambridge University Press.

McGee, M. C. (1980). The “ideograph”: A link between rhetoric and ideology. Quarterly journal of speech, 66(1), 1-16.

Miranda, D. A. (2010). Extermination of the joyas: Gendercide in Spanish California. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 16(1-2), 253-284.

Swyers, H., & Thomas, E. (2018). Murderbot pronouns: A snapshot of changing gender conventions in the United States. Queer Studies in Media & Popular Culture, 3(3), 271-298.

“Wisconsin District Bans Pride Flags From Classrooms, Pronouns in Emails” - Education Week

Tennessee bill on pronouns

Biden-Harris Executive Order that mentions pronouns twice

Transcript of this episode’s audio from Otter.ai

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