My answer about using preferred pronouns
Below is a lightly edited answer I wrote on the Stack Exchange moderator private Q&A on January 17 2019. The next day I added the section that begins "It's been pointed out to me..." to clarify. I deleted the answer on October 7 2019 because it seemed more likely to add confusion to ongoing events. I'm sharing this answer because it adds some context to the history of events on Stack Exchange.
In retrospect, I still agree with all the points I made, but I think my answer still missed the mark. People were hurting because they felt unheard. My answer was, in effect, "stop talking about this". There is no way that wouldn't cause further pain and I apologize to the people my words harmed. (I don't exactly know who that might be, unfortunately. One of the destructive things about this situation is that people most hurt often felt least empowered to speak up.)
I should also point out that community managers much more qualified then me took up the question. By all rights, that should have begun a process to resolve the differences and create peace. If the CMs had been given the authority to do that, I believe that is what would have happened. Instead, management asserted responsibility and blocked progress for months. And when management finally did act . . . it went poorly. I worry this answer made the situation worse.
A good deal of effort has gone into obscuring the sequence of events. Some of that is justified because so many of the events occurred in the Teachers' Lounge (TL), a private chat room for moderators. But some of the secrecy has served to confuse observers. There's not a whole lot I can do about it other than publish the bits I'm responsible for. So that's what I'm doing here. My answer to whether people should be be required to use preferred pronouns for the sake of posterity:
Many years ago, I read Metamagical Themas by Douglas Hofstadter. It included an essay entitled "Changes in Default Words and Images, Engendered by Rising Consciousness" which you can read on the Internet Archive. Relevant to this discussion:
Someone who, like me, is trying to eliminate gender-laden pronouns from their speech altogether can try to rely on the word "they", but they will find themself in quite a pickle as soon as they try to use any reflexive verbal construction such as "the writer will paint themselves into a corner", and what's worse is that no matter how this person tries, they'll find that they can't extricate themselves gracefully, and consequently he or she will just flail around, making his or her sentence so awkward that s/he wis/hes s/he had never become conscious of these issues of sexism. Obviously, using "they" just carries you from the frying pan into the fire, as you have merely exchanged a male-female ambiguity for a singular-plural ambiguity. The only advantage to this ploy is, I suppose, that there is/are, to my knowledge, no group(s) actively struggling for equality between singular and plural.
I remember being quite struck by the argument at the time and agreeing that they/them/etc. is not a viable solution to the problem of gender-neutral pronouns. And yet today I struggle to find a problem with "the writer will paint themselves into a corner". For some reason, I now can immediately parse "themselves" as referring to a single (imaginary) instance of the broader class of "writers". What changed?
Well, I started using "they" and "them" in my own writing. For instance, when I announce the winners of an election, I include the sentence:
They'll be joining the existing crew shortly—please thank them for volunteering, and share your assistance and advice with them as they learn the ropes!
For elections with two or more winners, that's obviously correct and clear. (Well, sometimes I include that sentence even when the new moderator already knows the ropes since they are a moderator on other sites or have previously been a moderator on the current site.) But when there's just one moderator, it's often tricky to pick a gender. More than once, I've seen people guess (by editing my post) and been exactly wrong. I decided not to worry about it too much; being too generic is better than being specific and wrong.
In the modern world (at least in the West) people increasingly have the freedom to define their own identities. Certainly this is true on the internet where nobody know you unless you reveal yourself. That makes it possible for me to impersonate a woman if I chose. Since we aren't collecting government IDs, we aren't in a position to know or really care what gender people really are.1 That includes people who do not wish to be either "he" or "she" online. For those folks, it's imperative that we come to some sort of agreement on a gender neutral pronoun if we are to be accurate and avoid the slippery slope of sexism:
Shortly after this column came out, I hit upon a way of describing one of the problems of sexist language. I call it the slippery slope of sexism. The idea is very simple. When a generic term and a "marked" term (i.e., a sex-specific term) coincide, there is a possibility of mental blurring on the part of listeners and even on the part of the speaker. Some of the connotations of the generic will automatically rub off even when the specific is meant, and conversely. The example of "Industrial Man" illustrates one half of this statement, where a trace of male imagery rubs off even when no gender is intended. The reverse is an equally common phenomenon; an example would be when a newscaster speaks of "the four-man crew of next month's space shuttle flight". It may be that all four are actually males, in which case the usage would be precise. Or it may be that there is a woman among them, in which case "man" would be functioning generically (supposedly). But if you're just listening to the news, and you don't know whether a woman is among the four, what are you supposed to do?—Douglas Hofstadter
It seems to me that we regularly encounter this sort of ambiguity on the network. How do we refer to a user represented by the image of woman and the name of a man? One could check their profile and see if they specify a gender. Using that gender is certainly the polite thing to do.2 But failing that (because the profile doesn't help), it's far safer to not assume gender. That can be awkward and ambiguous, of course, but the fault lies in our language failing to keep pace with cultural changes.
It's been pointed out to me (in the comments and out-of-band) that I didn't exactly answer the question. That's quite deliberate. The question was clearly motivated by a particular incident on the TL, but it's worded so as to be applicable to all sorts of situations on the network. Therefore, I worded my answer to propose a principle that can be applied to a variety of specific situations. So let's apply it to the TL conversation.
But first, a pair of personal anecdotes. I have 6-year-old twins: a boy and a girl. Like many 6-year-olds, they speak their minds and have no filter. Unlike some children their age, they are also extremely outgoing and eager to talk with anyone and everyone they meet. We have a neighbor who has a son a few years older than them and she looks much older than my wife. One day, the twins saw her after school and got all excited about how his "grandma" was there to pick him up. I don't know if she heard, but I very quietly told them she was probably his mom. The next time they saw her, one of my twins started talking about the boy's "mom or grandma".
They also have a cousin with long and rather beautiful hair. We see them once a year or so. The last time we were together, my twins started talking about how they wanted to see "that girl" again. We were terribly confused until we figured out they meant my nephew with the long hair, who is, of course, a boy. (Perhaps because they are different sexes, my twins are very interested in gender differences.) We're working on helping them remember that their cousin is a boy because we want them to be able to have a good relationship with the family.
My point is that we often draw wrong conclusions from various observations we make about others. The effort we go to correct those mistakes often depends on the relationship we want to have with the other person. When it comes to strangers, I mostly want to teach my children to keep unflattering observations to themselves. But when it comes to family, I want to help them know (conocer in Spanish) their cousin.
Very nearly every interaction we have on the network is of the "neighbor's mom" variety. The main thing is to avoid mistakes that might hurt the other person's feelings. (On Stack Overflow, don't say "you have no business writing code", for instance.) But chat rooms, and the TL in particular, can feel a lot more like family. Y'all are some of the most interesting and compassionate people I've ever met and it makes sense that you'd want to form relationships. So it's not surprising you'd expect people to respect very personal requests like using a particular pronoun. It's a very reasonable expectation.
Now we've arrived at the reason I'm reluctant to answer the question directly: I think it's ok for moderators to not be interested in getting to know each other. It's been clear as long as I've had access to the TL that it's just too big for that. (Arguably, the shift happened around the time we passed Dunbar's number of moderators.) Most people in the TL are, to me, an avatar, a user name and (maybe) a site where they moderate. I've interacted with a few people over the years who I consider friends or acquaintances, so I know them a lot better. That's a wonder side-benefit, but the prime directive of the TL is to give moderators a space to help each other with moderation issues.
When one person shares personal details with another, it opens up a path for the other to betray that trust. For instance, I worry that some readers are judging my parenting because I shared stories about my children. Even in a private space (especially in a private space) I'm vulnerable to how you will respond. For many people, their prefered pronoun is a deeply personal matter and when others deliberately use another pronoun that's a betrayal of trust. That some moderators feel that way and even feel alienated from the room is tragic.
I wonder if the problem is similar to what we sometimes see on other chat rooms: repeated controversial topics tend to be wearing. Why are we opening ourselves up to pain by discussing these topics? If it's to help each other be more effective moderators, that's wonderful and I'd love to help you all have those conversations. But I fear that these conversations keep coming up because everyone feels the need to have a say. And maybe we just shouldn't be having these conversations that are tangential to the purpose of the room.
In our culture, which increasingly allows and encourages self-identification, even this sentence is presumptuous. It's not my job to tell people who they are really. ↩
One complication is that I don't really care for Ze/Zir and Ze/Hir. It's my writing and I don't want to use those neologisms. So what do I do? Either suck it up and use the pronoun the user prefers or just avoid using pronouns. I do the later in the physical realm when it comes to infants. "What a lovely baby you have! What's the baby's name?" Would it be nicer to use pronoun? Sure, but nobody says you can't just use the actual noun. ↩
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