Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Respect Deficit

Lucky him.  I haven't had a President I respected since JFK, and that was mainly because I was too young to know how bad he was.  Maybe I respected LBJ at first, for his Great Society programs and the Civil Rights Bill, but his foreign policy eventually outweighed those accomplishments.  I have some respect for Jimmy Carter, but only since he left office, so it doesn't count.

This doesn't mean I'm looking forward to the Trump regime, of course.  (Which I only mention because there are many people who assume that if you don't love Obama, you love Trump.  The Stupid has been very strong in the media, both corporate and social, these last few months.)  Trump will become President with a major respect deficit; he'll probably have to import it from China or something.

And really, shouldn't the person who posted the above lament respect Trump anyway once he becomes POTUS?  Aren't we supposed to respect the President?  Partisans always confuse respect for the office with respect for the person who occupies it.  Obama devotees were furious that Republicans drew the distinction, though the Republicans were just as incapable of doing so when a Republican was in the White House.  Some Democrats were even ready to defend George W. Bush against disrespect from Hugo Chavez, though; touching.  I was listening to Democracy Now! this morning, and some remarks by one interviewee reminded me that Dem loyalists were not only ready to overlook Benjamin Netanyahu's ongoing and explicit disrespect for Obama, they supported and agreed with it.  But it's pretty clear that we need to learn to distinguish respect for the office from respect for the office-holder, and that's not going to be easy for most people.

One symptomatic example of this confusion has been the #NotMyPresident bandwagon that some Americans are jumping onto.  This is a two-year-old's response: You're Not the Boss of Me!  More amusing in a twisted way, it's exactly what numerous Republicans said from November 2008.  Like it or not, and I don't like it either, Donald Trump is going to be the President of the United States starting tomorrow.  That makes him my president, your president, Garrison Keillor's president.  It's worth remembering Keillor went easier on George W. Bush, who was as weak as Trump in the things that matter to Keillor.  But Keillor still defended Bush's sweetheart-deal reading program for kids that mainly put federal money into the coffers of McGraw-Hill, without improving children's reading ability.

I am very happy that Obama commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, though some Democrats were not, and even one of his subordinates went on the public record to disagree with the decision.  Does approving of certain isolated policies and actions of a president constitute respect?  I don't think so.  I've inveighed often against the cult of personality in politics, because it's anti-democratic and destructive, but it will probably always be with us.

P.S. Jon Schwarz linked to this article by William Greider from the Nation, trying to reassure us.  I think. 
The fright and gloom are understandable, but I have a hunch Donald Trump has already peaked. He won’t go away, of course—he will be Mr. President—but the air is already seeping out of Trump’s balloon. The president-elect has amassed a huge inventory of dubious promises, and I expect this powerhouse of American politics to get smaller and less influential as the broken promises pile up.
Pundits all across the political spectrum have been assuring us for the past year and a half that the Trump phenomenon was already over, that he couldn't possibly win the nomination or the election.  And here we are.  Far from reassured, I'm more worried than ever.  Could you guys please just ... stop?

Sunday, January 15, 2017

I'll Be Your Mirror

I just finished reading an interesting little book by the essayist Kristin Dombek, The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016).  Dombek explores the current fascination with narcissism, which we're told is spreading through American society and thence to the world like a radioactive virus.  (And of course, it's going to take over the White House in less than a week: "narcissist" is a Homeric epithet for Donald Trump in the alarmist discourse about him.  Which doesn't mean he's not an awful person, only that narcissism is the least of the things wrong with him, especially since narcissism is virtually a prerequisite for seeking the presidency.)

There's a lot of quotable and useful information in The Selfishness of Others.  Probably the overarching theme is awareness that what people evidently fear and denounce is other people's narcissism, not one's own.  Dombek begins by discussing The Bad Boyfriend/Girlfriend, the Demon Lover who takes our devotion and then tosses it aside, who is analyzed, identified, and excoriated in innumerable books, TV, and websites.  I wondered as I read if Dombek would draw the conclusion that I thought begged to be drawn from the phenomenon, and to my relief and satisfaction, she did:
Maybe we do so [i.e., "exaggerate the ease with which we can get accurate, non-pseudo, empathy in ordinary cases"] especially when we believe (because all our conventional narratives of romance and friendship and mental health and intimacy tell us so) that someone should be for us the most familiar person in the world.  The irony is that the kind of empathy that many women who believe themselves to be hooked up with narcissists describe themselves as having (calling themselves in contrast to their narcissist an "empath," a "clairvoyant," a highly sensitive person) then gets in the way of their understanding the narc at all [106-7].
This is good, but I don't think Dombek goes quite far enough.  If someone is really an "empath" or "clairvoyant" [!], then why doesn't she recognize that a prospective lover is a narcissist before getting involved with him?  (This is one of those times when a genuine gender-neutral third-person pronoun would be handy; it is certainly not only heterosexual women who encounter Demon Lovers.)  Why doesn't her clairvoyance reveal that the prospective soulmate in fact has no soul, but is an empty shell pretending to be a person?  As Dombek indicates in her tongue-in-cheek proposed "entry for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" at the very end of the book, such people are themselves suspect of believing "that he or she is 'special' and uniquely unselfish and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other people with low-selfishness scores" (137).  It seems to me that such people are at least as likely as their "narcissists" to have a personhood deficit, which they think an ideal lover (or mother-substitute?) will make good.

I'm not casting the first stone here; I recognized myself, especially my younger self, in Dombek's discussion.  I was also reminded of the way that many people, including many gay men, demand that other people recognize their inner beauty but feel entitled to lovers with a surfeit of outer beauty.  I have some minor disagreements with Dombek, such as her embrace of the unproven and dubious claims for "mirror neurons," but on the whole The Selfishness of Others is an exemplary critique of a current pop-psychological fad, and fun to read besides.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

In His Steps

Just a brief thought that popped into my head recently.  Compare this:
"We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated," [Donald Trump] said.
With this:
At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants..."
This is, I think, a fair comparison, because Jesus was at odds with the educated, respectable elements of his society: the priests, the scribes (which means literate men), Torah scholars.  His first followers were also "unlettered."  The apostle Paul, whom most liberal Christians hate while drawing on his doctrines, was unusual among early Christians in this respect. This pattern continued for a long time in early Christendom.  Yet the same liberals who tout Jesus as if he were one of them nowadays are utterly contemptuous of the kind of people Jesus appealed to.

It shouldn't be necessary to point it out, but unfortunately it probably is: to say this is not to endorse Trump.  If anything, the similarity counts against Jesus.  And the reactions of many educated liberals to Trump's victory have certainly shown the limitations of being well educated.

Monday, January 9, 2017

What That Word It Means To Me

Disrespect invites disrespect, violence invites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose.
There's been a lot of predictable kvelling by liberals about Meryl Streep's denunciation of Donald Trump at the Golden Globes last night.  I haven't bothered to watch the video or read a full transcription, because frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.  Just as predictably, the Right has responded by telling Streep to shut up and act, though they're just fine with right-wing actors and other celebrities expressing their opinions.  As Glenn Greenwald tweeted today:
Of course, the content of actors' and other celebrities' opinions is open to criticism, just like cable TV or talk radio hosts, or corporate media pundits for that matter.  Someone posted a meme on Facebook quoting Streep's words that I quoted at the opening of this post, and I thought, Oh, really?  Where were you, Ms. Streep, when Barack Obama joked about killing the Jonas Brothers with predator drones?  When Obama and his toadies mocked gay people who protested in Washington about the antigay policies he clung to for most of his first term?  When they denounced his left-wing critics as "fucking retarded" and drug-addled losers?  When his goons were harassing and beating protesters at various public events?  When Obama was not just joking about killing people, but actually killing them, as he has been doing for his entire time in office?  Did it bother you when Obama bragged about being the first two-term war president?  Do you worry about the consequences of Obama's fondness for mass killing and high-tech violence, either directly or through proxies?

By all means, pick on Trump; he deserves it and will continue to deserve it.  But I'll reserve my respect for people who speak out against disrespect and violence committed by Democrats no less than Republicans.

Sunday, January 8, 2017


I've begun reading Transgender China, edited by Howard Chiang, published in 2012 by Palgrave Macmillan, but I'm not sure I'll finish it.  What I have read, however, crystallized conclusions I've been moving toward for some time now after reading academic queer theory and its relatives.

Editor Chiang begins the introduction to the book with a brisk summary of Euro-American scholarship on gender, beginning with "Magnus Hirschfeld's Die Transvestiten (1910)" (page 3), and proceeding to various twenty-first century landmarks.  "These newer studies," he opines, "demonstrate a remarkable measure of analytical sophistication and maturity, whether in terms of critical ethnography, synthetic history, clinically based psychoanalytic theory, materially grounded phenomenology, or social scientific empiricism" (4).

As I read those words, it occurred to me I would never use "analytical sophistication" to describe the works I've read among those he lists.  I've complained before about scholars who do good research in the field, whether ethnographic observation or oral history in the metropole, or in the archives, but do not understand the theoretical frameworks they invoke, so that their analysis never makes contact with, let alone accounts for, their data.  This makes reading their work extremely frustrating for me, as the authors keep intruding on fascinating accounts of their subjects' lives with undigested and often irrelevant theory.  It's an academic version of what's called "photo-bombing," where someone intentionally or accidentally ruins a photograph by walking into the field of view or making rabbit ears from behind the subject.  In theory-bombing, scholars randomly drop chunks of theory into their texts: a reference to Foucault's paragraph about the Modern Homosexual, say.  It ruins the picture but they can't resist.

In Chiang's case, one problem is the inflation of the term transgender.  He acknowledges that as
transgender studies came to be consolidated and widely recognized as an independent area of academic inquiry ... debates ensued among activists, popular authors, academics and other writers regarding what transgender means (and the more general question of who fits into what categories has deeper historical ramifications in gay activism, feminism, and the civil rights movement).  But with an expansive (even ambiguous), institutionalized, and collective notion of transgender, the actors shared a commitment to advancing the political and epistemological interest of gender variant people [5].
It would be interesting, if probably not fruitful, to borrow Foucault's approach to the medicalization of sexuality and apply it to Chiang's account.  What seems to be going on here is something very similar to the nineteenth-century turf wars between doctors, the church, and the (more or less) secular law over who would get to define, surveil, and police women, erotic outlaws, the mad, Jews, "natives," and other troublesome groups.  The proliferation of academic fields of study exhibits similar conflict over authority (including the authority to name) and, not least, budget appropriations.  That's why I say such analysis wouldn't be fruitful, in terms of publication, tenure, and promotion: as Rita Felski noted mischievously in The Limits of Critique (Chicago, 2015), the critical tools one applies to one's subject matter must never be turned on one's own institution, department, or self.

I've noticed that numerous scholars, including trans ones, have inflated "transgender" so that it applies to almost every human being.  In The Lives of Transgender People (Columbia, 2011), for example, Ginny Beemyn and Susan Rankin wrote:
To be inclusive of all gender-nonconforming people, we defined “transgender” broadly as “anyone who transgresses or blurs traditional gender categories” [22].
In Transgender China, Pai Kee Eleanor Cheung wrote:
However, as the influence of the transgender movement is becoming stronger in Hong Kong, more people have begun to use the term ‘transgender’ as ‘an umbrella term including many categories of people who are gender variant,’ ranging from cross-dressers to intersexed people to transsexuals [263].
The most obvious objection to this expansive use of "transgender" is that almost everybody "transgresses or blurs traditional gender categories" in some respect, so almost everybody could be classified as transgender by these criteria.  When I've had the opportunity to point this out, I've been told that "transgender" doesn't really mean that, and that it only refers to a specific, limited population.  Yet the scholars to whom many trans and trans-supportive people point for intellectual and academic legitimacy disagree.  I suspect that most of the trans advocates I encounter have not read any of the literature, or at best ignored the more inclusive definition these scholars posit; besides, having given their definition, these scholars then mostly ignore it, focusing on the kind of people the term was coined to denote in the first place.  Cheung, for instance, goes on to say, "I adopt this latter definition of transgender throughout this chapter, but the emphasis of my analysis will be on those who were about to, or had already undergone, SRS [sex-reassignment surgery] at the time of the interview" (ibid.).

Another problem is that "transgender" originally referred not to gender expression but to subjectivity:
What it means to be transgender is that your innate gender identity does not match the gender you were assigned at birth. This might be the case even if you are perfectly happy and content in the body you possess. You are transgender simply if you identify as one gender, but socially have been perceived as another.
Yet in "transgender studies," the term is applied to people who lived in the distant past, about whose subjectivity we know nothing.  Or scholars simply ignore the issue and refer to any behaviors or expressions that "that look 'transgendered' to contemporary Eurocentric observers," as trans historian Susan Stryker puts it in her contribution to Transgender China (292).  Cross-dressing for Carnival, for example, will be adduced as transgender behavior without any evidence about the celebrants' motives or subjectivities -- they must be transgender, I suppose, or they wouldn't do it.  This sort of thing can hardly be lauded for its "analytical sophistication."  It tells me something about the observers' subjectivity, but nothing about the subjectivity of the people they're writing about.

Chiang admits that there could be objections to slathering the very Western concept "transgender" over non-Western cultural phenomena and (to use the trendy word) bodies.  He quotes the trans scholar Susan Stryker, who suggested that "the conflation of many kinds of gender variance into the single shorthand term 'transgender,' particularly when this collapse into a single genre of personhood crosses the boundaries that divide the West from the rest of the world, holds both peril and promise" (7).  Myself, I'm not into these East-West binaries, and I think Stryker should have left out "promise."  What she said could as easily be said (and probably was) about the previous candidate for World Assimilation, "queer."  There too a potentially useful term was stretched and inflated by people who hadn't thought with any care about it, even though it was their profession to do so, and who violated the principles they invoked in its favor.  For example, it was supposedly an improvement over the supposedly culture-bound "gay" despite the dispersion of "gay" around the world among people who'd adopted it rather than had it imposed on them. "Queer" was imposed on cultures and periods where it wasn't used, and to describe people who would have rejected it as a label for themselves -- who indeed had local labels of their own for themselves. What's going on here, I think, is not analysis but the very Western practice of branding.

Chiang also quotes the scholar David Valentine: "The capacity to stand in for an unspecified group fo people is, indeed, one of the seductive things about 'transgender' in trying to describe a wide range of people, both historical and contemporary, Western and non-Western" (6).  "Seductive" is double-edged, and I wonder if Valentine was being as celebratory in context as Chiang wants him to seem.  But you could substitute "queer," or even "gay," for "transgender" in this sentence and get a vague feeling of nostalgia for the terminological nostrums of yesteryear.  I'd love to know how "transgender" is different from "gay" or "queer" in this respect, but that question doesn't seem to be on anyone's agenda.

Having paid lip service to these questions, Chiang breezily ignores them.  Later he writes of "trying to imagine China in a transgender frame," and I wonder how he can justify imposing a culturally imperialist Western category on the helpless people of the Middle Kingdom.  How does this differ from subjugating China as "the sick man of Asia," helpless before foreign cultural and political domination?  His own contribution to Transgender China is a long piece on Chinese eunuchs, who were seen by Western observers and Chinese advocates of modernity as symptoms of China as "a castrated civilization."  The piece does include a Chinese eunuch's account of his own castration as a child by his father, which doesn't seem to have been the result of the boy's gender identity; rather, it imposed one on him.

I can imagine that throwing around an unspecific term could conceivably be justified by the results of the discussion; but not only don't these discussions shed any light on their subjects, the initial caveats are simply forgotten once they've been uttered.  I have the impression that they are like crossing oneself or kissing one's scapular before beginning a fateful project, to ward off misfortune.

I've also discussed and praised scholars who avoid these pitfalls, who really make sense of their subjects; but these people are outliers in their fields.  I'm glad they exist, though, so that I know it's possible to do meaningful work without making the mistakes I'm criticizing here.  But Sturgeon's Law evidently applies to critical theory as much as it does to science fiction.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Found Poem from an Online Review of a Book on Poetry and Pottery

The book met most of my expectations
for having a written inscription
                                                               on the first page
I was not informed about.

This was an oversight and
                                                I would not
                                                                      have ordered it
if I had known.

Monday, January 2, 2017

One Wants One's Gender-neutral Pronoun

There's been a fair amount of talk in the past several years about the need for gender-neutral pronouns in English, and as usual when people talk about gender, the talk has mostly been confused and unproductive.  I'm going to touch on some of the confusion today, without trying to be comprehensive.

English already has gender-neutral pronouns: "I," "we," "you," and "they."  It's only in the third person singular that a speaker has to keep track of gender.  Compared to speakers of many other languages, English speakers have it easy.  We don't have to make adjectives agree in gender or number with the nouns they modify, for example, let alone master a maze of honorifics for elders and juniors.  And gender mostly becomes a problem for our pronouns only when we're composing a sentence that doesn't refer to individuals but to people in the abstract, as in: "Everybody should be free to vote for the candidate of ... choice."

As Dennis Baron, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois whose Web of Language blog is in my blogroll, wrote in 1981,
The absence in English of a third-person, common-gender pronoun became apparent when grammarians in the eighteenth century began objecting to the apparently widespread use of they, their, and them with singular, sex-indefinite antecedents on the grounds that it violated number concord...

Only [he, the masculine third-person singular pronoun] satisfied the demands of both number concord and style; so despite the fact that it violates gender concord, a requirement the logical-minded prescriptivists were apparently willing to waive, it has become the approved construction.
There was always resistance to that approved construction, however, both principled on the ground that generic "he" is sexist, and populist as many if not most people clung to generic "they" for everyday use.  At the moment (because dictionaries always change with the changes in language), "the major dictionaries tell us that the plural pronoun they can function as a gender-neutral singular too."  In my own writing I boldly waffle, sometimes using "his or her" and variations, sometimes generic "she" (after all, the majority of Americans are female, and majority rules), sometimes "they," sometimes alternating "he" and "she," sometimes invented pronouns from literary sources, and sometimes I just rewrite the sentence to avoid the problem.  ("All people should be free to vote for the candidate of their choice."  Wait, "choices"?)  The issue is unlikely to be resolved in my lifetime, so I don't feel a need either to choose finally or to take a stand on which solution should prevail.

Something has changed, however, over the past couple of decades.  With the increasing visibility of transgender people and people who claim to reject or transcend the gender binary, there have been many calls for new pronouns to refer to them.  Many such pronouns have been invented and proposed.  This is fine with me, but again, the issue is unlikely to be settled in my lifetime.  I'm happy to comply more or less politely with other people's preferred pronouns for themselves.  I'm not sure how much difference it makes in practice, since most of the time I'll be using the gender-neutral "you" to address them anyway.  Since this is probably true for others as well, I'm not sure how often "Ask me about my pronouns" is going to affect discourse in the real world, except when someone gets written up in the student newspaper and their pronoun will be the main subject of the article.

What I've noticed in most of the coverage I've seen is that most people, whether frothing right-wing gender cops, well-meaning liberals, or frothing left-wing gender cops, don't seem to have noticed that the epicene "they" and the proliferation of supposedly non-binary pronouns are dealing with different phenomena.  This well-meaning blog post is typical.  For example:
“He,” “she,” or “it” won’t do, “one” doesn’t work when speaking of a specific person, e.g. “Sam washed one’s dishes,” and in some cases even a singular “they” just won’t work – specifically when a name is used, e.g. “Charlie tied their shoes” or “Sam thought they were late to the party.”
True enough, but that's because these are different cases, and the writer seems not to realize it.  Epicene "they" doesn't refer to "a specific person": it's not really a singular.  It's a common-gender pronoun, as Dennis Baron called it.  It's not supposed to refer to an individual.  (Though sometimes it does with reference to a person of unknown sex/gender, as in "I was chatting with someone on the internet and they said...")  On the other hand, if "they" achieved acceptance as the gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun in English, it would be the appropriate pronoun "when a name is used, e.g. 'Charlie tied their shoes'".  The real reason why "Sam washed one's dishes" doesn't work is that "one" is a periphrasis for the first person; the sentence would mean that Sam washed my dishes.  I also saw an article linked on Facebook which was headlined something like "Every mother should feel free to breastfeed in public if they want to."  I can't see any good reason why "she" shouldn't be used in this case, but a common-gender pronoun is the solution to a different problem than the special pronoun being sought for non-binary, agender, or other people.

I've also seen some confusion about some literary examples, like my personal favorite from Marge Piercy's 1976 science-fiction novel Woman on the Edge of Time.  In utopian 22nd-century Mouth-of-Mattapoisett, the third-person single pronoun is "person" (for the nominative) and "per" (possessive and accusative).  For children, "child" was used, and their species for non-human animals.  ("If Tilia [the character's cat] takes a flying leap onto my chest at first dawn from the top of the wardrobe, I get a clear notion that cat is dissatisfied with my conduct.")  There was no separate pronoun for persons of ambiguous or unknown gender; from the viewpoint of Connie, the 20th-century visitor to Mattapoisett, most of its citizens were of unknown or ambiguous gender anyway.  I think I've seen some references to this novel as a possible model for gender-neutral pronouns, which also seemed to misunderstand what was going on.  It wouldn't fit with many people's demand for separate pronouns to reflect their gender identities, and I rather suspect they would reject the one-size-fits-all of person/per.

The same would be true of another 1970s feminist literary experiment, The Cook and the Carpenter by June Arnold under the pseudonym The Carpenter.  Arnold substituted na (nominative) and nan (possessive) for "he" and "she" for most of the novel, though she switched to standard pronouns about towards the end.  Though I like na and nan, Arnold used them not as proposed changes in English but to stymie readers' attempts to stereotype the characters by sex; hence the reveal toward the end to show who was female and who male.  Again, I don't think this alternative would satisfy advocates of separate pronouns for their gender identities.  If, as the blogger just cited says, there's a "need for a gender-neutral pronoun" in English, it isn't the same "need" felt by those who want not "gender-neutral" but gender-specific pronouns for their multiplying genders.

There are other possibilities, of course.  I seem to have misremembered some details from Samuel Delany's 1984 science-fiction novel Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand.  What I thought he posited as part of the grammar of one of his planets' languages was that "she" was used for any object of erotic desire, regardless of body configuration; to refer to a person as "she" was to acknowledge that one desired him or her; otherwise the person would be "he."  Looking at the text now, I don't think that's what Delany had in mind, but I think it could be a valid grammatrical principle.  After all, in America when I was growing up there was a general consensus that only women were beautiful or erotically desirable, so that men felt their masculinity was compromised if anyone of whatever gender called them "beautiful."  To be desired was to be objectified, a position officially reserved for women.  So why not choose pronouns according to the current status of the person you're talking about?

Remember the neutralization of breastfeeding mothers in an Internet magazine: someone pointed out that "she" rather than "they" was appropriate as a generic pronoun, and someone else replied that not all mothers were women, that men could mother too.  Granting that, almost no men can breastfeed (though in Woman on the Edge of Time Marge Piercy imagined a future society where we could and did), why not just refer to all mothers as "she," regardless of their plumbing?  Why not gender pronouns according to the task being performed by a person at the moment, so that anyone fixing a carburetor would be "he" and anyone changing a diaper would be "she"?  Since most of the ostensible nonconformist discourse on gender nowadays is still mired in gender stereotypes and essentialism anyway, why not stop fighting it and go with what people actually think and feel?  The idea that "he" and "she" refer to social status rather than body configuration is a tenet of radical feminism (as well as of gay male culture and of traditional male supremacy), so there's no reason why language couldn't reflect it.

Underlying most of this discourse is a naive version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis about language, that language determines thought and reflects the values and assumptions of a culture.  I think the theory of language created by George Orwell for his novel 1984 is similar: human beings are trapped in the cage of their language, and can't think outside of it.  Orwell's account was seriously flawed, if only because language is not that rigid, and human thought is not absolutely controlled by it.  (The linguist and pundit John H. McWhorter wrote a short book with a misleading title, trying to refute strict versions of Sapir-Whorf; it's worth reading, but critically.)  The fact that people are proposing alternative pronouns to suit their personal politics both disproves the thesis that our thought is absolutely controlled by language (or else they wouldn't be to think about, let alone invent new pronouns) and shows its popularity (because they believe that gender pronouns have thought-controlling power -- if we change them, we change gender norms).

In particular, I'm intrigued by people's evident belief that their gender (conceived as an innate essence) dictates the pronoun that should be used for them, and vice versa.  This shows their general ignorance about language and its relation to culture; they barely know their own language and society, never mind others.  Some years ago I read an awful book I'm not going to name here, in which the author claimed that because some Native American tribes don't have gender-specific pronouns, they do not have sexist expectations about men and women.  I immediately recognized the absurdity of that claim.  Apart from the fact that many tribes (including the ones he praised) did have sharply-defined gender expectations, I knew that languages like Chinese and Korean don't have gendered pronouns -- yet those societies are extremely sexist and highly gendered.  There is a loose, variable and very changeable relation between language and culture, so deliberate changing of pronouns might have some effect on gender norms if it's part of a larger program of social change, but by themselves pronouns don't really have any effect.  (The same goes for customs like wives' taking their husbands' name on marriage.  They don't do so in China or Japan, yet they still traditionally lose their separate personhood when they marry anyway, and the different custom is not evidence of a lack of sexism in the culture.)

The blogger I cited before mentioned the case of "Ms.", which is probably an exception that proves the rule.  It gained currency because so many women liked the idea of a title that wouldn't define them by marital status.  In that respect it is more like epicene "they" than it is like "ze."  That there weren't a multitude of alternative possibilities, as with pronouns today, was surely a factor in the success of "Ms."  But why gender the title (indeed, why have a title) at all?  It's as problematic to distinguish between Mr. and Ms. as between "he" and "she," isn't it?  Don't we need a gender-neutral alternative to Mr. and Ms. for the non-binary?  Apparently at least one has been proposed.  I imagine more will follow, as with gender-specific pronouns generally.

Maybe, as with genders, we need a separate third-person pronoun in English for every individual.  I say this not to mock the anxieties that drive these proposals, but to point out their confusion and indeed incoherence.  Instead of progress, concern with pronouns and multiplying genders seems to me a distraction, spinning our wheels in place.  The "need" for new third-person-singular pronouns seems to be psychological rather than grammatical (as is the case with epicene "they").  That doesn't invalidate the felt need, but it needs to be kept in perspective.  By all means, let people choose the pronouns and titles they wish, and I'll use them out of courtesy, but I'm not obliged to agree that they represent even a partial or provisional solution to the problem of gender, in language or in the rest of life.