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Just Call Me Angel of the Morning
America is in the throes of an election battle between danger and dishonesty, but the looming issue on campus is the pronoun wars. Well, at least we aren’t debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But really, could anything be more silly? Life is complicated enough without having to keep up with the right set of pronouns for each person that one encounters.
I am not entirely insensitive to such matters. When I describe, for example, putative conduct for an average college professor, I don’t say that he should behave in a certain manner. I take recourse in the plural. Not that I much care one way or another (there is a difference between form and content, between words and intent), but to write “when professors lecture, they should…” spares me unnecessary attention from the perennially indignant by employing a form that I find perfectly valid.
But now comes the demand that each student be deferentially granted the right to use his or her or eir or pers or hir or their or vis or zie own choice of pronoun when speaking and being addressed, as is laid out on this card issued by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Resource Center at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Give me a break:
Meanwhile, at the University of Michigan, that spawning ground of university presidents, my classmate and Provost, Martha Pollack ‘79, has put in place a system — created after a year of deliberation by, I kid you not, a Pronoun Committee — whereby a student can designate his preferred pronouns to be used in all academic communications. (Just funning you; female students may do the same.) Professors who do not respect students’ choice will have their behavior noted in their annual review. The Michigan Record explains:
The move is another way the university is fostering an environment of inclusiveness, according to an email to students and faculty members on the Ann Arbor campus from Provost Martha Pollack and Vice President for Student Life Royster Harper.
A designated personal pronoun is a pronoun an individual chooses to identify with and expects others to use when referencing them (he, she, him, his, ze, etc.).
Students can designate pronouns in Wolverine Access through the new Gender Identity tab within the Campus Personal Information section. This page can be used to enter, update or delete pronoun information.
Designated pronouns will automatically populate on all class rosters accessed through Wolverine Access. Rosters pulled from other systems will not have designated pronouns listed. If a student does not designate a pronoun, none will be listed…
These changes give students the ability to tell the university what pronoun they identify with for use in the university’s communications and interactions with them.
“Asking about and correctly using someone’s designated pronoun is one of the most basic ways to show respect for their identity and to cultivate an environment that respects all gender identities,” Pollack and Harper say.
“If you make a mistake and use the wrong pronoun, you can acknowledge that you made a mistake and use the correct pronoun next time. Please help us continue to make the University of Michigan an inclusive and welcoming place for all of our students.”
Sitting here in Paris, where gender is embedded in language to the core, it’s tough to take this kind of thing seriously (war, la guerre, is feminine in French; der Krieg is masculine in German). More to the point, the third person singular pronoun in French for men is il and for women is elle, and the respective plurals are ils and elles; however when one or a group of women walk into a room along with one or maybe more men, one says that ils have arrived. La Republique still stands.
That said, Europe is no stranger to the use of pronouns for overt political purposes. Mussolini, man of the people that he was (a national socialist just like Hitler — hence Na-Zi), believed that the use of Lei and Loro (conjugated in the third person singular and plural respectively) in formal address between a speaker and another individual or group was a form of speech too closely tied to Italy’s discredited aristocracy. Drawing from the French vous, il Duce ordered that henceforth the second person plural voi be used in both situations in polite discourse. Funny enough, after the war the change stuck only in the south of the country and not in the north. Given its antecedents, if I go from Naples to Milan and forget myself, and call someone voi, strange looks result — almost as if on Wall Street I had called a person comrade.
Will such silliness make its way to Hanover? I haven’t seen it in The D yet, but the campus certainly is populated with enough dedicated followers of foolishness that the arrival of pronoun nonsense is only a matter of time.
Addendum: As undergraduates we would always cheer happily (self-congratulatorily?) when our President, John Kemeny, would begin a speech at a dignified and thought-provoking event like Convocation with the words, “Women and men of Dartmouth.”
Addendum: Then there’s the hackneyed English joke: Call me anything you like, but don’t call me late for dinner.
Addendum: The choice of what one is called is an exercise of power — an insistence on deference. In my lifetime I have watched the descendants of American slaves go from being referred to as colored people to negroes to blacks to Afro-Americans to African-Americans and to people of color. How’s that for a full circle? Or is there a new term on the horizon with which I am not familiar? I don’t know, but nomenclature changes in this area do seem to come around once every decade or so.
Addendum: A friend up at Geisel writes in to point out that an undergrad at Michigan has asked to be addressed under the university’s new policy as His Majesty.
Addendum: An alumnus writes in to show that it’s all in a name:
August 14, 2013
Breaking: Of Crips and Bloods and Memories of Ghetto Parties
History repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce, or sometimes it just repeats itself. From the New York Times on November 30, 1998: At Dartmouth College, white students at a ”ghetto party” dressed…
June 25, 2013
Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson’s War on Students Part (2/2)
Part 1, Part 2 Today’s post again recounts the events that befell the Freshman. However, the content of the Hanover Police department report reproduced in this space yesterday is supplemented by information from my own…
October 18, 2009
When Love Beckoned in 52nd Street
We were at San Francisco’s BIX last evening, enjoying prosecco, cheese, and a bit of music. A full year of inhabitation in Northern California has unraveled to me no decent venue for proper lounging, but…
October 9, 2009
D Afraid of a Little Competish
So our colleague and Dartblog writer Joe Asch informed me that the D has rejected our cunning advertising campaign. Uh-oh. The Dartmouth is widely known as a breeding ground for instant New York Times successes,…
September 4, 2009
How Regents Should Reign
As Dartmouth alumni proceed through the legal hoops necessary to defuse a Board-packing plan—which put in unhappy desuetude an historic 1891 Agreement between alumni and the College guaranteeing a half-democratically-elected Board of Trustees—it strikes one…
August 29, 2009
Election Reform Study Committee
If you are an alum of the College on the Hill, you may have received a number of e-mails of late beseeching your input for a new arm of the College’s Alumni Control Apparatus called…
- The Dartmouth College Case
- 2007 Trustee Election
- Dartmouth Constitution
- Sunday Morning Sinatra
- The Indian Wars
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