Virtue signalling gets a bad rap. The term is unabashedly pejorative, describing the use of certain language or the espousal of certain positions to indicate one’s own moral rectitude. The implication is that this is done falsely, or at least without anything to back up these positions. Without suggesting that this is a whole politics or a whole praxis, I would argue that in and of itself there is little wrong with virtue signalling. On the internet, in particular, the line between virtue signalling and the simple signalling of one’s position is thin. Who, after all, does not believe, or at least pretend to believe, that their own positions are virtuous?
The act of putting one’s pronouns in one’s bio is often described as ‘virtue signalling’. This too seems harsh. The act of having a few words to indicate that one is possessed of a respectful and positive way of viewing gender in the contemporary world would seem, on the face of it, to be a straightforwardly good thing. The more frequent use of pronouns in bios and introductions has a dual purpose; as well as signalling a politics, it serves to normalise a vernacular where gender is something expressed rather than assumed.
These are both aims to which I subscribe, things that I would like to indicate about myself also. If the act of putting pronouns in your bio on your social media platform of choice were simply neutral shorthand for exactly that, I would do it happily. Broadly speaking, that is what it is shorthand for – but it is not neutral.
The implication of putting one’s pronouns in bio is that one’s gender is an introductory fact; a vital, core part of people’s identities that must be immediately conveyed in order to understand them and how they relate to the world. For some people, of course, this is true. For other people – and in this category I would count myself, having always had a fairly uncomplicated but decidedly uninterested relationship with my own gender – it is not. There is no moral value to either of these positions; neither is superior nor inferior. They are simply different ways of being in the world. The issue arising from the push for a universal embrace of pronouns as introductory fact, however, is that it suggests gender as not simply a way that one can negotiate the fact of oneself in the world, but rather as a way that one should.
What if, in a quest to normalise a certain language around gender, we simply ended up re-centring gender itself? Does anyone think a world more concerned with gender is a world that is more normal about gender?
One’s position on this will flow, of course, from what one’s utopian ideal is. Is it a world where gender does not matter, has all but withered away, or one where it is an unconstraining, positive vehicle for people’s self expression? Arguably we live in a world so riven with gender that the former is impossible; arguably gender is so riven with social meaning that it will inevitably shape, rather than be shaped, making the latter equally so.
I have a gender-neutral name and sporadically I will meet people with whom I have corresponded or who have read things I have written, and they will say something to the effect of, I always thought you were a man. I do not find this offensive, as perhaps I would if the fact of my own gender mattered more to me. I tend instead to find it somewhat socially graceless; resenting, perhaps, the fact of having been perceived through the filter of gender at all. The act of having pronouns in bio signals a far more unquestioning embrace of gender as a central feature of public self presentation than we should perhaps be entirely comfortable with. This is particularly true as it begins to creep from social media, a conformist but nominally personal domain, and into the workplace, via meeting introductions and email signatures, a place already lacquered with layers of enforced conformity. Can it ever be progressive – or indeed pleasant – to be thought of in decisively gendered terms in one’s workplace? With pay gaps yawning, would a bracketed reminder of everyone’s gender trailing each email have an entirely neutral impact on workplace dynamics?
I am keenly aware of just how much is hiding behind any given opinion on how we should parse these linguistic stitches. I have no wish to entertain the grievances of those who view being asked their pronouns as a grand personal slight, nor the manufactured rage of those in perpetual search of fresh grist for the culture war mill. On an interpersonal level, we should seek a society where there is nothing remarkable about being asked one’s pronouns. Perhaps a degree of uncomfortable universality is how we get there; nonetheless, I am wary of a linguistic norm that allows so little ambivalence about gender as a whole. Whether one wishes to move in the world through gender or around it is a big question; one to which many people may not yet have an answer, or perhaps do not want to give an answer.
The way we speak about who we are is important; the ways in which we settle the inflections of the self with other people are complicated. I cannot help but feel that when we seek to signal a certain politics regarding gender, we are deserving of a better shibboleth than ‘she/her’.
Morgan Jones is a contributing editor for Renewal