Should we, gentle readers, accommodate the few—and they are the few—who chafe at the very idea of only two separate genders? And if so, to what degree? If they wish to invent new nouns and demand that we use them when we refer not only to them, but to everyone else, do we go along? What if they demand that we excise the pronouns “she” and “he” from our vocabularies, referring to males and females only as “they,” “their” or even “them?” Imagine this: “Susan went to the grocery store yesterday and them went to the park today.” If we’re caring, sensitive, politically caring men and wo…oops, somethings, shouldn’t we change our ways of living, thinking, even our very language, to keep the few from being uncomfortable? And isn’t our burden of sensitivity even greater where cats are concerned?
Lauren R. Taylor, writing at the Washington Post, thinks so:
My new cats were freaking out. In carriers in the back seat of the car, they yowled their displeasure. I reassured them: ‘Don’t worry boys, we’ll be home soon.’
Whoops! I had called them boys, when in fact they were girls. An understandable mistake, as I’ve had cats for about 50 years, and all of them have been male. ‘I’m going to have to work on using the right pronouns,’ I thought. And then another thought: ‘Why? They’re cats.’
That’s when I decided to raise my cats to be gender neutral.
The cats’ lives wouldn’t change, I reasoned, and it would help me learn to use plural pronouns for my friends, neighbors and colleagues who individually go by they, their and them. Even though using they, them and their as singular pronouns grates on many people because it’s grammatically incorrect, it seems to be the most popular solution to the question of how to identify people without requiring them to conform to the gender binary of female and male. It also just feels right to refer to people as they wish to be referred to.
As the owner of a cat—full disclosure, we’ve owned our share of both dogs and cats and are equally fond of both species—quite satisfied to respond to “she,” which is gratifying, as she is female, I am quite certain our cat, and all cats, could care less about nouns, pronouns, or gender identity. As long as their behavior manipulates us in concert with their desires, they’re content with anything we say. In fact, I’m pretty sure I understand cat language, and their understanding of ours, pretty well:
I say: “Mushi: have you been a good kitty? Would you like some treats?”
Mushi hears: “Mushi: blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah treats?”
Mushi says: “Rrrowr!”
I say: “OK, let’s get some treats.”
Mushi thinks, as she smiles her enigmatic little kitty smile: “Sucker!”
I’m also relatively certain cats are entirely immune to social justice and political correctness. Cats are smart in all matters cat. Beyond that, they couldn’t give a rat’s posterior. Well, they might, but you get the point.
Taylor is right, though. Her suggestion would grate on people, even non-English teachers. We use specific pronouns for very specific and entirely rational reasons. They ease and clarify speech, understanding, the very nature of reality. Ignore such things and substituting arbitrary replacements is jarring and annoying. It contributes to making life unnecessarily complex and contributes to social train wrecks. Americans tend to shorten, simplify, even textize the language to make it quicker, more fluid and easy to use. This is in large part why we have colloquial, regional American English and the kind of more formal, standard English taught (for now) in schools.
For example, here’s a brief conversation in standard American English:
Bob: “Hello. How are you?”
Karen: “I’m fine. How are you?”
Bob: “I’m fine too. Well, goodbye.”
Now in Texan English:
Bob: “Hah! How uuuu?”
Karen: “Fahn! Uuuu?”
Bob: “Fahn. Bah.”
I’m tempted to observe merely that Taylor is what is charitably called a “crazy cat lady,” however, she seems to have an insufficient number of cats. She does, however, have a more than sufficient number of apparently well-intentioned loony progressive ideas.
It’s reminiscent of New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael who is reported, upon the election of Richard Nixon, to have exclaimed that she couldn’t believe it, because no one she knew voted for him. There is some argument over whether Kael actually said that, but the point remains. Like Kael, Taylor works for a bastion of progressivism, and her friends and acquaintances are of the same mind. To such people, people for whom issues of gender identity are daily thoughts and conversations, and significant sociopolitical concerns, the idea of messing with pronouns is entirely reasonable, even necessary, a badge of honor and virtue. They can’t imagine anyone not thinking as they do. Not so for most Americans.
If anyone–an individual–asked me to henceforth refer to them as “them” or “they,” I would politely decline. Grammatically wrong matters, not because I’m picky—I don’t correct the grammar of others unless they specifically ask me to—but because our words create ideas and reality. That’s why progressives struggle so to control the language and through it our very thoughts and beliefs.
Sorry Ms. Taylor. I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me cat treats, or give me proper pronouns!