The United States faces many problems, such as collapsing banks, closing hospitals, and radioactive waste contaminating elementary schools. While there are people trying to solve these problems, many politicians and pundits are focused on culture war battles over what often seem to be imaginary problems. While it is easy to lose track of the current battles of the culture war, I think there is still a war on woke and pugilism against pronouns.

While a rational person might respond to this with outrage that so much effort is being wasted when so many real problems exist, it is rational for the right to focus on these fights rather than on solving actual problems. Solving real problems is usually hard and fighting made up fights is easy. Also, seriously addressing the real problems most American face would risk the ire of their financial backers, rejection by their base, and put them at odds with their professed ideology.

While I thought that the right had largely moved on from the fight over pronouns, it turns out that I was wrong. On April 9, 2024 the governor of Idaho signed a law forbidding teachers from referring to a student by a name or pronoun that doesn’t align with their birth sex, unless the parents consent. So, the pronoun war continues, at least until the right needs to rebrand the fight.

While the pronoun war is largely a conflict manufactured by the right using a straw man and nut picking (treating the most extreme or unusual members of a group as representative of the group), there is a tiny bit of truth buried deep under all the hyperbole. There are some cases in which people do appear to be acting in extreme ways about pronoun usage and these can be weaponized to “argue” that the left is looney about pronouns. But, of course, this is fallacious reasoning. At best, it establishes that a few people exist who appear to be acting in extreme ways about pronoun usage. Pronouns are, of course, also linked to the culture war over gender.

To be fair, some people can seem to be engaged in pompous virtue signaling about pronouns and this can be annoying. This is analogous to the stereotype of vegans or people who do cross-fit annoyingly telling everyone. Posturing is annoying. But tolerating annoying behavior by having a proportional response is part of being an adult. As such, the right thing to do is politely tolerate such mild virtue signaling. But what about cases in which a person is serious (and not just virtue signaling) about their pronouns? My view of this is shaped by the “Mikey Likes It” commercial for Life cereal.

While my name is “Michael” I usually go by “Mike.” But, as you have probably guessed, people have called me “Mikey.” I do not like that. This is because when people use “Mikey” they have usually been trying to insult or provoke me. I respond by politely saying that I do not go by “Mikey. If they keep pushing it, it just becomes ever more evident they are doing it to provoke me. People have said they do not understand why I am taking offense at being called “Mikey” and even say that they can call me whatever they want. The pronoun wars reminded me of how much I disliked being called “Mikey” by people trying to mess with me when I was younger.

Looked at philosophically, my view is that my name is my name and I have the right to decide what name I will respond to. It is not up to other people to decide. This is especially true when they are misnaming me with malicious intent and are trying to insult or provoke me. While I don’t think this is a serious offense, it is still a hostile action, motivated by malice or cruelty.

When people insist that they be called by their chosen pronouns, I get it—I think of people trying to insult or provoke me by calling me “Mikey.” Their pronouns belong to them and thus they have the right to refuse to respond to pronouns they do not accept. People attempting to impose pronouns on them are most likely trying to insult them, be cruel, or provoke them—and hence are to be condemned in their misdeeds. But wait, someone might say, isn’t forcing people to accept your pronouns forcing them to accept your values?

When made in good faith, there is an interesting issue here of whether accepting a person’s pronouns entails accepting a specific value system about identity. To use an analogy, if I accept that King Charles should be called “King Charles”, would I thus be embracing the values system behind the British monarchy? On the face of it, I would just be accepting that that is what the British call him rather than accepting a political theory. But it could be argued that using the word “king” entails accepting that he really is a king and perhaps even that his kingship is legitimate.

On the one hand, it can be argued that expecting people to use one’s preferred pronouns is like me expecting people to call me “Mike” rather than “Mikey.” I am not forcing people who believe that “Mikey” is correct to adopt my world view about my name; I just expect them to respect my name when they talk to me. If this is too much for them, they can just call me “Michael.” Likewise, if a person has “they” as their pronoun, no one is forced to accept whatever world view might lie behind that choice—the other person can either use “they” or avoid pronouns if they have a sincere commitment against using pronouns in ways they do not want to use them.

On the other hand, one could argue that using a person’s preferred pronouns is to endorse or at least tolerate certain values. For example, a person might use “she/her” and someone talking to them might have a conceptual scheme in which that person is a “he/him.” As such, if they use “she/her”, then they would be respecting the other person’s pronoun choice at the expense of their own professed belief. Likewise, if a person had a sincere belief that “Mikey” is the correct short form of “Michael” then they would be respecting my choice at the expense of their own professed belief. Going back to the king example, it could be argued that referring to Charles as King Charles is to accept that he is a legitimate king and perhaps to endorse monarchy.

As another example, imagine that Sally is divorced and changed her name from Mrs. Sally Jones back to Ms. Sally Smith. Now, suppose Sally is talking to Ted at the DMV.  Ted sincerely does not believe in divorce, he believes a married woman must go by “Mrs.”, and that a woman must take her husband’s name. Sally is trying to get a new driver’s license as Ms. Sally Smith. Because of Ted’s beliefs about marriage, he refuses to refer to her as “Ms. Sally Smith” and refuses to issue her a new driver’s license.

His belief is profound and sincere (and based on his religion, if you’d like to add that), but it would be absurd to say that he has the right to refuse to accept her choice because he has a different conception of marriage. Likewise, one could say it would be absurd for someone to just impose pronouns on people based on their conception of proper pronoun use. Even if this is based on sincere beliefs. After all, it is not Ted’s beliefs that should decide how Sally refers to herself.

A person could be both respectful of the other person and act in accord with their beliefs by not using pronouns. If the person asked to use pronouns they disagree with sees it as an imposition, then they would need to accept that applying pronouns to a person who disagrees with them would also be an imposition. Consistency would require that they do not impose on others if they would not wish to be imposed upon themselves.

In closing, I obviously don’t think that people should be able to use the right to choose their pronouns and name to engage in identity theft. I also do not think that people would identify themselves as attack helicopters or whatever—I say this to show that I am familiar with the rhetoric used in bad faith “debate” over this issue. It does no more harm to use the pronouns that people wish to use than it does to use the name they prefer. If it is asking too much to do this, then the easy fix is to simply not use pronouns.

Being nerdtastic by nature, my nerd sense picks up disturbances in nerd culture. One of the loudest types of disturbances is when people express outrage at gender and race swapping involving established characters. For example, when word that there would be a non-white Spider-Man, social media erupted with rage about wokeness. But are such criticisms automatically bad?

On the face of it, there can be reasonable criticisms of such swaps. One common criticism is that the swap is motivated by a desire to pander to a specific audience and this pandering should be condemned. A problem with this criticism is that while pandering could result in a worse work of art, pandering does not entail that the work is therefore bad from an aesthetic standpoint. An obvious problem with this criticism when it focused only on swapping is that what is labeled derogatorily as pandering is likely to be an attempt to appeal to a target audience. Those who bash works for pandering via swapping generally do not bash works that have white male characters (and actors) selected to appeal to a target audience. As a specific example, it would seem odd for most critics to bash the Top Gun movies for pandering to an easily identified target audience. And I certainly would not attack Top Gun for doing this. After all, if you want people to watch your films or read your books, you do need to appeal to your audience. Naturally, if efforts to appeal are done badly and harm the work, then this would be a reasonable criticism but this has no necessary connection to wokeness.

Another common criticism is that such swapping is the result of laziness and that new characters should be created instead of swapping existing characters. There is usually also the criticism that the swap is made to cash in on an existing intellectual property and not due to a good aesthetic reason, such as meaningfully exploring the swap. This criticism does have some bite but is more a criticism of the way capitalist media companies operate rather than proof that wokeness is killing art. Companies certainly engage in this practice, since they can churn out more content dressed in an established IP without the effort and risk of creating new characters. But to be fair, this does make good business sense. At least until the audiences become exhausted with the companies milking their IP. Once again, there is no necessary connection to wokeness.

A third common criticism takes us into the matter of aesthetic identity of fictional characters. In metaphysics, the problem of personal identity is the challenge of determining what (if anything) makes an entity the same person across time, distinct from all other people and things. This is a difficult problem because you need to work out the metaphysics of personhood and identity. In the case of aesthetic identity, the problem is a bit less daunting. For in-world identity of characters, this is settled by author fiat. For example, if a person is a soul in a fictional world, whatever body has that soul is the same character. But this does not settle the matter of aesthetic identity in the real world, which is the problem of sorting out what makes a character the same character. I think the easy and obvious answer is that aesthetic identity is a social identity: being the same character is a matter of the audience accepting the character as the same. But, of course, people can make good faith rational arguments about why people should or should not accept a character as being the same. As an example, Batman has changed over the years and there have been heated fights over the various actors portraying the character in the movies. But Batman is generally accepted as still being Batman, despite these variations. In the case of Batman, a gender-swap could probably be criticized in a good faith manner. After all, Batgirl and Batwoman are already established characters. In the case of Black Panther, swapping in a white or Asian person could be criticized because of the centrality of Black Panther’s blackness in the character. That is, a white Black Panther would not be the same character. That said, someone could make a good story looking at a female Batperson to explore what would be different if Bruce Wayne had been Betty Wayne or what impact having a white person as the Black Panther might change. In any case, valid aesthetic criticisms of swapping would seem to have no meaningful connection to wokeness or lack of wokeness.

I was a bit reluctant to voice my agreement with these criticisms since they are often used as dog whistles for racism and sexism. But they are used in this manner because they do have merit in their proper context. This raises the question of how you can discern the difference between a good faith criticism of swapping on aesthetic grounds as well as criticisms of capitalism motivating companies to make lazy efforts to milk their intellectual property and bigoted attacks on works using the swapping criticism as a dog whistle. This can be challenging, but there are often cases where the critics lay out their explicit sexism and racism.

 

A good example of this is the Battlestar Galactica (BSG) reboot. These days, some have gone as far as to claim that BSG was the last non-woke sci-fi series and now the Kara Thrace (Starbuck) character is well-liked and rarely attacked by the anti-woke folks. But back in the day, BSG was attacked for being a “social justice” show and Dirk Benedict, who played Starbuck in the original series, attacked the decision to cast a woman in the role of Starbuck. While this reboot aired in 2003, Benedict’s criticism will sound quite familiar today:

 

The best minds in the world of un-imagination doubled their intake of Double Soy Latte’s as they gathered in their smoke-free offices to curse the day that this chauvinistic Viper Pilot was allowed to be. But never under-estimate the power of the un-imaginative mind when it encounters an obstacle (character) it subconsciously loathes. ”Re-inspiration” struck. Starbuck would go the way of most men in today’s society. Starbuck would become “Stardoe.” What the Suits of yesteryear had been incapable of doing to Starbuck 25 years ago was accomplished quicker than you can say orchiectomy. Much quicker, as in, “Frak! Gonads Gone!”

 

And the word went out to all the Suits in all the smoke-free offices throughout the land of Un-imagination, “Starbuck is dead. Long live Stardoe!”

 

I’m not sure if a cigar in the mouth of Stardoe resonates in the same way it did in the mouth of Starbuck. Perhaps. Perhaps it “resonates” more. Perhaps that’s the point. I’m not sure. What I am sure of is this…

 

Women are from Venus. Men are from Mars. Hamlet does not scan as Hamletta. Nor does Hans Solo as Hans Sally. Faceman is not the same as Facewoman. Nor does a Stardoe a Starbuck make. Men hand out cigars. Women “hand out” babies. And thus the world for thousands of years has gone’ round.

 

 

While I disagree with what Benedict wrote, I do “respect” that fact that he did not hide behind dog whistles and openly presented his views of women. Someone could, of course, make a good faith criticism of the character change, since the original BSG had female Colonial Warriors, including Viper pilots such as Serina and hence there would seem to be nothing gained by the swap. But Benedict’s “criticism” is not made on aesthetic grounds, but on the grounds that the swap is part of a broader conspiracy to emasculate men and that, apparently, women should be limited to making babies and not piloting fighters. While anti-woke critics often appeal to “realism”, realism is against this sort of “biological realism.” In the BSG series, Battlestar Galactica is leading a refugee fleet of the last known human survivors of the Cylon attack. As such, humanity is in dire straits and needs everyone to participate in the fight. This situation is an even more extreme version of what happened in the real-world during WWII: women had to step into “traditional male” roles, such as factory work and even enter combat. This shows, beyond all reasonable doubt, that women can do such “men’s work” as well as men. Ironically, realism is on the side of “the woke” and this sort of attack is sexism and a denial of reality.

In closing, while there can be good faith criticisms about swapping, the claim that “wokeness” is killing art by forcing aesthetically bad swaps has no merit. There can be aesthetically bad swaps and swaps that can be justly criticized as lazy efforts to milk an IP but these do not arise from “wokeness.”  While some “anti-woke” critics might be operating in good faith, Benedict’s example illustrates what seems to drive much of the criticism: bigotry.