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.