D. asks: What should a Modern Stoic think of the requirement to use gender-neutral pronouns and the refusal by some people to use them?
Ah, a simple question fraught with lots of potential complications! Let’s start with the second part, concerned with the refusal by some to use gender-neutral pronouns when asked by others to do so, presumably in social situations.
The obvious Stoic answer is, of course, that other people’s judgments and actions are not up to you, only your own. Marcus said:
“To care for all men is according to man’s nature; and man should value the opinion only of those who openly live according to nature.” (Meditations III.4)
Which in this context can be put into practice in the following fashion: you should care for other people, so if they think they have good reasons to ask you to address them with whatever pronoun they prefer, you should do it. It costs you nothing, and it makes for better human relations.
By the same token, however, if you encounter people who stubbornly refuse to oblige, because they think it is “silly,” or because they “don’t get it,” then they fall into the category of those who do not live “according to nature,” and their opinion should therefore be irrelevant to you.
That said, it is within your power to influence other people’s opinions (as distinct from determining them), and you do have a social imperative to do so, according to Stoic philosophy. Here is Marcus again:
“Men exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them.” (Meditations, VIII.59)
Teaching people, in this case persuading them that the request for a gender neutral pronoun is reasonable and not costly for the person who obliges, is both possible and, in fact, a Stoic duty, because we want to apply (our) reason to improve social living — that’s one good way to interpret what it means to be living according to nature. Always bearing in mind, of course, that your goal should be to do your best to reach people, it cannot be for them to actually agree with you, because the latter is outside of your control.
According to Seneca: “At our birth nature made us teachable, and gave us reason, not perfect, but capable of being perfected” (Letter XLIX. On the Shortness of Life, 11), so we can perfect both ourselves and others.
The first part of your question, however, concerns a different aspect of the issue, if I understood you correctly: what should we think, as Stoics, when a particular language usage is required, and not simply requested? That is, is it okay for institutions, like the government, or my school, or any employer, to mandate a particular use of language, or to prohibit other usages?
The beauty of virtue ethics is that the answer to these questions is almost always “it depends.” This endlessly frustrates those who would rather go by a simple set of rigid rules (deontologists) or by the optimization of simple utility functions (utilitarians), but unqualified answers, or answers given in the absence of details on the specific circumstances, simply won’t do in most real life situations.
For instance, it is perfectly okay for an employer to establish parameters for a reasonable speech code that aims at making everyone comfortable in the workplace — within limits, and those limits are up to the practical wisdom (one of the Stoic virtues) of whoever drafts the policy. It is, however, far less reasonable for a government to intrude in how people talk to each other across all social circumstances. That is the way of totalitarian states, not of open societies. And yet, even in the latter case there certainly are limits to free speech that can, and even should, be the business of government, the most obvious example is when someone shouts “fire!” in a crowded place just for the fun of it, thereby possibly leading to a stampede that may injure or even kill people.
So the Stoic should have no problem following rules, either imposed by private employers or by the state, so long as those rules are justified by the specific situation on the ground. If the imposed rules become evidently burdensome or patently unjust, then I think the Stoic should exercises the virtues of justice and especially courage, taking a stand against arbitrary impositions that will make social living worse, rather than better.
My personal opinion about the use of gender pronouns, then, is that their use should not be mandated by institutions, as this may actually cause resentment in some, which in turn may lead to incomprehension and hostility. But if you are asked by someone to address them in a particular way, that is the reasonable, and hence the Stoic, thing to do.
Categories: Stoic Advice