It’s common to see people today sign their messages with a variety of pronouns. That act is meant to liberate people to identify themselves as they see fit – to self-determine, rather than be determined by others’ conceptions of gender, for example. Our language matters and shapes our experience, and self-determination – or freedom – is at the core of human rights.
Could pronouns be the key to an even larger form of self-determination?
Yes, and in this simple way. For any claim about ethics, morality, rules, law, policy, etc. – some claim about what people “should” do, we can ask the claimant (politicians, celebrities, philanthropists, thought leaders, etc. ) to specify a few things regarding self-determination, and the pronouns that are express or implied in the claim. Has the claimant accounted for the quantity, constitutive qualities (like empathy), relative positioning of the people (in terms of equity, for example), and ways in which the people will impact their ecologies?
Keep in mind that groups of people are inherently dynamic, with people constantly being born, and dying. So for the pronouns that relate to who will exist in the future, has the claimant accounted the most basic of values and building blocks of freedom: For ensuring future persons minimum levels of wellbeing, equality, their need for a safe and natural environment, and an influential voice in democratic systems? In other words, has the claimant accounted for the most important factor in any claim that we should do something – the people at stake – and how to ensure those people can self-determine, relative to a zero baseline, rather than be determined by others. In other words, can they account for how all the pieces fit together?
What we find is that because the creation of people – or having kids – is considered a matter of parental autonomy and private decision-making, we largely overlook people as the key factor (always he first and largest driver) in all prescriptive claims. In almost every legal system in the world today parents who have severely abused children have the right to have more children, even when those children will raised by the state. At the same time those systems do nothing to ensure the average citizen has a right to a safe and natural environment. That sad reality shows how deeply embedded unsustainable population growth – anthropocentrism – is in our systems. And as a result, the most important aspect of policy claims – the creation and sustainable development of each person – is treated as none of our collective business. That reality epitomizes how those at the top pit the most vulnerable against one another, and shows the need for reproductive justices reforms that free us from one another.
Urging people to specify their pronouns can help fix this. For example, when governments claim to have a climate policy, we can urge them to account for the actual people causing the emissions, the people subject to them, the people in both categories who will exist in the future, etc. You will be shocked to see how little thought goes into these matters of how people came to be, and will come to be.
Do you support nonprofits that protect children, animals, the environment, or human rights and democracy? Urge them to explain how population growth – the entry of new persons into the world – impacted their missions, what they did about that impact, and what they are doing now. Again, you will find that most groups did not create the results they claimed to have because they ignored the key factor shaping outcomes. And in terms of for-profit businesses, query how many have produced anything of truly objective value, and how many just rode a wave of valuation, demand and population explosion created by poor and unsustainable family planning that ensured no minimum levels of welfare for children (in blatant violation of things like the Children’s Rights Convention), abysmal levels of education, extreme inequity ensuring cheap labor, and bloated nation-states where the average person had no real voice in political outcomes. Did they simply profit from a system that mass produced consumers instead of developing capable, and truly free, citizens?
We can sharpen the questions. Have the claimants noticed how their answers group together people who do not trust each other at all, and could not possibly operate in truly consensual, integrated, and democratic systems of relative self-determination? If people don’t trust one another, how can they be in truly consensual systems of governance with one another? For example, if you have to lock your home because you do not trust the people in your country, why would you trust them as citizens empowered to help decide the fate of the nation? How will the claimant deal with this, or what might be called the constitutional dilemma (or Lesser Power Asymmetry) of how to include and empower people in legal systems, at the same time?
Discourse using the pregnant pronouns elicits and brings to the surface something very specific about all “should” claims: It is ubiquitous that we ignore the people in, and subject to, prescriptive claims. We can’t allow ourselves to make this mistake.
Our evasion derives from the simple fact that for many reasons, including a series of mistakes in the development of legal and political systems (like seeing power as violent domination rather than more subtle things, like bad parenting and climate emissions), human cognitive dissonances like temporal myopia, cultural taboos, deference to religion’s role in the family, racial and political sensitivities, etc., we ignore people’s creation and how their creation impacts ethics, morality, rules, law, policy, etc. We think of people abstractly, exogenously, and statically, instead of dynamically focusing on their creation, their development and how they constitute themselves together in self-determining democracies where human power is limited and decentralized. And yet, if we truly value people and self-determination, they will always be the first and most important factor in the things we prescribe.
Why? Because we are before we do, people are always the factor that comes first (or “lexically prior”), and because the vast majority of people and other animals whom we should care about will exist in the future and as such are especially vulnerable, their interests outweigh the interests of people alive today.
What is the usefulness of the information we get in pregnant pronoun discourse? Questioning people about the pronouns in the things they are prescribing helps us divide people into those committed to freedom, and those who are not. The former will choose to orient their claims from the perspective of, and with pronouns that imply, self-determining people who are assured minimum levels of wellbeing, equity, nature, and democracy. They will orient the creation of future generations – or family planning systems, laws, and policies – from a child-centric perspective, as proof of their empathy, and in way that gives children these things and allows them to constitute themselves in just and relatively self-determining communities. This is not about population; it’s about freeing people.
A Useful Divide
The latter, who can be termed precons, will not – either because they cannot empathize with the people their prescriptions impact, wish to exploit rather than invest in them, do not care if those people will constitute themselves as free and relatively self-determining people and instead are content with centralized systems of top-down power, etc. In other words, the discourse helps us identify the people we should not trust in our democracies, where the act of constituting ourselves – intergenerationally – liberates us. Distinguishing between the two and knowing the threats for what they are can mean the difference between building a future where people are free and relatively self-determining, something countless people died in wars of liberation to ensure, and not doing that. No ethic, morality, law, policy – or systems comprised of such things – is legitimate if it cannot hold up in pregnant pronoun discourse as promoting relative self-determination, and we may be obligated to violate the prescription and its systems in favor of systems that do.