Categories: Culture Wars

1 August 2017

One comment

Pronoun police wage war on London Underground

I love London. Travel on its Tube, that vast electrified network of steel stretching hundreds of miles, and you’ll meet the world. On London’s underground everybody is, quite rightly, free to be whatever or whomever they want to be and, within the bylaws, to behave as they see fit. But now one small group of lobbyists has imposed its will on millions of their fellow travellers. I refer to the replacement of “ladies and gentlemen”, in public announcements on the underground, with “good morning, everyone”, supposedly to stop causing offence to those who identify with neither gender. That’s not right.

The great thing about transgender people on the underground is that they blend into the churning throng that traverses its tunnels. They are not objects of unwanted attention or in anyway treated differently to anybody else. Mostly, they are undetectable. So, my guess is that many of them won’t appreciate having campaign groups acting on their behalf; forcing the whole network’s language to be re-orientated so as to make a spectacle out of their existence.

Explaining the new rules, Mark Evers, director of customer strategy at TfL (Transport for London), said:

We have reviewed the language that we use in announcements and elsewhere and will make sure that it is fully inclusive, reflecting the great diversity of London.

Evers also believes that the old greeting is “polite but really belonging to yesterday”. However, I fear that he has been too easily swayed by lobbyists. Agreed, “Ladies and gentlemen” is old-fashioned. Yet so is the Tube. “Good morning, everyone” isn’t intrinsically bad. It’s what a modern headmaster or headmistress says to their assembled primary school children. It sort of precedes, “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin”. But passengers on the Tube are hardly ever sitting comfortably, especially not in August on a Northern or Bakerloo or, rarely seen, Circle line train.

In a changing world, traditional virtues don’t go amiss. Neither does a bit of TfL bossiness, especially in an emergency. In the depths of London: authority, fortitude, courtesy, restraint still count for something. Indeed, adult behaviour, even from the young, is a virtue in such a multi-cultural melting pot, where everyone has to get along.

Of course, “ladies and gentlemen” always excluded children and Lords, so it was never a fully inclusive greeting. It was also incomprehensible to non-English speakers; as is the new version. And, for the super-spiritual among us, “everyone” might, possibly, offend those who think their existence is not defined by any sense of them being materially represented as “one”, let alone “every-one”. But the words themselves are not what worry me. After all, it is silly to get overly outraged by “good morning, everyone”. No, my real beef is with the wider debate that surrounds this decision.

The irony is that throughout history, the desires and lifestyles of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transexual people cocked a snoot at the mainstream norms others lived by. Theirs was a cry for freedom, live-and-let-live hedonism, self-expression and self-realisation; not a cry for the imposition of more petty rules or overbearing moral or prescriptive constraints. Therein comes the need for tolerance (the definition of which is accepting that which you dislike or don’t understand) on the part of all sections of society.

Today, the opportunity to refine our identities and to live freely is a genuinely interesting civilisational twist. It’s what you might call the Bowie factor that wowed me back in the 1970s. Nevertheless, possessing a minority status, however legitimate, previously suppressed or exciting, does not give any group the right to impose its norms above the norms of the masses. Yet it is also, I suggest, entirely correct and respectful for people to be referred to by the pronoun of their choice. But that choice should cut both ways.

Supposedly, imposing gender neutral language will “promote safer spaces” and make transgender minorities feel accepted. But it is more likely to breed resentment as the logic of such policies magnify. There are already moves to ban “he” or “she” in state schools. Universities are under pressure to go in the same direction. Corporations, too, face calls from the pronoun police to change by top-down dictate how their employees address one another. In Canada, Bill C-16 seeks to protect all genders from discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act. In New York City people can be fined up to $250,000 for “mis-gendering”, which means referring to people by any words other than their pronouns of choice, such as zie/hir, ey/em/eir and co, or, I guess, everyone.

The inspirational and heroic LGBT campaigner Peter Tatchell has questioned the authoritarian bent among modern protestors. Responding to misreported efforts at Oxford University to make it compulsory for everybody to be referred to as ‘ze’ rather than he or she, he opined:

It is good to have gender-neutral pronouns for those who want them but it shouldn’t be compulsory.

I agree with that view. Though I disagree with Peter Tatchell about the need for laws to protect people’s rights and feelings on such matters. Instead of seeking to make progress through compulsion and fear of punishment, we should trust people to get along and in so doing form a bond based on mutual respect.

Hence my advice to most corporations is to resist imposing laws, rules and career-threatening penalties that create a culture of friction and witch hunts. Encouraging such intolerance is likely to lead to division. Top-down pronoun authoritarianism risks creating a sense of alienation on the part of the mainstream who get the message that they, too, no longer matter.

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One response to “Pronoun police wage war on London Underground”

  1. Paul – as ever, an interesting perspective and much to consider. The main thing that jumps out at me relates to the tension between authoritarianism and freedom. This is occurring in organisations and wider society in respect of many things at the detriment of those – often with counter-culture leanings – who value the opportunity for innovation, creativity, fun and friendliness.

    Authoritarian restrictions induce the fear of saying the wrong thing and stiffle the very discussion we need with others to ensure that we can be respectful and learn about difference as well as similarity.

    There are certainly things that become unacceptable – and I’d argue with you that minorities can and should at times reorientate the majority. Likewise, I think that some minorities (including those with power and authority) need to recognise where change is needed.

    But generally our world is socially constructed (IMHO) and evolution occurs for most people through friendliness rather than fear. The biggest think that I try to be aware of is not to presume what others want and expect in terms of how they are addressed. It takes little to ask in a respectful way – and then if you do make mistakes (not the most obviously offensive ones), then you can learn.

    From an organisational perspective, I totally agree that a threatening culture is the worst kind of environment for anyone to feel comfortable and open to change.