Down with pronouns
It's a people thing
In today’s Ruffian: a) Was Halifax’s attempt at ‘inclusive branding’ a mistake? b) The case against ‘pronouns in bio’.
a) is free for all, b) is for paid subscribers but free to everyone on a seven-day trial.
This week, Halifax, one of Britain’s biggest retail banks, posted this photo on Twitter with the caption, “Pronouns matter”, and the brand’s current advertising tagline, It’s a People Thing.
Let’s just reflect for a moment on the fact that a big, popular bank which cultivates a cuddly-friendly image is telling its customers to piss off if they disagree with its “values” - values which have nothing to do with the business of borrowing and lending money, but relate to gender politics. 2022 is a weird place.
Wait a minute - is this about gender politics? I’ll come back to that. First, I want to ask, as I did on Twitter, whether Halifax walked into this mini-controversy deliberately, or stumbled blindly into it. It’s hard to tell these days. Some brands, like Ben & Jerry’s, are definitely leaning in to what they see as an unavoidably politicised cultural environment, and positioning themselves on the left/progressive side of the discourse. Any pushback they get is priced into the plan. We might put HSBC here too.
But others are simply being caught unawares. Brands will say or tweet things they think are perfectly uncontroversial and then find out that, outside their own cultural- political bubble, people see things differently. I suspect this is what happened with Halifax this week. As a couple of experts on British public opinion, Paula Surridge and Matt Singh, remarked in response to my question, there is probably a significant gap between the people who work for Halifax, in social media or in HR, (skewing young, highly educated, liberal) and Halifax’s customers, who represent a much broader range of backgrounds and outlooks. To Halifax staff, the pronoun badge is obviously the right thing do. To much of the public, it’s either objectionable or mystifying.
This disjunction is increasingly true of many companies and institutions. One result of it is that brands get stuck in accidental arguments with customers, over issues that are at best tangential to their core service, and it can get quite toxic. (I’d add that even the brands which think they know what they’re doing can face unexpected consequences). Closing that gap would require hiring for a broader range of social and political outlooks - the kind of diversity that Diversity and Inclusion teams have not hitherto been very interested in. Let me put it this way: if companies want to be internally representative of British society, D&I teams should be pushing them to hire people who are sceptical about key aspects of the D&I mission.
Is putting pro-nouns on a badge an inherently political statement, or is it a simple courtesy? Is there actually a reasonable objection to it, or are all those people on Twitter engaging in knee-jerk bigotry?
Let me put what I think is the reasonable ‘apolitical’ case for these badges. They’re voluntary, nobody has to wear them. But if you’re a Halifax staff member and you think customers might have trouble figuring out if you’re a man or a woman from your appearance, or from your name, they might help prevent any awkward moments. That sounds perfectly unobjectionable although I can’t think, right now, what those awkward moments might be. In a conversation with a bank representative, when would you actually refer to their gender?
This is a pretty minimal case: it doesn’t even pertain to transgenderism directly (you can obviously be ambiguously sexed without being transgender). And even as the Halifax team suggested this is about simple inclusivity, they implied an ideological stance too, both in the tweet itself (‘pro-nouns matter’) and in their replies. The badge, they say, is intended to ‘open the conversation around gender identity’. Yeah, I don’t know about that. When you go to meet with someone at your bank, what do you want a conversation about? Maybe there are people who enjoy some chit-chat with their banking officer about Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity before getting down to the details of a fixed rate mortgage application, but I can’t imagine there’s too many of them.
In truth, the badge is about more than than just inclusivity and kindness, and it’s about more than pro-noun usage. It is a signal of allegiance to a whole set of politically charged beliefs about the relationship between gender and sex and identity; beliefs that are - let me put this as mildly as possible - some way from being universally accepted truths. If Halifax wants to plant its flag on that particular hill so be it, but as I wrote last week, it’s either naive or disingenuous to engage in cultural politics without being open about what you’re doing (in their case, as I say, probably naive).
My own view is that Halifax shouldn’t take a position in this debate because doing so is almost entirely superfluous to the service they offer to customers, and so it just drags them into these futile spats. That doesn’t mean they should ignore transgender people. They should learn how to serve them appropriately. In fact, they are doing that, and I applaud them for it. But the cack-handed activism is pure self-indulgence.
OK that’s enough berating of the Halifax. I do want to return to that phrase ‘pro-nouns matter’, however. It raises wider questions about how pronouns are now getting used as markers of identification.
Do pro-nouns matter? Should they?
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