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It’s the 112 rep question: Am I looking at someone’s legitimate pronouns or trolling?

(It’s unfortunate I have to ask, but this is just where we are right now.)

I’ve seen “my pronouns are [insert ridiculous fake stuff here]” trolling recently (in posts) when before I never did. Also stuff that looks to be trolling, but could also maybe not be. Trolls deserve red flags while everyone else specifying pronouns does not, right?

(To clarify, the problem is not just about not wanting to use a troll's words. The purpose of some of this trolling is to try and convince people that transgender people—or their neopronouns—are stupid or unreasonable. Ignoring the trolls allows us to avoid the first problem, but not the second since it allows them to still reach people with their message, which is not something that I want to see promoted.)

Some neopronouns are clearly legitimate. Some trolling is clearly trolling. But unfortunately there’s a big grey area where it’s not clear to me what is what.

Does anyone have a good method for dealing with this? There just doesn’t even seem to be a good way to ask about someone’s specified pronouns in such a way that doesn’t sound insulting if the user isn’t trolling.


Note: A while ago, I did some research on neo-/third person pronouns which can be found here. There are several important things I found:

  • There are more neopronouns than I could ever hope to keep track of
  • The most popular neopronouns are very uncommon. On the other end of the spectrum, it looks like some neopronouns are neologisms used by a single person
  • Some neopronouns come from unlikely places, such as SciFi
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    Context and sincerity are your guiding words here. If in doubt, take a look at the users previous history. If you doubt the sincerity of the request and you don’t have anything constructive to add to the conversation at hand, just walk away. Heck, just walk away if you don’t have anything constructive to add to a conversation regardless of pronouns. – user351483 Oct 19 at 17:06
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    Speaking of which, we currently have a user on SFF:SE who is insisting that grimble's pronouns are Grimble/Gromble. And while it certainly looks like they're trolling, who's to say whether Grimble's pronouns are any more valid than zhe, zho, zhu or zha. – Richard Oct 19 at 17:16
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    At least none mods can "legally" just advoid anyone with a preferred pronouns, however mods don't have that option. – Ian Ringrose Oct 19 at 17:51
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    Do the neopronouns have a meaning? E.g. most people will have a mental picture to differentiate 'he' and 'she'. Do 'xey' and 'ze' etc. have similar meanings? E.g. what does it mean to identify as a 'xey' but not as a 'ze'? The meaning might help (a bit) in determining who is trolling. Or are they totally arbitrary? I don't know the appropriate place to ask. – BlackShift Oct 19 at 19:27
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    The 112 rep reference is lost on me. I understand it as the $64,000 question, but why 112? The OP needn't respond any lurker will do :) – Mari-Lou A Oct 19 at 19:33
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    @Mari-LouA 112 rep is how much rep you lose from 6 rude or abusive flags. – Laurel Oct 19 at 20:29
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    Would changing the rule from "Use stated pronouns" to "Don't use unwanted pronouns" provide some protection against trolling? – reaanb Oct 20 at 10:52
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    It's notable that grimble has only been a user for two days. On the other hand, perhaps grimble found this not to be a safe space before the use of distinct pronouns was enforced. It might be too personal a question to ask gromble, so we'll just have to wonder. As for myself, all I can say is that if Calvin thought Verbing weirds language, he hadn't seen nothin' yet. – Kyralessa Oct 20 at 13:19
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    @Kyralessa, in English, nouns and verbs are open classes, where words can freely be created on an as-needed basis. This is why you can understand what Calvin is saying, and follow the events that Jabberwocky is narrating. In contrast, pronouns are a closed class, with changes taking hundreds or thousands of years. – Mark Oct 20 at 19:33
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    @Kyralessa - Yes. It certainly occurred to me that grimble may be a troll, especially because of gromble newness to the site. What I find intriguing is that other users have confided to me that they're terrified to touch this for fear that it may turn out to be the equivalent of a live hand-grenade – Richard Oct 20 at 21:10
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    @Richard FYI, that is almost certainly the same person that posted a Workplace question about a week and a half ago with almost the exact same setup. That user's name was donut related as well as I recall. – UnhandledExcepSean Oct 22 at 17:13
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16 Answers 16

122

Does anyone have a good method for dealing with this?

No.

It's a catch-22.

If you say someone is trolling and they aren't, then you're guilty of being insensitive, yet, at the same time it can be (ab)used by some users to enforce ridiculous (again, me calling it ridiculous can be problematic too) pronouns.

To quote Cesar M regarding this exact issue:

I can't give you a definitive answer because it will depend on case by case.

Conversely, this is also what's causing a lot problems recently.

Who can really judge someone's motivations, especially over the Internet.

66

The two are not mutually-exclusive.

But unfortunately there’s a big grey area where it’s not clear to me what is what.

The essence of a successful troll lies in that grey area. If I show up on your Harry Potter fan site and my first post is "HARRY POTTER SUXX!", that's probably just going to get me banned. If I post "My favorite Harry Dresden character is Gandalf!" I might get a few bites - there's a small chance I'm just really clueless. But if I jump into a discussion of Merlin with an encyclopedic knowledge of Le Morte D'Arthur, then I might be able to string you along for a good while before you realize that I have no knowledge of nor interest in Harry Potter's Merlin... And if I'm really good, I'll be able to get the entire forum arguing over it before you catch on that this is my real intent. Doubt and ambiguity are fertile soil for trolling...

...and also a staple element in English, where one word should never have just one use, nor one meaning limit itself to being expressed by one word, nor are there any practical limits on how many new words we might create or borrow. Think you're gonna make up a fake word just to troll pedantic readers? Joke's on you - now it's in the dictionary! English might be named after the Angles, but it's the native tongue of the troll.

In short, if you think you're gonna protect yourself from getting trolled by carefully excluding words that are meant to troll you... Congratulations, you just got trolled!

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    So... It is what it is, then? – Robert Harvey Oct 19 at 18:21
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    English sucks, and then you die. – Shog9 Oct 19 at 18:22
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    Ah, got it. Glad we cleared that up. – Robert Harvey Oct 19 at 18:22
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    "protect yourself from getting trolled by carefully excluding words that are meant to troll you... Congratulations, you just got trolled!" I'm fine with getting trolled, getting banned(or any other punishment) because I got trolled, not so much. – Oleg Oct 19 at 19:17
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    Sure, just like I'm fine with getting robbed as long as the thief doesn't hurt me or take anything valuable, @Oleg. If someone tricks the cops into sending a SWAT team to my house, I'm totally cool with it as long as they bring pizza and beer and just want to hang out for a while. Arsonists are fine people when they limit themselves to lighting safely-contained bonfires and supply plenty of marshmallows to roast. Of course... The consequences aren't always so benign. – Shog9 Oct 19 at 19:44
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    Can I mention the OK hand gesture - It was a troll created by 4chan, and now its an officially designated symbol of white supremacy, despite it being Obama's favourite gesture. – gbjbaanb Oct 19 at 19:46
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    Yep; loads of similar examples there, @gbjbaanb. It feels bad, man... But trolls gonna troll. – Shog9 Oct 19 at 19:47
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    It looks to me like the FAQ does a good job suggesting grey areas that trolls can exploit. – Stop harming Monica Oct 19 at 19:55
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    @Shog9 I think you are just not aware of how ridiculous the grey area is. There are real people who gonna ask to be called ponies. I'm sorry, though very funny, I'm not gonna play this game. – gdoron is supporting Monica Oct 19 at 21:13
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    This answer could give a bit more guidance. It feels too meta to me. Does it all boil down to just use the best judgement? Maybe it's just trolling by SO staff itself. Nevertheless, good read. – Trilarion Oct 19 at 22:47
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    Look at the other answers, @Trilarion. Look at the comments. Folks have this idea that you can draw a line somewhere that'll put trolling cleanly on one side and sincere behavior on the other. That problematic users will go away if you just have the right rules. I honestly have no idea how to provide useful guidance in that context; sometimes Hadleyburg just needs a visitor from outside. – Shog9 Oct 19 at 22:58
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    Worth mentioning, trolling is just one aspect, even if sincere, forcing people to use specific words is ridiculous, specially that the whole premise might be against their religion as far as I understood. – gdoron is supporting Monica Oct 19 at 23:28
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    "And if I'm really good, I'll be able to get the entire forum arguing over it" - you mean like ... *looks around on meta* ... ... (You did not do this intentionally, did you? Oh, the doubt and ambiguity ;-) ). I'm open for words that help to embiggen a language, but others might just inflate it... – Marco13 Oct 20 at 21:06
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    "I'm fine with getting robbed as long as the thief doesn't hurt me or take anything valuable" I'm not. "If someone tricks the cops into sending a SWAT team to my house, I'm totally cool with it as long as they bring pizza and beer and just want to hang out for a while" I'm not. "The consequences aren't always so benign." Some people are upset even before there are consequences. Don't forget them. – Lightness Races with Monica Oct 21 at 10:44
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    This post seems to be a great argument for why mandating the use of brand new words is misguided. – Ben Miller - Reinstate Monica Oct 28 at 14:49
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People who use neopronouns are rare. People who use neopronouns for identification rather than as a substitute for "singular they" or "generic he" are even less common. Trolls are common. If you assume that everyone who asks you to use neopronouns is a troll, basic statistics says you won't be far wrong.

Unfortunately, the Code of Conduct requires you to assume the opposite.

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    And so? I'm serious; what's the harm if you call someone by a neopronoun because they're trolling and did not make that request in good faith? The vast majority interactions don't call for pronouns anyway, so if there's a rare occasion where someone gets you to type something like "xe" and they're actually a troll, why is that a major problem? – onetothrowaway Oct 20 at 20:03
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    @onetothrowaway That is like asking "What is harm if you require everyone to make a cross sign in front of the church in respect of Catholic identity". There is no harm, but it should not be required (at least from nonaffiliated people) – Piro says Reinstate Monica Oct 21 at 9:37
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    @onetothrowaway: That's actually a good point. If it's not a big deal, there's less motivation for trolls to try to make it happen. (Unfortunately it will be a big deal for at least a few people for the forseeable future, and that's probably enough troll motivation to bother them and waste everyone else's time.) – Peter Cordes Oct 28 at 20:23
  • @PirosaysReinstateMonica Is it? Or is it like asking everyone who attends a catholic church service to make such a cross sign? – gerrit Nov 1 at 16:12
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    Current Code of Conduct statement and corresponding FAQ encourages more people to troll – MiFreidgeim SO-stop being evil Nov 10 at 1:45
23

When my kids were young and could hardly read the instructions of a (board) game they would make up the rules and start playing. If during the game they would find a loophole in their rules they would modify or add rules.

To someone who knew the rules this could be very confusing, entertaining, and every now and then, it would be infuriating. In their own world of rules they were happy and content. That happiness would be threatened only by outsiders who didn't understand their rules and were mixing them up with the official rules, by outsiders who would immediately see the loophole and would use them and by themselves if one of them would find a loophole and exploit it before mentioning it.

In order to enjoy the game with others they had a couple of options: adopt the official rules, enforce their own rules, or inform the outsiders of their take on the game and agree on a new mix of amended rules that would make the game fun and playable for everyone.

So far I have been interpreting the new CoC and 'list' of pronouns as an attempt to make a good mix that make the game fun and playable for everyone. From time to time it felt as if the new rules were enforced and that made me feel uncomfortable because I did not understand them but I assumed good faith.

There is no way of telling if the rules are any good yet; the proof is in the playing and there is no guarantee that they have no loopholes that can be exploited. I am pretty sure that there are loopholes and that they will be exploited. Perhaps that is needed to make the game playable and fun for everyone by adjusting while we play.

So, let's play, allow the trolls to point out the loopholes, make the rules better while we go.

Extra: I am not sure yet whether or not I still like the game with the new rules in effect. I am not sure I will continue playing. The last couple of months there were times that the negotiations about the new rules were so distracting that I decided to not get involved at meta level and would stick to the actual content of Q&A. In the end I will vote with my feet: I will stay or walk.

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    I think this is a great and well reasoned response. Is the new CoC perfect with no loopholes that could be exploited or unintended consequences? Maybe not. Is it an eternal and unchanging law with no room for human interpretation and judgement? Absolutely not. – divibisan Oct 20 at 23:18
  • Hopefully when your kids do that the players are aware of the loopholes and understand how the new / modified rules are expected to plug it. – Stop harming Monica Oct 21 at 11:55
  • Problem with this is that a lot of loopholes have been pointed out, but nobody is paying attention to this. – Gloweye Oct 22 at 8:58
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    @gloweye, meta is currently full of attention to the loopholes. Those that own the game board might/might not be aware. Or might/might not respond to the complaints. As game organizers that is their prerogative. The/this game is not a democracy. I am neither defending nor attacking that. – user156108 Oct 22 at 9:17
  • Ok, let me amend my statement. Nobody paid by SE is paying attention to this, and only the community is pointing it out in the vain hope of getting a clear statement on this. People want to know what is and isn't allowed, and SE refuses to clarify. That lack of communication is even worse than having vague rules in the first place. – Gloweye Oct 22 at 9:20
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    @Gloweye, we have no proof of SE not paying attention the only thing we can see is that they have not responded. If this is the way they choose to play the game, regardless of how disappointing this is, the only way for me to respond to this is to either stay and play according to their rules or leave. They could be right, they could be wrong, it is their game. – user156108 Oct 22 at 9:57
17

Use your common sense. There's another list here and while it's not exhaustive, the pronouns there are all short words bearing some kind of similarity with the common pronouns, he/she/they.

I’ve seen “my pronouns are [insert ridiculous fake stuff here]” trolling recently (in posts) when before I never did.

Those posts are worthy of being mod-flagged, maybe even rude/abusive as we normally do for trolls. The current situation is hard enough already without pranksters.

But unfortunately there’s a big grey area where it’s not clear to me what is what.

Yes, I feel that with the current version of the Code of Conduct it's inevitable. The simplest option might be just to stop participating and move on.

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    To quote Shog9: 'I've realized over time that "common sense" is a term we use for things that are obvious to us but not others [...]' - Source – Script47 Oct 19 at 17:19
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    How to reconcile common sense with CM quoted in another answer to this question stating that a group that doesn't consider themselves human is welcome to use whatever they want? – charlietfl Oct 19 at 21:17
  • From the list one may even kind of infer some filter rules to exclude obvious fakes like: not more than four letters, one to two vowels. – Trilarion Oct 19 at 22:25
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    What with the list being that long already, one might as well allow any two- or three letter words as pronouns. After all, someone might sincerely come up with a new pronoun for, well, mostly the same reasons those on the list already exist. I admit I haven't looked too closely, but most of the neopronouns seem like they've been more or less arbitrarily made up, or are based on one word or another, where the choice of word to base on is basically up to preference. ('per' appears to be for 'person'; 'e' just drops the classifying 'h' or 'sh' from the traditional ones; don't know about others.) – ilkkachu Oct 20 at 8:51
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    Unfortunately the territory of preferred gender pronouns is far off common sense. In a minefield, caution is better than common sense. – jknappen - Reinstate Monica Oct 21 at 10:02
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    @Trilarion: Good. Only 259800 possible pronouns, left, then! The corresponding list is too large for pastebin. – Eric Duminil Oct 21 at 12:45
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    I know a moderator that used common sense and is now demodded. – Sextus Empiricus Oct 22 at 12:21
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    This list really doesn't look like common sense at all. – Eric Duminil Nov 2 at 13:37
16

I think the correct answer is to assume people aren't trolling, unless really proven otherwise. Satisfying trolls by using their made up pronouns is less of a problem than ignoring someone's legitimate preferences.

Trolls will eventually get bored and move on to something else. No lasting harm. People who were misjudged as trolls, on the other hand, will remember how they were treated.

From a conversation with CesarM (discussing removing a mention of otherkins):

Athari: I'm a party of furry community. Some of us do have preferences on how to be called in third person and it goes beyond pronouns, like disliking "human". There're more transgenders than furries (?) and transgenders are part of LGBTQ+, so their voices are heard, but other people have preferences too. I find it unacceptable that only one marginalized group is supported, including enforcing group-specific rules, but all others are explicitly excluded, to the point of removing any mentions of them from posts.

CesarM: Your stated pronouns will be respected just any other under this policy, the question was removed merely because it is already covered by the policy.

Assuming the interpretation of the policy hasn't changed, this means that a really wide variety of pronouns is accepted. It's absolutely impractical for a single person to remember all of them, so assuming good intentions is really the only way.

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    'Trolls will eventually get bored and move on to something else.' - You must be new to the Internet, eh? – Script47 Oct 19 at 20:30
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    Trolls will eventually get bored and move on to something else. Only when they have been suspended by SE team for at least a year, in my experience. Then sometimes they return but they're less brazen. – Mari-Lou A Oct 19 at 20:32
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    If trolls don't get bored by people simply accepting their non-offensive pronouns, their next step would need to be to escalate their behavior. And that can then be handled by the CoC as any other violation. Is it ideal that trolls can't be identified and banned immediately (before they violated the CoC)? No. But that's a problem we have always had here, independent of the recent pronoun debate. – tim Oct 19 at 20:37
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    Obvious trolls will be handled by moderators, that's a separate case. I'm talking about the subtle ones. Some trolls may persist, of course, but if nobody feeds them by reacting negatively to questionable pronouns, and trolls mimic legitimate behavior good enough to be indistinguishable from regular users, then it isn't trolling anymore. The system won, the troll lost. – Athari says Reinstate Monica Oct 19 at 20:39
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    @Athari The pastafarians won by getting people to treat their religion as legitimate, so I wouldn't always say that the troll "loses" when they become indistinguishable from regular users. – House- 'Reinstate Monica' -man Oct 19 at 20:43
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    @Houseman - The satanists are angling to have their icon in courthouses. – Richard Oct 19 at 20:43
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    @Houseman Pastafarians don't seem to be hurting anyone with their light-hearted attitude towards religion, so I can't see them as some evil trolls. They're also far from winning anything; their legal status as religion is recognized in very few places, iirc. – Athari says Reinstate Monica Oct 19 at 21:15
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    @Athari "Pastafarians don't seem to be hurting anyone"" I know a bunch of religious people that would tell you otherwise. – Stop harming Monica Oct 19 at 21:43
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    @Goyo Yes, and I know atheists who are offended by the fact that religions exist. Unfortunately you can't satisfy everyone, especially those that find mere existense of something offensive. Religious people and atheists need to learn to respect each other, there's no other way. – Athari says Reinstate Monica Oct 19 at 22:07
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    @Athari pretty much my main point regarding the whole discussion. – Stop harming Monica Oct 19 at 22:14
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    @Athari They were fairly hell-bent on taking away special religious holidays for special religious groups in my country. That seems like being out to hurt someone, even if there's a valid argument to be made that they should be hurt in that way. – sgf Oct 22 at 23:57
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    @sgf I don't know the details (googling didn't help), but I suspect the idea was, "Either you give pastafarians religious holidays too or nobody gets it", like with all their other legal battles. This approach can result in different outcomes, naturally. – Athari says Reinstate Monica Oct 23 at 1:04
  • @Athari Sure. But the goal was obviously to take away something from a religious group, which hurts them, no matter whether they should have had it to begin with or not. – sgf Oct 23 at 1:31
  • @SurpriseDog I suspect there's a difference between what's declared and what's put into practice. Not surprised. Especially considering my quote comes from possibly deleted comment to a deleted answer to a deleted question. – Athari says Reinstate Monica Oct 31 at 17:27
7

That's likely not a problem because pronouns are used rarely anyways. I read that only one in about 150 contributions uses pronouns. That means that trolls will have a very boring life tricking you into using pronouns without actually caring about them.

Even if trolls were to make up something like 10% of the active userbase, you would only need to be concerned about the grey area of stated pronouns that could be genuine, so you would probably have to make thousands and thousands of contributions until such a case arrives. In such a case I would just make a personal best judgement (trolling or not trolling) and let the moderators deal with any potential fallout, good or bad.

The only real current impact of trolls is polluting their contributions with fake announcements about their preferred pronouns. On meta.stackoverflow they are currently discussing classifying this as spam, and with regard to trolling it certainly is. Hopefully the company concurs and changes course in this regard (in the current FAQ they explicitly allow this form of trolling).

Later there was an update to the CoC and the FAQ and pollution of contributions in this regard by trolls is now not possible anymore.

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    I imagine that there is more use of pronouns in comments. In addition, a troll may engineer response. Also you may wonder whether the number 1 in 150 matters. The main question is whether it will be disruptive to the community. Is something like a flamewar not disruptive when it doesn't occur often? Are discussions that may lead to demodding (as happened to Monica) not disruptive? – Sextus Empiricus Oct 22 at 16:40
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    I'll just point out on the pronoun x title. A pronoun is something that has actual grammatical function in the sentence, a title more often than not doesn't have (and can be substituted by a pronoun). Somebody saying that they want to be called "Attack Helikopter", it is a title, you just use the username and be done with it. If they want to be called that, they need to change their username. – Juliana Karasawa Souza Oct 28 at 15:25
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    As an update to this, the new FAQ now says: "Please don’t put pronouns in your posts unless it’s somehow relevant." – divibisan Oct 28 at 15:52
6

It is a mistake that the answers to Q9-Q11 in the official FAQ describe obligatory use of another's preferred pronouns, including (exotic) neopronouns.

We need to carefully consider in what way the refusal of using a particular pronoun is to be considered as not recognizing another's self-identity.

Then it matters in which way we regard the neopronouns.

  • Neopronouns are: alternative pronouns to refer in a neutral way to gender/identity.

    in which case substitution by any other pronoun, particularly the widely accepted pronoun 'they' should be fine. (and one may argue that any other way to write in a gender neutral way, like avoiding pronouns, should be acceptable as well)

  • Neopronouns are: alternative pronouns to refer in a non-neutral way to alternative genders/identities.

    in which case anything goes, including a troll gender/pronoun as 'attack helikopter'.

When I browse through lists of neopronouns, I see that neopronouns are mostly like the first type. They relate to alternative ways of neutral expression, but they do not relate to a more specific self-identity (at least not an identity that would not be recognized or overridden by using an alternative term for the same identity).

It seems to me that we can use these pronouns interchangably and a lot of trouble and confusion can be avoided when the preferred pronouns are made optional rather than obligatory. The point of the neopronouns (most of them) is to refer to someone in an 'identity-neutral way' and not in a 'specific way' (like masculine/feminine gender, or any other form).

I believe that, for the sake of making social life on the forum/Q&A easier, we should not go towards the direction of making up a large list of words/pronouns for every possible alternative gender and requiring that these should be used on an equal footing as 'he' and 'she' whenever they are requested to be used as such.

It is already difficult enough to move the use of language towards a more gender neutral direction. And now we are going to make this process more diffult by introducing more ways to be not neutral in terms of specific neopronouns?

5

My only comment on this is: make sure that the difference between something used in the nominative / accusative and vocative is really evident.

Pronouns should be used in the nominative / accusative case since they have actual grammatical functions in the sentence (subject and / or object, depending on your sentence), and in the vocative cases you can just use the username instead of a trolling "pronoun" (which is not a pronoun, is a title or vocative expression)

For example:

user1234 states that their preferred pronoun is "xe / xir" (an actual neopronoun, replaces "he / she" and "him / her", and overrides the singular "they")

When talking about xir, we should phrase it like that. Xe stated that xir preferred pronouns are those. (nominative / accusative)

When talking to xir, we should just use "you" or @user1234 (vocative)

user1234 states that their preferred pronoun is "Great Killing Machine" (this is not a pronoun, this is a title. Like "Mr", "Ms", "Dr.", "Ma'am", "Sir", "Your Majesty" or something in that sense)

When talking about them, we should phrase it like that. They didn't present us with a preferred pronoun, so we're free to use the singular "they" since it is what most of us are defaulting to when needing to refer to a gender-neutral third person.

When talking to them, we just use the @user1234 if you don't want to indulge them on the nonsense. It is actually easier to do so because the system will recognize the user handle.

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    As a non-native English speaker who didn't study the English language textbooks, specifically how various parts of language are called but rather just learned how to speak and write, I don't understand the terminology "vocative", "nominative", and I would have to refer to a Wikipedia page or some online dictionary to decipher what the language terminology means before I can follow the proposed guidelines. I suspect a significant percentage of SE network users will also find this difficult. This isn't a criticism of your post personally, but rather this entire language-related issue in general. – user1306322 Oct 28 at 12:48
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    @user1306322 I'm also not a native speaker of English, this is the workaround I found personally to define if the person is trolling or actually choosing a neopronoun as a preferred form of treatment. I'll add some more explanation, though. – Juliana Karasawa Souza Oct 28 at 15:08
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    So what about moon/moon/moons/moonself - Nominative or Vocative? Because it's in the peer reviewed journal list of actual neopronuns! – SurpriseDog Oct 28 at 15:29
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    @rjzii Better source than that tumblr list or whatever random website this is: my.pronoun.is/all-pronouns that got posted in one of the top rated answers here. – SurpriseDog Oct 28 at 15:34
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    @rjzii this is what did the trick for me, actually. If you want to use a title as a pronoun, you need to add another grammatical element to them (article or preposition) because the title is just a placeholder, you can replace it with whatever word you like. For example: "Doctor's orders" (in my language you need to add a preposition before "Doctor"), "The doctor called" (definite) or "A doctor called" (indefinite - need to add the article, you cannot leave it out). If I can replace "Doctor" with whatever word I want and it is ""right"", it is a title and the person is trolling. – Juliana Karasawa Souza Oct 28 at 15:38
  • @rjzii Being a troll on insisting on a certain form of treatment like "Attack Helikopter" it as pedantic as insist on being called "Doctor", with the difference of having much less accomplishment and effort behind it. The easiest way to differentiate it (at least in my native language) is that if I can drop it without damaging the sentence, it is just a "treatment pronoun" as we call it, and not a major component of the phrase. – Juliana Karasawa Souza Oct 28 at 16:41
  • @rjzii while I don't have the full unbiased account of what happened, I do believe that when the person says the pronoun is he, she, they, ze, xir, xe, pi... we should respect it. When it is a pronoun. I'm not required to call somebody by a title - back to my point of making sure the difference between a title and an actual pronoun with a grammar function is there. If they want to be called (when addressing them directly) something specific, that should be their username. For example, I'm "talking" to you and using your username because that's very obviously what you prefer to be called. – Juliana Karasawa Souza Oct 28 at 16:58
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    @rjzii Please provide an example of "people using titles all the time as third person pronouns". The word doctor used vocatively is never a pronoun. Nor is any other title. Pronoun actually means something grammatically which is utterly unrelated to all this. But Mom, Teacher told me to do that! does not use teacher as a pronoun. It uses it as a name. – tchrist Oct 28 at 17:22
4

When you meet someone and they wear a suit and tie, how do you know the dress is part of their identity (e.g. working as a banker or going to a wedding) or just a costume for a party?

You don't, but you treat that person politely and do not begin to discuss whether their dress seems appropriate to the occasion for you.

Do the same when you encounter pronouns.

The whole point of the present changes in society is to allow people to choose how they want to live. If someone wants to play baseball or have sex with a person of the same sex, there is no reason for anyone to oppose this self expression and threat them with anything less than respect and kindness.

And it doesn't matter what the motivation behind these actions is.

It doesn't matter whether someone has gay sex because they are gay, or just do it to shock their mom. It doesn't matter whether someone wants to be called a specific pronoun because that is their identity, or because they want to see what happens.

It is not my place to question the motives of other people.

If a troll meets respect and kindness, trolling will lose the reward of causing an uproar.

  • 3
    This is a rather poor analogy. We're not talking about meeting someone on the street who is on the way to a function. We're talking about showing up at the destination, and seeing someone who appears to be dressed inappropriately. Like someone showing up to a wedding in a bathing suit. – Cody Gray Nov 16 at 7:17
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    @House-'ReinstateMonica'-man Offenses only offend if you are willing to be offended. Think martial arts. If you don't present a surface for the force to hit, it doesn't hit. I'm not what someone calls me, so what they call me cannot hurt me. And when I don't reinforce (or "reward") their name-calling, most will loose interest in calling me names. – I am not the way you speak Nov 16 at 7:55
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    @CodyGray Then please replace "on the street" with "where a suit seems out of place" in my answer. I have edited my answer accordingly. –– From your posts on this site you appear to be very exact and literal-minded. I'm not and many other people aren't. Please take the possibility of figurative speech into consideration when you contemplate others' posts. – I am not the way you speak Nov 16 at 7:58
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    (Coincidentally, the last time that I wore a suit+tie was as as a costume during carnival). The points and analogies do not fit the question. This is not about baseball or being gay. This is about "legislation" that forces people to change their language. Maybe compare that to forcing people to always wear ties - who would accept that? I am "questioning motives". Not so much the motives of people who just want certain pronouns. I'm questioning the motives of people who want to force me to comply with that. Blind obedience is not my thing, usually (and it's dangerous). – Marco13 Nov 16 at 10:45
  • 4
    The intent of some pronoun trolls is to convince people that transgender people (and/or neopronouns) are stupid. Not reacting allows them to still reach people. – Laurel Nov 16 at 15:37
2

When someone states their pronouns, the default should be to respect that and use the given pronouns.

The exception is when those pronouns are malicious and/or in direct violation of the Code of Conduct. For example a slur, a bigoted meme, etc.

Maybe a troll will come by and request "espgkj" as pronoun, but so what? There's no harm in using it, and if everybody simply uses it (or ignores the troll) instead of makes a fuss about it, trolls will gain nothing from the whole thing and get bored (or become more explicit, violate the CoC, and be banned).

  • 33
    I would think that legitimizing gibberish pronouns like "espgkj" would mean that the trolls have won. See also the pastafarians. – House- 'Reinstate Monica' -man Oct 19 at 19:26
  • 4
    The whole Pastafarian schtick was to create a ridiculous religion, then continually call it out as ridiculous so that folks would treat religion as ridiculous, @Houseman. Like a little kid air-punching their sibling while yelling "I'm not touching you". This wasn't exactly subtle. If they "won" it was precisely because folks took the bait and... Started treating religion as ridiculous. So what's your plan? – Shog9 Oct 19 at 19:30
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    Right. So, you can't stop trolls from trolling. The troll who lists espgkj is gambling that you're gonna see it and make a stink about it, loudly refuse to use it, etc. Your choice is limited to whether or not you bite at their bait. So... Do you bite? – Shog9 Oct 19 at 19:36
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    Trolls already won because the new CoC protects them. Who is going to classify the gibberishness of a pronoun? There is neither a whitelist nor a blacklist of pronouns and no such thing is planed - as far as I know. It is completely up to the moderator to decide. I cannot imagine how this can end well. – Christine H. Richards Oct 19 at 19:59
  • 4
    @Shog9 I know as a fact that some people do not see pastafarianism more ridiculous that other religions. The same can happen with neopronouns. – Stop harming Monica Oct 19 at 20:03
  • 3
    Pastafarians are one group of such people, @goyo – Shog9 Oct 19 at 20:05
  • 4
    @Shog9 I think it is worth noting that not all of them are pastafarians. Back to neopronouns, after accepting that I have to take them very seriously I am not in a position to tell anybody that their pronouns are ridiculous, whatever their choice is. – Stop harming Monica Oct 19 at 20:11
  • 7
    @tim Does that solution apply to "attack helicopter" as well? If not, then we have rules for one set of 'pronouns' and different rules for another set, and then someone has to draw lines between the two. If those lines aren't clearly drawn, then we get more ambiguity, which is where trolls live. – House- 'Reinstate Monica' -man Oct 19 at 20:26
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    @Houseman "attack helicoper" is against the CoC because it is a reference to an ableist, racist, and transphobic meme. There is no need to tell people using it that it is "ridiculous", it can be flagged and handled as any other CoC violation. – tim Oct 19 at 20:29
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    The problem here is that people have wildly different standards for what constitutes "ridiculous". – dan04 Oct 19 at 21:08
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    @ChristineH.Richards Nobody needs to classify the "gibberishness" of pronouns. The blacklist for pronouns is the Code of Conduct (no bigotry, no unfriendly language, no harassment). – tim Oct 20 at 9:28
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    @ChristineH.Richards "...could fire a moderator if he misbehaves..", surely you meant if "they misbehave" (prefer gender neutral pronouns..) – thebjorn Oct 20 at 14:40
  • 4
    @tim they're obviously not weak, what pronouns violate the CoC? Troll ones? Which ones are troll ones? Its an impossible thing to moderate, or keep up with. – gbjbaanb Oct 20 at 14:52
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    @gbjbaanb That's a problem independent of pronouns. What if right-wing trolls try to associate the @ sign with white supremacism? What if trolls associate "flag" with a slur? Will we still use those? In either case, we need to evaluate based on a number of issues (what was there first, how is it most commonly used, etc). And in either case, it would require a massive, coordinated trolling campaign to redefine established meanings. If it ever becomes a problem, we can deal with it. But as a default rule, I don't see a problem with 'pronouns are valid unless explicitly in violation of the CoC'. – tim Oct 20 at 16:37
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    @tim "As long as they do not violate the CoC, there is no harm in using them." There are so many more ways to troll, where to start... What about the pronouns 'who', 'nobody', 'anyone', or 'yall', for example? Things become very confusing very fast. What about 'the', 'is', 'and'? The possibilities are almost endless. – Inactive - Objecting Extremism Oct 21 at 10:25
-1

This is not a new problem. Trolls have always sought to appear to not be trolls. The classic example is the concern troll, who pretends to be genuinely concerned about an issue but is in fact trying to cause disruption.

There has never been a good solution to this and there probably never will be. We just have to deal with it on a case-by-case basis. You can't lawyer every situation with specific rules.

-2

Does anyone have a good method for dealing with this? There just doesn’t even seem to be a good way to ask about someone’s specified pronouns in such a way that doesn’t sound insulting if the user isn’t trolling.

As long as you feel comfortable please assume good intent and use their pronouns. If you think they are trolling, disengage.

This has been said a dozen times already, but I'll add to that:

Flag when you suspect a troll.

Just flag any of their posts or comments with a custom mod-flag and explain your concerns. Then let the moderators or staff deal with it. It was told somewhere they were trained on this subject, thus they should be better equipped than us regular Joe's (or Jane's). When the trolling (in a post or comment) is really obvious use a rude or abusive flag. Enough of these will see a post deleted without moderator intervention.

  • 4
    Beware of the en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cobra_effect . Some people will flag each and every appearance of (even ""well-known"") neopronouns, to express their disagreement. – Marco13 Oct 21 at 10:07
  • 2
    And that is something that will get them the appropriate repercussions as well. Someone cried wolf? – Luuklag Oct 21 at 10:08
  • 2
    It just reverses the burden of proof. At some point, mods will have to act like using "quixzyl" as a pronoun was not a problem, but assume that flagging was done with bad intent. (The next step along the slippery slope would then be to expect people flagging comments for typos, but we're still one (tiny) step away from that). But even without that, there's the risk of drowning the mods in banal flags and preventing them from cleaning up the real cr4p... – Marco13 Oct 21 at 10:17
  • 1
    @Marco13 That is just a far stretch. There is no way to be certain someone is trolling, until it is to late. Moderators are equipped to make those calls, and therefore should be the ones making them. If to you that is an invitation to abuse flags you'll have to face the consequences of that sooner than later. – Luuklag Oct 21 at 10:28
  • @Marco13: "Some people will" <- Do people actually do that though? I would think flagger are more sympathetic than that towards moderators. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Oct 21 at 13:35
  • @einpoklum I'd like to asume that people that would do such a thing can be classified as trolls. At least they are trolling when doing that. Which would then be a matter that very quickly will resolve by their own actions. – Luuklag Oct 21 at 13:45
  • @Luuklag: I'd like to assume that no people do this. Also, trolls would be interest in exposure of what they have to say/write/show, not it wasting moderators' time as such. Don't see why trolls would flag anything. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Oct 21 at 15:07
-3

There's a list actually.

Neopronouns or trolling? ... Does anyone have a good method for dealing with this?

If it seems weird to you, and the post seems provocational, it's probably Trolling. However, to be extra sure check on this list of neo-pronouns (Wikipedia). That should cover it. edit: Or the list Glorfindel linked to. Now, I'm not saying any of these lists are perfect, definite, or impervious to tampering, but - they should be good enough for a double-check.

Personally I think most of that xir/zhe/whatever is a fad and will go away (unlike non-binariness, which is not a fad and won't go away), but, you know - let's not give Fullerton and Chipps something to beat us over the head with.

  • 9
    There are lot of neopronouns that seem weird to me... About 95% of what's on that list I've never seen before, and would be uncomfortable in using. And that's the problem in this mess... Who's to decide what is and what isn't a pronoun? – Cerbrus Oct 21 at 10:26
  • @Cerbrus: I don't have a good answer for that, but if something is on that list then at least you know the person using it has not just made it up and that it has some notoriety, so it's less likely a case of trolling. Also, if you get accused of being non-inclusive about this, saying you used the sort-of-official list is a reasonable excuse. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Oct 21 at 10:28
  • 4
    @einpoklum, err... that's Wikipedia, anyone can edit it. My 12-year-old kid could be editing it as we speak. I would take such a list with a huge grain of salt. – Frédéric Hamidi Oct 21 at 10:30
  • 1
    @FrédéricHamidi: It is collaboratively edited, yes. Can a troll make an edit and then post to some SE site? Yes, I suppose. Statistically that should not be an issue. Remember WIkipedia is also edited (and often strictly). – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Oct 21 at 10:30
  • 1
    The edit history of that page was also one of the first things that I looked at (last edited a week ago). That list should be aligned with the list of invented pronouns at en.wiktionary.org/wiki/… , for that matter... – Marco13 Oct 21 at 10:34
  • 4
    I remember a question, during this whole mess, that has been asked by a user who had put a fairly accepted neopronoun within their username. The user was clearly a troll, though. Conclusion: you can be a troll and use a valid neopronoun, and you could be a honest user and use some new pronoun nobody has ever heard of yet. This is uncorrelated. – dim Oct 21 at 10:36
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    @dim: It is correlated, because outlandish neo-pronouns are (almost?) exclusively used in trolling. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Oct 21 at 10:44
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    @einpoklum In the list you gave, I can't find "ze/zir", but only "ze/hir" or "ze/zim". Does it make "ze/zir" an outlandish pronoun, and anyone who uses it a troll? Any list is going to be incomplete. Besides - again - what about trolls who use valid neopronouns? They do exist. Checking the pronoun against a list won't give any definitive indication whether the guy is a troll or not. We need to use our best judgment, and a pronoun list will only participate in a small part in the decision-making, in reality. – dim Oct 21 at 10:56
  • @dim: ze/zir is on that list :-P – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Oct 21 at 13:33
  • 1
    "either of them seems good enough to me" how is this better than saying "he/she/they" is good enough to me? – Piro says Reinstate Monica Oct 22 at 8:55
  • 1
    Here is another list – Piro says Reinstate Monica Oct 22 at 8:56
  • @Piro: Because those are honest attempts to create a reasonably-comprehensive list - one by a dedicated site, another through community contribution and corrective editing. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Oct 22 at 10:45
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    Does a list define what is an acceptable neopronoun of not? Isn't the point of the FAQ that one should be completely free in deciding on one's own preferred pronouns/personality? ("Q11: If I’m uncomfortable with a particular pronoun, can I just avoid using it? A: We are asking everyone to use all stated pronouns as you would naturally write. Explicitly avoiding using someone’s pronouns because you are uncomfortable is a way of refusing to recognize their identity and is a violation of the Code of Conduct.") – Sextus Empiricus Oct 22 at 12:36
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    @einpoklum I linked to the official FAQ, written by the stackexchange staff. – Sextus Empiricus Oct 22 at 13:01
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    @einpoklum but why should a subjective list be the judge of whether or not a particular pronoun is among those that can be demanded to be used (obligatory) or not? Doesn't a restricting list defeat the purpose (inclusiveness) of making also the neopronouns obligatory (besides singular they)? When self-identity is turned into language-control by the FAQ - making it not possible for anybody to decide to use a standard identity-neutral pronoun when they use to refer to somebody and instead are obliged to use a specific (ie. non-identity-neutral) pronoun - then we can not refer to a list. – Sextus Empiricus Oct 22 at 14:21
-4

Am I looking at someone’s legitimate pronouns or trolling? I think it's useful to remind ourselves of the fundamentals, then build on those.

  • What is a pronoun?
  • What is gender?
  • What is a troll?
  • Why are we even talking about pronouns?
  • What have pronouns got to do with bigotry, gender and sexual orientation?
  • How can a request to use a pronoun be used to troll?

What is a pronoun?

A pronoun is a short, convenient word of a language used (as a noun-phrase) in place of a longer word (a noun) or group of words (a noun-phrase). If I am talking to you about the green apple in the blue bowl to the left of the vase, it is inconvenient for me to repeatedly say or write "the green apple in the blue bowl to the left of the vase", and I will use the pronoun "it" instead.

The (nominative) pronouns of traditional English, I/you/he/she/it/we, are short to write and say (monosyllabic) and are distinct from words use for other purposes. They are clearly pronouns and not names of things (nouns), descriptive words (adjectives or adverbs) or actions (verbs), so understanding the structure (parsing) of a sentence that contains them is easy.

What is gender?

Gender is

the range of characteristics pertaining to, and differentiating between, masculinity and femininity

The subject here is gender. That is not the only way that people can be differentiated, but it is the relevant criteria in this discussion about gender pronouns in English. Other languages have grammatical gender (noun classes) based on other characteristics, such as human/non-human, but that is not relevant here.

What is a troll?

A troll

starts quarrels or upsets people... to distract and sow discord by posting inflammatory [and other] messages... with the intent of provoking readers into displaying emotional responses and normalizing tangential discussion

Note that a troll need not be explicitly offensive, or even untruthful. They key is that they deliberately attempt to inflame or provoke.

Why are we even talking about pronouns?

The new Code of Conduct says

No bigotry. We don’t tolerate any language likely to offend or alienate people based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion — and those are just a few examples. Use stated pronouns (when known). When in doubt, don't use language that might offend or alienate.

With the new sentence "Use stated pronouns (when known)" being the key addition. Our concern here is that a statement of pronouns to use might be a troll rather than a genuine request.

But let us look at the context of that sentence.

  • It is in a section about bigotry. A troll will be motivated by actual bigotry or a desire to be inflammatory by saying something a bigot would say.
  • It is bracketed by sentences about offensive or alienating language. A troll will say something that is calculated to offend.
  • The context is evidently gender and/or sexual orientation (more of this below).

What have pronouns got to do with bigotry, gender and sexual orientation?

This is an unfortunate accident of the English language.

  • Despite English having eliminated the grammatical gender present in its earlier form, it retains grammatical gender in its third-person pronouns, he/she/it (and his/hers/its/him).
  • In traditional English discourse it is considered rude to misgender someone using a third-person pronoun. Proper pronoun use is not rude or insulting. Referring to a man or a woman as "it", or a woman as "he" is rude.
  • The traditional English third-person pronouns recognize only two kinds of gender, male and female.
  • We now recognize that gender is more complicated than that simple binary classification.

So, a troll can start a quarrel or upset someone by deliberately misgendering someone: by saying "he" instead of "she", for example. They can do that even if they use a traditional pronoun (by misusing it). We live in a society in which alienating sexist attitudes such as "woman can't and shouldn't be programmers" are still present. A troll might start a quarrel or upset people by deliberately saying "he" when referring to an evidently female programmer. They reason that can start a quarrel or upset people is because it carries the implication that "woman can't or shouldn't be programmers". We live in a society in which alienating transphobic attitudes such as "someone who was born with male anatomy and was assigned a male name at that time but who calls themselves she does not deserve any respect". A troll might start a quarrel or upset people by deliberately, rudely, referring to someone as "he" because they have a male name despite that person sating they want to be referred to as "she".

The simple rule added to the Code of Conduct, to "Use stated pronouns" clearly indicates that those kinds of trolls are unacceptable, when the stated pronoun is a traditional gendered pronoun (he/she).

The further complication is people who do not have a gender that can simply be described as male-like (he) or female-like (she). Because the rules of polite English discourse already consider it rude to deliberately misgender someone, someone with a gender like that might consider it rude to use any of the traditional gendered (third-person) pronouns. Various communities of those people have therefore coined various new pronouns (neopronouns) to use for their gender. Others have suggested using the existing pronoun they. But because no consensus has yet emerged (as part of normal English usage) on what pronouns to use for these people, we have a confusing set of proposals. The Code of Conduct attempts to get around the complication of that by leveraging the simple rule that surfices for use of traditional pronouns where the pronoun to use might be unclear: "use stated pronouns". The poster can therefore clearly indicate which of the confusing proposed pronouns they wish to use.

How can a request to use a pronoun be used to troll?

A troll might express the alienating position that "the only real genders are male and female" by ridiculing the very idea that neopronouns are necessary (or that they can be used as a singular pronoun) and/or ridiculing or insulting people with those uncommon genders.

Note that it does not really matter if "the only real genders are male and female" is a true statement (a fact). What can make a post a troll is that it is attempting to ridicule or insult.

In my discussion I've highlighted some points that I think are important for distinguishing genuine pronouns. A genuine request will have all the following characteristics. A troll will lack at least one of the following characteristics, and probably several.

  • short: probably only one syllable.
  • convenient: easy to type and say; in English discourse, having only English letters, with conventional English capitalisation, and having only English phonemes. Not the same as familiar: the first time you encounter a neopronoun you might well have to pause to decide how to pronounce if, just as you would with any other new word, but that is not the same as difficult to say.
  • gender: used to express a gender (or group of genders, or to be gender neutral), not some other kind of characteristic or as mere personal expression or creativity; if challenged, the user should be able to point to a definition of the gender that the pronoun applies to.
  • distinct: not the same as an existing word with a precisely different meaning (singular they passes this test because it is an established meaning). This is the weakest criterion, because finding new distinct short words that are convenient is hard. So it might have to be relaxed if a gender community adopted it.
  • third-person: (in English) only the third-person pronouns are gendered, so genuine requests will be only for a third-person pronoun
  • community: if challenged, the user should be able to point to a gender community that has already proposed use of the neopronoun and has already achieved some degree of support amongst themselves for using it; SE sites are not suitable for making those kinds of proposals and rallying support for them
  • not rude or insulting: not a slur or rude word, and not suggesting such a word

Consider the classic troll "pronoun" request: attack helicopter. Note how it fails most of those tests.

  • 5
    what-the-heck-gender-am-i.tumblr.com/pronouns What about these otherkin pronouns on this list? Many of them fail the 'distinct' rule, and possibly the 'gender' rule. Note that CesarM explicitly allows otherkin pronouns as quoted in an answer above. – House- 'Reinstate Monica' -man Oct 21 at 12:55
  • @Houseman I wrote "gender: used to express a gender... not some other kind of characteristic". So, clear enough, I think. – Raedwald Oct 21 at 13:03
  • 1
    @JamesKPolk No. I've described people who deliberately start quarrels or upset people as trolls. And one way, whether you like or not, of doing that is to ridicule the idea that there are more than 2 gender identities by asking for a ridiculous "pronoun". Someone who believes there are only 2 gender identities but does not ask for a ridiculous pronoun is not being a troll. – Raedwald Oct 21 at 13:09
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    @Raedwald so you're saying that "meow" isn't a valid pronoun, despite it being on that list of pronouns? – House- 'Reinstate Monica' -man Oct 21 at 13:32
  • 1
    @ScottHannen Nope. Please reread the actual CoC and my post. As I point out, the context of the CoC is that pronouns are about gender. And English third person pronouns are as a matter of fact about gender, not about ancestry, or other characteristics. Unlike in some other languages, which use other characteristics to classify nouns. – Raedwald Oct 21 at 14:25
  • 3
    I will call someone whatever they want me to, but they'll have to ask first. Before that, I'll be using he, she, etc., because nothing else survives the BS sniff test. – tgm1024--Monica was mistreated Oct 28 at 1:31
  • 2
    @tgm1024: I mean... That is all the CoC clarification requires, really - that you use stated pronouns if/when the other person makes them known. – V2Blast Nov 1 at 22:25
-7

It should only take a few comments for a troll to reveal themselves as such. If you don't give any indication of your suspicion, they'll get lazy and the reveal will happen sooner. It's probably best to wait until no doubt remains before calling them out. It's my experience, they usually go straight for the helicopter thing anyway. People who make fun of people for using different pronouns tend to be pretty simple-minded.

  • 10
    Sounds like you haven't ever encountered a serious troll. – Mark Oct 21 at 9:53
  • that may be true. My detection method may not be effective against the most skilled and cunning of trolls, but if you could describe how to deal with them in a single post, they wouldn't be all that serious an adversary then, would they? If someone wants to devote themselves to professional trolling, so be it. Maybe one day a worthy successor to andy kaufmann will appear in a comment section, I kinda doubt it though. – 3lit3h4XX0r666 Oct 21 at 10:07
  • 3
    A serious troll isn't going to pull out the helicopter. A serious troll going to trigger an epic flamewar over the correct reflexive form of singular "they", or create a neopronoun that inflects to form an obscenity, or borrow a pronoun from an East Asian language that translates as "your majesty", or something similar. This sort of troll is much harder to deal with than someone who just shows up and starts throwing insults, because the troll isn't the one who's behaving badly. – Mark Oct 21 at 20:39

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