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?
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?
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
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.