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In the wake of a recent unfruitful discussion I feel it is necessary for the community to come to an agreement on what kind of language we want to use here. In particular, on whether we want to discourage people from using gendered language to refer to other people whose gender is unknown.

Perhaps it is a cultural issue, but to me it is pretty obvious we should always use gender neutral language to refer to other people, unless we know for a fact what gender they identify with. We should never try and guess based on their behaviour. Yet, there is at least one user (with whom I had the aforementioned discussion) who insists on using gendered language despite being told that some people find that offensive; despite being told that it is a dangerous attitude.

Thus, my question: do we, as a community, want to discourage gendered language? Or should we just leave it to the discretion of users what kind of language to use?

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    $\begingroup$ Do we even need personal pronouns at all? Scientific writing is often done without it (the researchers, the author, the questioner, etc.). But on the other hand, and fully acknowledging that I come from a position of privilege where what somebody calls me is not a sensitive issue, are there frequently people who are offended by the use of the wrong pronoun here? If I were referred to as the wrong pronoun, it wouldn't matter to me (unless intentionally used in a derogatory manner, but then anything used that way would be offensive). Gender neutral language is not common in US English. $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Feb 15 '18 at 16:24
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    $\begingroup$ Regardless of whether the community should encourage gender neutral language or leave it up to the user's decision, it certainly shouldn't incorporate using gender neutral language into the Be Nice guidelines; that'd be a needlessly authoritarian move. Also as I have mentioned in the chat before, using the singular "they" feels I am not referring to the person I am talking to when I use it because of it's plural connotations. "Zhe", "zher", etc are too unnatural. The better alternative here is to refer to the person by the username instead of using gender neutral, or any pronouns altogether. $\endgroup$ – Balarka Sen Feb 15 '18 at 16:29
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    $\begingroup$ @tpg2114 1) As a matter of principle, no: we don't need personal pronouns. As a matter or practice, though: yes, people use personal pronouns all the time. 2) Regardless of whether you are personally offended by gendered pronouns, surely you must agree that some people are. Using a more inclusive language is of no harm to anyone, so if you don't have a strong opinion one way or another, why would you choose the option that is offensive to some people? 3) Perhaps not in your particular circles, but gender neutral language is common in US English. $\endgroup$ – AccidentalFourierTransform Feb 15 '18 at 16:31
  • $\begingroup$ @BalarkaSen 1) I'm all for freedom of speech and liberty in general. To encourage something is not the same thing as enforcing it. I would never suggest to ban someone for using gendered language or something like that. OTOH, if we get some sort of consensus here, then the next time I see someone using gendered language I will link them to this discussion and suggest them not to use it. It's their choice what language to use, but that choice may be affected by the general opinion of the community they are part of. 2) Using the username more than twice in the same paragraph is awkward/unnatural $\endgroup$ – AccidentalFourierTransform Feb 15 '18 at 16:39
  • $\begingroup$ I understand and support (1). I think (2) just shows that what is unnatural and what is not is completely subjective because I think it is perfectly natural to call people on the internet by the username they choose to identify them with on the internet. (This is a very specific alternative that works on the internet and not on the real life in my opinion - intentionally avoiding to use pronouns and referring to someone by their name is somewhat awkward.) In particular I have no problem using "roblox9945" multiple times on the same paragraph, however unfortunate that may be. $\endgroup$ – Balarka Sen Feb 15 '18 at 16:43
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    $\begingroup$ @tpg2114 Regarding the question of whether there are people who are bothered when you (or others) mis-gender them, please think about the problem through the lens of selection bias: if there are people who are bothered or put off, or who feel substantially less welcome by the site, how likely is it that you would find out? $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Feb 15 '18 at 16:53
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    $\begingroup$ @BalarkaSen Your comments kind of demonstrate the problem - it should be "people" instead of "they" between 'username' and 'choose', no? Pronouns were invented for a reason ─ they make communications much more fluid, and speaking without pronouns is remarkably hard and unnatural. But yeah, what is or is not 'unnatural' is ultimately a personal choice and if someone opts to implement gender-neutral language by using usernames instead of pronouns then that's also a perfectly acceptable alternative. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Feb 15 '18 at 17:00
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    $\begingroup$ Not really. I didn't use "they" in the singular sense there. I used it in the plural sense. It's true that pronouns make conversations fluid; but the unnatural ones (again a result of not being historically used often enough) can also stand out as a communication barrier. $\endgroup$ – Balarka Sen Feb 15 '18 at 17:02
  • $\begingroup$ @BalarkaSen I'm not saying you did ─ I'm just saying that speaking without pronouns is hard and sounds unnatural. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Feb 15 '18 at 17:05
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    $\begingroup$ Just as a point of reference I've participated in a on-line forum when the consensus behavior was to use a set of artificial gender-neutral person pronouns (in particular Bornstein's Ze, hir, hirs, and hirself). I was surprised by how quickly it became natural to read them (it took longer for writing them to become natural). But I suspect that worked there because of the relatively small group and slow intake of new members; it probably wouldn't work on Physics. $\endgroup$ – dmckee Feb 15 '18 at 17:52
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    $\begingroup$ @dmckee "Probably wouldn't work on Physics" might be an understatement. We would either have to have members on an all-out edit spree to keep new posts compliant, or we would have to somehow limit our users to people willing to follow those guidelines. Neither would make for a particularly efficient or practical site. I think it seems to expose the larger problem with trying to enforce a specific inclusive pronoun standard. Although many will be on-board, the Physics SE community in large doesn't focus on policy, so this suggestion would be missed by many less active users. $\endgroup$ – JMac Feb 15 '18 at 18:05
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    $\begingroup$ @JMac Your comment commits the false dilemma fallacy: there are many more options beyond the two you describe. For example, you are not expected to edit every posts that uses gendered language, nor to call out those who use such language. All I'm asking from you (and from anyone else that reads this post) is not to use that language yourself. I believe this is not too much from me to ask, right? $\endgroup$ – AccidentalFourierTransform Feb 15 '18 at 19:12
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    $\begingroup$ @JMac fair enough. I guess my intention with this post is to make sure the community agrees that neutral language is preferred. If so, next time this particular user refuses to use such language, I'll have this post to back me up. $\endgroup$ – AccidentalFourierTransform Feb 15 '18 at 19:22
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    $\begingroup$ Unsaid stubborn person bring referenced doesn't listen data refuting their position, so I honestly would not cry over the spilled milk over a single user. That is to say, methinks this post was made to solve a problem that does not actually exist. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Feb 15 '18 at 20:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Countto10 (I do think it should be a violation of the Be Nice policy to pass off a closed bracket as a smiley though. That is absolutely disgusting behavior :) $\endgroup$ – Balarka Sen Feb 16 '18 at 13:21
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Thus, my question: do we, as a community, want to discourage gendered language? Or should we just leave it to the discretion of users what kind of language to use?

As I understand it, this proposal is not suggesting using moderator action to enforce the use of ungendered language. Nevertheless I would like to clarify that we won't do that, not unless people at Stack Exchange direct us otherwise. Even if the moderators may think it's a good idea to use ungendered language, it's not something we will enforce in most cases.

I will say that, if a member says that they want to be referred to using a particular gender of pronoun (e.g. "her"), and another member, knowing this preference, uses a differently-gendered pronoun (e.g. "him") to refer to them, that would be considered a violation of our "be nice" policy. This would generally apply to cases in which one uses a pronoun that excludes a group that the member has indicated they want to be considered part of. (So "they"/"them" should be pretty safe, if you want to use it, because it's supposed to be fully generic and apply to anyone; but, for example, don't use "he" with someone who has identified a preference to be considered female.)

As with any other violation of "be nice", if it happens repeatedly that can be cause for mod action (such as suspension).

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    $\begingroup$ Correct, I was not suggesting any kind of moderator action. $\endgroup$ – AccidentalFourierTransform Feb 16 '18 at 2:34

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