Micro-aggressions and gender neutral pronouns

I was recently told by someone that had I looked at her profile I would have noticed her preferred pronouns that I should be using instead of using the words ‘she’ and ‘her’. What she didn’t realise was that it wasn’t that I didn’t know — it was that I didn’t care. Or to be more precise, I do care which is why I generally won’t use the ‘preferred’ pronouns.

Let me explain. Micro-aggression is defined as ‘a subtle, often unintentional, form of prejudice. Rather than an overt declaration of racism or sexism, a microaggression often takes the shape of an offhanded comment, an inadvertently painful joke, or a pointed insult.’ When I or other people don’t use the preferred pronouns we are accused of a kind of micro-aggression, which is perceived as a kind of bullying.

In the twenty-first century there is a blame culture: bullies are to blame, men are to blame if women feel vulnerable, women are to blame for men’s problems, people are to blame when they make seemingly innocent remarks but they are using micro-aggressive terms.

Well, let’s look at that. As a therapist I deal with children and teens who are being bullied. Schools rarely take action against bullies despite platitudes, in part because the bullies are sometimes the favourites of teachers and the bullied children are the misfits. The prevailing attitude that we should blame the bully is futile. The blame culture induces a victim mentality: ‘I’m powerless — you (the bully, men, women, the micro-aggressor) have to change’. Instead, let’s substitute the word ‘responsibility’ for ‘blame’.

Imagine a scenario where someone parks their car on a busy road, leaving the engine running so the air conditioner stays on and dashes into a shop. When they come out just a few minutes later the car has been stolen. Who is to blame? The owner for leaving their car with the engine running? The thief? The council for not displaying a sign reminding people to not leave the keys in their car? The police force for not having more presence in the area?

The blame culture says we should blame someone else: the owner blames the thief, the thief blames their upbringing, the council and police blame lack of resources. If we substitute the word ‘responsibility’ for ‘blame’, then we may say that the owner has to take responsibility for not having the awareness that cars are stolen. If they had more presence of mind maybe they would have thought twice before leaving the car with the engine running. The thief has to take responsibility for stealing. He was the one who took something that didn’t belong to him. Other people who had a similar or worse upbringing didn’t become thieves.

We don’t do the owner any favours by telling him it was the fault of the thief. They are likely to make the same mistake again. We don’t do the thief any favours by telling him his upbringing was to blame. He’ll go on stealing and causing upset wherever he goes. And so on.

And similarly if people get offended by words, then it would be better if they learnt to be resilient instead of attempting to change other people (usually a fruitless task anyway) from using certain words. Most bullying is verbal. I teach the bullied kids to be resilient so that when the bully attempts to upset them with words it has no effect. And it works.

I’m a hypnotherapist, which means that I do therapy and hypnosis is one of the methods I use to achieving results. I’m often the therapist of last resort. That is, clients come to me from a recommendation but will tell me that they don’t believe in hypnosis and they don’t believe I can help them, but they have tried everything else. And I usually get good results — often after the first session. In fact sometimes I am told by a client that they have been seeing a therapist for a number of years and I achieved more in one session than their therapist did in eight years.

One reason for this is that I don’t tell them what they want to hear. There’s an arrangement that many therapists fall into. The client comes in with issues, the therapist talks to them so they feel better, the client pays them money and the process is repeated the following session. The client feels good after the session and the therapist gets the money but nothing really changes.

I don’t tell clients what they want to hear. I explore their underlying psychology and tell them what they need to hear.

For instance, I deal with trauma and people who have come out of traumatic relationships. Many years ago I had my first trauma client, a female, who came in for dealing with trauma after leaving an abusive marriage. I knew there was one question I needed to ask but I thought if I asked her this question she may just walk out of the session. The question was: why did you marry him? The reason why I needed to ask this question was that if it was left unresolved she may well make the same mistake again and walk into another abusive relationship (which frequently happens). But in asking this I could be perceived as blaming the victim.

She told me that she had been asking herself the same question over and over. So then real therapy could begin. The tough questions need to be asked. I’ve since found that whenever I do ask the tough questions I get a similar response and I think that most therapists find the same thing.

And the tough question to someone who gets offended because I don’t use their preferred gendered pronouns, or someone who is suffering from anxiety because they encounter micro-aggression is: why is your view of yourself dependent on my use of words? Why is your self-esteem dependant on how other people look at you or talk to you?

If I see someone who looks female I would generally refer to ‘her’ and similarly, if see I someone who looks male I would generally use the term ‘he’ or ‘him’. If I see an apparently male, tall, heavily set person with a deep voice who says I should call them ‘she’ I probably wouldn’t comply because I wouldn’t feel comfortable with it. They are living in a make-believe world where they are female and they want me to play along with their fantasy. As a therapist I don’t feel comfortable doing that. And why is their discomfort about being called ‘she’ more important than my discomfort in being pressured to do something that I don’t feel comfortable with? Although of course there are cis-females who may be tall, heavily set and with a deep voice.

In many universities now there are warnings to students about so-called ‘trigger’ words. Even the word ‘but’ can be a trigger word. The method preferred by most psychologists for dealing with emotional reactions is to experience them in a controlled way until the client develops resilience. Immersion techniques are sometime used for phobias for instance. You don’t deal with a problem by running away from it, which I why I needed to ask my client why she married someone who turned out to be abusive — and why trans people need to accept that people may not perceive them as they wish to be perceived.

By Philip Braham on .



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