Students of the University of Michigan have probably noticed the popularization of professors placing pronouns in their Zoom name. While I’m well aware that normalizing pronouns holds benefits for the less privileged amid the powerful in academic communities, the intention behind highlighting one’s pronouns needs to be discussed. 

Whenever I see cisgender men using the “he/him/his” signifier next to their name — especially knowing that an honest conversation with them about what pronouns mean to them may never happen, and knowing their history of upholding the status quo — I wonder: Have they ever had to bind their chest to the point that breathing is labored? Do they know what that even means? Why is it that cisgender people are so self-congratulatory and smug about their willingness to share their completely obvious pronouns? Will or would they ever talk about gender dysphoria with me, or willingly talk about the oppression of transgender students? Again, while I am aware that normalizing pronouns has many benefits, it must be supported with genuine dialogue and active efforts to address gender issues.

I’m also wondering and have been for some time now: What are they getting out of this charade? 

Neoliberal politics frequently seem to present us with empty slogans instead of purposeful, active change — the latter is a concept known as praxis. In this same vein, a failure to align personal conviction with surface-level action is evident in superficial land acknowledgment practices.

I’m talking about a very specific crowd for which announcing (almost smugly) that we are occupying land that rightfully belongs to a Native American tribe constitutes meaningful action. While they continue to refuse to advocate for meaningful action that would compensate for all that has been stolen over centuries of systemic oppression, they think that acknowledgment of this theft is meaningful. 

What I mean is that acknowledgment without praxis and the practical application of ideology is utterly meaningless. If individuals who advocate for equality and acknowledge inequality do not do so in practice, such as by continuing to vote for politicians who endorse LGBTQ+ rights while failing to recognize how those politicians might also endorse actions that promote harm, then their theoretical support means nothing. 

For example, writer, professor and activist Nick Estes, member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, recently pointed to how some Native American politicians openly support building a pipeline on reservation land that has already been transgressed repeatedly, which is reasoned away because their policies uphold wealth and status for those who already have it. 

This is what neoliberalism has done to our critical thinking skills and our absurd overconfidence in the meaning of surface appearances projected through language. #BlackLivesMatter as a hashtag or an area of academic interest means absolutely nothing when you willingly oppress the already oppressed and don’t walk the walk. 

I mean, circuses historically made use of disabled individuals for their performance acts, and the circus owners feigned interest in the disabled performers they used for their acts, so long as there was a profit to be made — is this not a similar situation?

For this reason and at this point, I am simply appreciative when someone is precisely who they say they are and acts accordingly. If academics’ scholarship refuses to do service to actual human beings rather than dancing around the topic with language, perhaps they should be talking about that. For example, if their partner happens to be the chair of the gender studies department but looks the other way when their partner preys on multiple students. 

One case showing the aggressive defense of power when someone alleges sexual misconduct against a powerful, entitled academic incorrectly labeled as a revolutionary is when Nimrod Reitman, former student and now Harvard University fellow, alleged sexual misconduct against Avital Ronell, renowned New York University comparative literature and German professor. In response to Reitman’s allegations, numerous gender studies scholars — including the world-famous gender studies scholar Judith Butler — leapt to Ronell’s side, even going so far as to sign a letter in her defense.

Furthermore, Ronell was incorrectly described as a “feminist” scholar in multiple articles that were released in the wake of the scandal. It is worth noting that Ronell is no more a “feminist” scholar by virtue of being assigned female at birth than someone else is a “masculine studies” scholar by virtue of being assigned male at birth.

This particular example marks the return to a politics of power and class relations wherein scholars who study power relation seem strangely unaware of how their connections, made through the predator and their networks, also comprise the connections that brought them much of their success and power in the first place — studying power dynamics doesn’t mean they understand them “correctly.”

These academics should be acknowledging their failure to walk the walk. Hiding behind empty slogans and scholarship void of meaningful action should be acknowledged. That would be significantly more meaningful than marking themselves as a member of the educated class by meeting the bare minimum criteria for self-awareness. 

At least when someone admits that their scholarship consistently falls short of enacting real change, one can hold a productive conversation with them. When someone admits they believe in the status quo by way of refusing to acknowledge how they have used the existing power structure to reach their position of power, then they are actively canceling out their meaningless acknowledgment of that structure (or the status quo). What their acknowledgment seems to mean instead isn’t that they care to actively change how those power structures uphold the status quo, but rather that they find power dynamics academically interesting, which is completely different than praxis. 

When someone is able to admit that their role in the academy and in society does not bear any equivalence to activism nor praxis, then you know their genuine motivations. Further, you don’t have to avoid the elephant in the room: The fact that they have no direct experience with whatever it is they are writing about or studying.

This points to the new, twenty-first century paradigm of the elite intellectual who actively pretends to embrace systemic change while simultaneously undoing all that progress — the neoliberal who persistently infringes on the identity and embodiment of the same groups they oppress to maintain their power and the status quo. 

They study groups simply to publish. Another way of inflicting harm is the imposition of binary categories on non-binary individuals, as if the spectrum is not enough — it inadvertently seems to prioritize a situation of cisgender relations, by way of centering cisgender scholarship that regards non-binary queerness as an “interesting” theoretical conversation to be had at the expense of queer voices. Those same academics who have “he/him/his” pronouns next to their name frequently refuse to actually do anything to correct for glaring power dynamics — the same ones they seek to publicly embrace for the sake of their image. You know, the same power dynamics that circumscribe our gender prisons in the first place. 

As far as to where this dynamic exists in the literature, a beautifully honest and accurate scene of oppression in Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” comes to mind. In the chapter “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale,” Atwood seems to have unleashed some vitriol she might have for academia at large (ironically, some of the same crowd that holds up her novel as the paradigm of futurist science-fiction literature over the work of the talented prophetess and writer Octavia Butler). 

For more context, it is important to know that before this section of Atwood’s novel appears as the framing coda, the protagonist Offred — the handmaid — drives the narrative. Readers get the impression that she has handwritten the narrative they are reading, but as it turns out, her audio narrative was discovered on bootleg cassette tapes at an archaeological dig site, entirely out of order. We learn they have been reassembled by a white male academic in a position of power — a misogynist at that.

In the footnotes of Atwood’s “Historical Notes,” someone named “Professor James Darcy Pieixoto” effectively skewers the handmaids — the women who are oppressed, repeatedly assaulted by their appointed commanders and forced to bear children for the commanders’ barren wives in the country of Gilead. Even so, Professor Pieixoto then proceeds to openly tell his audience that — despite the copious evidence of oppression within the society in question — he has zero interest in the plight and story of a handmaid herself. 

Rather, he is interested in her as a vehicle for his own work. He is interested in what Offred, the handmaid, is able to tell him about Gileadean society, and is also entirely interested in the power dynamics therein. After all, what is a museum if not the consolidation of power over objects from the past? What is a collection of testimonies if not the consolidation of power over women as objects? 

Similarly, when a survivor of sexual violence challenges academic men in power on their failure to advocate for women and for a challenge to the status quo — wherein any man of status can do anything — “he/him/his” will then gleefully abuse their power with a “he/him/his” signature next to their name as they do so. It’s somehow more revolting than the scenario itself. At least when people offer up a resounding “no” to gender pronouns, you know they are biased. 

To put it another way: I appreciate red flags when they are offered. 

In the “Historical Notes,” rather than appreciating the scope of the information Pieixoto has received (at great personal risk to those who provided it, I might add) he complains that he doesn’t have the testimony of the perpetrator that assaulted her to bear children for his barren wife. He states openly that this would be far more useful to his studies and adds that he has dubbed the network of brave Gileadean citizens that assisted sex slaves (“handmaids”) to freedom the “Underground Frailroad” rather than the correct “Underground Femaleroad.” 

As much as I love Atwood, I love to repeat this tidbit far more: Atwood has stated many times, in interviews as well as in more recent introductions to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” that everything in the novel is based in reality.

Suffice it to say, I see and hear from a lot of Professor Pieixotos at the University of Michigan. I think we all have.

Sierra Élise Hansen can be reached at hsierra@umich.edu.

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