At the I-don’t-care phase

From a Fresh Air interview with the novelist Stephen McCauley:

GROSS: The first time we talked in 1996, we talked about how one of your characters – your main character – always felt like he was either too young and then he felt like he was too old. And he never felt like he was the right age. And you talked about how when you started teaching, you felt like you were too young to be an authority figure. And then at some point, you felt like you were too old in the sense that you had kind of bypassed the common reference points that you used to have with your students. Where are you now?

MCCAULEY: I’m at the I-don’t-care phase, you know, which is kind of a great phase to be in. I mean, I feel as if I actually feel – I mean, Terry, I hate to be so positive, but I feel as if I do have something to say to students. And I think in the same way that, you know, I stopped trying to be Tolstoy or Flaubert, whoever – that, as a teacher, I just feel like, OK, I have something to offer. And I’m going to offer it in a very authentic and – way that is true to me. And I don’t worry about that kind of attitude quite so much.

GROSS: So you came out in the 1970s, when you were in your late teens.


GROSS: And there are so many issues relating to, like, sexual orientation and gender identity that have changed over the years in terms of how they’re expressed and how people identify themselves. And you’re seeing that not just as, like, a person in the world but also as a professor at a university. And having been at universities for years, you’ve seen, like, you know, generations of students come and go and define themselves in different ways.

There’s a character in your new book, who’s a college student, who goes by the name D – the letter D – and wants to be referred to as the gender-neutral they instead of he or she. That’s a relatively new phenomenon – and, you know, the idea of, like, gender-neutral names and gender-neutral identity, and I’m wondering how you’re processing that.

I think the proliferation of “likes” in that passage hints at a certain hesitancy in asking the question. They both sounded a bit walking-on-eggs in this part.

MCCAULEY: That’s a really good question. Its a really big question right now in academia, especially…

GROSS: I know.

She interjected that quickly and with emphasis. “I know.” In other words: “it’s a fucking minefield, isn’t it.”

MCCAULEY: Yeah. I mean, I guess, you know, for me as a teacher, I am really happy to call my students whatever pronouns they want to be called by. I had a student recently who wanted to be called it. And I said, OK, I’ll try it, you know? And, you know, whatever makes people feel accepted and seen the way they want to be seen is fine with me.

Ok I’m gonna interrupt right there. I don’t think it should be fine with him; I don’t think it should be fine with anyone. It’s probably impossible for academics to say that now without seeming like sadistic monsters and without being immediately added to Jordan Peterson’s army, which no sane person could want. But I don’t think it’s all that fine, and I wish people had pushed back more from the beginning. Why don’t I think it’s fine? Because it’s asking too much extra attention from the teacher, for an exceptionally silly and trivial reason. That’s not what teachers are there for. Attention from the teacher should be around academic stuff, not personal feelings of being special.

And that’s another reason – the narcissism. Students shouldn’t be encouraged, much less celebrated, for maximizing their narcissism. Narcissism is bad, and everyone should hate it.

And one more reason: it’s too much load on the memory to expect teachers to remember a lot of special pronouns. Pronouns exist for convenience, and demanding other people use bespoke ones for you and you alone is making them the very opposite of convenient.

Narcissism is the bad thing about being young, probably the worst thing. It’s a mistake to valorize it.

At the same time, I find it a little bit confusing sometimes when people talk about the binary – the gender binary – because it seems to me – my experience of coming out in the ’70s was that the joy really of coming out as gay was that you didn’t have to think in terms of strict male and female roles – that you could define yourself as a man in any way you wanted to. And I never had any interests that were particularly traditional in terms of masculinity.

And when I began reading particularly feminist writers like Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer, it was very liberating. It was like, well, you can define yourself as a man and still be a man but have the interests that you want in, you know, 1920’s music instead of rock ā€™nā€™ roll or whatever it happens to be. And I guess my – the students that I’m seeing now take a different approach to that where they are embracing it more as being gender-neutral. And so I’m trying to understand it more and be sympathetic to it.

That last sentence sounds as if it came out of the mouth of a hostage. It contradicts what he just said, and he was right the first time. Feminism – the best feminism – has been chipping away at the gender binary for decades, and the trans-enby-mypronouns bullshit is dragging us backward.

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