Text from a NY Times article, Nov 25, 2015. Image: Future Journalism Project
In 1901 a pragmatist from Iowa made the simple proposal of introducing the title “Ms” alongside the traditional “Miss” and “Mrs”. His purpose was to eliminate the awkward moments of introduction when a relative stranger attempted to discern a woman’s marital state before addressing her by name. Business grammar guides adopted the usage beginning in the 1950s.
The case for using Ms was advanced in the 1960s and early 1970s by feminists who refused to let marriage define their identity. By the late 1980s Ms was largely accepted by both progressives and conservatives as an easy way to avoid offense and afford single women the same equality and purposeful ambiguity the title Mr afforded men.
Today, a new awkward moment renders our current titles inadequate to facilitate greetings and discourse. Marital status is no longer the question; instead, a person’s gender is sometimes in doubt. To meet such exigencies I suggest that the title “Mx” (pronounced “Mix,” while Ms is pronounced “Mizz”) should be used as the standard for addressing a person who presents an ambiguous or non-binary gender.
Using Mx in our salutations and naming has many advantages:
First, Mx allows us to limit any damage arising from how we perceive each other. “By naming a thing,” the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein noted, “we are united to it in some way, there is some identity between the thing’s or person’s existence in reality and in our mind.” But where something is ambiguous, has no name, or has an uncertain name, it is hard for someone to relate to it. Physician and novelist Walker Percy described the most common source of people’s anxiety as occurring when we encounter a thing “which can neither be ignored nor named.” Mx gives us a name for such occasions.
We can blame the 17th century philosopher Renee Descartes for the mind-body split that has fostered today’s confusion and anxiety about gender. Cartesian dualism has allowed us to believe that we can be whatever we imagine ourselves to be, regardless of our nature.
Think of the title Mx, then, as a Cartesian construct that functions as a homonym of “mix”: it has the same pronunciation but can have two or more meanings depending upon who is using it. Descartes’ anxiety-inducing dualism is isolated. Each party can connect but is not required to condone. People choosing Mx may sincerely see themselves as a mixed gender or no gender while others might see them as simply, “mixed up”. With Mx, civility is preserved; yet neither party is required to recognize or defend the legitimacy of any particular gender identity.
Second, the use of the title, Mx, has mathematical precision to bring to these exchanges. I remember learning algebra and the Cartesian coordinate system where x represents an independent random variable. My teacher, sensing my anxiety at the purposeful ambiguity of x, calmly told me, that x could be “whatever you want it to be.”
Similarly, in Mx the “x” allows the named to be whatever the person wants, and it permits the other person to avoid clarifying or the impulse to challenge. In fact, people who resist the conventional x can add an x subscript (Mxx) or even raise the x and make it an exponent (Mxx) if they want a different combination of letters to more precisely self-identify without forcing others to understand. It’s still pronounced the same, “Mix.”
Third, Mx is simple and should be applied well beyond the transgender community it was originally designed to accommodate. The wise person, Aristotle said, seeks the level of precision “in each thing as the nature of that thing allows.” The novel expressions of gender are multiplying faster than we all can keep up with. By Facebook’s last count there are 58 gender categories that are no longer pronounceable or recognizable as an acronym. There are transgenders, genderqueers, gender-questionings, intersexes, asexuals, polysexuals, two-spiriteds, sologamists, and so on.
How do you make an acronym to accommodate this ever-expanding view of human attractions, inclinations and preferences? You don’t. In fact, you can’t. Mx allows for unconstrained self-expression to be contained within a single short word. Activists for LGBTQQIP2SAA++ rights can refer instead to “Mx rights” or, the “Mx community”.
Fourth, using Mx in front of a person’s name circumvents the clunky efforts underway to mask gender identity by applying plural pronouns to a singular person. Dean Logan Powell of Brown University recently confused a prospective female student in a congratulatory letter of admission by referring to her as “they” rather than “she”, ignoring the “Ms” altogether. “She” declined “his” offer.
This mixing of singular and plural pronouns affects how we think. Recall the exchange in Mark 5:9, where Jesus asks the demoniac, “Who are you?” The response, “My name is Legion, for we are many,” reminds us of the dangers of mixing the plural within a single personality. Mx allows us to capture and contain the many in one single word — and avoid the wrath of grammarians.
Fifth and finally, adding the title Mx alongside Ms, Miss, Mr and Mrs could aid progressive demands for acceptance of gender free pronouns. If you are not familiar with this neologistic plot, look no further than our elite universities. Harvard, West Virginia and Vanderbilt require their students to learn a new set of identifying gender free pronouns including (presented in the nominative, objective and possessive forms) ze, zir and zirs as well as ze, hir and hirs which are intended to accommodate certain people who identify as transgender/genderqueer. More epicene pronouns are being proposed, too, such as ne, nem and nir; ve, ver and vis; ey, em and eir; xe, xem and xyr. Mx is the perfect title to act as a well-ordering principle for this growing list (or mix) of non-binary pronouns.
It may seem contradictory but the push for gender free pronouns is also related to transgender rights. Activists see social acceptance of transgenderism as just a step toward gender fluidity, which is really intended to eliminate gender distinctions altogether in their preparation for a new trans- and post-human race. Understood in this context, the current bathroom battles are early skirmishes in a war over human nature. Putting “Mx” on single bathroom and “family bathroom” doors might further linguistic amity and, practically speaking, allow more efficient and private access to bathroom space.
Conservatives and progressives can find common ground between the real and the synthetic at the Mx. In the same pragmatic spirit of that early 20th century anonymous Iowan, let’s formally add Mx to our 21st century lexicon of titles to reduce those inevitable awkward moments when we meet each other and at least one us believes our existing language lacks “their” gender.
Peter C. DeMarco is a pragmatist from Canandaigua, New York, who also teaches leadership and ethics.