Synchronized backup swimmers practicing (NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Why Everyone Wants the Same Things

This one idea explains bubbles in the stock market, cancel culture and why everyone binged 'Tiger King' at the same time.

I recently read an email from an NPR employee in which the signature was the most intriguing part. After his name and pronouns (he/him) was the question: “Why are there pronouns in my signature?” I clicked the link

It led me to a six-page Google document called the NPR Pronoun Guide. “We act to create an inclusive environment in which individuals of all identities feel valued,” it stated. This was followed by a lengthy glossary of terms. I read it all, but the fundamental question in his signature was left unanswered: Why are there pronouns there? 

Only a few years ago, it would have seemed bizarre to have your pronouns in your emails. I’ve asked people who include their pronouns in emails (and elsewhere) why they do so. They offer versions of the same answer: That it’s a long overdue recognition of the complexities of gender, or that they are making a small gesture that improves the world. 

I believe this new phenomenon is an illustration of a deeper, hidden social force. That is the relentless, often unconscious, need for humans to reassure themselves they are in sync with their group. Displaying pronouns signals: I am part of the tribe and I know the rules.

We live in destabilizing times. The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called it “liquid modernity”—the unnerving feeling of “fragility, temporariness, vulnerability and inclination to constant change.” We are unsure of what is desirable or undesirable, acceptable or not acceptable, respectful or bigoted. Increasingly, if we don’t understand these liquid rules—you may have noticed that the etiquette is constantly changing—we might find ourselves singled out and scapegoated, which is humanity’s time-tested mechanism to achieve social cohesion through exclusion. 

Being cast out is one of humanity’s most devastating punishments. Even those of us who live in relative security fear the possibility of this happening. So I’d like to explain an idea that I hope will help you make more sense of what’s happening in our world—the specific mechanism that is the cause of much of our social dysfunction.

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