Pronouns, gaslighting and cognitive dissonance

From the website Simply Psychology:

Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance etc.

For example, when people smoke (behavior) and they know that smoking causes cancer (cognition).

Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory suggests that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoid disharmony (or dissonance).


When someone is forced to do (publicly) something they (privately) really don’t want to do, dissonance is created between their cognition (I didn’t want to do this) and their behavior (I did it).

This kind of dissonance and discomfort can be quite severe for some people, although I am not one of those who “literally feel like I’m being torn apart inside” when it happens to me. I recently had an online conversation with some very conservative Christians who experience the more excruciating kind of dissonance when asked to use alternative pronouns like “ze, zem, zers” to refer to nonbinary people, because they believe that the people in question are experiencing a mental illness and that nonbinary gender does not actually exist. They said that using such pronouns would cause them genuine mental distress. But what about the nonbinary person? Referring to them with gendered pronouns can cause them equally real distress.

I’m still forming my understanding of gender issues, so even though I’m a practicing Catholic, I’m deliberately keeping an open mind and ear to other people’s experiences of gender and sexuality. I also don’t experience severe cognitive dissonance when I refer to people with “ze” or singular “they” even if I’m not sure what’s going on biologically or psychologically with nonbinary gender. This stuff is complicated and confusing! So, in order not to cause undue harm to someone else whose experiences with dysphoria are something I comprehend even less than cognitive dissonance, I happily use alternative pronouns. In doing so, I recognize the other person’s particular experience, even if I don’t share their understanding of it, and refuse to add to their suffering.

(In fact, as someone who has a Ph.D. in the literature of a second language and has dabbled in linguistics, I understand that grammatical pronouns vary widely across languages and that nongendered personal pronouns can actually be very useful in daily speech, gender identity issues aside. I would find it pretty awesome if English ended up developing a set of them, and it’s fascinating to watch the language negotiate the options, like “ze,” “xe” and “they.”)

What I absolutely refuse to do is treat others as sworn enemies in a cultural war over freaking pronouns. When someone asks me to refer to them as “ze,” I’m quite certain their goal is anything but causing me to experience excruciating dissonance. In fact, it probably has nothing to do with me at all and has everything to do with mitigating their own dissonance. In this as in other parts of my life, I generally try to assume that “people do things that distress me, not to distress me.” So, I was confused when people I was discussing this with online called it gaslighting to be asked to use alternative pronouns:

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse where the abuser manipulates situations repeatedly to trick the victim into distrusting his or her own memory and perceptions. Gaslighting is an insidious form of abuse. It makes victims question the very instincts that they have counted on their whole lives, making them unsure of anything. Gaslighting makes it very likely that victims will believe whatever their abusers tell them regardless as to their own experience of the situation. Gaslighting often precedes other types of emotional and physical abuse because the victim of gaslighting is more likely to remain in other abusive situations as well.

Gaslighting is a form of abuse. It can certainly cause the cognitive dissonance described above, but there is a vitally important distinction to be made here. Cognitive dissonance is something “I” experience as a result of my beliefs and my actions being discordant. Gaslighting is the deliberate manipulation by “my” abuser with the goal of causing distress (which can include cognitive dissonance), undermining my autonomy, making me dependent on the abuser and the abusive situation.

To call it gaslighting to be asked to use “ze” casts the nonbinary person as a manipulative abuser and the other party as their victim. This is not only the height of self-centeredness, it is flirting with paranoia, to presume that another person is deliberately attacking my core beliefs rather than trying to preserve themselves from dysphoria, as they claim to be doing. It also discounts another’s experience of gender dysphoria and identity crisis, denies their suffering and casts it as less real or less worthy of compassion and accommodation than my own. This is the very opposite of the attitude that we are called on to have towards the suffering of others. At the very least, I believe we should take people at their word when they say that referring to them with gendered pronouns causes them distress. I’m not interested in debating whether gender dysphoria is “real” or “just a disease,” because, mainly, even if it is caused by a mental disorder (which I am not convinced of either way), mental disorders are just as real as physical disease. You don’t suffer any less if the suffering is caused by brain chemistry rather than something else.

At the same time, the cognitive dissonance experienced by my online conversants is real, too, so insisting they use “ze” may be taking the same callous attitude toward their mental suffering. What to do? Until a distinct, nongendered pronoun becomes standard in English alongside “he” and “she”, it seems that the best option would be to use “they.” Singular “they” has a long history in English already, unlike neologisms like “ze.” What I’m not so sure about is how this would be received by the nonbinary community and its individuals, or how to compassionately and politely say, “I’m uncomfortable saying ‘ze,’ can I call you ‘they’ instead?”


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