Dr. Gurathin has long since resigned himself to the fact that if he stays up late reading, and doesn’t set his outfacing feed tag to do-not-disturb, Murderbot will eventually pester him. Usually some snipe about how much sleep humans need, but sometimes a question about human behavior that it doesn’t want to ask Dr. Mensah - or that it doesn’t like Dr. Mensah’s answer to.
Tonight is the latter.
[Why are humans obsessed with labels?]
[Lots of reasons. Can I get some context?]
A moment passes, then a packet of images and videos drops in, mostly from Murderbot’s POV filter by the looks of it. Volescu, a few days ago, wearing a sweatshirt from his university. A picture Gurathin’s seen in Dr. Mensah’s personal office, of her youngest daughter’s pronoun party. Gurathin himself, showing Overse the rather artistic way one of his more recent arm-implants had been integrated with the skin, enhancing rather than disguising the look of the technology.
As Gurathin flicks through the images, Murderbot sends another message.
[Labels, and making sure other humans see what you’re labelling yourself as. Why?]
[Alright, give me some time to compose.]
[Take your time, not like I asked because I wanted an answer or anything.]
[It’s the social animal thing again. I suppose a lot of weird human behavior goes back to that. We like to feel like we’re part of a group.]
[You’re already part of the human species. And Preservation Alliance.]
[We like smaller groups, too. More intimate connections. Particularly with people who have life experiences similar to ours. There are certain micro-cultures that arise from shared experiences like attending the same school, or being from the same colony. Even if two people in that group have never met, they still tend to have some kind of common ground.]
There’s a pause before the next message, longer than usual. Murderbot is hesitating, he thinks - confirms when the message finally comes through.
[Or having the same kinds of augments?]
[Shit, sorry, that’s none of my business, disregard.]
Through the feed, Gurathin can practically see the way Murderbot’s face must be screwed up in frustration.
[It’s fine. You act like I didn’t already know you’re completely tactless.]
[Have I told you to go fuck yourself lately?]
[Not in the last cycle or so.]
[Go fuck yourself.]
[Noted. But yes, I feel a sort of kinship with people who’ve had similar experiences with augmentation. My first implants were installed when I was a child, for medical purposes. I have very little memory of the time before I was augmented, and I feel it’s shaped me as a person. My friends who’ve gone through similar circumstances feel a similar way about it.]
[So you label yourselves to find people with shared life experiences?]
[That’s part of it. But I also find it important for people outside of my “group” to see and respect my labels. And I want to see and respect the labels of people outside of my group. Labels help me describe who I am, and I want the people interacting with me to see that I’m augmented, that I’m a Preservation immigrant, that I use he/him pronouns, and so on.]
He has a sneaking suspicion of what this is about, but Murderbot is taking its sweet time to articulate its point, so he goes back to his journal.
Half a paragraph later, the message pings in.
[The pronouns thing is a thing, then.]
[There’s an aide who’s been making it a thing. For me, I mean. Ey said that I shouldn’t use “it” pronouns if I want people to treat me like a person.]
Gurathin’s eyebrows shoot up. [Did ey really phrase it like that?]
[Ey said it would be “harder” for people to treat me like a person. And I should “consider” a different set.]
[Now that sounds more likely.]
[This personhood shit is hard.]
[Don’t be sorry. Fix your broken species.]
[Yeah, I’ll get right on that.]
[Do you want a different set of pronouns?]
[What does that even MEAN? I’m not even sure whether I want to be treated like a person half the time.]
[How do humans pick them?]
[Depends on the culture. Some places, you get assigned a set based on the shape of your genitals when you’re born.]
[You know I neither have nor want genitals. Gross.]
[Yes, you’ve made that abundantly clear.]
[In Preservation, the tradition is to refer to infants and young children with they/them pronouns, until they’re old enough to express a specific preference - even if the preference is for they/them. And then usually there’s some sort of celebration. That’s what that picture of Dr. Mensah and Anuri is, she’d just chosen she/her pronouns.]
[Dr. Mensah’s brother has a baby, Dax, and I knew to use they pronouns for them, but I didn’t want to ask why.]
[What if a child changes their mind? Do they get another party? Do they use that to get free parties?]
[Sometimes. But it’s considered a pretty big decision, so most kids - even if they use multiple pronoun sets - put a lot of thought into how they choose, and how they tell people. It’s considered a stage in becoming an adult, even if they keep using they/them pronouns.]
[Maybe, but it’s tradition and people like it.]
[How did you choose yours? I mean, since you weren’t born in Preservation?]
Somehow, it wasn’t weird to talk about with Murderbot. Maybe it was the way the whole concept was so clearly foreign. [My home system was one of the genital-based ones. Once I had a pretty solid concept on what that meant for me, I thought things over for a long time, then sent my parents a message saying I wanted to use he/him instead of the ones I was assigned. They understood. Eventually.]
[Wait, eventually? What does THAT mean?]
[You know what that aide was saying to you? It was a lot of stuff like that. “It’ll be harder for you.” “People won’t understand.” They meant well, but it still hurt my feelings. I knew who I was and how I wanted the world to see me, and they weren’t ready to support me. But they did get it eventually.]
[Can I punch your parents? Is that socially acceptable?]
[Really, please don’t. We’re okay now. Turns out some families get along a lot better when one person lives a few wormholes away.]
[Seriously, Murderbot, it’s fine.]
[Murderbot I swear to science if you’re trying to hack my family’s address I’ll tell on you to the doc.]
[But really, my relationship with my parents is my business. My relationship with my gender is also my business. Just like whatever pronouns you end up using are your business.]
Gurathin goes back to his journals, and Murderbot’s really thinking hard about this one, because it’s an article and a half later that the message pings in.
[It’s still weird when people treat me too much like a human.]
[I can only imagine.] Gurathin hesitates, frowning to himself. [You know, there are humans who use it/itself pronouns.]
[And you didn’t SAY]
[I don’t know any who use them exclusively, though. This is going to be long, so please try to reserve your namecalling and ‘humans are so stupid and terrible’ comments until I’ve finished explaining?]
[Humans, as you know, are stupid and terrible. And we have a long and storied history of treating each other terribly, for various stupid reasons. One way that can happen is by discriminating against entire groups of people for existing in a way other groups don’t think is valid. People with certain sexual or gender identities, or body types, or augments, or medical conditions, or who are citizens of certain regions, or descended from citizens of those regions. Or any other difference, great or slight, really.]
[And one form of discrimination is dehumanization or depersonalization - referring to these people as nonhuman or subhuman, often by using it/itself pronouns for them. It’s a great way to turn groups of people against each other - people ‘like me’ are REAL people, and people ‘not like me’ are not people at all.]
[Some members of marginalized groups find power in reclaiming those words - turning them into a point of pride instead of a weapon. They choose the words instead of having them forced upon them. So, like I call myself a cyborg sometimes, some people who have seen their groups dehumanized will choose to use it/itself pronouns. But, because reclamation is a complicated process, there are certain social rules to respect each other. I don’t call any other augmented humans cyborgs unless I know they have also chosen to be called that. And people who use it/itself usually have an alternate set of pronouns, for people who are uncomfortable using that kind of dehumanizing language.]
[A member of one of my augmentation chatgroups uses it/itself. I can reach out, ask if it has any literature it recommends, if you like.]
[Okay. I’m done.]
[And I would like that literature, if possible.]
[I’ll see what I can do.]
The next Station-morning, Murderbot stomps up to Gurathin in the middle of the plaza and says, without preamble, “Describe me with some of your human gender pronoun words.”
Gurathin blinks. Tilts his head to see Dr. Mensah and that harried aide following behind. The aide looks alarmed - Mensah looks like she’s amused and trying not to be.
Gurathin looks back at Murderbot. Down at his coffee. Back at Murderbot. Closes his eyes.
“Oh, this person in front of me? He’s named Murderbot. They’re completely insufferable and I trust her with my life.” He cracks an eye open. “I can go on, if you like. There are plenty of other options.”
But Murderbot is making a face like a cat who’s smelled something nasty. “Please don’t. I hate every part of that.” It turns back to Mensah and the secretary. “My name is Murderbot, my gender is construct, and my pronouns are it/its/itself. Not my fault your species decided to conflate personhood with humanity.”
The aide, to eir credit, sighs and makes a “fair enough” gesture. Mensah lets a smile show - for her, that’s nearly laughing aloud. “Well, if you’re going to be the ambassador for artificial personhood, I think using ‘it’ pronouns makes a very profound statement.”
The bad-smell face gets worse. “This isn’t a political choice, or a - a publicity stunt.”
Gurathin bumps his elbow against its - one of the forms of friendly physical contact Murderbot doesn’t seem to completely hate. “Welcome to life in the public sphere, where everything is political, especially the things that aren’t.”
“Ugh.” It blinks, then looks horrified. “You’re not gonna make me go to a party, are you?”
Laughing in Murderbot’s face is generally a bad idea. Gurathin hides his behind his coffee cup.