I watched a type of argument the other night that I had only ever heard rumors of. It was a conflict that surprised everyone, I think, even the two people involved, and it’s a conflict that frames the new “social justice movement” in a sordid light.

It happened in a coffee shop and it happened very fast — like one of those videos where a croc nabs an unsuspecting zebra from the edge of a watering hole. And I think the speed and volatility of the reaction is symptomatic of a very strange and dangerous balance our culture is grappling with.

Freedom of speech and political correctness.

I was waiting in line to order a coffee. I was groggy, thrashed by an already-weird day and looking for a quick caffeine kick. The barista was a twenty-something transgender woman and she was engaged in a friendly conversation with the man in front of me. They were talking about some book and the conversation was very cordial. Flirtatious, even. 

Right up until the man signed his receipt and handed it back.

“Thanks, man,” he said, with a polite smile.

The barista paused, momentarily, her expression changing. I watched as the gears within her mind began cranking up to terminal velocity, mounting towards the inevitable explosion.  

That poor bastard didn’t even realize what he’d said. He was still smiling stupidly, holding his fresh latte and turning to go find a seat when she collared him.

“Excuse me?”

My mouth opened excitedly. This was it, I thought. Finally, I was going to bear witness to one of these fabled confrontations. And I had a front row seat.

“What did you call me?” She asked, an edge in her voice.

The man turned slowly, his smile fading, his foamy beverage trembling on its saucer. “I-“

“NO! Do I look like a man to you?”

“No, I-“

“Then I’ll ask you again: what did you just call me?”

The buzzing coffee shop went instantly silent. Everyone was suddenly tuned in, watching to see what might happen next.

Which, the offending man was painfully aware of. He didn’t know what to say. He was panicking, a deer in the headlights, struck dumb by the audacity of his accidental transgression and petrified by the swift and savage response.

“I didn’t mean anything by it…” Was all he could manage.

For what it’s worth, I believed him. There was no malice in what he said. It was an honest mistake of habit. But to the transgender woman serving him, it was an affront, a direct and cruel attack on her identity, and she wanted retribution.

Suffice it to say, things got very uncomfortable after that. I will not go into the details, because I don’t feel like they’re necessary. A manager came out, excuses were made, apologies were exchanged, and then it was my turn to order.

But the incident stuck with me. I kept thinking about it for the rest of the evening — questions turning over in my head: How would I feel if I had been the one mis-gendered? Have I ever mis-gendered someone? Who was in the wrong at that coffee shop?

To answer succinctly: I would feel bad; I probably have; and, in my humble opinion, the barista.

Before you go lighting torches and handing out pitchforks, allow me to explain myself. Because I do not want to come off as someone who is against the transgender community. I am not a bigot or a homophobe, I do not care about others’ sexual preferences, orientations or otherwise and I value personal freedom perhaps more than anything else in our society.

BUT, social justice should not be a game of semantics. It should be about values. We should not be waiting with our fingers on the trigger, to pump whoever slips up first full of lead. That barista reacted like she’d been waiting all day for someone to make that mistake, and when her moment finally came, she wasted not even a second in calling the “offender” out. And I don’t think it was necessary.

Some people will disagree with that. They’ll argue that he should have been paying more attention; he shouldn’t be using gender specific pronouns like “man”, anyway; he should have started apologizing as soon as he realized his blunder.

Okay. Maybe. Here’s the thing, though: imposing correct pronoun usage encroaches dangerously on people’s freedom of speech. We’ve got zims and zher’s, ze’s, xe’s, shkle’s, thon’s, hu’s, herm’s and hum’s, we’ve got more gender specific and non-specific pronouns than anyone can keep track of. It’s a linguistic clusterfuck out there. Making words like these up and expecting people to use them correctly is not moving us any closer to objective equality or social justice. It only makes our freedom of speech less free.

Pronouns are hardly worth that kind of rage, anyway. If a person mis-genders your dog, you don’t go jumping down their throat — you politely correct their mistake and move on. If someone mis-genders another person, without malicious intent, what good does it do to attack them?

Sure, if the customer had done it on purpose, that barista would have been totally justified in her response. Hell, I would have jumped the guy with her. Blatant discrimination and spite do not sit well with me.

But neither does needless hostility, or over-sensitivity.

And, more to the point, it’s counterproductive for the social justice movement at large. In a nation that is riddled with as much bigotry and fear as America is right now, people need to pick their battles carefully. Incidents like this one offer fodder for the racists, the bias, the foolish and afraid. The Brietbart people. They capitalize on these kinds of silly over-reactions, use them as examples of what they’re “up against.”

There are more serious bones to be picked.

This is an unusual problem for a society. Never before in our history have we had so much time to agonize over linguistic nuances and this thing called “political correctness.” Once upon a time, every meal was a question of fortune, every day could have been your last, everybody was struggling to make it, and nobody had the time or energy to lash out at each other for using the wrong word.

I am not suggesting that things were better that way, back then. Not at all. There was rampant racism, sexism, bigotry of all shapes and breeds throughout history. But, there were also more important things to worry about than pronoun usage.

We had thicker skin, to put it simply. It was the only way to live among others.

Today, however, we have massive social media networks that watch with a Sauron-like eye for anyone who might be acting politically incorrect, or “intolerant”. We have “social justice warriors” who want to punish people for not being liberal enough. We have competitive victimhood, and unchecked self-segregation. People are isolating themselves within echo-chambers, little bubbles full of others who think just like them, who have exactly the same value systems.

And when they venture out into the real world and encounter someone who doesn’t, it results in a scene much like the one I witnessed at that coffee shop.

The answers to all this seem simple: don’t be a dick, respect people’s freedom of choice, freedom of identity and freedom of speech. Treat others how you want to be treated.

In practice, however, such solutions don’t unfold so simply. And, in fact, that’s exactly why we’re dealing with all this in the first place.