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Culture War Roundup for the week of October 10, 2022

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I'm firmly in the camp of people who doesn't quite understand what a lot of "non-binary" people are doing with gender, despite being somewhat progressive and happy to exercise pronoun hospitality with such people. (I once heard an acquaintance describe their gender by saying, "if man is black, and woman is white, I'm purple - if you see me in monochrome, I'm more masculine, but really I'm not either of them" - and I was more confused than before I heard the analogy.)

I've seen various mottizens bring up the idea of "gender" being the latest subculture like goth or punk, and recently I stumbled across an interesting Tumblr post that accidentally circles around a similar insight. The whole thing is interesting, but I think you can get the gist from the following:

[...] I think there’s an interesting similarity in the way nonbinary (or genderqueer people in general) talk about the nuances of their gender and how people really big into specific music scenes talk about the nuances of the genres they listen to. Like there’s the description you give other people in your community, and the “normie” description you give to people who aren’t as familiar. And “genre” and “gender” are both constructs in similar ways too. Just my little binary observation tho.


so if someone identifies as a demigirl in some circles but to you they just say they’re nonbinary or even just “female”, they clocked you as a gender normie lol.

Now, I grant that the gender-as-fashion analogy isn't the only possible takeaway from this person's observations. I'm reminded of the "soul-editor" from the SCP Foundation Wiki that had symbols from every major world religion, as well as a few unknown ones. Who's to say that some phenomenological aspects of being human aren't so complex that no one set of vocabulary is capable of describing it all? Perhaps some qualities of human minds/souls/whatever are ineffable, or so unique and subjective that one cannot help but create a new label for oneself in describing one's personality?

But I have my doubts. Mostly, I often feel like people must be mislabeling something that I have in my "mental box" as well. (I've read accounts of genderfluid people who talk about "waking up feeling masc" some days and dressing the part, while suddenly and abruptly "feeling femme" partway through the day and wanting to change outfits - and I couldn't help but speculate if they hadn't attached special significance to what I label "moods" in myself.) I don't discount that there are many real human experiences that aren't in my "mental box." In a very real way, I can't do much more than guess what depression, schizophrenia, OCD or dozens of other seemingly real human experiences are like. If I'm being maximally humble about what a tiny part of the vast terrain of possible human experiences I occupy, I have to concede that I can't know that many people aren't out there experiencing "gender" in ways I never will.

My partner is a binary trans man, and many of my friends and acquaintances are part of the LGBT+ community. I still don't quite understand why someone in that extended friend group suddenly finds it very important to change their name, and let everybody know that their pronouns are "she/they" now - while changing nothing else about their appearance or presentation. I'm happy to use a new name for someone, if they don't make such changes too frequently for me to keep up with, but I often feel baffled by why they find it so important? It's not really a big deal to me, but I would like an explanation. Gender-as-fashion seems so tempting as an explanation, but I worry that it might be a false explanation flattening human experiences into something that's more comfortable to me - the same way, "that person who supposedly has ADHD is just lazy" might flatten a person with ADHD into a form more comfortable for neurotypical people, and not in a way that is very sympathetic to the person with ADHD.

In the same way that parapsychology serves as a control-group for science, I think identities like otherkin, transracialism, and systems/plurals/headmates function as a control-group for gender identity. The results don't look good: otherkin used the same framework and seemed to genuinely believe they were experiencing things like feelings of dysphoria at not having their true identities as animals (or sometimes celestial bodies or fictional characters) be accepted. Plurals are a social-justice reimagining of Multiple Personality Disorder/Dissociative Identity Disorder, a condition now heavily discredited and typically considered the product of social contagion from therapists themselves or media portrayals. (Something the plural community doesn't appreciate.) Moreover the number of people identifying as plurals seems much greater than the ones who identified as having MPD during its heyday, presumably thanks to the idea attaching itself to social-justice ideology and spreading through internet communities. People will attest to psychological experiences as extreme as "being multiple people" because of a bit of social influence, but we're to believe vaguer supposed feelings of "gender identity" aren't subject to the same phenomenon?

Like a scientist running 20 tests and reporting one of them positive at P<0.05, we should take notice that there were a whole bunch of communities for special social-justice-related identities and "non-binary" is one of the few that happened to pass the test of getting acknowledgment from mainstream institutions. Even the non-binary concept itself has been noticeably optimized, like how there used to be much more of an emphasis on neopronouns and the terrible "misgendering" of not being called "em" or whatever. Despite being acknowledged as legitimate by a decent fraction of the social-justice community, otherkin still got mocked enough even on websites like Tumblr that they adopted a set of "secret" tags for their posts so it was harder to find them by searching "otherkin", while non-binary identities ended up performing better socially. Non-binary identity also ended up getting much more mainstream acknowledgement than those other identities, presumably because they fit more easily into the same framework of "gender affirmation". Unsurprisingly it is nonbinary identities that have exploded among the young to the point of being mainstream rather than niche internet communities or obscure diagnoses (especially among groups like college students, particularly students at elite colleges).

This brings us to another use for control groups. Binary transgender identification has also exploded among youths/minors (to a lesser degree). If 3.48% of 2021 college students identify as some form of non-binary/genderqueer/agender despite all or most of them not experiencing anything besides a social phenomenon, it seems likely the same phenomenon would be influencing binary transgender identification as well (which has a higher likelihood of spurring medical intervention). I don't know if the correct way to model this is some sort of hard "truscum vs. transtrender" division, the whole model of "gender identity" being wrong, and/or something else. But the combination of rapidly changing statistics (including/especially in communities where transgender people were already so accepted that traditional "closeted" narratives don't work well), seeing how it spreads through peer-groups or various communities like speedrunning, and seeing how the sausage of social/institutional recognition gets made has made me extremely skeptical.

The results don't look good: otherkin used the same framework and seemed to genuinely believe they were experiencing things like feelings of dysphoria at not having their true identities as animals (or sometimes celestial bodies or fictional characters) be accepted.

To be fair, I think there's some interesting stuff that happened in the therianthrope and related shamanistic forms of otherkin-stuff, before it largely got driven off the open web by aggressive trolling and the unification of social media in the late-00s. I don't know that it was ever especially useful, excepting in the ways that other religious-and-not-just-spiritual stuff could be, but to the extent things like 'phantom shifting' eventually could be reinterpreted into dysphoria-like, the WereWEB or era framework wasn't really into that concept. A lot of the extent it has turned into it has be a result of evaporative cooling in the strict "point a laser at it" sense.