SAP SuccessFactors, one of the biggest and most widely used tools for corporate employee management, recently introduced three new gender options that employees can use when filling out information in their systems: unknown, undeclared, and other.
This change was introduced quietly and with absolutely no push back from anyone. For the past three or four years, there has been a maelstrom of controversy surrounding the topic of “gender” and all of its variations. So why isn’t this a big deal now?
I don’t honestly know what first started the movement. The idea that gender, as a social construct, is dynamic and exists on a continuum has been around for a long time in academic circles. But only in the last several years have activists been really pushing for visibility of this idea in the public consciousness.
It is in part related to the increased visibility that the fight for trans rights has received recently. But what may have started out as a discussion of the fact that some people who experience the world as men exist in female bodies, and some people who experience the world as women exist in male bodies, began to include a broader scope. Some began discussing the fact that some people experience the world from neither perspective while others shift from one day to the next. Others brought up that different cultures have unique ways of symbolizing and expressing gender.
Once it was acknowledged that a sense of gender is deeply entwined with many symbolic and emotional aspects of the way one experiences the world, room was made for talking about even more variety.
Not everyone “got” it, of course. For people who are stuck in the notion that “gender” must mean, and can only mean, something to do with genitals and secondary sexual characteristics, the discussion of nuances and cultural variations in “gender” comes across as a lot of hogwash.
These people fall mostly, but not exclusively, on the conservative end of the political spectrum.
Over time, the conversation spread into wider and wider social circles: Tinder adds 37 gender options; Facebook adds 58 gender options. Naturally, poor little conservatives completely freaked out. They mocked the emerging spectrum of different terms for different genders, even creating a bibliography of “The Complete List of Tumblr Genders (SO FAR)” to make fun of them.
For those of you who don’t know, there is an online subculture that exists on the website Tumblr of primarily young activists who have taken to these different notions of gender identity with a fervor. Some of them are probably very sincere and well-intentioned; others clearly don’t understand what “gender” even means. For emo teens who feel lost and disconnected from the world, it can be very satisfying to declare that they have a unique and unheard of “gender” (e.g. “vapogender”, defined on Tumblr as “a gender the sort of feels like smoke”). Nobody really takes these people seriously, but the alt-right loves to target them as evidence that any discussion of genders other than “male” and “female” is wrongheaded and devoid of meaning.
With the Tumblr Teens and the Alt-Right trolls feeding off of each other, things escalated rapidly.
Pretty soon, even middle of the road people started expressing concern in the comments sections of the internet: does it really make sense to live in a world where there are 63 (or 100, or 500) genders? Isn’t that face-value silly?
Many liberals were quick to condemn the Tumblr Teens–and even Facebook or Tinder–for moving too quickly to push the idea of gender as a spectrum. One friend of mine, who happens to be a trans woman, expressed her concern this way: “The problem is that it takes time to teach people the theory and the ideas behind the notion that gender is a spectrum. Some of these activists pushed too hard for people to use the terms, without taking the time to teach the ideas. In the end, that only hurts our cause.”
Negotiate like Trump
But in retrospect, maybe we liberals have been too quick to judge our own. One of the side-effects of all of the “hundreds of genders” craziness is that literally anything fewer than 100 genders now seems humdrum, mundane, or even normal. This phenomenon is known in psychological circles as “anchoring and adjustment“.
Anchoring is a phenomenon where you start out with one mindset or expectation that then is used as a frame of reference for making later evaluations. If someone tells you that you won $100,000, and then you get $50,000 because half of it went into taxes, you feel disappointed… even though if they had simply told you that you had won $50,000 (and you received all of it) you wouldn’t feel disappointed at all. The difference is that in the first case you have set your mental “anchor” at $100,000, and everything else is evaluated compared to that.
There are even people who have claimed that Trump’s outrageous, bizarre and completely over-the-top proposals are actually a super-smart strategy designed to make use of this phenomenon. Jake Fuentes has argued that the initial version of the Muslim Ban was deliberately more extreme than Trump really wanted, so that later versions–still extremely strict–would look mild by comparison. Some have even referred to this as Trump’s master negotiating strategy!
So calm down, liberals! The explosion of “craziness” of 500+ genders wasn’t the far-left going off the deep end, and it wasn’t SJW “extremists” giving liberalism a bad name…
It was just good negotiating! It was anchoring and adjustment. Because now, simply adding “unknown” and “other” to a list of genders is literally nothing by comparison. Nobody cares.
Sorry, “alt-right”: you got played… big league.
The evil genius of the Liberal Hive Mind
I don’t think there was any super-smart “evil genius” liberal behind the scenes, intentionally planning it all out from the beginning: Hey, I know! I’ll get a whole bunch of anxious teens on Tumblr to normalize bizarre lists of hundreds of “genders” just so that later society won’t even blink an eye when gender options beyond “male” and “female” appear! Bwahahahaha!
Not a bit of it. What we are seeing here is an emergent property of the system as a whole: each individual component of the system–including the crazy “Tumblr kids”, the easy-to-needle “Alt Right” snowflakes who over-react to anything they think isn’t “normal”, and the corporate executives as SAP–is acting purely based on its own internal rules, with it’s own internal goals, with absolutely no conscious planning or coordination with (or even knowledge of) the system as a whole.
But the end result appears, from the outside, like a brilliant manipulation. This is one of the types of phenomena that cognitive scientists mean when they talk about group collectives having “mind-like properties”, or when they talk about the collective “consciousness” of a mass of interacting people.
Cognitive Scientist, philosopher, and researcher Marvin Minsky even wrote a book, called The Society of Mind, in which he explains that even your individual, conscious human mind works in the same way much of the time! Your brain is wired up as a collection of separate modules that work completely unconsciously most of the time: there is a bit that does visual processing, and there are bits that do auditory processing, and there are lots of hard-wired and heavily trained habits and reflexes that essentially as their own “programs” that get triggered off whenever certain things happen. Your behavior emerges as a result of the interaction of a bunch of completely separate “brain programs” that each have their own sub-tasks and standard procedures they operate by.
In a way, even your mind often functions like a collection of groups of people, all doing their own thing, but producing what looks like coordinated behavior as a result.
Is the collective hive-mind of American Liberals conscious? I wouldn’t go that far. But, that also doesn’t matter: clearly, despite the seeming craziness of the individual actors involved, as a collective it can get things done.