How liberals (inadvertantly) played the right wing on gender

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?

63 Genders

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.

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  1. Dick Johnson Vagtwat says:

    Judging by the title I thought it would argue that liberals were kind of fooled into accepting notions of sexuality and identity as ordinary choices, rather than something more rigid and even at least partly innate.

    And, being just a choice, it’s consequently okay to have a moral opinion about it, to think there’s right and wrong choices.

    I find funny that in this subject both the extreme right and left-wing tend to favor “constructivist”/nurture side ver innate explanations, as opposed to the standard with IQ and class (and race), where left more unanimously favors “nurture” and the right significantly or largely favors “nature”.

    A second kind of reversal is that conservatives will favor some kind of talk/thought therapy (mostly religious, though) for gender identity disorder, whereas liberals often seem to think that genital reconfiguration surgery is the only way to go, which ironically contradicts the liberal ideals of promoting self-acceptance, favoring rather a radical conformation to societal ideals.

    It’s kind of a “wrong-sex self-shaming” to which they think people should conform, and do something far more radical than something like a liposuction, which they’d often disapprove, “you should accept yourself the way you are, not risk yourself with something that radical. Even dieting isn’t necessarily a good idea.”

    • Greg Stevens says:

      You’ve got some very interesting perceptions of what liberal or “the left wing” believe, although you do seem to qualify it in some places as the “extreme far-left”, so maybe I’m just not particularly in touch with that group and what they think (or what you think they think).

      But, just to take two examples:

      1) Liberals don’t think gender is an “ordinary choice”, they think it is socially constructed, which is a difference that I spend a lot of time explaining here:

      2) Liberals don’t generally think “genital reconfiguration surgery is the only way to go” for people who are trans, only that it should be a viable option for those who wish it.

      So I dunno, man… I’d probably recommend reading and listening to a broader variety of liberal views, rather than getting everything you know about “liberals” from Tumblr.

  2. Mikhail Ramendik says:

    Yay! Finally a good explanation. I had the *feeling* that the “many genders, many pronouns” system. which does not make much sense in itself, was actually useful for making people more free of gender restrictions; but this is HOW!

  3. Scott R. Mattson says:

    Sometimes it is “evil” genius. As a representative to a larger body, we put forward our ONE priority to help with a bandaid solution to precarious academic labour: ten reclassifications of adjuncts who had taught at least 32 courses over eight years to permanent part time, but they can count on getting six courses a year. Of courses FT tenured want more of those positions, but you know how likely that is to happen these days and people need help now. We had bargained for 25 of these back in 2011.

    So, the one priority we put forward was completely ignored to the point of people on the committee feigning surprise as though they had no idea we even asked for them, which surprised the hell out of us. An amendment was made on the spot for ten, but that was voted down. The next chance was a membership meeting where the amendment for ten was reintroduced. I knew about that one. There were also ones for language for conversion (which was pretty premature at this point), and another surprise one asking for the reclassification to permanent, but without a specific number.

    As a social psychologist, I had no choice but use the anchor effect and put forward an amendment for 25, ostensibly because it had already been done years before, was a known animal, and was already in a section of the existing contract. Of course, you can guess what my real purpose was. With all the proposals on the screen and before any discussion, I publicly withdrew my amendment “In the spirit of compromise and good-willed negotiation.” the conversion amendment was also withdrawn.

    Once the amendment with no specific number passed, the next was for ten, but that was also withdrawn out of the spirit of good-will and negotiation so as not to tie the team’s hands. So, despite the committee leadership being so opposed to our priority, it was reinstated by a supermajority vote (44 to 32) in the membership after previously being defeated 32-4 in council. Given the economy of these positions, the employer may yet ask for more than ten, but that number is now in everyone’s mind. I mean, after all and in comparison to 25 or conversion to tenure, it’s so reasonable, no? 😉

    A big thanks to the anchoring effect.

  4. Randy says:

    I never believed all the people who say Trump is some kind of secret genius who is planning to say outrageous things for some kind of big picture strategy later. I think he’s just a big orange ape bumping around with no clue

    • Greg Stevens says:

      I tend to agree, and not just about Trump: in general, whenever I hear some kind of theory about an “evil genius” behind the scenes planning these complex super-chess moves into the future, I always think it’s more likely that a collection of people stumbling around in the dark accidentally fumbling into an outcome that someone likes (or hates). Part of the beauty of “emergent consciousness”.

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