Lately, the internet has been awash with new gender and sexual identities. On the gender side, the strict dichotomy of male and female has given way to a proliferation of possibilities, including agender, transgender and gender fluid; these categories have entered the public consciousness to the point where Facebook recently changed the way it handles gender, allowing users to pick from fifty-six different options instead of just the usual two. As for sexuality, the choices are no longer limited to heterosexual and homosexual; the list has grown to include asexual, sapiosexual, and demisexual as well.
As usual when society changes, we see a lot of people lauding this trend as the next big step towards freedom, equality, and acceptance, and we also see a lot of people condemning this trend as a sure sign that society is headed straight to hell. Both views have their merits, and I don’t want to argue about which one is right. Instead, I want to ask a different question: why is society changing in the first place? What sorts of cultural and environmental pressures are causing people to be dissatisfied with their default genders?
All sorts of explanations have been proposed. One is that people have always longed for this freedom to choose their own gender, but up until now, society has been too bigoted and close-minded to allow it. Another explanation blames plastics and other industrial chemicals for interfering with our hormones, causing many people to feel at odds with their biological gender.
In this post I’d like to put forth another potential explanation, which is that our cultural obsession with fine-grained gender identities is a natural consequence of living in a rigid bureaucratic society.
As Ribbonfarm explains, in order to function, bureaucracies require the world to be legible.
The idea of legibility is rooted in our human need for order. The neater and more organized the world is, the easier it is for us to process and interact with it. From Ribbonfarm:
In Mind Wide Open, Steven Johnson’s entertaining story of his experiences subjecting himself to all sorts of medical scanning technologies, he describes his experience with getting an fMRI scan. Johnson tells the researcher that perhaps they should start by examining his brain’s baseline reaction to meaningless stimuli. He naively suggests a white-noise pattern as the right starter image. The researcher patiently informs him that subjects’ brains tend to go crazy when a white noise (high Shannon entropy) pattern is presented. The brain goes nuts trying to find order in the chaos. Instead, the researcher says, they usually start with something like a black-and-white checkerboard pattern.
The idea of legibility is as follows: when a system is so complex that we can’t process it, we change that system to make it simpler. Ribbonfarm gives the example of “scientific” forestry:
The early modern state, Germany in this case, was only interested in maximizing tax revenues from forestry. This meant that the acreage, yield and market value of a forest had to be measured, and only these obviously relevant variables were comprehended by the statist mental model. Traditional wild and unruly forests were literally illegible to the state surveyor’s eyes, and this gave birth to “scientific” forestry: the gradual transformation of forests with a rich diversity of species growing wildly and randomly into orderly stands of the highest-yielding varieties. The resulting catastrophes — better recognized these days as the problems of monoculture — were inevitable.
Bureaucracies are known for being rigid, dehumanizing, soul-sucking things, and it’s easy to see how legibility is responsible for this. Every piece of paperwork makes the world more legible, by distilling the complexity of our lives down to a few discrete fields. When you apply for a job, your application will be reviewed by some guy hunched over his desk, reading through 500 similar applications while drinking his third cup of coffee that morning. He doesn’t care about you as a person, in all your glorious uniqueness and complexity. He just wants to get through your application as quickly as possible. The job application form makes his life easier because he can see at a glance where you went to school, what your previous work experience is, and so on. It lets him decide very quickly whether you’re qualified for the job. The paperwork makes you legible to him.
But it also means there’s no room for individual differences and special cases. If you never went to college and you have no work experience in that field, the guy at the desk might throw away your application, even if you’re self-taught and brilliant and you really would be the best person for the job. And thus all of us have learned: the system does not reward people who are brilliant and capable. The system rewards people who are brilliant and capable and willing to play by its rules. The system is dehumanizing because it reduces a whole, complicated, intricate human being down to a handful of statistics.
As this example hopefully makes clear, bureaucracies don’t do this because they’re evil. They do it because they’re in a hurry and they don’t have time to consider the complicated details of everyone’s individual lives. Bureaucracies are like assembly lines. Before assembly lines, you had a whole bunch of craftsmen each making just a few items at a time. If a woodworker made chairs with two different shapes of legs, that was fine, because he could build two different chair-seats, one that went with each pair of legs. But in a factory, it’s essential that all parts be identical; that’s what makes the assembly line run quickly.
Analogously, when the world was smaller and less centralized, it used to be that a few individuals could gather together and work problems out for themselves. Because these people were operating on a small scale (three or four people rather than hundreds, thousands, or millions), it was possible to deal with each person at high resolution; it was possible to take everyone’s complex personalities into account when devising a solution. But a bureaucracy is dealing with thousands and thousands of cases at a time; it doesn’t have time to devise a unique solution for every individual problem. So instead, it pattern-matches each problem to some general class of problems, and applies a one-size-fits-all solution.
Now let’s return to the original topic of the post. Why on earth would rigid bureaucracies cause people to develop new gender identities?
To answer that, let’s consider the following situation. Suppose you’re a grad student, and your life has been pretty stressful lately. Maybe your girlfriend just broke up with you, or maybe your mom is in the hospital. Whatever the reason is, you’re having trouble focusing on your schoolwork, and you decide you want to take a semester off. Well, if your school is anything like mine, then in order to take a semester off, you have to apply for a leave of absence, which they’ll give you if you have a medical condition, a family hardship, or you need to do military service. Family hardship covers the “mom is in the hospital” case, but what about the guy whose girlfriend just broke up with him? Well, it turns out there’s a medical condition that corresponds to his problems, and it’s called “depression”. So all he needs to do is go to a doctor, explain what’s going on in his life, and get a diagnosis.
I have a lot of problems with how our culture views “mental health issues”, but that’s not the point I’m trying to get at right now. I don’t want to debate whether this hypothetical student is actually depressed, or whether depression is actually a medical condition. Instead, I want to point out that pasting a label of “depression” onto this guy’s life didn’t change his situation in any way. He was just as depressed about his breakup before a psychologist filled out an official-looking form as he was afterwards. And yet, prior to receiving that label, this guy was not qualified for a leave of absence. After receiving the label, he was. The label didn’t change his problem; it just made it visible to the bureaucracy.
The point I’m trying to get at is that our bureaucratic society is sending us a powerful message: until your problem has a name, it doesn’t exist.
And this is grad school, where people are treated as individuals to the point where every student is personally mentored by a successful researcher in the field. Grad students have it easy compared to the elementary, middle, and high school students at your average public school. If a 10-year-old with Asperger’s gets overwhelmed by all the noise and commotion in gym class, the gym teacher can’t just notice this and allow the student to sit out. The parents need to take their child to a psychologist, procure a diagnosis of autism, and bring this to the school; only then can any action be taken.
I don’t mean to say that this system is all bad. If the gym teacher is ignoring the problem, a note from the doctor can force her to take it seriously. And on the other hand, requiring a doctor’s note keeps the kid from faking an illness, or the teacher from playing favorites.
But this system does have its consequences. Once the child is labeled as “autistic”, the diagnosis can never be taken back. It will color how the parents view their child’s behavior, and ultimately influence how the child views himself. This makes a diagnosis of autism different from, say, a diagnosis of diabetes. Both are permanent conditions, and knowing about either of them will change how the child interfaces with the world. But the symptoms of autism, unlike those of diabetes, cover aspects of one’s personality and preferences that have traditionally been included as part of the self. This makes autism compelling as an identity label in the way that diabetes is not.
Psychiatric diagnoses are everywhere these days. We are faced with a generation of children and young adults who have received these diagnoses, and who see them as a fundamental part of their identities. And it was the act of getting diagnosed, the act of having these identities recognized officially, that allowed these students’ individual differences to finally be taken seriously.
In our label-driven society, receiving the right classification is essential for ensuring that you are treated in a manner that befits you as a person. That’s why it’s important to find a set of labels that fit you well, and to make sure that those labels are accepted by society at large.
So is it any surprise that people are seeking out finer-grained gender identities, ones which describe their personalities better than “male” or “female” could? It is a surprise that people consider these labels so incredibly important?
My prediction is that the new gender identities will be embraced most strongly by people who have also strongly embraced one or more psychiatric diagnoses. And this prediction seems to be borne out by the number of people on the internet who introduce themselves by some combination of gender and psychiatric identities. “Hi, I’m a non-binary asexual submissive with anxiety and depression.”
So that’s my answer. Why do we create these identity labels, these ever-finer-grained descriptions of who we are? Maybe it’s because we live in a rigidly bureaucratic society, where our individual differences will only be noticed if they have a label attached. Maybe it’s because we’re used to having our dimensionality reduced down to a few searchable keywords. Maybe we’re trying to make ourselves visible by making ourselves legible. Maybe we, as a culture, have internalized the idea that if something doesn’t have an official label, it might as well not exist.