Gender politics and the essence of humanity

Recent developments in the politics of gender are raising deeper questions about the continuing relevance of gender itself. This week the Alberta government presented a new birth certificate to a twelve year-old girl-by-birth who began identifying as a boy at age nine. The ‘F’ indicating sex on the child’s certificate was changed to an ‘M’.

Alberta student Wren Kauffman, who was recently given legal recognition as a male.

Alberta student Wren Kauffman, who was recently given legal recognition as a male.

Alberta has become the first province to allow such a change for children, who are not eligible for sex reassignment surgery. Court cases in other provinces seem to signal forthcoming nationwide changes in gender identity policy.

As is often the case with complicated social issues, the conspicuous effects of the policy are less important than the subtle, but broader cultural shifts that will follow it.

That is to say, social conservatives are not concerned so much about an Alberta child’s birth certificate as they are about the continued cultural significance of the words “male” and “female”. These concerns are not ludicrous given the tremendous speed of social change in the recent past, and in light of recent media conversations about gender.

In April, Global News ran the headline, “Does gender no longer work on birth certificates?” A Saskatchewan mother of a six year-old transgendered girl noted that birth certificates once listed a child’s race and father’s occupation, and argued that gender designations were just as archaic.

The question is bigger than birth certificates, however. This week, Canadian media reported that the Vancouver School Board had directed its staff to use the pronouns “xe”, “xem” and “xyr” to refer to students of ambiguous sex, or who otherwise do not wish to be called “he” or “she”.

A National Post feature last month was titled “The end of gender? North American society may be ready for more shades in between male and female”. The article quoted a University of Melbourne professor who advocates the abolition of gender itself.

The exemplars in these progreThe Kissssive visions are the minority of individuals who are transgendered or androgynous in some way. But while there are exceptions in circumstance, might it be true in principle that humans are male and female? What would a genderless society mean for our collective human identity?

The denial of the male and female has to be understood in the context of a broader trend: modernity’s tendency to abstract away from human reality for the sake of simplicity and inclusiveness. The last four hundred years have seen the effacement of man’s identity as a spiritual being, as a familial being, and even as a monogamous, heterogamous, or fruitful one. People have become “individuals”, conceived of as intellectual and physical agents and little else.

In the twenty-first century, by abstracting with even more boldness than before, we are at risk of inventing an epicene anthropology, a de-gendered image of humanity in which very few people are made.

The beauty of our civilizational self-portrait has given way to something more schematic, an image that contains no errors but misses the likeness of its subject. Which is more important—that our collective imagination of human identity (symbolized, perhaps, by a birth certificate) is broad enough to include every permutation of individual identity, or that it is deep enough to capture the essence of humanity itself?

Misogyny, horror, and why Millennials need to reform the internet

Something has gone very wrong with the internet. There now exists the clearest evidence yet that the darkest parts of internet culture might be responsible for the deaths of innocent people. An entire generation has shared in the social development of the web–that generation needs to begin reforming the online world they have created.

A subculture of women-hating

In the recent Santa Barbara killings, misogyny seems to have played a central part. The question remains, however: how did women-hating burst out into extreme violence like this, in the person of a young suburban man? More broadly, how do extreme social pathologies survive in our civil society? And where?

The Red Pill

Forums like The Red Pill are visited by thousands of men every day

Online communities seem to be part of the answer. PUAHate, Bodybuilding.com and the /r/TheRedPill forum on Reddit are online forums patronized by the killer. These sites, and similar hangouts, form an underworld of lonely internet users, mostly males in their twenties, who have built up for themselves a dangerous, misogynistic mythology.

Dragged out into the open, the degeneracy of their exchanges is laid bare.

“There is something mentally wrong with the way [women’s] brains are wired … they are incapable of reason or thinking rationally,” the killer was reported to say. With others, he talked about committing violent acts against women. In his case, the violence became real.

While the Santa Barbara killing spree is beyond tragic, a more recent act of web-inspired violence in Wisconsin, this one committed by preteens, is in some ways even more terrifying.

Online horror cults

Last Saturday, a 12 year-old girl was found by a cyclist at the edge of a park, alive but in desperate condition, having been stabbed 19 times. Two of her classmates, also 12, admitted to the attack, which took place after a sleepover. The girls had planned for months to murder their friend as a way to attract the attention of Slenderman, a popular paranormal monster in the “creepypasta” online subculture.

Slenderman

Doctored images like this one, featuring Slenderman, are popular on forums visited by the young Wisconsin attackers

Dozens of questions come to mind. How do young girls get to the point of attempting ritualistic murder? How do preteens, or anyone, find themselves caught up in cult worship of fictitious bogeymen?

The answer again lies online. Hundreds of thousands of internet users are involved in the Creepypasta Wiki, /r/Creepy and /r/NoSleep subreddits on Reddit and dozens of similar forums, where contributors trade literary and graphical depictions of the truly disturbing, in order to find a fearful pleasure in what seems to have become a pornography of horror.

The NoSleep subreddit asks for original, believable content on its homepage: “Remember: everything is true here, even if it’s not. Stories should be believable, but realistic fiction is permitted. Readers are to assume everything is true and treat it as such.”

This is the sort of community in which the Wisconsin middle school killers found themselves involved: an underground bazaar of realistic stories and well-doctored images of Slenderman and other dark figures, designed to provoke a genuine sense of fear.

Imagine a preteen watching horror films alone every night, each about the same eerie monster, without a parent to give comfort or context. Is it a stretch to think the child would start to believe what they were seeing? What is different about what is occurring in online communities?

Internet subcultures

But the problem is even broader than misogyny or horror: anonymous online communities have become havens for every kind of dangerous thinking.

There aren’t just atheist and religious thinkers on the internet; there are forums for people who bully religious people, or for young Muslims who learn to despise Western society. More than just pornographers, there exist fetishistic porn cults. Beyond racial prejudice, there are blogs and meme-dumps full of appalling hostility toward racial minorities; and “social justice warriors” on Tumblr who spend their online lives hurling screeds at “cishet” (cisgender heterosexual) white males. Teenage girls struggling with anorexia looking for help online will likely find the “pro-ana” underworld, which instead of giving healthy advice will tell youths how to hide their condition from their families.

With the help of coaching on internet forums, an awkward twenty-two year-old from California, who probably needed counselling or a role model, began to identify himself as an “incel” (involuntary celibate), an unappreciated “alpha male”, and a victim of female irrationality. Mental illness and chauvinism can’t fully explain his subsequent crimes: the internet seemed to play a crucial role in radicalizing his worldview.

Of course, radical subcultures are a minority of the world’s internet users. Furthermore, killers will come from an even smaller, usually mentally vulnerable subset. But these minorities are still large. More than 50,000 people subscribe to “The Red Pill” and almost half a million to “No Sleep”. It’s plausible that more acts of physical or emotional violence will come out of this cultural cesspool.

Millennials need to reform the internet

In order to mitigate the excesses of internet culture, the web should be shaped into a more mainstream medium. Violence and extremism online will never be stamped out, but they can be pushed to smaller, less accessible fringes of the web. Whatever legitimacy they claim can be taken away.computer

Perhaps reddit.com and other sites could be pressured to close off their darker corners—this has happened once before, when Reddit took down an extremely popular “jailbait”, or clothed child pornography, subreddit. ISPs could be asked to prioritize bandwidth away from sites where there is discussion of illegal activities.

The anonymous, decentralized internet has enabled the creation of unprecedented types of communities, and unprecedented sets of regulations might be required to deal with them. We wouldn’t tolerate nightly meetings of thousands of radical women-haters or Slenderman worshipers in our cities, and we shouldn’t tolerate it on our networks.

Changes to internet culture are unlikely to happen, however, while there exists a silent generational gap. When the parents of Millennials think of the internet, they think of Facebook, YouTube and Wikipedia. When Millennials think of the internet, they’re also picturing Reddit, Tumblr, 4chan, and thousands of smaller sites which cater to particular flavors of extremism.

To save the millions of young people who are engaged in, or who are susceptible to engagement in online subcultures, the older generation needs to become fully aware of these communities. The younger generation, of which I am a part, needs to begin taking responsibility for the cultural wasteland it has created.

Hustings Recap: Europe, Afghanistan, Technology, Methodism

First United Methodist Church in Huntington, West Virginia

First United Methodist Church in Huntington, West Virginia

Over the last week I’ve posted four short entries to The Hustings. Today’s is regarding the doctrinal issues troubling American Methodism:

The deep problem Abraham feared in United Methodism was that the church’s 1968 foundational ethos of Liberal Protestantism, or doctrinal pluralism, had turned into factionalism over time. The potential church-breaker, in Abraham’s judgment, was homosexuality, an issue on which he could see little common ground among conservatives, liberals, and radicals.

[Read more at the Hustings]

My posts last week, on technological advance, US foreign policy in the Middle East and the EU elections are below.

[I]mpending social disruption probably justifies, for a conservative, at least a mild Luddism when it comes to technology. If the ship of civilization is thrown off course by rapid technological change, then its crew might do well to cast an anchor on the side of institutional caution.

[Read more at the Hustings]

President Obama offered an articulate defense of his foreign policy at the US Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. yesterday, asserting that his administration is walking a wise middle road between interventionism and isolationism. Meanwhile, changing circumstances and shifting US priorities in the Middle East are making prognostication difficult for those who hope for stability in the region.

[Read more at the Hustings]

Maybe populist nationalism and anti-immigration activism are far-right, maybe they’re not. But European voting patterns seem to suggest that UKIP and FN’s gains represent more than a move to the right. In fact, most of the popular support for these movements appears to be coming from voters who are, or were, near the centre—on both sides.

[Read more at the Hustings]

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