by Ryan Mayo
Abstract: The millennial generation tends to see social realities primarily through the lens of group identity and inter-group relations, which often shapes the dialogue in unhelpful and distorted ways. Facebook’s expansion of gender options in 2014 highlights the moral fuzziness at play in some Millennial perspectives regarding the current issues of inequality, identity, and marginalization.
In 50 years, it may be difficult to sort out the legacy of the Millennial generation1 on the American cultural landscape2. Millennials will certainly be commended for their collective bravery in social movements, as nearly every “marginalized” group is rapidly becoming “unmarginalized”. Our great-grandchildren will read that homosexuality, for example, has gone from a psychiatric disorder to an acceptable – even championed – lifestyle in just two generations3. Either by inheriting the social inertia of their parents or by developing their own activist muscles, Millennials are currently shaking the world.
Perhaps, though, in our haste to normalize each and every minority status with respect to race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, religion, weight, ability, and intelligence, the courageous Millennials are displaying laziness in asking fundamental questions. Is progress always progress if we’re unsure of the goal? Is it a moral good that a human being can publicly identify in a category that didn’t exist 20 years ago? Who are the gatekeepers for legitimizing an orientation or an experience?
At the start of 2014, Facebook quietly announced that it expanded its gender options from two to fifty-six. The Director of Growth for the company said it was previously wrong of them to prohibit their users from “expressing something so fundamental” and hoped that the changes would lead to a more “understanding and tolerant world.” Now users are able to skip the binary “male” or “female” descriptions and choose “custom,” which then lets them choose up to ten of the possible fifty-six options. Here’s the full list:
- Cis Female
- Cis Male
- Cis Man
- Cis Woman
- Cisgender Female
- Cisgender Male
- Cisgender Man
- Cisgender Woman
- Female to Male
- Gender Fluid
- Gender Nonconforming
- Gender Questioning
- Gender Variant
- Male to Female
- Trans Female
- Trans Male
- Trans Man
- Trans Person
- Trans Woman
- Trans* Female
- Trans* Male
- Trans* Man
- Trans* Person
- Trans* Woman
- Transgender Female
- Transgender Male
- Transgender Man
- Transgender Person
- Transgender Woman
- Transsexual Female
- Transsexual Male
- Transsexual Man
- Transsexual Person
- Transsexual Woman
It is not within the scope of this conversation to parse out the details of these new options4. Depending on your worldview, it is either exciting or frightening that many these identities, which Facebook now determines to be “fundamental” to human existence, did not exist in previous generations. But I think Facebook’s announcement is important because it provides a case study for how Millennials think about inter-group relations. Of all the possible ways to view society, millennials seem to be most drawn to group dynamics. That young people are increasingly prone to tribalism both online and offline has been well-documented by market research5 and social commentators. Even the young adult literature bears this out, as observed in Anna Mussmann’s sweeping critique of generational dynamics in literature:
“When young adult fiction encourages reliance on transitory, peer-based relationships, it casts off the unifying role that classic literature once played. Our stories [such as Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Fault in our Stars, etc.] no longer bind multiple generations together. Instead they divide them…The qualities which unify a culture, such as music, etiquette rules, and stories, are all things of which youth have their own.6”
What does this have to do with Facebook’s fifty-six genders? Put simply, the largest social media system decided it was morally unjust to withhold these group identities from its users7. In Facebook’s eyes, each new gender option represents an oppressed minority group seeking to normalize itself in society. Ironically, the rallying cries for LGBT+ individuals have shifted away from resisting being placed in neat little boxes to demanding fifty-six neat little boxes. But the central motivations are the same: autonomy across all preferred characteristics and a public platform to announce your group identity to the world. GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) worked in conjunction with Facebook for several years before last week’s announcement. GLAAD’s vice president of communication connected the announcement to the “staggeringly disproportionate rates of discrimination” that transgendered people face. GLAAD’s president further praised Facebook for the new options and its commitment to authenticity and “ensuring that the platform is safe and accessible to all its LGBT users.” And Allison Palmer, GLAAD’s former V.P. of Programs and Campaigns who pioneered the changes, reported that “Facebook’s change is one step toward removing obstacles to transgender and gender nonconforming people’s safety and ability to participate fully in their lives…More of us will find the space to live authentically to who we really are.” The implicit (and often explicit) message stands: unless individuals can publicly claim the precise group identities they want, self-expression has been suppressed and injustice has occurred. However, it is fascinating to note that this only applied to North American Facebook users8.
This amplified autonomy and concern for inter-group injustice has been monopolizing the news lately, from the Arab Spring’s political protests to the coverage of Missouri football player Michael Sam’s sexual orientation. Millennials seem to be obsessed with oppression and liberating individuals and groups from it, and in many cases the world is better for it. But two deeper questions remain unanswered. What are the proper criteria for determining oppression and oppressors? And once we open a national dialogue about group relations, oppression, and privilege, how do we keep conversations from ending with unhelpful accusations of privilege?
The not-so-subtle leap from belonging to a group to positioning your group over and against other groups in the American social landscape brings all kinds of trouble. Where this sort of jockeying occurs, it always brings with it the discussion of oppression by one group over another. In many ways this is a natural progression, since whatever problems we see in our slice of society can be perceived to arise from the current power structure9. However, it is my opinion that inter-group oppression is the most distracting conversation among Millennials, since it often diminishes talks of actual injustice and places unnecessary and unhelpful obligations on entire groups. A hierarchy of privilege and persecution is quietly coloring our conversations of justice and identity, and for every legitimate cry of oppression there is a false cry that distracts our efforts.
For an example, we can look at the sweeping shifts in the official definition of racism from university administrations. Gone is the simple idea that racism is a prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism of an individual or ethnicity based on racial factors. In its place is a hierarchy of privilege and oppression. One example comes from the Texas A&M office of the Vice President, which now defines racism as:
The systematic subordination of members of targeted racial groups who have relatively little social power in the United States (Blacks, Latino/as, Native Americans, and Asians), by the members of the agent racial group who have relatively more social power (Whites).
Note the shift at play here: the positioning of intergroup relations has dominated a conversation about discrimination. Instead of addressing how any individual or group could commit racist actions, the dialogue has changed to reflect the idea that racism only exists or matters if it’s committed by a member of a privileged group10. Once the idea that group privilege could influence the reality of racism had settled into our social fabric and our universities, it was only a matter of time before privilege began to color all of the national conversations in which group identities and inter-group relations played a central role. The LGBT movement could be championed as a group of oppressed minorities instead of a fringe cohort of aberrant sexual preferences, and the members of Occupy Wall Street could be seen as oppressed wage-slaves. Even the Trayvon Martin shooting was interpreted more through the lens of racial discrimination than through the lens of legal justice in the state of Florida.
Often these criteria are valid. Certainly, there are examples of real injustice inflicted by members of one group onto another group, such as the American slave trade (racial) or the Stonewall raids (sexual preference). But it would be a mistake to assume that each member of one group always participates in oppression or that each member of the other group is always oppressed. The vast majority of 19th-century Americans did not own slaves, for example, and yet they belonged to a century that will be remembered for it11.
Some group identities claim oppression simply because they feel their practices are not accepted by the general public, regardless of whether or not their group has been targeted or mistreated. Further, once a group identifies as “oppressed,” there is pressure to name an oppressor – usually the most-populated “normal” group. In America, the default agents of oppression are White, male, heterosexual, American, Christian, able-bodied, college-educated employees12. Thus, we often hear about White privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, and so on.
Unfortunately, even earlier debates that historically haven’t contained any language of group identity are borrowing the themes of group oppression. Theologian John Frame identifies the new shift in the unlikely arena of abortion debate:
The present argument is not that unborn children are less than persons. The present dominant argument is that to restrict abortion is to oppress women by limiting their choices. That argument has been made, of course, since the seventies, when the term “pro-choice” was born. But in the last five years it has really caught fire13.
The subtle change is noteworthy: the ethics of abortion are now being framed in language that suggests men (a perceived oppressor group identity and thus unprotected) are oppressing women (a perceived oppressed group identity and thus protected) by restricting their freedom to abort. Perhaps it would be wiser to speak of the least protected individuals (the developing baby) rather than the protected group identities!
Returning to Facebook’s new choices, we should also understand that these options for gender and sexual orientations create new obligations for society in general. At their subtlest, they ask that we learn their new terminology (pronouns, in the case of new genders). At their most dramatic, they create all sorts of new offenses, discriminations, and “rights.” The Toronto School Board, for example, has recently revised their official guidelines for transgendered elementary students. Among other things, transgendered children have a right to be addressed by their preferred gender and a right to use a bathroom that “best corresponds to the student’s gender identity, regardless of the student’s sex assigned at birth.” Of course, neither Canadian or American governments would allow a ten-year-old to vote, drive, drink alcohol, enlist in military service, or be tried as an adult; and yet the school boards must submit to the preferred gender identities of these children. The school board further adds that it would be “unacceptable” to require these students to prove their new gender identity through legal documents or a doctor’s note. And with any new rights come new societal obligations to safeguard those rights. By recognizing each of these new identities, has Facebook reinforced the idea that there are fifty-four more oppressed groups that can now legitimately claim victim status14?
Questions abound. One of the foundational issues behind these group identities is that of autonomy and authority. Who or what legitimizes your identity, whether it is yours or your group’s? Does finding my group in Facebook’s 2014 options make it more acceptable or more real than it was a year ago? Do peers really have that kind of anointing power, or must an institutional power structure validate an identity? And though we now hold these identities to be self-evident, how will we feel about them in a few more decades?
1. Those born between 1980 and 2000, following Generation X.
2. It will be even more difficult to evaluate their moral contributions to society. Did their actions produce a net good?
3. In 1974, the language about homosexuality in the DSM-II was changed to reflect that individuals with same-sex attraction were not disordered unless they were unhappy with their attractions.
4. It’s likely that a panel of trained counselors would have difficulty parsing out the differences or rationale for some of them.
5. Bazaar Voice, a market research firm that traces trends in generational data, put out an interesting summary about the shopping habits of Millennials. Brand loyalty is fading, but peer group loyalty is quickly on the rise.
6. In and of itself, this tendency is merely human; we gravitate most easily and most often toward people who share our hobbies, interests, and experiences. While this can be taken to unhealthy levels in our churches, businesses, and politics, a strong sense of group identity is not inherently wrong or toxic.
7. Some might argue that Facebook’s company policies do not necessarily reflect the general attitude of Millennials. This is probably a fair critique, but I am comfortable saying that social media and smartphones will be remembered by the Millennials as the biggest game-changing inventions of their lives, and Facebook was the flagship connecting point. There are certainly some Millennials that have avoided Facebook, but they have all been shaped by it.
8. Apparently these waves of social justice have real religious and geopolitical boundaries.
9. So if Whites are in power in a city, then the problems of that city can be naturally seen as White-originating problems.
10. No doubt these lines of thinking have spawned the popular hashtag #WhitePeopleCan’tExperienceMurder. The argument here is that murder is power + killing, so when a white person is killed by a minority, it is simply a killing.
11. Ironically, white people also ended slavery, and African slavers typically sold their fellow Africans into it, but these details are often left out of the national conversation.
12. Probably in that order.
13. From “Ministries of Mercy to the Unborn.” Accessible online through his joint website: http://www.frame-poythress.org
14. The term “microaggression” has sprung up in the wake of these new societal obligations and is now being used by public universities to describe the next wave of slights based on group identity, according to a New York Times editorial by Tanzina Vega. Going forward, intent may no longer be an important factor in discrimination toward groups.
This post was written by Ryan Mayo, Director of Programming at the Oread Center. Please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.