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Individual Conformists

Updated: Sep 20, 2021

This is the message they get all day every day. In the classroom, in the hallways, on their screens, on TV. 24/7.

One thing I have noticed by listening to students in the classroom is that they are, at the same time, highly individualistic *and* conformist. Both. This showed itself in spades today in my philosophy class. Preferred pronouns came up during a class discussion. Almost every student, including Christian students that attend very solid churches, readily bought the standard gender narrative: identity is found by looking within and declaring “your truth.” The body has nothing to do with identity. It is all based on self-declaration, and those in society should “respect” that identity by using language that assents to it. When it comes to gender, most, about 90%-- were supremely confident of this, so much so that dissenting from it was enough to brand a person a bigot.

A student timidly asked: if a white woman identifies as black, is she?

Immediately gets shot down. Obviously, most students declared, that doesn’t fly. Race is genetic. That’s offensive for the white woman to say that, and that settles it, end of story.

So I started to ask some questions:

"But wait," I said, "that’s 'her truth.' You just said identity was found by looking within, and the body has nothing to do with it. Why does the body have nothing to do with identity in the one area but everything to do with identity in the other area? If people with male bodies can really be women if they so identify, why can’t people with white skin really be black if they so identify?"

Their response: well, gender is a social construction, and black people have experienced oppression. There is a whole history--a “lived experience”--that white people don’t have.

"Ok, point granted," I mused, "but you can’t say the same about women? There’s a whole host of “lived experience”--much of which is necessarily connected to biology--that a man doesn’t have. Surely we don’t want to say that lived experience becomes someone’s simply on the basis of a self-declaration, right? And: gender is a social construction, but race isn’t? Or: race is genetic, but being a man or woman isn’t?"

Next: Well, gender is a state of mind. Sex is biological.

One more from me: "But you are not just saying that someone with a male body *perceives* himself to be a woman, or that he behaves in a way that most people associate with womanhood. You are saying that such a person literally is a woman in every sense of the word, just based on a declaration. Trans men are men...period, end of story. Identity comes from within, remember? A person’s declaration is enough to make reality, so much so that we all must go along with it or else we are being deeply disrespectful. The distinction therefore seems like a dodge to use when convenient. It is a motte and bailey."

We went around a bit more. Some thought deeper, but plenty dug in their heels, defending turf. This is fine; they get to do that, but they are pretty much following prevailing trends. Here's the takeaway: they are radical expressive individualists because that’s what they’ve been fed from an early age. So they conform to it, unless it clashes with something they want more, which in this case is looking good to their “inner ring.” Assenting to the standard identity narrative is popular when it comes to gender, so they conform. Dissenting from the standard identity narrative is popular when it comes to race, so they conform. A conformity of convenience either way.

That’s about as deep as it goes for most students...for most adults, too.

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