If ‘Kevin the teenager’ was re-made today it’s easy to imagine him railing against his heteronormative parents

Happy non-binary day!

How internet communities are validating the fragile egos of adolescents

Artillery Row

Grab a flag and polish your pronoun badge, today is ‘international non-binary day.’  According to the UK’s leading LGBT giant Stonewall, non-binary is a “term for people whose gender identity doesn’t sit comfortably with ‘man’ or ‘woman.” This special subset of people, who lay largely undiscovered before the age of the internet, claim to have an internal sense of being that cannot be categorised by the boring old ‘innie or outie’ sex divide.  Fail to accept and celebrate non-binary identities and you will be cancelled.

Thinking of oneself special and misunderstood is archetypal adolescent behaviour, indeed, were ‘Kevin the teenager’ re-made today it’s easy to imagine him with asymmetric hair, railing against his ignorant heteronormative parents.  It would be tempting to bracket ‘non-binary’ alongside ‘goth’, ‘emo’ or any other youth subculture too, were it not for the fact that this vocal minority have the backing of politicians and powerful lobby groups.  As JK Rowling so recently discovered, the clamour to silence and shame those who resist is deafening. Attempts to change the law to include an ‘x’ on passports and to alter the census to accommodate the ever-growing list of gender identities put a sobering lens on this ludicrous trend.

I first discovered this around two years ago when I met with civil servants at the Government Equalities Office to discuss the proposal to amend the Gender Recognition Act. As I sat in front of the two eager young women, who undoubtedly thought me a dreadful bigot, I lightly suggested ‘Oh, well I’m sure we can at least all have a laugh about the blue-haired students who call themselves non-binary.’  There was a stony silence followed by the noise of their jaws dropping. It seems I had made a heinous error, I had assumed that they would agree with me that however one identifies, bodies remain either male or female.  Indeed, I was somewhat patronisingly told that it was feminist to identify as ‘non-binary’; as a feminist it is clear to me that the perennial problems of male violence and women’s right to bodily autonomy will not be solved by creating more boxes into which one can identify.

The industry of social media exists to capture the attention of users, tapping into the neurological responses that our hard-wired

Underscoring the non-binary nonsense are sad stories of young people desperately trying to make sense of where they fit.  Outlining a generational shift San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge paints a picture of children and young people who are suffering from significantly higher rates of serious psychological distress with adolescence stretching into adulthood. As Twenge notes:

“the allure of independence, so powerful to previous generations, holds less sway over today’s teens, who are less likely to leave the house without their parents. The shift is stunning: 12th-graders in 2015 were going out less often than eighth-graders did as recently as 2009.”

Twenge sees a causative link between the increase in mental illness in teenagers and the rise of the mobile phone.

The normal markers by which we categorise and, rightly or wrongly, judge people, do not exist in the online world. Arguably, to a teenager who navigates the social media with zem/ zir pronouns and a set of cat ears, the real world in which physical attributes matter might seem unfair.  This in turn tempts people to spend even more time online, where their identities are not only validated, they are weaponised.  On YouTube, Reddit, Tumblr and TikTok squadrons of young people, some with statutory or NGO funding, teach the science of how to spot phobias, and the art of how to be offended.  This is the crucible in which cancel culture has been formed.

In ‘genderqueer generation,’ a series of interviews for the Guardian, supported by Open Societies Foundation, young people explain how they first came to understand themselves as non-binary. Every single one mentions time spent online, with one, a teenager called River explaining: “I discovered the whole LGBTQ community online around 2017 when I started using social media more often. I was coming to terms with myself and my sexuality. I stumbled upon a lot of terms and one of them was “non-binary”.”

The simple solution might be to say ‘just put your phone down,’ but the industry of social media exists to capture the attention of users, tapping into the neurological responses that our hard-wired from our distant animal past.  Sites like Facebook were designed to be addictive, to give a dopamine hit with each ‘like’ and comment. Quite simply, this is because more clicks means more data, and data is money.

For the teenagers who consider themselves non-binary the world is a hostile place, full of discrimination and hatred. Pronoun badges and flags validate these fragile internet-formed egos.  Ideology for those of the so-called ‘gender queer generation’ is bound-up with their identities, not so much ‘identity politics’ as ‘political identities.’ Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that these confused and censorious young people are unable to accept challenge or criticism, and are fanatical in their drive to close down any viewpoints which threaten their sense of self.

It is not left-wingers in academia or sloppy parenting that’s driving cancel culture, it’s the social shift to online living and the unscrupulous behaviour of organisations that should know better. In the UK non governmental organisations depend upon reports of phobia and discrimination; that’s what keeps the cash coming in. The more mental illness and accusations of bigotry the better. The upshot is, one can now sit in a room with sober civil servants and be authoritatively told that non-binary people exist, and that their identities are valid.

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