The Other McCain

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Synthetic ‘Community’: Social Media and Rapid-Onset Gender Dysphoria

Posted on | May 17, 2018 | 4 Comments

Kids want to belong. In the confusing storms of adolescence, defining yourself as a member of a group becomes a source of security. Historically, this has taken the form of tribalism — ethnicity and family as the basis of identity, typically reinforced by religious belief.

When a crowd of Irish Catholics turn out for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, they are celebrating a shared sense of self, rooted in the organic reality of their common ancestry and group heritage. The security of organic community is to be contrasted with artificial or synthetic “communities” which in modern cultures are largely produced by the media. For example, why does someone identify as a “gamer”? They spend their time immersed in the hobby of playing videogames, and begin to think of other people participating in online multi-player games as friends or enemies. This digital fantasy environment becomes a basis of identity, so that the obese teenager in his mom’s basement thinks of himself in the heroic game role (e.g., a Navy SEAL fighting jihadis) and his self-esteem is invested in his success or failure in the online game.

Such synthetic “communities” can have dangerous consequences, as when impressionable and alienated young men are attracted to neo-Nazi groups or are radicalized as Islamic terrorists. Feminists have blamed online communities of “men’s rights activists” (MRAs) for the murder rampages of Elliott Rodger in 2014 and Alek Minassian in April 2018. If participation in online “communities” can promote hatred and terrorism or influence the behavior of mass murderers, should we doubt that such activity can affect perceptions of gender and sexuality?

Critics of the transgender movement have described a phenomenon they call “rapid onset gender dysphoria,” in which young people develop a sudden belief that they were “born in the wrong body” and insist on seeking gender “transition” following a few weeks or months of intense immersion in the online transgender community. A remarkable increase in the number of adolescents calling themselves “non-binary” or “genderqueer” — labels unheard of a few years ago, but popularized via websites like Tumblr — further demonstrates how online communities are influencing the sexual attitudes and behaviors of young people.

Feminists and other critics accuse transgender activists of using online communities to promote a “cult” mentality among teenagers.




All cults operate through the methods of “ideological totalism”:

A totalist group, or cult, will operate under an ideology that is held to be true for all people at all times. This doctrine, or dogma really, is held as the ultimate moral vision for the ordering of human existence. It appears to be both inspired and scientific all at once. Psychiatrist Robert Lifton calls this a “sacred science.”
Whether or not the cult is religious or uses terms like “sacred” is irrelevant. The dogma is shown to be sacred in other ways- such as the forbidding of questioning the basic tenets. A cult does not need a central leader or a central God, because the ideas can be a kind of God. In the blending of transcendent ideas (the essence of womanhood, gender is a feeling, my gender is innate, etc.) and exaggerated claims of logic and scientific precision, it becomes not only a moral vision but an ultimate science. Therefore, anyone who would get in the way of this perfect scientific and moral system is a threat and must be silenced. Anyone who would question it, or even harbor alternative ideas, becomes both immoral and unscientific.

Parents say this cult mentality is also promoted by many therapists:

To put it bluntly, professional psychology has been captured by the transgender cult. Parents of teens find themselves tag-teamed, pressured into “acceptance” and “support” for “transition.”
What is apparent, from such first-hand accounts, is that transgender activists have created a narrative — a script — that is being promoted in the mental-health establishment, and the online transgender community then acts as Pied Pipers leading vulnerable youth toward “transition.”

Teenagers who immerse themselves in online communities are often socially isolated — treated as outcasts at school or otherwise alienated from the majority of their real-life peer group — and this isolation makes them especially vulnerable to those who seek to influence them. By identifying as transgender, these isolated teens may easily gain a sense of belonging that is lacking in their day-to-day interactions with peers.

Synthetic communities appeal to adolescents because group membership is a source of identity at an age when young people are struggling to define themselves as individuals. The greater a teenager’s feelings of alienation, the more outlandish their chosen identities are likely to be. Young people who are basically happy with their family and social lives, and optimistic about their futures, are as unlikely to announce they are “genderqueer” as they are to become radical Muslims. However, the ordinary emotional turbulence of adolescent life is such that even a popular and relatively well-adjusted teenager may at times be vulnerable to exploring synthetic communities. A growing body of research indicates that anxiety and depression are correlated with higher levels of social-media usage, and the association of rapid onset gender dysphoria with intense online involvement is almost certainly not coincidental:

Reports online indicate that a young person’s coming out as transgender is often preceded by increased social media use and/or having one or more peers also come out as transgender. These factors suggest that social contagion may be contributing to the significant rise in the number of young people seeking treatment for gender dysphoria. . . .
Young people can find plenty of in-group validation online. There is an incredibly positive climate around being trans in many places on the Internet. . . .
Young people on reddit and other social media sites explain that they started wondering whether they were trans because they enjoyed creating opposite-sex avatars in online games and liked the clothing or hairstyles of the opposite sex.

To get an idea of how this process occurs, consider the following account from an interview with a 24-year-old “transman” (i.e., born female) who began testosterone injections at age 20 in November 2014:

Growing up I’m definitely part of the generation . . . I grew up with computers and with internet access. I pretty quickly through that found LiveJournal and MySpace. Different platforms, social media where you’re suddenly like, okay, my friends are on here that I know but then also oh look, there’s all these other people that I don’t know yet I see them on here. It evolved, MySpace goes to Facebook then I got a Tumblr . . . then suddenly I was doing a lot of online. . . . Suddenly I was like, okay, I’m seeing a lot of people who are in the LBGTQ community and that was ringing true for me so I eventually came out as bi through knowing about the fact that that was a thing through online spaces. I’ve seen people be public about it.
I was influenced by people who are public about it. Finding out that I was queer, at first that I was bisexual, then . . . I was lesbian, then I was gay, then I was queer, then I was genderqueer, then I was trans. It’s just continued — all of these, all of my different identities have been going have all been very much influenced by the fact that I’m seeing people living these lives online. And sharing their experiences online. When I first, I’ve had a Tumblr since 2009 or so [i.e., at age 15], been on there basically through almost the entirety of my coming out experience. I’ve been seeing all these different blogs of people — that was for me, that was a space where you can also live this journey, where you’re living it in life, where you’re going through life not really not really know[ing] what the heck is happening but then you can go back online and be like, okay, here’s all these other people. Five months ago you can go back into Tumblr, okay, this is where they were at this stage in their transition or in their journey and you can self-relate just have a lot more access to different people. And then going to college, meeting a lot of other people and seeing their own online presences. I had quite a few friends that were very popular on Tumblr and different social media spaces. Honestly, it was always there. Also it was just another way to really document my trans journey for myself, just with photograph instead of having to actually physically take photos and print them. Making a scrapbook. I could just make a scrapbook online really easily. I was able to just everyday I could take a photo and put it on there and track the progress of when I was actually was starting hormones.
It was always there and always a thing for me. Especially so when early when I first started my transition blog. I’ve steered away from Tumblr. I don’t have enough time for it anymore. When I was on it I was a lot of messages I was getting was just thank you for being active. Thank you for sharing your story. Also I was very active on Facebook when I was coming out in terms of the social media bubble at my college. It’s always been a thing that I do. In high school I was very, I was the head of our GSA [Gay-Straight Alliance], I was in the pride parades. I went to the gay center in the city. I was just always been active and doing things. Social media was just another space.

Seeing “a lot of people who are in the LBGTQ community . . . through online spaces,” this person first identified as bisexual or “queer” around age 15, then as lesbian, back to queer, then “genderqueer,” finally becoming transgender at 20. Because of social media, young people have access to alternative identities being modeled for them (“seeing people living these lives online”) in a sort of identity-shopping expedition.

The desire to belong — to “fit in” somewhere, to be popular — is a natural human instinct. For the awkward or emotionally troubled teenager, transgenderism may seem like an ideal solution to their problems. For young people who feel like social failures, escaping their “gender” and transforming themselves into a simulacrum of the opposite sex offers the hope of becoming someone socially successful. Participation in an online community offers reinforcement for that escape fantasy.

Part of what makes the online transgender community so influential is that criticism is excluded as “negativity” or “hate.” Anyone who expresses doubt or discouragement toward the transition process is accused of transphobia, so that the community’s collective message to participants is a repetitive echo-chamber of reinforcement. This may tend to increase the isolation of the teenage community member, who is unlikely to find such pro-transgender attitudes among their friends and family.

Conflicts with parents and ostracism from peers can produce a sort of siege mentality, where the would-be transgender adolescent believes that everyone they know in real life is an enemy, and only members of the online community are their friends. The gender-critical feminist site 4th Wave Now published an account by a 19-year-old lesbian named Sarah who, from ages 14 to 16, identified as transgender, but who subsequently abandoned that identity. Her transgender identification, Sarah explained, was applauded in her Tumblr community, which provided “constant validation of trans people”:

The most harmful message to come out of the cultist ideology of trans rights is that you are x because you feel like x. . . . I didn’t feel like a woman, which according to trans ideology, meant I wasn’t ‘cisgender’, and so from that the leap was easy for me to make: I must be a man.

Making subjective feelings the basis of identity — a triumph of emotion over reality — is a basic appeal of all synthetic communities. Consider the world of sports: If a fan’s favorite basketball team wins the NBA championship, his identification with the team gives him a sense that their achievement is somehow a victory for him. In fact, of course, the fan has no role in the team’s fortunes, nor does their championship make any actual difference in his life, but his emotional investment as a fan of the team becomes part of his identity, even if he never attends a game in person, but only watches on TV. Similarly, a person may become intensely interested in partisan politics, so that he is elated when his party’s candidate wins an election, even though it is unlikely that he (the voter) will experience much actual benefit from his candidate’s victory. Although the outcomes of elections matter more than do the outcomes of NBA games, the motives that cause someone to identify as a Democrat or a Republican are often irrational, and the partisan’s subjective feelings may be drastically at odds with objective political reality.

Both politics and sports fandom offer examples of how synthetic communities operate and, as with transgenderism, the Internet becomes a means by which people can express and reinforce their various affiliations and interests, to seek support and a sense of belonging.

Recognizing the nature of the problem — the insidious effects of cult psychology on the alienated adolescent — is obviously the first step toward protecting young people against such appeals. Parents (and other responsible adults) must warn young people against immersing themselves in online communities, and must also be observant. Not every teenager is equally vulnerable to the appeals of the transgender cult, but none are immune. And what if your child falls prey to this mentality? Sarah says that a key factor in her case was that her mother refused to cooperate with her transgender fantasy:

I remember posting all the time online about how abusive she was for deadnaming me, or not letting me bind, which I now feel terrible about. I didn’t feel like I could talk to her about anything (especially gender things) because I had made up in my mind that she thought my very existence (as a trans person) was invalid. Her resolve was beyond admirable, though, as well as her patience for my angsty bulls–t. . . .
One of the biggest problems I think with being transgender is it comes out of an unhappiness, and that the impossibility of the accepted solution amplifies the unhappiness. Having short hair doesn’t give you an adam’s apple, testosterone injections won’t change your bone structure, a phalloplasty won’t let you produce sperm. The closer you get to the real thing, the bigger the gap between you and being a real male grows. Freeing yourself from the task of climbing a mountain whose peak can never be summited is your only chance of ever actually being happy.
I eventually stopped looking for validation as something I would never be, and started the process of loving myself.

Read the whole thing. Sarah recognized that the transgender fantasy — escaping personal unhappiness through “transition” — is a lie.  At the time, she was angry about her mother’s refusal to cooperate with her fantasy, but by the time she was 17, she realized that her “friends” in the online transgender cult were not really her friends. Within the Internet echo-chamber where the “ideological totalism” of transgender cult belief prevails, allegiance to the synthetic community is the supreme value. It is the decline of organic community — especially the loss of loyalty to church and family — which makes so many young people vulnerable to such cults. A child with a healthy sense of identity based in real life is to some extent inoculated against cult recruitment; it is chiefly because our culture has become hostile to church and family that there are so many confused youth so desperate for a sense of identity that they would consider transgenderism an acceptable “solution” to their problems.




4 Responses to “Synthetic ‘Community’: Social Media and Rapid-Onset Gender Dysphoria”

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