Generational relationships to categories

When I was a young, pissed-off, alienated Gen-Xer (as if there was any other kind), we viewed categories with hostility. Not only did they never fit, they were rarely used with respectable intention.

When we saw someone approaching category in hand, things were not likely to go well. They’d clap the label on us, and proceed to deduce from it that we had characteristics a and b, that they could expect behaviors c and d, and — most importantly — demand that we perform duties x and y.

For most of us, there was only one category that fit us comfortably: none of the above. And these we couldn’t resist, which was all of them, we took it as a matter of course that they ranged from inadequate to ludicrous. We wanted to be unique. When we called each other freaks or weirdos, this was high praise!

Younger generations, however, seem to have much higher hopes for categories, and infinitely less regard for uniqueness. They seem to crave perfect categories, as an ideal self-description language. They seem to compelled to restlessly rework their categories and identity schemas, driven by a faith that with sufficient perfection these categories could somehow stand in for who they really are. They want their categories to function as a unique identifier, so anyone literate in identity could read the “speaking as a….” sequence and deduce the most important features of their selfhood from it.

But who could blame them, given how they were parented and educated? There is a huge downside to being the first digital-age baby boom.  They were born into a world where everything, including them, needs to be rapidly evaluated, scantron-style. They were groomed for mass processing. There were so many of these children to compare, to discipline, to train, to sort, to prepare for professional formatting, and there were relatively few adults left for parenting and education, seeing that tending children has been proven to be degrading, menial work that no truly talented, ambitious professional would choose. All the talented adults were off shoveling data from spreadsheet cell to spreadsheet cell, attending tedious depressing meetings, and making and selling disposable consumer products. Even before they were born, they were being IQ hacked in utero with Baby Einstein CDs. From the moment they were squeezed out of their moms, they were building resumes of impressive bullet points, learning “appropriate” behaviors, appealing to behavioral administrators to resolve every minor conflict, as they were rushed from milestone to milestone in their processing. And then social media hit, and even information was made tl;dr-proof. The bits got smaller and smaller, moved further and further from literature.

So, it is hardly surprising that younger generations cling to categories. Unique persons are utterly resistant to scanning. As far as their experience has taught them, category strings that can be decoded to produce a representation of who they are is the most reliable route to recognition. And so these categories are truly a matter of authentic being or oblivion.

I think this strategy cannot work. I think my old-fashioned existentialist disdain for categories as answers to the “who are you?” question is better. But the old answers and the old attitudes are not going to persuade anyone who has gone in for identitarianism.

We need a new, inspiring redescription of Liberalism, and I think it has to be rooted in a sort of category defiance. Liberalism is the coalition of the unique. What an exciting project, though!

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