I. We used to live in an Age of Ideologies, but that has ended, and we now live in an Age of Demographics.
That is to say, people used to have belief systems, and keeping these systems consistent, or heterodox, was important. Now, people assign themselves or are assigned to different groups, and what is important to them is emphasizing their status as a member of that group. Some writers call these groups tribes, and some writers call these groups teams, but I call them demographics (for reasons that will be clear eventually).
Demographics can have beliefs, of course, but these beliefs are shifting, delicate and arbitrary things, the function of which is to refine a demographic identity. Beliefs are cobwebs to be brushed away or built up, but always on the basic structure of a demographic.
I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m romanticizing the passing Age of Ideology. In many ways it was terrible. Fascism is just one of many ideologies that flourished in its season; Communism was coughed up among its death throes. The Inquisition and a thousand years of warfare were among its fruits.
Certainly the line between an ideology and an demographic can be difficult to trace, and people played identity politics avant la lettre. But there was a time when most people could be best understood as expressing an ideology, and that time is not now. In other words, I consistently find that a model where you imagine that people are fighting for their demographic, and not their beliefs, to be a much more useful model.
At times the change (from ideology to demographic) is overt. Religions can be ideologies and can be demographics, and probably should be both; but Sikhism, a 500-year old religion, has recently been lobbying to be counted (by the US Census, in this example) as an ethnicity instead. “Pay no attention to our ideology, Census! We are a demographic!”
You can see the animus that thrives between so called “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists” and the internet left as the last-gasp struggle of an old guard to preserve its twentieth-century ideological axioms. (You will note that both ideologues and demographs have this in common: that they are skilled at contriving cruel nicknames for their antagonists.)
Most online arguments that are not strictly local attempts to jockey for personal power—say half of all arguments—are demographic arguments. They run this way: someone says something that may or may not be reasonable, but which involves an implied or overt criticism of your demographic. You respond by attacking either the original speaker or another demographic.
The latest cosplay PR fail (to take one example) makes no sense if you imagine it as concerned citizens standing up for their vague ideology of “professionalism.” It makes some sense, of course, as an example of hurting someone while being self righteous; this is the idiom in which we tend to express ourselves, after all. But it makes most sense as a demographic circling its wagons after a perceived criticism from an outsider.
A demographic argument can take a tu quoque form, and shades into charges of hypocrisy (as in this meme on the right), which is a similar motivation—you think my demographic’s candidate is bad? Your demographic’s candidate was worse!—but something we’ll get into more in another post.
II. Demographic anxiety.
Your demographic is sometimes something you cannot avoid or escape, and many census checkboxes have been traditionally seen this way. But your age you lie about; your gender is fluid; your class is ostensibly mobile; even your race is not something clear cut, as we learn from (I’m just going to throw a scattershot list in here):
- Rachel Dolezal;
- the Irish-Americans I’ve known who insist that the Irish are their own race;
- the Italian-Americans I’ve known who insist that Italians are their own race;
- Hitler’s granting of honorary Aryan status to the Japanese;
- Klansman Cherokees;
- the old racist joke Q. When does a Mexican become a Spaniard? A. When he marries your sister;
- slurs such as Oreo or Twinkie, designed to call people out for insufficiently signaling their race;
- the omnipresent blending of race, culture, nationality, and religion that make us call Trump racist for hating on, say, Muslims.
.A century or two before our Age of Demographics, but scarcely ending with AoD’s dawning, we entered a Age of Uncertainty—Harold Bloom’s “Chaotic Age”—and, as we all know, the old fortifications of surety crumbled before the matchless march of modernism. Now we spend our days as cosmopolitans, but cosmopolitans who worry that our social class may slide downward. Our heroes turn out to be racists. Our friends keep calling us gay. Obviously, you may have to sub in your own uncertainties here, but the point is that our identities (like the quest!) stand upon the edge of a knife. And so one project we are constantly engaged in, as Alan Moore once quipped in an interview I can’t find, is “shoring up the crumbling shoals of our own identities.”
How do we do it? How do we feel secure in our identity when identity seems so mutable? Do we search our souls and see if we can find some true or authentic self?
Ha ha! No, of course not. We check what other people think about us.
And to make sure other people think something of us we juke the stats, and act in ways that get them to acknowledge that we “belong.” We send up signals that we are in fact, members of the group.
Now, let’s be clear: We signal constantly,and often these signals are more or less unwitting. The state of our teeth, for example, can signal our social class, just as our absence of polio signals what century we live in. You can’t really avoid these signals, or at least you would need to try very hard to. This is not the kind of signaling I’m talking about at the moment.
But we also signal consciously. We could be smugly meditating on how impressed everyone will be with us or we could we be worrying about how not to look like a total jerk.
Every superhero shirt I wear is a signal of my demographic. I don’t feel bad or weird about this, but I’m also aware that I have other options. I could purchase and wear a sports shirt, but then someone might start talking to me about sports, and anyway I’d be a poser. There are good reasons for signaling your demographic. Smug signaling can be annoying, and sometimes we equate signaling with smug signaling, but I don’t want to give the impression that signaling needs to be smug or annoying.
Sometimes people “virtue signal,” by casually mentioning a good deed, for example, or by wearing a livestrong wristband. Obviously there is an advantage to normalizing charitable donations; let me stress that I’m not saying this signaling is bad (although Hong Zicheng claims that “if a man does a good deed and wishes it to be known, there is some evil in his good.” On the other hand, “A good name is more desirable than great riches”).
If you’re signaling and you’re not virtue signaling, then you’re probably demographic signaling. The two can go together, of course, especially if your demographic is one that espouses certain virtues. The so-called social justice contingent, for example, thrives by signaling its virtue (or its purity: a special case of virtue in which one demonstrates that one is free from any stain of tabooed thought, word, or deed).
As already mentioned, signaling refines your identity. This works two ways: By constantly purchasing the right clothing or speaking the right lingo you prove yourself an increasingly “better” member of your demographic; meanwhile, those failing are ejected from the group, and only the pure and elect remain, more self-satisfied in their sense of belonging.
Obviously we signal in “real life”; but we sometimes do other things, such as changing our socks or feeding the dog. While online, almost everything we do that is not purely pragmatic is probably either signaling or (of course) asserting power. Demanding that a momentarily careless parent be punished, as we were just doing last week, is a twofer: We get to assert to the world that we are, or would be, better parents and virtue signal that we care about endangered wildlife while simultaneously insisting that we should control the fates of a family we have never met but briefly read about. Throw them in jail! I’m better than they are!
III. A couple quick examples.
Oh man! It’s everywhere! Have a look at the Goodreads reviews for Coming Out Straight, a “cure the gay” book I assume is terrible, and which I have not read. Also did not read the book: the authors of all these one-star reviews.
I assume Coming Out Straight is full of blunders and is childishly easy to refute, and I could see why someone might want to write a rebuttal to a book like this, even without reading it, in the hopes that a well-reasoned rebuttal might persuade people that the science the book is based on is false. But look again at the reviews, many of which are just gifs of people saying “nope.” Whom would this persuade?
A rare text-based review for the book starts:
I have not read this book. I will not read this book. Don’t accuse me of reviewing a book I haven’t read; to do so would be nothing more than a repitition [sic] of an obvious fact that nobody’s disputing.
I have no qualms giving this book one star without reading it. I don’t have to read it to know that I would find it utterly offensive and disgusting. There is nothing the author can say to change my rating. You can say this makes me close-minded if you like. I simply don’t give a fuck. To me it would be like reading a book that denies the existence of a heliocentric solar system…
Why are you telling me this, Goodreads user? you may be wondering. Why did 204 people, none of whom, as far as I can tell, read the book, give it a one-star rating and in many cases a contentless review? Needless to say, the reviewer above spent zero minutes reviewing geocentric books (which aren’t as crazy as he thinks, anyway).
Because signaling your heliocentrism is a waste of time (even people you hate are heliocentrists), while signaling your gay allyship reaffirms your demographic. Heck, composing reviews completely out of pop-culture gifs reaffirms your demographic as well. The reviewer who writes “I am seriously considering hypnotherapy to purge that awful moment I read the title and blurb out of my head forever” is not seriously considering hypnotherapy, but her clever use of hyperbole tells the world that she is really serious about not agreeing with this book. Another review goes to the author’s other books and leaves reviews that just link back to her original negative review on the first book. (Honestly, that sounds like something I’d do.)
Did I mention that I, too, disagreed with this book I have not read? I have my own signaling quota to fit in..
The new Ghostbusters gives everyone an excellent opportunity to signal their demographic. Are you a basement-dwelling “dude” who 4-chanly sticks it to those PC bluestockings, or are you a righteous progressive taking back the busting? Either way, we have memes for you to share!
A recent article people’ve been linking to on the hatred for the new Ghostbusters talks about demographic signaling, and comes to the conclusion:
It’s okay to not like a movie and it’s okay not see a movie, but when you need to proclaim so loudly that you’ll do both it becomes clear that what you’re saying really isn’t about the movie at all, but rather about you.
This statement is true (“I approve this message”), but I’m going to guess that the author of this article, and the people who linked to it, would not have written or shared something similar about boycotting Ender’s Game. When you signal it’s showing off; when I signal it’s activism. The sad truth is that usually what we’re saying isn’t about the movie at all, and usually it’s about us.
Remember that everything you said about Captain America signaled your allegiance either to a demographic devoted to sensitivity or a demographic devoted to continuity.
You may object that nothing I’ve been saying describes you, and I guess there’s a chance that’s true. I’m talking about “most people,” not you necessarily. But of course if you considered for one minute expressing out loud that you do not signal, you had the urge to signal.
IV. How can we blame this on Baby Boomers?
When Ernest Hemingway quoted Gertrude Stein as saying, “You are all a lost generation,” neither one capitalized lost generation. We didn’t start capitalizing generations until the Baby Boom.
Baby Boomers are obviously a wicked and adulterous generation, in addition to being deeply silly and somewhat pathetic—it’s not like my generation has been much better—but they are really more of a symptom than anything else. They were made into the thing they became, and they were made that way by advertisers, specifically television advertisers.
Boomers are the first generation to be marketed to since birth, and they are the first generation to have their identity handed to them by Madison Avenue specifically so they could be sold a parade of products, starting with Davy Crockett caps and moving through rock and roll records to mood rings. Their prefabricated identities were unmoored from the traditional fare of race, class, religion, and nationality (while, of course, rejecting few or none of those); they were born to be consumers, and their entire identity, including the parts where they made feints towards eschewing materialism, has always been bound up in what has been sold to them. What was sold to them was a bill of goods—the ’60s, everybody! but also the idea that our identity should be tied to our consumption. In my glass house I tell you that I myself am a dork-American, an identity predicated on books and movies I have purchased, and expressed through cargo pants and action figures I have purchased.
You can try to get by without the shopping, but how will anyone, and by extension you, know that you really belong? How can you prove your love for Jesus, or America, or Che, without these bumper stickers and T-shirts?
Marketing is at the root of our identities, but if you don’t want to buy anything today, don’t despair! There are plenty of memes to post and articles to link to, and if that fails to assuage your anxiety over your ambiguous and uncertain identity, you can always find a poser to call out and cast out. That way you get to hurt someone while also signaling how pure your identity is.
Try for a little while looking at your friends’ behavior as pure signaling, and see how common it is. Then try looking at your own.
Did you know I bike to work? Have you seen how many books I’ve been reading? Just casually mentioning is all.