Demographics Gotta Demographic

(I’m going to assume you, dear reader, have already read The Age of Demographics and if not in agreement with it at least willing to treat it as hypothetically true.)

Most people are pretty good at signaling their demographics, and no one’s going to confuse a swot for a blot or a square for a hep cat or whatever. But there’s always the danger of being lumped together with a demographic VERY SIMILAR to your own.

I’m going to trot out a couple of examples here, and I do so with a little hesitation because they are SO ON POINT as to be kind of boring. You can spot what they’re doing easily because there’s not even a token attempt at covering it up. Nevertheless, they’re pretty good examples of an extremely common kind of messaging, and I hope it’s worth our time to stop and look at them.


It’s probably worth mentioning again that signaling is in no way bad or shameful, and I’m not using the term pejoratively. Using a particular shibboleth again and again can look parodic to an outsider—the way beatniks and later Valley Girls punctuated sentences with “like” again and again, for example—so I imagine some people are giggling at the use of the word “spoons” in the third post, but it’s not necessarily weirder than any of the shibboleths of our own subcultures. The third poster is also very careful to mention that he or she is “only speaking of christianity,” a dubious distinction we don’t really have time to unpack. The point here is simply that there apparently several people are worried that atheists who are “Women, PoC, Queer people, immigrants, trauma survivors, etc.”  might be confused with “cishet white men” atheists.  You might be thinking that “trauma survivors” is such a broad category as to include every human, but if you think that you’re probably in a different demographic than these posters.

It’s easy to make fun of this manichean worldview, but demographic thinking requires a manichean worldview. One group benignly asks “How can I believe in something that teaches you to be cruel?” without a trace of “intellectual and rational superiority complexes,” the other simply seeks to avoid responsibility. Although they appear to outsiders to be allied, they are actually very different. Or more precisely, although the set of “Women, PoC, Queer people, immigrants, trauma survivors, etc.” atheists might appear to be a disparate heap of unrelated people joined merely by atheism, they are far from a disparate heap! They are united in their benevolent, merciful worldview and their failure to evince the snotty superiority of “cishet white men” atheists. The differences between an immigrant atheist and an lgbt atheist (obviously these categories can overlap) are nothing compared to differences between this demographic and another one.

(As always, substitute “team” or “tribe” or whatever instead of demographic if you wish.)

How do I know what I am? I am not that. The insider is the one who can spot the difference between us and them.

Exhibit B is this video, which asserts (I believe this is the thesis statement) that “you can’t get in bed with white supremacy without also getting in bed with patriarchy.”  It is a statement of unity, designed to persuade white women that their best interest is to vote against Donald Trump (obv. I agree). But Brittney Cooper pauses in her statement of unity to make sure that no one believes for a moment that white women and black women should be lumped together into a demographic. Cooper stops to explain to white women how they should behave when a black woman calls them racist. This is an assertion of power, of course, as so much of the internet is, but it is also a reminder, in the middle of a call to unity, not that a division exists, but that it is important for that division to exist. There must be two classes, one who perpetrates and who must get told what to do, and one who does not perpetrate and who must tell the other what to do.

It may seem counterintuitive to try to persuade someone to do x by pausing to affirm that you also reserve the right to tell them to do y, but of course no Trump voter will ever see this video, and any Trump-voting woman who somehow does see it will not get past the part where she’s told that she is unilaterally a “perpetrator” who must obey orders.   The video is not for her.

I’ll admit these posts, with their insider jargon, look a little silly to me, but I’m very aware that they are designed to look silly to me. In the same way that commercials are designed to appeal to some demographics and repel other demographics, in the same way that music marketed for teenagers is also designed to irritate their parents, communications targeted for insiders are not going to look cogent to outsiders. (I am, in case it is unclear, an outsider to every single demographic alluded to in these posts.) These posts are not for outsiders, and I do see that I have fallen into the easy linguistic trap, in speaking of them, of acting as though they were designed to persuade an outsider, like me, to distinguish cishet white male atheists from other brands. But it is very hard for a demographic to create a message that will reach outside its boundaries. It’s a rare member that even tries.

It’s perhaps annoying when an outsider misidentifies our demographic, but that’s not the source of fear. It’s never someone else we’re trying to persuade; it’s always ourselves.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: