Cultures, like living organisms, evolve and shift in response to environmental conditions via natural selection and favor traits promoting their continuance. If a culture starts to lose its cohesiveness or shrinks due to changes in its members’ self-identification criteria, these changes naturally generate fear for those remaining in that culture. Empathizing with those people can help ease the transition period, help reduce unnecessary friction between competing cultural groups, and light the way towards combating toxic cultures.
How someone reacts to a cultural shift depends on how central it is to their self-identification. If it’s highly central, they are likely to blame the people abandoning it for abandoning their values while simultaneously attacking people who identify with the newly evolved culture. We are seeing this play out in the United States as the still-dominant white culture reacts to the growing multi-racial culture with recently re-energized white supremacy and white nationalism as reflected in the recently elected 45th presidential administration.
If the cultural shift is not central to self-identity, they are likely to define the people remaining in the traditionally defined culture as rigid or anti-progressive.
Cultural groupthink often operates in both directions here by requiring people wanting to remain in the traditional culture group to sacrifice any progressive beliefs in the service of orthodoxy and cultural cohesion, and by those in the newer culture by requiring those transiting from the traditional group to abandon deeply held beliefs and traditions.
This dynamic is usually framed as a regressive/progressive or traditional/radical, depending on which side of the fence you’re on.
All established, regressive/traditional cultures were at some point progressive/radical. It’s just the way cultures progress. Newer cultures displace older cultures. The timeframes vary depending on the size of the culture. We see rapid cultural shifts measured in weeks on the Internet around memes, music, and games, and slower cultural shifts around things like national or ethnic identity. All behave in punctuated equilibrium, with long periods of relative stability compared to shorter periods of rapid change.
During the transition from one recognizable culture to another, the definition of traditional/regressive cultural behaviors or artifacts for the people who choose remain changes and it defines a new traditional/regressive baseline for the radical/progressive group. Often, cultures split during these changes and arguments to wars are fought over whose version of traditional/regressive is the ‘correct’ one. It’s very a human cultural behavior seen everywhere from politics to religion to sports to specialized micro-affinity groups.
I posit it is entwined in our great ape troop roots as an evolutionary adaptation, with h. sapiens being the most successful at exploiting the adaptation compared to other hominids. It helps explain how h. sapiens eradicated/assimilated competing species with advanced culture like h. neanderthalensis.
At a species-level, we pull together when faced with non-anthropogenic species-level threats and then ‘subset’ it down through diminishing cultural affinity bonds like nation-state, region/state, city, sportsball team, school, professional associations, friends, etc.
That was a very long wind up for my pitches:
Pitch #1: Gender, as socially constructed cultural affinity groupings, is currently going through a traditional/regressive to radical/progressive cultural shift. This, by definition, is going to get people agitated.
Pitch #2: The traditional/regressive and radical/progressive gender shifts are oscillating around our contemporary cultural extremes while the culture of gender reverts to the mean. This is a fancy way of saying gender culture is fracturing along binary/non-binary boundaries tied to religious and political beliefs and is moving towards modeling historical cultures where acceptance and/or tolerance of gender non-conforming people were just how things were.
Pitch #3: After a few hundred years of trans people being banished from the public cultural sphere, we seem to be reclaiming our spot. This is a very good thing.
Pitch #4: More people coming at trans people hammer and tongs is a signal the traditional/regressive group is losing their power to assert trans people should be banished from the public square. It used to be almost everybody hated/didn’t want/didn’t care about trans people, so the broader polity worked to keep us in the shadows. This is no longer the case.
Taken together, I think this means attacks on us will increase before they decrease, but it seems clear to me the overall cultural momentum has shifted our way as evidenced by demographic shifts in transgender acceptance and tolerance.
While what’s happening in the U.S. states around existing and proposed legislation impacting trans people is ugly, the traditional/regressive camp is aging out.
I am not a Pollyanna. We will see more trans people, especially trans women of color, killed just for being trans. I do not expect trans people will have full civil rights any time soon.
I do believe now and the days ahead will be the best time to transition. There are several orders of magnitude more visibly trans people now to help light and lead the way. There are several orders of magnitude more cis people who are supportive to tolerant of trans people.
There is still much work to do. There is still a long way to go. But we have come a long way in a short amount of time, and while there are still huge barriers to transition breaking across race and income, access is continuing to increase.
And here’s my last pitch: If you accept the current cultural dynamic as a natural one, developing an empathy for those opposing and denying us strengthens us by allowing us to see their behavior towards us for what it is rooted in: fear. Their cultural world is diminishing. It must be scary to them as they contemplate cultural extinction.
Identifying a culture as wrong and hurtful can exist next to an understanding and empathy of the people within the culture and the fear they have of it going away. Pouring our anger on their fear creates more fear and anger on their side, which entrenches them in even more reactionary behavior with the result of creating more anger on our side. We all lose.
I accept there will always be people who hate me and want me dead for what fears they project onto me. I will fight them. I will fight them with cold, steely determination until I am unable to fight any more.
What I will not do is what they do to me: dehumanize them. I can still punch them in the face and empathize with their very human fear of me. These are not in opposition.
My argument is empathy makes us stronger and more human when those people attempt to dehumanize us by making their attempts even uglier and harder for others to turn a blind eye. It arms us with the knowledge of knowing exactly where to shine a light to expose their prejudice and bigotry. It de-escalates anger, allowing clearer thinking about how to defeat them.
(This essay is a cleaned-up version of a Twitter stream I posted.)
 The vast majority of people will help another drowning person or attend to someone they discover in physical distress unless there are clear cultural markers identifying the other person as an enemy group. e.g. – A racist might let a person from another race down or a person attending a sporting event who is bleeding might be ignored if they are wearing the rival jersey.