Tuesday, December 23, 2014

FYIAD, the Ecstasy of the Otherkin

One of my favorite non-Bakshi animated features growing up was a Don Bluth-helmed adaptation of Robert O'Brien's seminal children's novel, Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. You may have seen it yourself. The silver screen title was The Secret of NIMH, and it was a tale of escaped laboratory mice, told from the perspective of the mice themselves, much the way another of my favorite animated classics, Plague Dogs is told from the perspective of escaped canine test subjects.

What I didn't know at the time was that the very fanciful story featuring the charming voice talents of Dom DeLuise was inspired by a very real organization. NIMH is an acronym standing for National Institute of Mental Health, a subsidiary of the US Department of Health and Human Services. As a boy, I had thought the organization a flight of fancy, the product of an author's imagination, much like the organization responsible for the antics of James Bond, or the man from U.N.C.L.E.. To the contrary, it is a very real, very prolific research organization. Its Wiki page (for what it's worth) lists the 2010 budget as $1.5B.

In the early 60s, prominent NIMH researcher John B. Calhoun began an experiment (warning: the previous link contains out-of-sample remarks not necessarily supported by the data) in the dewy fields near Poolsville MD. This experiment would later serve as inspirational fodder for one of Wil Wheaton's earliest credits (see for yourself). The experiment was simple enough: introduce mice into an ideal environment with ample room, plentiful food, abundant nesting material, and unlimited water. See what happens.

The early stages were perfectly predictable: the mice reproduced enough to fill the enclosure to capacity, and somewhere in the aether Malthus grimaced in dour approval. The later stages, particularly right before the colony collapsed completely and the last mouse died, were (and remain) of great interest to amateur sociologists. Notably, the mouse Utopia exhibited a breakdown of standard social rules. Dominant males couldn't defend their territory, females became aggressive, and the one curious phenomenon that seems to have gained attention of late, some males withdrew completely, devoting all of their time to grooming, never getting into fights, never mating.

Calhoun called them "The Beautiful Ones."

If you're an amateur sociologist, and you find it tempting to map Calhoun's mice onto human societies, the Japanese Beautiful Ones are 草食(系)男子, soshokukei danshi, grass-eaters in the vulgate. These are pretty boys, passive, obsessed with fashion, often wearing makeup, groomed immaculately. In the US, you might identify Calhoun's Beautiful Ones with the so-called "metrosexual" males of a few years back, or with image-conscious normcore hipsters. You might even go a little more abstract and say that the two chief characteristics of the Beautiful Ones is (a) obsession and (b) withdrawal. If that's the case, Otherkin, Furries, Otaku, Bronies, even a certain stripe of stereotypical gamer would fit the description.

I do not find the hypothesis that a social experiment using mice can predict what will happen to human populations convincing. What I do find convincing is the claim that many post-industrial nations are in the midst of some troubling demographic concerns. What I do find convincing is that unfunded liabilities, public and private, loom shimmering on the time horizon. What I do find convincing is that productivity is slowly becoming decoupled from employment and that negative-marginal-product make-work government jobs are likely to take over as the dominant transfer scheme (unless Morgan Warstler can ever get GI/CYB off the ground, that is), since there is dignity in work, perhaps even the sort of work that has people burying jars of dollar bills in the desert so that others can dig them back up.

With that in mind, can I also consider Otherkin culture to be euvoluntary? If you believe in your heart of hearts that you are, in point of fact, not a human, but rather a dragon, or a hippogriff, or a gelatinous cube, and all my fancy rhetoric and book-learnin' can't convince you to the contrary, does that herald the End of Times? Or more prosaically, does that contribute to the fiscal difficulties implied in the off-balance-sheet accounting of the fisc? Do members of the younger generation have an obligation to support an older generation by procreation?

Individually, the idea sounds monstrous. If personal sovereignty means anything at all, it means that a person's choice to have children or not is up to that person and that person alone. "It is your civic duty to raise children" is a totalitarian sentiment, one you might expect in a Warhammer 40k codex or an Orwell short story. But collectively? Collectively, political elites have no problem fiddling with the tax code, or with workplace regulations, or even with outright bribery (hello, Finland) to encourage marginal births. The family, it seems, is a private arrangement, but a public institution. Do grass-eaters, do otherkin, do shut-ins threaten the wider social order by shirking or avoiding participation in this institution?

Or are they merely canaries in the coal mine, here to warn us of Total Social and Economic Collapse?

Curious. In the meantime, happy yiffing, everyone. Have a Merry Solstice.

1 comment:

  1. I look at the following question:

    "Do members of the younger generation have an obligation to support an older generation by procreation?"

    I don't know whether Ayn Rand would consider this an example of "package dealing," but I certainly do. Many readers (David Brin comes to mind) have noted the near-absence of children and treatment of issues of human development in the novels of Ayn Rand. If anything, characters (especially protagonists) in Rand's novels are a more child-free population than the otherkin.

    To ask whether members of the younger generation have an obligation to support an older generation by procreation is to state that the means (procreation) is a built-in feature of the end (supporting the older generation). I worry whether Social Security and Medicare will still be around by the time I reach old age, but I don't believe for a minute that the answer to that question depends on "demographics." I think it depends on economics. Whether it can be supported depends on whether the GDP is big enough to support it, not whether the "working age" population is big enough to support it. Whether it will be supported depends (assuming that democracy isn't an empty promise) on whether public opinion supports it politically. Certainly a large working age population that is largely unemployed (or underemployed or underpaid) does not serve the interests of the retired population. Neither does a gainfully employed working population with political attitudes informed by TANSTAAFL, or "I got mine," or some similar logic.

    The politics of "entitlement" reform (more accurately, of austerity applied to safety net programs) presents the public with a "pick your poison" proposition: Do you wish to lower the value of Social Security benefits by (1) smaller benefit checks, (2) higher Social Security taxes, or (3) later retirement age? For my purposes, (3) is the lesser evil, assuming of course that there will be realistically available job opportunities for someone my age, with my resume—possibly a big if. My habit of viewing jobs (opportunities) as a scarce commodity comes from direct personal experience. If that is a flawed perspective, then the cure would my experiencing an economy in which opportunities for paid work are easy to come by. In my personal experience getting a job is like pulling teeth, and in my book the experiential carries more weight than the empirical.

    My sense of the otherkin et al. is that they are neither a threat nor a warning. More likely they (as well as the much larger number of culturally mainstream child-free folks) are simply an adaptation. A business adapts to the devaluation of labor by downsizing (or "right-sizing" as the PR types say) and perhaps a society adapts to the same phenomenon by downsizing the family.


Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?