Monday, October 28, 2013

Identity Dunces

We've talked about online social justice before, and its profound ability to bring information and perspective to otherwise sheltered individuals. We focused on the most powerful and most socially pressing of the movements, but in reality, there are a variety of social movements that have begun emerging in various corners of the Internet.

Some are certainly legitimate, but go deep enough and you'll find bizarre and contrived claims to identities, each with their own strange internal politics.

And guess where we'll be going to find them!

Today we'll look at the very long list of Tumblr social justice movements, starting with the more legitimate causes, and then diving deeper until we find the criminally insane. Because this Twitter account was definitely inspired by something.

Tumblr's microblogging platform allows people to rapidly share information with one another. Your posts can be comprised of pictures, essays, short statements, or whatever else your heart desires. People can choose to 'follow' your Tumblr, which make your posts appear on a home feed similar to Facebook's in design. You can leave feedback on posts much like other platforms, but Tumblr's "reblog" functionality - which pastes other people's posts (with accreditation) onto your own Tumblr - is what really allows information to spread on the website. People can pass along posts that they find insightful, and even append their own comments to it.

This ability to swap thoughts so easily allows the formation of circles of people who predominantly reblog one another. Unlike an online forum, Tumblr users can develop networks with one another without ever requiring a centralized online gathering spot. Yet Tumblr, at its heart, is a blogging service, letting each person have their own personal online space. As an aside, it would be very interesting to model the networks that form on Tumblr, much like what has been done with Twitter.

The platform encourages lots of self-expression, has a low barrier of entry, and is set up so that many people can get exposed to your content. The website has massive popularity, and you can find Tumblr blogs - or "Tumblrs" - that cater to just about any interest one can imagine. But around corners of the web, Tumblr has become especially well-known for its social justice blogs.

Certainly an upgrade from pictures of cats.

Social justice Tumblrs don't constitute the majority of Tumblr. The most popular Tumblrs cover low-content posts on Minecraft and funny pictures, similar to what you'd see on Reddit. If you search by hash-tag, you get a lot of One Direction (as it happens, Tumblr has a fairly large female population). That content doesn't even account for the copious amount of porn that gets posted on Tumblr.

But, with with the importance of communication and information dissemination in social movements, Tumblr has had a visible presence in the broader online push against misogyny, racism, and homophobia. Another legitimate movement that strongly incorporates Tumblr has been the push against transphobia - negative attitudes and prejudices against transsexual and transgender people (often condensed to trans people or trans*). Participants of these movements have spoken out on issues in various sectors of online culture that would have otherwise gone ignored. These groups have done a good job promoting discussion on concepts like privilege, discrimination, and identity.

In fact, they've done such a good job promoting their ideas, they now have to deal with the misuse of those same ideas.

A strange phenomenon known as "oppression olympics" tends to emerge among some social justice enthusiasts. This refers to when people of various demographics compare themselves to one another in an attempt to claim that their personal demographics make them the the "most oppressed" and therefore representing the most morally worthy cause. This idea reared its ugly head in the 2008 American primary election, when people would compare Hilary Clinton's challenges to sexism and Barack Obama's challenges to racism in order to argue that one was more worthy of support than the other.

The concept of oppression olympics is (rightfully) regarded as counterproductive and distracting from personal discourse. It is widely ridiculed, and is often the target of parody. Despite this deserved ridicule, "oppression olympics" remains a very simple concept to understand. Because Tumblr has a low barrier of entry, a lot of people visibly latch on to this idea, leading some people on Tumblr to collect identities much like merit badges.

Like this, but angrier and more verbose.

A good portion of these identities run the gamut of sexuality to profound degrees. Asexuality has found a sizeable community online, and with that has come a demand for further clarification as to what asexuality actually means. Tumblr tends to be where some people visibly explore their thoughts on their own sexual identity. This often leads to seemingly contradictory instances of 'asexuality'.

Trying to hammer out specific labels on one's own sexuality tends to create terminology that, while descriptive, is practically useless. This is best exemplified by the term 'demisexual', which is supposed to denote that you are only sexually attracted to people that you have an emotional connection with. But only sometimes. Pardon me for the lack of citation on this next statement, but I would expect that most people fit the label 'demisexual' and have never felt the need to put a label on it.

The point of a label is to demarcate a group that is observably distinct from the rest of the population in some way. If an asexual person leads a lifestyle that is observably sexual, but labels themselves as 'asexual', then it makes sense for an observer to be confused about the claim to asexuality. Likewise, if someone identifies as 'demisexual', and if most people fit this label but have never felt the need to put a label on it, then it makes sense for an observer to be confused about the purpose of declaring yourself 'demisexual'.

Somehow, this doesn't stop some people from treating self-identification as demisexual very seriously. It also doesn't keep self-proclaimed demisexuals from getting very upset at other people's confusion, or from getting offended when other people question issues with the label.

Nor has it kept people from making up newer, dumber labels.

That isn't to say that there isn't a discussion to be had about sexuality, and what asexuality is. It seems clear, however, that hashing out newer and more specific terms for sexuality is not the most productive way to have that discussion. This is a readily observable pattern in a lot of such movements in Tumblr: there is a discussion to be had about a certain subject, but people on Tumblr will instead latch onto an identity that they feel the need to defend. The strongest example of this can be found in the strange world of fat activism.

The concept of fat activism has been around since the 1960s, and aims to address how thinner people tend to be perceived by society as "better" than larger people. This is a legitimate and studied issue. You can find several Tumblr blogs actively addressing this "thin privilege", often outlining the various ways that it emerges in everyday life. However, in the process of outlining thin privilege, some people make "fat" an identity that justifies what may be an unhealthy lifestyle.

These particular people don't see their lifestyle as the problem, but see nutritional convention and medical institutions as "oppressive". They rebel against the idea of obesity as a "disease", and will even go far as to say that they are being "socially sterilized". If their lifestyle is being inconvenienced in some way - a lifestyle inaccessible to most people until fairly recently in human history, to be clear - then it is a matter of systematic disenfranchisement somehow comparable to gender disenfranchisement.

Perhaps the most perplexing outcome of this community on Tumblr is the emergence of a new identity label - "trans-fat". This describes thin people who identify with the lifestyle of fat people, and seems to involve attempts to gain lots of weight. It does not seem like a particularly widespread label, but it does represent a bigger problem.

Oftentimes, concepts and thoughts from more legitimate movements get used to lend credibility to fringe positions. Such is the case with "trans-ethnic" individuals - people who identify with a different ethnicity than the one they were born with. One can intuit that this concept (along with trans-fatness, for that matter) was co-opted from trans* movements (trans-gender, trans-sexuality). Except trans* movements are legitimate and have far more substantial issues associated with them, while "trans-ethnicity" is often a post-hoc justification for why someone likes a different culture. Trans-ethnicity doesn't actually have any social stigma, and concepts like "privilege" don't really apply. Of course, trans-ethnics don't seem to agree with that.

I'm pretty sure we already had words for trans-ethnic people.

This is around where Tumblr social justice begins to get very poisonous, even if they started out representing a very real concern.

Some who blog about ableism - the very real discrimination and social prejudice against those with disabilities - have tried to twist concepts like tobacco warning labels and organ donation (though not in the way you might think) as "oppressive". Some of these people will even argue in favor of "trans-ableism", where able-bodied people strongly identify as disabled.

Likewise, there are people who will diagnose themselves as being on the autism spectrum after reading a few online articles, and then assume this self-diagnosis as an identity counter to the mainstream "neurotypical" identity. Words like "stupid" become ableist slurs, being treated more like hate speech than general insult. These Tumblr people tend to skip over the context of certain situations in the name of crying oppression. This will mean ignoring legitimate authority on medicine and ignoring actual physical restrictions.

Remember how Tumblr is structured - it allows people to develop networks. Some networks can get tighter than others, which can form echo chambers that are similar to what we've seen before with online political expression. Yet, because of how the home feed works, these echo chambers remain fairly visible to the public sphere so long as someone has at least one friend caught up in Tumblr social justice.

Within these echo chambers, the complaints about what is problematic begin to get out of touch with reality. What are practically non-existent issues in day-to-day life become giant issues about identity that demand immediate outrage, inappropriate aggression, and righteous indignation. The phrase "die cis scum" has become the poster-child meme of Tumblr social justice, representing the aggressive attitude that most people outside of Tumblr see first.

These people get so caught up in ideological purity that they even begin to alienate fellow Tumblr users. When YouTuber vlogger Laci Green, an advocate for sex-positive feminism, was confronted about a slur in one of her earlier videos, she immediately and earnestly apologized for it. That didn't stop other people from lobbing threats of physical harm at her over it immediately afterward, driving the vlogger away from Tumblr.

These kind of Tumblr users are known by other online hub denizens as "social justice warriors", or SJWs. These people have a very negative reputation by people outside of Tumblr, and rightfully so. SJWs have inspired criticizing Tumblrsspaces to mock Tumblr, and parody SJW tumblrs.

When these people are given suggestions to go and actually volunteer for the causes that they so passionately write about, it often flies over their heads. These Tumblr users believe that sharing their opinions on a relatively public space is contributing to the solution, and place greater value over how many followers they have. While it is true that they are, to some degree, contributing by spreading information, their particular information is not necessarily presented very well. Sources tend to go un-cited, and there tends to be a greater emphasis on moral outrage than actual argument - a strategy that doesn't work on the Internet.

Despite the lack of actual activism among most SJWs, we can see that their level of detachment from reality has started leaking into actual organizations. In at least one organization, people have started calling for policies that are Tumblr-level crazy, labeling gender-based dating as sexism, and representing of headmates.

Oh, what are headmates, you ask?

Now we step into the deepest realm of Tumblr's identity politics, where people's claimed identities are so far divorced from relevance and importance that they actually defy reality.

A thing that exists.

Headmates are a spin on multiple personality disorder where instead of being a rare disorder that impacts your life in disorienting and horrifying ways, it's a way of life where multiple beings co-inhabit your body with you, and totally get along with you. Headmates can come in any flavor of gender, race, or personality. They can even come in the form of completely inanimate objects. The important thing is that your headmates are people too, and to deny the hardships of "Multiples" - the kind of person you are if you have headmates - is a kind of oppression that so-called Singlets have because of their Singletist privilege.

It isn't necessary that these strange entities are mere companions within your body, either - sometimes they're actually you. People who describe themselves as "Otherkin" tend to identify with entities that aren't within the human species at all. Perhaps they were an animal in a past life, or perhaps they identify as a celestial object. The limitations of your identity are almost nonexistent. Otherkin are proud to be otherkin, believe that their identity is completely natural, and to suggest otherwise would make you ableist.

There are, of course, subcategories within the blanket label "Otherkin". Demonkin are people who specifically believe that they are demons, I think. You also have Therians, people who identify as werewolves and have lively debates about shape-shifting. If you specifically identify as a kind of fictional character, then you are fictionkin. If you are a Multiple and have a fictional character as a headmate, then that headmate is known as a fictive. Therians and fictives also have to deal with oppression, since people apparently tend to believe that their identity is not real.

Otherkin have responses ready for your skepticism and dissent. They will point out that you are cis-species and therefore unaware of some privileges that you have. Also, intersectionality seems to be a relevant concept to these people, as there is at least one person who identifies as therian and trans. There are probably other fun combinations out there, too.

So, how did we get here? We started somewhere reasonable, and now we're at people who think that they're galaxies.

At some point in time, the Oppression Olympics expanded its roster to include many more categories. The male-identifying cis-female-bodied demisexual trans-fat otherkin, with all their invented terminology, suddenly has an opinion that they feel should be regarded as relevant and meaningful. And, to restate from earlier: this is not something that's remaining entirely confined in Tumblr, or even the Internet.

Even before the rise of the Internet, the Left has been weighed down by identity politics and people disagreeing on how they agree with one another. Somehow, despite the Internet offering this amazing opportunity to connect with people with alike experiences, these SJWs have dug themselves deeper into isolation by painting incredibly restrictive identities, alienating those that don't fall into those identities, and championing their own perspective as members of those identities.

Why? Do they actually care about social justice?

No. Not really. At least, it makes a whole lot more sense when you assume that they don't. Let's climb our way back out of this rabbit hole.

We've seen some of this behavior before, when we looked at DeviantArt. DeviantArt was full of people who identified with anthropomorphic animals to some degree. We could safely assume that most of those people were teenagers coming to terms with their developing identities as functional adults. These Otherkin and Multiples are uncannily similar in behavior to these DeviantArt denizens.

While Tumblr happens to be too expansive of a website to give us real insight on the demographics of SJWs, we can probably infer that a lot of these particularly stringent SJWs are going through a transitory period of their lives where they feel that it's very important to define themselves. I would not be surprised if Otherkin and Multiples were mostly just bored and confused teenagers, similar to what we saw on DeviantArt. Perhaps some Tumblr people would accuse me of being ageist or practicing adultism (yes, that is a thing too), but I think that this is a reasonable inference.

Wait, this is sounding really familiar.

If someone is developing their identity, then these labels are important to them. Since everyone wants to appear credible, these Tumblr people will politicize their personal labels, incorporating concepts like "privilege" and "intersectionality" into their talks about how they were a lizard in a past life. It seems out of place, since those concepts were meant to assist communication between different perspectives. In this instance, however, these SJWs use these concepts to justify how special they are.

The same may apply for those who claim to be trans-ethnic or demisexual. In the search for an identity that is uniquely "you", we find labels for things that are either farcical or too unspectacular to deserve a label. It doesn't actually matter to "fat"-identifying people that they put their health at risk - it's an identity that they can hold on to. To hell with those who threaten the sense of individuality that it brings.

Now, let's be clear, there isn't anything actually wrong with someone maintaining a Tumblr where they talk about their concept of identity. Self-expression is a pillar of any blogging platform - in fact, I'm doing it right now. There might be legitimate criticism to be had about the level of self-expression that we see on these particular Tumblr blogs, since it might be a manifestation of extreme individualism or even a justification of consumer habits.

But that's the thing - no matter how we criticize it, we're talking about self-expression. Not activism.

We should not be fooled by an SJW claiming to be an "activist", but reblogs the with the same circle of like-minded SJWs over and over again. These people maintain their Tumblr accounts because they feel personally empowered by what they post. It is not for the sake of anyone else but themselves. They pretend to fight for other people's rights to identity because it is a convenient excuse for fixating on their own identity (sorry if I'm denying you your identity as an activist - that's probably really ableist of me, or something).

And again, there's nothing actually wrong about mostly just reblogging with a small circle of like-minded Tumblr friends. It's just better to be honest about what you're doing.

This should double our resolve to back the actual social justice movements out there. There are legitimate battles to fight against racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and yes, discrimination against body type, and we shouldn't let them be sullied by the insincere ramblings of a toxic Tumblr SJW. Tumblr can be a useful tool for those battles, but Tumblr is not the battleground.