When I started blogging, I made two rules for myself:
Rule #1: Never write anything that I don’t think is productive. In practice, that means no complaining about things being awful without offering solutions, no attacking other people’s opinions or ideas unless I have something constructive to say, no writing a post where the entire purpose of the post is to complain/vent and nothing else.
Rule #2: Never write anything that is so personal that I feel uncomfortable about it being on the internet.
I’ve stretched rule #2 a few times, but rule #1 has stayed pretty steady in the almost two years that I’ve been blogging.
There are a lot of reasons that I set those rules (especially rule #1) for myself before I started blogging. For one thing, I see so much negativity in the ace tags on tumblr that I feel bad contributing to it when I have the energy and ability to contribute positively. For another thing, I generally try to be a positive person, and I don’t like talking about things going wrong for me unless talking about it will help someone else.* I prefer to be constructive and educate others when I can; I’ve always said that I would like to be the kind of person who could have helped teenage me (who was a pretty confused and unhappy person).
Recently, though, part of the reason why I’ve started clinging to rule #1 so strongly is because of tumblr blogging culture.** A number of ace bloggers have brought up this issue, most recently Asexual Cupcake (and here’re some additional thoughts from aceadmiral). Tumblr’s atmosphere has had a fairly major influence on what I am willing to blog about as well as how often I write posts. Although I have not been targeted with criticism recently (or much at all, to be honest), I’ve found that just seeing call out posts on my dashboard ratchets my anxiety up by about forty notches. There have been days when I don’t let myself go on tumblr, because I know that going on tumblr will make me angry and anxious, and I have enough things in my life to be upset or anxious about without adding to that pile.
I have a lot of problems with call out culture, many of which I know will be immediately dismissed as “illegitimate” or “tone policing.” On a personal level, my immediate response to someone being wrong on the internet (especially about asexuality) is, “Oh, this person hasn’t learned about [X concept] yet,” not “What a bigot, I’m going to tell them to die in a fire.” If I don’t have the energy to educate, I don’t engage. If I need to vent, I do so privately. That’s a personal choice, though, and I’m not going to expect everyone to react the same way I do. I also try to keep my tone civil until I get confirmation that the person is being intentionally inflammatory. I don’t want to tell some teenager to go kill themself*** just because they haven’t been exposed to a particular concept or idea; as someone who was once ignorant about many topics (as I think basically all of us have been), I have a lot of sympathy for people who simply haven’t learned better yet, and I would prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt when I can.
On a less personal level, the lack of nuance in call out culture makes me profoundly uncomfortable. I’m an academic (“Yes, we know, Queenie; you never shut up about it,” all my followers say), and a lot of the academic conversations I’ve been having recently have been about complicating narratives, opening up space for more possibilities, and not erasing heterogeneity. Call out culture often does not have a lot of nuance, and tends to present things as monoliths–[X thing] is the absolute worst thing with no redeeming features. (The opposite argument–that [X thing] is the absolute #1 best–never seems to come up. Tumblr culture thus tends to be destructive rather than constructive in a way that doesn’t really jive with rule #1.) This has come up in conjunction with AVEN in recent ace tag discussions, namely “AVEN made [X thing] and AVEN is irredeemably terrible, so [X thing] is therefore irredeemably terrible.”****
Of course, a lot of the time, [X thing] didn’t actually come from AVEN. (The ace flag? Not made by AVEN. The concept of romantic orientation? Did not originate from AVEN. The term “zucchini”? Was not coined on AVEN. etc. etc. etc.) Even if the thing did come from AVEN, even if you think AVEN is irredeemably terrible in every dimension, that doesn’t mean the concept itself is irredeemably terrible. There are some academics I disagree with on a fundamental level–even some academics who were (or are) genuinely unpleasant people–but that doesn’t mean that their ideas can be dismissed without a second thought; their ideas have to be considered on their own merits. But tumblr culture tends to be about labeling things “problematic,”***** and once something has been declared problematic, it must be burned in the fires of Things We Can’t Use Anymore.
The uncritical reblogging of criticism also makes me extremely anxious–this gets back to the “AVEN is terrible and this thing came from AVEN, so it must be terrible” issue. I have seen those posts go across my dash three or four times without anyone bothering to, I don’t know, check that the information is correct? Also, occasionally people will post something indignant in order to react to new information as quickly as possible without actually bothering to check that their information is correct. (Occasionally they then make a follow-up post saying, “Whoops, didn’t get that right!” but, by that point, their first post has been released into the wild and is being reblogged everywhere because if it’s critical it must be correct.) It means that misinformation spreads like wildfire, and criticism (especially criticism that seems impassioned) will always spread faster than positivity, constructive discussion, or any reblog that says, “Whoa, hey, this information is incorrect, and the situation isn’t actually as bad as you think it is.”
It also means that I see a lot of folks who genuinely have no idea whether what is being said is correct or not uncritically reblogging things (and adding commentary!) because JUSTICE, which makes me really uncomfortable. (Most recent examples I can think of: white people reblogging commentary on race, white non-ace people reblogging commentary on how asexuality oppresses people of color,****** non-aces reblogging commentary on grey-asexuality, etc.) I do not claim to speak for anyone other than myself, because to assume that I understand what it’s like to be anyone else is foolish to the extreme, and yet at least twice a day I see people whose circumstances are drastically different than mine being deeply offended and angry for me. I don’t want people to be angry for me, especially not people who apparently aren’t invested enough in this issue to actually check that the information they’re reblogging is correct. (It’s even more embarrassing when it’s obvious that the first person “calling out” the OP clearly misread the post, and every subsequent reblogger has just reblogged the criticism without checking that the OP actually says what the criticism says it’s saying.)
There’s also the matter of what I’m tentatively calling “appropriation of anger”; this is something that I see come up a lot with regards to race on tumblr. I can completely understand a PoC or mixed race person reacting with anger to someone posting something racist–however, when white “allies” react with the same kind of anger, I kind of side-eye them. (The same goes for men reacting to misogyny with anger, which I’ve been seeing a lot of recently.) There’s a difference between being frustrated because of injustice and being angry because you personally are being attacked, and I think tumblr’s blogging culture–in which anger offers legitimacy to whatever you’re saying–allows people to forget that distinction. My understanding of allyship is that a large part of it is doing all the education work that the group you’re supporting is too tired or too burned out or too upset or too whatever to do. So if you’re an ally reacting to something that doesn’t directly affect you with “Go die in a fire, you huge bigot,” you’re not really getting anything productive done or helping the people you’re supposedly supporting.
I think the reason why I see so many allies reacting with BURNING ANGER to affronts on the groups they’re supposedly supporting is that tumblr culture codes anger as the way the “in-group” reacts to the “oppressor,” and so allies think that if they react with the same amount of anger, they will be able to join the “in-group.” No, I’m sorry, if you’re not an ace of color, no matter how angry you get about someone saying ignorant things about aces of color, that won’t actually make you an ace of color. I can only speak for myself, but if you really want to be an ally for me (in whatever dimension), I’d much rather you compile a linkspam for the person so that I don’t have to than send death threats and call them a bigot. When you get angry about something that affects me and not you, you are making the issue about you and your anger, not the actual effect this issue is having on me.
When both allies and marginalized groups react with the same anger, it creates a culture in which any non-angry response is coded as “less legitimate” or “less invested.” You get this ouroboros of anger, in which anger is reblogged and praised as the “correct” way to react, allies join in on the angry reactions, and people (like me) who don’t react well to anger or who would prefer not to express themselves angrily don’t feel like their reactions are “legitimate” enough to be voiced. I have actually gotten in arguments with people who believed that my desire to not voice things angrily meant that I wasn’t really being affected by them, because if I was really being affected, I would respond angrily. Um, no, anger is a legitimate reaction to someone attacking my identity, but it’s not my reaction and it’s not how I want to express myself.
There are also people who don’t respond well to anger–people who have anxiety disorders, people who have been abused, people struggling with suicidal thoughts (seeing death threats on their dashboards really doesn’t help those people, even if you’re not targeting them specifically, for the record), etc.–and yet the common response seems to be, “If you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” If you base your entire blogging culture around who can react most quickly and with the most boiling rage, those people are either going to stay the heck away from you or are going to feel like they’re constantly tiptoeing through a minefield, which isn’t good for anyone’s mental health. And, let’s be honest, not all of those people are “oppressors”; some of them actually belong to the marginalized groups that you’re trying to protect, but would prefer to find a safe space that doesn’t feel like a war zone.
I am all for critical engagement with other people’s writing–a huge chunk of my work as an academic is poking holes in other people’s arguments and figuring out where they’re lacking. But, at the end of the day, critical engagement with other people’s work is always about how to improve my own work and the field as a whole. If I’m not building something constructive out of that criticism–whether that means filling those holes or avoiding those pitfalls–it doesn’t really mean anything. It’s very easy to say, “Wow, look how badly this person messed up” and just stop there; it’s very easy to be destructive, but much harder to be constructive, and construction is what we need to keep growing as a community.
I think to some extent I see a lot of tumblr’s blogging culture as coming from an insistence on perfection, and perfection is impossible. The only way to always be perfectly clear and have perfect word choice and never misstep and never have people read things into your words that you didn’t intend is to never write anything at all. That doesn’t seem like a particularly healthy way for a community to operate. Nor does it seem like a good way to fuel discussion; if we’re dividing everything into two categories–the absolute #1 worst thing ever and things that are okay (for the moment, until we find problems with them)–there’s no incentive to ever release a half-formed idea. And, yes, I know, the internet isn’t academia, but I’ve found that some of my best academic work has come out of sharing ideas that I know have pretty serious problems or that have gaping knowledge holes in them. Some of my best blogging has come out of a similar process of discussion and exchange with other aces who I know will point out flaws in my logic and suggest ways to fill those holes rather than tearing into me for being the absolute worst person ever.
This expectation of constant perfection also sets an impossibly high bar for newcomers. You just learned about asexuality fifteen minutes ago? Well, you better know the history of every term in the entire community, which ones have most recently been criticized or come under fire, and also a bunch of information that seems pretty disconnected (like information on gender identity, race, ethnicity, identity politics in LGBT communities, etc.) so you might not even realize that you need to know this stuff (or that there even is stuff to know). I have seen teenagers who only learned about asexuality earlier that week get dog-piled on for using the word “queerplatonic” without half a dozen disclaimers attached–if you’ve only been reading ace blog posts for a week, it’s pretty amazing that you’ve learned that word, let alone that you’ve even scraped the surface of the constant arguments around it. In the weirdest cases, I’ve seen some kid post, “Wow, just found out about asexuality–I guess this explains why I’ve always found the idea of sex so gross!” and then get bombarded with people asking how DARE they imply that sex is gross and how DARE they imply that all asexual people are sex-repulsed and how DARE they erase sexually active aces…when in actuality, all they were doing was making a statement about themself.
I’m going to bring this back to me to close, because, at the end of the day, I can only speak for myself. I am not perfect. I have messed up before, and I am sure I will mess up again. I try really hard, and I will always apologize when I mess up. But seeing so much uncritical reblogging of criticism on my dash, seeing people dog-piling on someone who clearly wasn’t intending to be malicious and just genuinely didn’t know something, seeing people (especially people completely unaffected by what they’re blogging about) reacting to everything with BLISTERING RAGE and death threats, seeing the constant demand for perfection terrifies me, because no matter how hard I try, I will never be perfect. And if the only people who have any worth are those who are perfect–because everyone who isn’t perfect is irredeemably awful–then the fact that I am an imperfect human being means that I am worthless. I don’t want to believe that I am worthless, because that’s the fast-track to Really Bad Places for me, and because I am fairly sure (at least 55% sure) that I’m not actually worthless. I don’t want to make anyone else believe that they’re worthless because they’re ignorant or because they misspoke, mistyped, or were just misread. I was not born omnipotent (and I will never be omnipotent, since that’s another impossible upper limit), so I can’t reasonably expect other people to be. If I can’t engage with someone else’s ignorance in a constructive manner, I step away. And, yes, I’m not required to educate anyone, but if I have energy to educate, I will. As much as I want a space safe for myself, I also want a space in which respectful dialogue is possible, not every conversation is an anxiety-provoking screaming match, and no one is required to be perfect all of the time.
*This is probably the only reason I’ve been willing to talk about sexual violence-related stuff; if there was someone else who was willing to assemble resources, I would very happily disappear back into the woodwork.
**I recommend this essay on call out culture, although it is quite long. This essay has also had a pretty large impact on how I choose to engage with people on the internet. Somewhat tangentially related, a friend sent me this essay on worldviews recently.
***It is wildly inappropriate to EVER tell anyone to kill themself, so I sincerely hope that you don’t do this. It is literally taking all of my willpower not to write a disclaimer on this statement, because I know there are people who disagree quite strongly, but I’m not going to. Don’t tell people to kill themselves. I don’t care if you don’t actually mean that they should literally go kill themselves and you’re just trying to express anger–the words you are typing are “Go kill yourself,” and so regardless of the intention behind your words, that’s what you’re saying. If you’re really interested in using proper words, you should know better than to say one thing and mean another.
****You might be thinking, “What, Queenie, no links? Are you feeling okay?” Honestly, I could link to half a dozen examples of each problem I’m outlining in this post, but I really don’t want to get into that fight, especially since the purpose of this post is to be constructive, not to drag anyone through the mud.
*****Again, coming from academia, that’s not what “problematic” means. “Problematic” means something has problems, elides some complexity, fails to capture some nuance, misrepresents a situation–it doesn’t mean that it’s the #1 worst thing ever and you can’t ever use it.
******YES, of course there are issues with the desexualization or hypersexualization of certain PoC groups, but your argument lacks nuance and tends to create a homogeneous, monolithic “people of color” as well as a homogeneous, monolithic “asexuality.” Let’s not do that, yeah? Nuance: it’s actually pretty cool? 10/10, would recommend to a friend.