When people talk about Tumblr Social Justice Warriors (SJWs), a significant fraction of what they’re talking about is the ace community. You may not think of yourself as an SJW, but you are, whether you are or not.
It doesn’t make a difference that I’m a vocal critic of Tumblr, or that I joke about destroying it. When I modded a panel on FTB, we were called “The nightmarish collision of FTB and tumblr” merely because we talked about asexuality. And my first reaction was, “Damn right, you better be scared!”
Here I focus on one aspect of the SJW stereotype which is clearly traceable to the tumblr ace community: labels, labels, endless labels.
It does not escape my notice that whenever people complain about excessive identity labels on Tumblr, a bunch of the examples given are clearly from ace and aro discourse. For example, Gawker lists demisexuality alongside otherkin and transethnicity. Someone on Urban Dictionary used “gender-fluid asexual heteroromantic two-spirit toast-kin” as an example. Thing of Things, while defending the trend, used “requiessexual bipoetisexual squidgender moongender aroflux lesbian” as an example.
My personal relation to label culture is that I don’t mind it, but I stand on its outskirts. I only use a few words like “ace” and “gray-A”, and these aren’t meant to be specific, but to be ambiguous. Not that such philosophical nuances makes a difference to critics of Tumblr SJW, who would lump me in with the rest.
In this post, I’ll try to identify the motivations of label culture, and then offer a constructive critique of it.
Label-hating and Puppy-kicking
If you ever hang around ace spaces, you’ve probably dealt with people who are new and searching for their place. They ask, does anyone else feel the way I feel? And you say, yes, and there’s even a word people sometimes use to describe it. Wow, there’s even a word for it? Amazing!
I can’t outright hate labels because, come on! Have you seen how much joy these words produce? Much validation. So belong.
I’m not going to make a blanket statement that all identity labels are always great and a force for good. For instance, I really don’t think there should be an identity label for men who like Asian men, but there it is!
But any proper critique of identity labels first needs to acknowledge why people like them. It’s not about feeling special or about gaining the power accorded to Oppressed Groups. It’s about that sense of not being alone. It’s also the hope that more people will talk about the things you experience. After the runaway success of such words as “asexual” and “panromantic”, who wouldn’t be eager to create more words?
Graph labels sans graph
To offer a constructive critique of label culture, I need to offer an alternative. It’s worth noting that Tumblr label culture clearly grew out of the surrounding/pre-existing ace culture, but it is not the same as surrounding/pre-existing ace culture. In my view, the difference is that previously aces were primarily enthusiastic about graphs and models. New words would arise out of the models as byproducts. But these days on Tumblr, it’s just about the words.
To give just a few examples, the AVEN triangle came from a dead model. The ABCD model was an early way to talk about romantic attraction and sex drive. Demisexuality was originally attached to a primary/secondary attraction model. Oh, and romantic orientation, there’s a big whopper of a model.
I think models were better at illuminating the vast space of possible orientations, whereas labels only chisel out little niches one at a time. There is much joy in finding a niche for yourself, but we also need to talk about the dismay of finding that everyone has their own word but you. Or let’s talk about the claustrophobia of each niche, the feeling that you have to adopt a word even if you don’t like it. Or let’s talk about how hard it is to land in such a small niche when you’re filled with uncertainty.
But let us not romanticize models either. Models are more hierarchical, while labels are more egalitarian. Models were bigger than labels, so you can imagine there were bigger cracks too. And what about simple practicalities, like the fact that labels are more amenable to hashtags?
I’m not saying that label culture is necessarily bad. However, it does have some disadvantages, and there are alternative ways to cultivate that sense of shared experience. If it pleases you, you can try some of the alternatives out.
This post was written for the Carnival of Aces, whose theme this month is “Asexual culture“.