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Escaping Tumblr

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“I was also on Tumblr with an agenda. Over the past ten months, I had stumbled deeper and deeper into the neurodiversity movement, which frames autism as an identity as well as a disability and blames society for ‘oppressing’ autistics.”

Before it policed the limits of my imagination, Tumblr expanded them. I created an account in May of this year, energized by my first foray into autism advocacy and eager to explore “disability culture.” In many ways, Tumblr is perfect for teenagers on the spectrum. It erases the anxiety and pressure associated with oral communication, offering a straightforward framework for social reciprocity. I quickly found a place within the #ActuallyAutistic community, where I bonded with other users over shared struggles. We swapped practical tips: lists of websites that sold high-quality earplugs, strategies for coping with loud environments, suggestions for navigating the college accommodation process, collections of novels and movies with disabled protagonists. The aesthetics, too, were enchanting. I filled my feed with mesmerizing gifs: sky-colored soap sliced into paper-thin, luminous shards, rain falling rhythmically onto glistening pavement, a hydraulic press crushing candles and hot wax spilling out. “Come for what you love, stay for what you discover,” read the pop-up that prompted me to make an account. And so far, I loved what I had discovered.

I was also on Tumblr with an agenda. Over the past ten months, I had stumbled deeper and deeper into the neurodiversity movement, which frames autism as an identity as well as a disability and blames society for “oppressing” autistics. The #ActuallyAutistic crowd endorsed neurodiversity with forceful, even zealous enthusiasm. I latched onto the notion that everything about autism ought to be celebrated and that I should resist any attempt to overcome my impairments, as doing so would culminate in the dilution of my “true” self. Thanks to Tumblr’s algorithms, I could find plenty of accounts that endorsed these beliefs, and I could block the ones that did not. I received abundant positive reinforcement for posting about autistic pride and culture. It was fertile ground for indoctrination.

To reinforce the concepts of autistic identity and solidarity, I joined other users in #ActuallyAutistic Tumblr’s favorite pastime: identifying ableism in all its insidious forms. We were not picky about where we directed our anger, combining forces with physically disabled and chronically ill users to broaden our repertoire of outrage. Everything from bad parking jobs to fictional doctors on television to appreciating empathy to “inaccessible” graphic design could trigger tidal waves of righteous fury. At the time of writing, Tumblr’s most popular posts tagged #ableism include a declaration that “every single person who doesn’t support a universal healthcare system thinks that some people who get sick and can’t pay deserve to die;” a complaint about a news story describing a child who bought his friend a wheelchair (“I hate ableds and their [expletive] inpiration [sic] porn”); and a rant about France winning the World Cup, deemed problematic because “French autistic children are being forcefully removed from their parents and shoved into freezers.”

The endless cycle of rage was both pleasurable and exhausting. I was a warrior with a noble cause, and, conveniently, that cause required me to be tremendously self-centered. But though I did not realize it at the time, this entitlement came at a cost. Non-autistic users were willing to occupy the subordinate position of ally so long as their own lived experiences of oppression were fawned over, too. The #ActuallyAutistic crowd overlapped most significantly with the LGBTQ+ community, so this was where my descent into intersectionality began. The majority of the users I followed described themselves in terms of gender ideology (trans, aromantic, bisexual, pansexual, nonbinary, etc.), so my feed often contained “gentle reminders” delineating acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

“Its okay if you didn’t know something was ableist, homophobic, racist, etc…But the second you do it WHILE knowing it is, is when you become the person were fighting against” (link)

“this trans pride week, please ensure that your trans pride includes fat trans ppl, trans poc, straight trans ppl, disabled, neurodivergent and mentally ill trans ppl and other trans folk who are often left out of trans pride posts. trans ppl are absolutely amazing!!!!” (link)

“You’re not truly BLM if you don’t include lgbtqia+ in your statement” (link)

I adhered to these norms out of an earnest desire to treat others with kindness. I had heard plenty about the anguish of being misgendered, so describing other users with their preferred pronouns seemed like a basic courtesy, and specifying my pronouns in my bio was just a small step away from that. I reblogged posts with messages like “this blog is a safe space for lgbtq+ users” because I liked the idea of making people feel comfortable and welcomed. I understood the concept of orientations like gay, lesbian, and bisexual, so why not graysexual or demiromantic? Why couldn’t males be lesbians? Why shouldn’t “no-gender” be a gender identity? Who was I to judge?

But on Tumblr, calling out “ableist language” was not an opportunity for insightful conversation. It was a purity test, plain and simple, and I was eager to pass.

I learned to set aside logic and defer to the opinions of the ostensibly oppressed. I began to pick up on the relentless preoccupation with language that I would later recognize as a symptom of postmodernism. Every so often, a post would circulate about the ableism of words like lame, stupid, crazy, insane, dumb, and so on. At their core, these criticisms are eminently reasonable. The words in question have a long history of being used to demean and dehumanize disabled people, and there is a convincing case to be made for reexamining how this trend continues in the present day. But on Tumblr, calling out “ableist language” was not an opportunity for insightful conversation. It was a purity test, plain and simple, and I was eager to pass. At the request of people I had never met, I stripped every trace of ableism from my vocabulary. At one point, I even fantasized about a browser extension that would automatically replace problematic adjectives with blandly acceptable alternatives. It never occurred to me to consider the illiberal implications of such a technology. I truly believed that self-censorship was an essential step toward becoming a better person.

The more time I spent on Tumblr, the more restrictive other users’ requests became. I amassed lists of the books I should not read, brands I should not buy, shows I should not watch, people I should not trust, and the questions I should not ask. By this point, I had internalized and reproduced various thought-stopping tactics employed by squadrons of Tumblr users. I would find myself challenging queer dogma one moment, then self-flagellating the next. Wasn’t that just my privilege talking? When had I internalized all this heteronormativity? I found myself tacitly and then actively praising users with “marginalized” gender identities: polygender, genderfluid, greygender, gendervague, gendervoid. The vast majority of these seemed to be defined by their supposed inability to be defined, but I knew better than to point this out. For all their pastel-colored positivity, the gender activists were easily and eagerly offended, perhaps because their identities hinged on marginalization. One of the greatest sources of offense was material reality and, by extension, anyone who valued it. My feed featured a steady stream of posts arguing that every human has a gender identity except for those who identified as genderless, that lesbians had the right to deem themselves male, that a person did not need to transition in order to be trans, and that anyone who said otherwise was a bigot.

The types of bigots grew almost as fast as the list of neologisms. There were the trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs, despised and mocked by nearly every account that I followed—and the transphobes, an epithet for anyone who contradicted radical trans ideology. Sex worker-exclusionary radical feminists, or SWERFs, committed the grave sin of opposing sex work and, therefore, oppressing people of every gender (“Sex work is work!”). Aphobes discriminated against asexual people, biphobes against bisexuals, lesbophobes against lesbians, along with dozens of other portmanteaus. I learned to harbor resentment towards members of each of these categories without ever understanding the arguments behind their positions. Users had a way of mischaracterizing pro-TERF arguments to imply that only a card-carrying bigot would be evil enough even to entertain these notions, let alone agree with them. These responses lent me the illusion that I had understood opposing beliefs and rejected them for logical reasons when, in reality, I had simply outsourced critical thinking to people I had never met.

Early in May, a user I followed—I’ll call her “M.”—announced that she now identified as a trans male. Without missing a beat, other accounts showered M. in praise, applauding M.’s bravery and virtue. I added my voice to the chorus because I had absorbed Tumblr’s narrative about transitioning unquestioningly. I considered coming out an act of tremendous courage, saw hormones and mastectomies as life-saving treatments, and never once considered the possibility that any of this could damage a person’s body irreparably. When I returned to Tumblr in preparation for this essay, I learned that M. now identifies as non-binary but asks followers to use she/her pronouns. Recently, M. reblogged the following paragraph:

“just as a reminder, changing your identity is not a bad thing, for any reason. thought you were a lesbian and now ur bi? thats ok! thought u were nonbinary and now ur a binary trans person? good and healthy. thought u were trans but realized ur cis and gender nonconforming? im glad u figured urself out! thought u were gay but ur actually ace? good! u were romance repulsed but u worked through some stuff and now ur romance favorable? good for u! and vice versa for all of these and anything else like this! changing ur mind on things is natural! fluctuations of the self is normal! i love u no matter what! have a good day!”

I used to consider this kind of thing an exemplar of acceptance. An addendum at the bottom of the post reads, “this post is not for t*rfs, aphobes, queerphobes, lesbophobes, biphobes, tr*scum, or any other kind of bigot.” Seven months ago, I would not have seen the irony, and I am not sure anyone else did, either.

After George Floyd’s death, claws came out. The atmosphere of light-hearted cheeriness vanished as users scrambled to demonstrate their allegiance to Black Lives Matter and hurl abuse at heretics. My feed exploded with posts insisting that users protest, donate to bail funds, and “educate” hopelessly bigoted family members. Some autistic users took it upon themselves to chastise the entire #ActuallyAutistic crew and make sweeping accusations of “using your neurodivergence as an excuse for anti-Blackness.”

I abandoned wokeness when it became clear that the ideas I had absorbed about my privilege and complicity were eating me alive.

I still have no idea what it means, but it rattled me deeply. I latched onto the posts that promised salvation, resolving to “do the work” and be a “good ally.” I would spend the summer reading 50 books by black authors. I would reexamine my favorite musician’s racial background and rearrange my Spotify library to create equitable playlists. I would read up on every Native American tribe within a 50-mile radius; join prison abolition campaigns; major in gender studies; make new friends so that my social circle filled racial quotas; reprimand the people around me for their complicity and ignorance; talk less; listen more; realize that I was the problem. I would eradicate the whiteness from everything I touched: shopping bags, bookshelves, playlists, curricula. It took me several months to realize that the logical next step would have been to decolonize my mind.

I abandoned wokeness when it became clear that the ideas I had absorbed about my privilege and complicity were eating me alive. Awash in guilt and anxiety, I could no longer focus on my studies, make decisions, or even justify my existence in the world. It did not matter how much time and energy I invested in wokeness because the bar for good allyship never stopped rising. Trying to satisfy the moral requirements of intersectionality did not alleviate my anxiety but, rather, made it worse.

Eventually, I found my way to articles YouTube videos by dissident intellectuals. I spent the summer chipping away at my former beliefs in an attempt to replace them with something more durable. On Tumblr, I unsubscribed from the accounts that flooded my feed with videos of protesters confronting police; blocked political tags; and focused on amassing memes and gifs of my favorite indie rock artists. I added a browser extension that restricted my weekly time on the site to four hours, then two, then one. I tried to focus on what I loved about my online interactions: friendships, humor, having people to relate to. But no matter how hard I tried to keep out it out, the wokeness always came creeping back. It came in the form of hashtags on photographs of my favorite singers, pointing out that, yes, their music was good, but also they were queer and, therefore, a source of positive representation and much-needed diversity and empowerment for teenage lesbians across the globe. It came in the form of banners under moodboards and gifs that aggressively specified who was or was not “allowed” to reblog them (“Trump supporters/ableists/racists not welcome!”). It came in the form of occasional DMs from mutuals to casually alert me to the fact that “some awful TERF” was reblogging my posts and I should potentially maybe definitely block them for the sake of “the community.”

Midway through August, I deleted my account. It was time to stop performing my life and go back to living it. My cursor hovered over the red button: are you sure you want to do this? Yes, I was. I watched colors contort frictionlessly, 2,000 posts evaporating in under a second. I expected to feel a gap or a hollow, the digital equivalent of a phantom limb, but there was no sense of loss or anything near it. I shut my computer and went on with my day. My account was gone, and I was unchanged, as though nothing had been there at all.

Lucy Kross Wallace is a recovering activist and an undergraduate at Stanford University.

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