Tumblrism: The Injustice League

John David Pressman

One of the distinguishing features of the red tribe is its paranoia that sympathy will be exploited to make the world worse. There’s no shortage of illustrative examples: Giving money to the homeless is an exercise in futility, they’ll just buy drugs and alcohol. Being nice to your children when they misbehave does a disservice, they’ll learn that misbehavior is an acceptable way to express themselves. If you give mercy to criminals they’ll just victimize someone else once they’re let off. The red tribe believes in something like a no free lunch theorem of morality: All mercy given results in injustice somewhere else. As a result you should punish immediately and harshly so that at least the universe directs consequences where they ought to go.

This makes red tribe folk hypersensitive to an issue on which blue tribers are probably undersensitive: malingering. When most people hear the word ‘malingering’ they probably imagine a basically healthy person pretending to be sick at the expense of others. But probably much more common is someone with genuine issues acting more sick than they really are, especially since they might not even know they’re doing it. While such cases have probably existed since the dawn of man the 21st century brings us a new form of politicized radical malingering. These politics are expounded in online support groups as found on social media sites such as Tumblr. This ideology, hereafter referred to as Tumblrism is produced by online support gone malignant. It’s the result of a perverse feedback loop creating positive reinforcement for performing brokneness, for many people involved being broken is about the only thing they’ve ever truly succeeded at.

Most of Tumblr’s distinctive social and political features can be explained by this framework. The much derided “oppression olympics” for example are an obvious outcome of charitable and sympathetic dependence. If you don’t produce things, and can only accept them as gifts from others then your economics are inherently zero sum. Sympathy and resources for one person take them away from someone else. In a sane moral accounting the competition to be the most oppressed implies some counterforce of oppression on the other side of the ledger. It implies an inverse of the red tribe belief that mercy begets injustice, an expectation that injustice begets mercy. Fundamentally to compete for the position of most injusticed against you must have the expectation that this will bend the moral arc of the universe in your favor. Tumblr support groups then are a ritual to bend this moral arc by manufacturing injustice.1

Another aspect of Tumblr that often mystifies people is its obsession with ‘cute’. This could easily just be chalked up to the fact that Tumblr is a website with a large female demographic and women enjoy cute. However the point is not to admire cute, it’s to become cute. Particular emphasis is placed on neoteny, the act of retaining traits associated with childhood into adulthood. Some amount of neoteny is quite plausibly good, as evidenced by the common advice to retain ones natural curiosity and passion for the world around them. However tumblrites are most interested in those forms of neoteny that produce cuteness. It pays here to remember that our sense of cuteness exists to help feel the intrinsic value of children. Children’s value is largely intrinsic, especially in the 21st century where we’ve stripped people who would be adults in Medieval Europe of all property rights, ability to work, and personal agency in a state we legally refer to as dependence. This intrinsic value goes well with sympathy, as the human tendency to bare our hearts more often for the adorable is well documented and well known among the disadvantaged.

Moreover intrinsic value is especially compelling for people who are too broken for or otherwise prohibited from producing extrinsic value such as labor. It’s this dynamic more than anything else which brings us the ‘traditional’ female gender role.2 If we are to take the separation of gender from sex at face value, then certainly the vast majority of tumblr users have a feminine sexual persona regardless of whatever sundry thing they happen to actually identify as. It’s the combination of broken, neotenous and female that gives Tumblr its unique social atmosphere. For example, the often jarring sexuality of Tumblr users makes more sense in this light. Tumblr sexuality is promiscuous, manic, yet strangely unthreatening and casual. This is caused by a neotenous sense of social intimacy and attraction that has few problems crossing relatively porous barriers between closeness, friendship, and sexuality. As one Tumblr user put it “Turns out without constant overwhelming societal pressure for stoic masculinity you get catgirls in about a week”.

In the immediate term, this radical social sphere is a threat to the red tribe. Red tribe values are based on the lionization of maturity and adulthood, even to the exclusion of values like openness and idealism. A society of victims robs the essential dignity of people, and the “degenerate” sexual and social values of Tumblr viscerally disgust most red tribe members. Moreover an alternative set of social values and norms are required to allow incredibly prickly people poorly matched to social interaction the ability to cooperate, and these norms involve the destruction of key notions of freedom such as free speech. However it is precisely these same norms that will eventually hurt the blue tribe as well.3

In addition to damaging notions of careful speech control, Tumblrism is a terrible foundation for movement building. It encourages activists and political participants to simultaneously overshare, weaken themselves, and submit to ever more deranged notions of injustice. The deliberate manufacture of injustice subverts the very concept, turning away allies and increasingly putting the foundation of justice movements in jeopardy. Tumblrism needs new and novel forms of injustice to survive as a social structure, and is empirically willing to do whatever it takes to create them including recreate and rebrand previously conquered notions such as segregation as progressive policy. As they are already ruthlessly exploiting peoples sympathy, they have no fear using dangerous double edged tactics like turning every issue into a referendum on some minority group. Given increased provocation and injury, people will inevitably begin to vote no. People are already beginning to vote no.

If we can’t get this madness under control it will consume our coalition and damn our chances for peace. We will slowly see things we’ve fought hard for rolled back under the notion that they were always silly. By making lasting progress impossible Tumblrism makes regression inevitable.

You’re not a bad person for finding the strength to start telling people no.

  1. This is in fact one of the only ways new value can be produced in a zero-sum sympathy based economy. 

  2. Of course in the case of traditional gender roles, it’s a prohibition on female labor causing the dynamic rather than anything have to do with actual ability. The 20th century should be refutation enough of the argument that women are incapable of labor. 

  3. And at least in the blue tribe I grew up with, free speech is supposed to be a value we support.