Two-Step Tumblr Thinking

I have a theory about why nuanced discussions of complicated topics have become unnecessarily fraught during the past five years or so. This is one facet of many, of course, but I’ve had enough experience with this particular discursive mode that I think it’s worth describing in concrete terms.

Social media platforms like Twitter and Tumblr promote a style of messaging that is easily consumable and sharable. I don’t think this is a bad thing. Concise and witty observations, one-sentence press releases with hyperlinks, and captioned comics and artwork are the majority of what I share on social media, and I’m grateful to have access to this content without having to scroll through endless reams of blog posts in an aggregate feed reader.

Unfortunately, this sort of messaging tends to flatten discussions. Although I see this on Twitter too, I joined Tumblr in 2011 and have watched in real time as discussions of subjects like race and sexuality have been adjusted to a format better suited to easy consumption and sharing. After becoming more familiar with the patterns of how this tends to play out, I’ve started to refer to this oversimplification of complicated topics as “two-step Tumblr thinking.”

The basic model for this type of thinking is as follows:

  1. [X] is bad.
  2. A piece of media contains [X].

Numerous conclusions can be drawn from these two observations, but they tend to be something along the lines of “the piece of media is therefore bad” or “anyone who likes the piece of media is bad.” These conclusions in turn result in the sort of call-out culture (or cancel culture) in which relatively powerless individuals, often young people occupying positions of relative disadvantage, become the targets of anger and frustration that might more appropriately be directed at social and economic systems or perpetrators of violence and injustice in the real world.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to call out bullshit when and where it exists. Sometimes bullshit is nothing more than bullshit, and calling it out doesn’t need to be “a nuanced discussion.”

Still, simplifying every discussion of a complicated subject like media representation to “this is bad” serves to inhibit critical thinking while erasing perspectives that don’t occupy a mainstream or normative position. In other words, the demand for a flattened mode of discourse serves to reify injustice, not resist it.

To give a specific example, this is an argument I’ve made (here) about the villainous character Ganondorf in the Legend of Zelda games The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess:

  1. Racism is bad.
  2. The villain has dark skin.
  3. But the game is not made by white Americans.
  4. Japan has a complicated history with imperialism.
  5. The dark-skinned villain comments on imperialism.
  6. He does so using (Japanese) language that invites sympathy.
  7. The games were made during a surge in ethnic visibility movements.

Following this chain of thinking, one might be able to suggest something interesting about the games and the different layers of the story and message they convey. You might not come to the same set of conclusions I did, and that’s totally fine. (I would love that, actually.)

The problem is that most discussions stop after the first two steps, so you get:

  1. Racism is bad.
  2. The villain has dark skin.

According to this chain of thinking, the Legend of Zelda games are racist, and anyone who enjoys the games or wants to talk about the character Ganondorf is therefore racist as well. The only place a discussion can go after this conclusion is a squabble over ad hominem identity politics, which is unpleasant even when it’s not happening online.

I’m not saying that positionality isn’t important, or somehow irrelevant and invalid. Rather, if “being allowed to talk about something” is dependent on nothing more (and nothing less) than individual positionality, this creates a tense atmosphere that encourages shenanigans like racebending (which is when white people suddenly discover their “ethnic” heritage) and infighting within the LGBTQ+ community over who is allowed to “count” as gay.

Let me give another example based on an academic article I was asked to review for a well-respected journal. The author was writing about an interesting manga that I would describe like this:

  1. Sexual assault is bad.
  2. The manga depicts sexual assault.
  3. But the manga is drawn by a woman.
  4. And most of the manga’s fans are women.
  5. The artist explicitly addresses the violence of misogyny.
  6. Many fans openly address misogyny in their fanwork as well.

What I would argue (as I’ve argued before) is that this type of storytelling is a form of collective therapy, healing, and empowerment for the objects of violence, who tell stories in which they become the active subjects and literal authors of their experiences.

If this discussion stops after the first two steps, however, you get:

  1. Sexual assault is bad.
  2. The manga depicts sexual assault.

This type of discursive flattening led the author of the article to argue that the manga advocates for violence against women and is therefore, in a very literal sense, just as bad as #Gamergate, a social media “movement” in which anonymous users sent a barrage of rape threats to female game developers and journalists over several months during the summer and fall of 2014.

I have to admit that, as a peer reviewer, I had no idea how to respond to this. One might as well argue that Joyce Carol Oates, in writing about the violence of rape, was justifying rape; or that Toni Morrison, in writing about the violence of slavery, was advocating for slavery. This sort of argument is absurd, obviously, and I don’t think it’s any less absurd if it’s applied to a story that addresses its themes through fantasy instead of with mimetic realism.

Again, I’m not saying that being able to quickly share information about sexist and racist bullshit on social media is bad. If someone in a position of power is abusing their privilege to hurt people, I don’t need “a nuanced discussion” of the matter.

I also want to emphasize that I respect people’s positions on what they are and aren’t able to tolerate in any given piece of media. Speaking personally, I have a set of topics and styles of representation that I avoid on sight (or reputation) whenever I encounter them in entertainment media, and I don’t care how “nuanced” or “complicated” the piece of media’s treatment of them may be. This is valid for me, and it’s valid for every other human being on this earth.

At the same time, I don’t think that two-step Tumblr thinking should be the default for critical discussions of complicated topics, especially not in an academic setting, whether it’s a classroom or a peer-reviewed article. Sensitivity is always necessary, of course, but “Toni Morrison was racist because she wrote about race” isn’t an exercise of critical thinking by any stretch of the imagination.

This especially applies to conversations about cultures outside of Europe. If we want to encourage conversations about “difference,” then we’re going to have to accept that people operating in the context of different cultures have different ways of telling stories and talking about important issues. Again, I’m not trying to excuse bad behavior, but I think discussions of complicated topics could benefit from more research and critical thinking instead of stalling after the first two steps.