Shipping Isn’t Morality

(from the Tumblr blog Shipping Isn’t Morality)
https://shipping-isnt-morality.tumblr.com/post/183726148328/yknow-its-been-a-while-since-i-made-this

When I say “abuse is the fault of the abuser,” I don’t mean in just a pure metaphysical, “everyone’s responsible for their own actions” kind of way. I mean that abusers start with their abusive behavior, and then fill in whatever behavior and excuses they have to to justify it to themselves and their victims. Maybe it’s media. Maybe it’s substance abuse. Maybe it’s past abuse that they suffered. Maybe it’s some psychology mumbo-jumbo about projecting past trauma onto you. Maybe it’s mental illness. Maybe it’s anything. […]

Abusers choose to hurt you. They know that their actions will hurt you, and they choose to do it anyways.

Everything after that is an excuse.

This is a good post in the ongoing pushback against fandom purity discourse and respectability politics. I ended up reading through almost two dozen pages of this blog last week, and it was an enlightening experience. This person also runs an anti-fandom receipt blog (that posts screenshots of harassment, rape threats, and so on), and I admire that they’re so good-natured despite having seen and experienced so much garbage.

I also found another good chain [here] about how, basically, “if I was eight years younger and wandering into fandom for the first time, I can guarantee that the culture right now would’ve fucked me up and ground me down and taken away all my healthy outlets.”

I still haven’t found much of anything that addresses some of the particular problems I’ve experienced in the Legend of Zelda fandom, which are much more intersectional than most of the issues I see discussed on fandom positivity blogs. I will keep looking, but it’s been a journey.

I should qualify all of this by saying that I’m not a huge fan of the idea that fandom has to be therapeutic or serve some purpose in order to be valid. There’s another good chain [here] that highlights the misogyny and homophobia of the assumption that female and queer fantasies need to be “productive” in order to be allowed to exist.

I’m glad that smart people are out there doing the work of unpacking the absurdity of insisting on sexual purity in subcultural queer spaces, because even the act of reading these conversations is exhausting to me personally. I briefly considered starting a fandom discourse blog myself, but then I thought about it for two seconds and realized how time-consuming and emotionally draining it would be. Something I’ve noticed about the pro-fandom blogs I encounter on Tumblr is that they devote an extraordinary amount of care and attention to research and maintaining ethical standards. That’s admirable, of course, but this level of effort also feels a bit strange and uncomfortable. Like, how did we get to a place where this level of background reading and moral self-reflection is necessary to make the point that it’s not okay to send death threats because of fandom ship wars?

Censorship in Fandom

There’s been a lot of talk this past week about Tumblr being removed from the Apple App Store. It turns out that the cause was the site’s failure to filter and remove child pornography, which makes sense.

The prevalence of explicit and often disturbing pornography has been a problem with Tumblr for some time. Tumblr maintains a generally permissive attitude regarding adult content, but the nature of the platform facilitates of the unwelcome spread of this content, as well as unwelcome solicitations. As I tweeted just last week, “Every morning I wake up early, brew a pot of tea, do some stretches, water my houseplants, and then report and block all the pornbots that started following me on Tumblr during the night.”

If this has been a problem with Tumblr for years, why have the people who own and manage the site only started to take action now? The recent and specific concern with child pornography – while absolutely valid! – runs distressingly parallel to the accusations of anti-fandom communities that have dedicated themselves to circulating inflammatory “discourse” regarding fictional characters and romantic pairings between these characters. As I discussed at length in an earlier post, “child abuse” is one of the more common labels applied to something that fandom antis don’t approve of. To be clear, anti-fandom communities are not protesting the treatment of actual minors, but the depiction of characters from animated entertainment media such as the Netflix show Voltron: Legendary Defender or the anime My Hero Academia. Within this context, a high school age character in a relationship with a college age character is construed as “pedophilia” regardless of how the characters and their relationships are presented. The motives behind such accusations are complicated and diverse, but they often boil down to a strong preference for another romantic pairing.

For fandom antis, romantically shipping the “wrong” two characters occupies the same category as actual child pornography, and communities of antis are frequently mobilized by a strong and charismatic leader to report someone in a character or pairing fandom that they don’t like for “child abuse” or “child pornography.” The way I’ve seen this work is that a popular anti-fandom blog will reblog a “problematic” post and add tags attacking the original poster, which prompts the anti-fandom blog’s followers to send in abuse reports and directly harass the original poster. (As an example of how absurd this can be in practice, I was recently harassed about “animal abuse” after posting an anime-style drawing of a man holding a cartoon pig.) If the reblogged post contains links to other social media sites, the harassers will often follow the original poster and try to report them for “abuse” on that site as well.

Although I’m sure the situation is complicated, I strongly suspect that the Tumblr app itself was reported to the Apple App Store for containing “child pornography” by these highly mobilized communities of fandom antis. As a result, Tumblr does seem to have made a greater effort to clean itself up, which is fantastic (and, quite frankly, should have happened years ago). Unfortunately, there have also been substantiated reports circulated within fandom communities about the blogs of popular fan artists and writers being deleted by Tumblr, along with at least two prominent blogs of people who write critical essays about fandom as a subculture. I don’t think this is a coincidence, and I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that Tumblr has just added “contains depictions of fictional minors” to its form for reporting violations of the site guidelines.

Fandom antis tend to be authoritarian in their worldview and behavior, as demonstrated by their insistence on ideological purity and their clearly stated justifications for using any means necessary to ferret out and then attack perceived dissidents. People who have embraced this authoritarian mindset often call for censorship and villainize platforms that do not practice censorship, an example of which is illustrated by the screencap of the widely circulated Tumblr post at the beginning of this essay. I’m wary of censorship in any situation, but I think it’s an especially dangerous policy within the context of fandom.

Although fandom can and has influenced mainstream culture, fandom communities exist at the edges and within the gaps of mainstream culture. Free speech – especially free speech at the margins of any given society – is absolutely necessary for liberty and equality, especially for people who occupy minority positions. Words like “liberty” and “equality” are frustratingly abstract, so let me offer a concrete example of the effects of censorship with a brief bit of background.

Throughout the 1970s, female intellectuals in the United States staged a vigorous critique against sexist and violent imagery in their media and culture, and in 1979 a New York based organization called Women Against Pornography started to gain traction. Partially because of the outreach efforts of this organization, in 1983 two law professors named Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon drafted an antipornography law that ended up being passed by the Minneapolis City Council. The twin problems with this law were that it was both hopelessly vague regarding the nature of “pornography” and extremely specific regarding its focus on denying the depiction of women’s pleasure. Dworkin and MacKinnon wrote extensively and published prolifically, and in the next few years versions of their law were enacted elsewhere, including Los Angeles County and the state of Massachusetts. Although Dworkin and MacKinnon identified as feminists, local and national feminist groups wanted nothing to do with them, and their support came from conservative Christian interest groups, the same people who were also campaigning to take sex education out of American schools.

In the United States, the Supreme Court eventually struck these laws down as being unconstitutional as a result of court cases filed largely by lesbian and gay rights organizations. Canada was even more conservative than America during the 1980s, however, and the Meese Pornography Commission that informed and influenced the Canadian Supreme Court’s deliberations on antipornography laws was utterly dominated by right-wing opponents of women’s rights. According to the court’s eventual decision in 1992, such laws were upheld, and the first “pornographers” targeted by police were feminist and lesbian bookstores (remember that, since these laws only targeted depictions of women’s pleasure, gay men were largely off the hook). Ironically, because Andrea Dworkin’s 1989 book Pornography contained samples of the sort of imagery she argued should be banned by law, the actual passage of such laws resulted her own book being banned in Canada.

Let’s return to the ostensible issue at hand – child abuse and “protecting the children.”

A good case study of how censorship denies resources to children on the margins, such as children with queer genders and sexualities and children who experience abuse, is the reception of Bryan Talbot’s 1995 graphic novel The Tale of One Bad Rat, which chronicles a young woman’s flight from home after being abused by a male relative, her struggles living as a homeless minor, and the uneasy peace she is finally able to make with her trauma. According to Talbot, he could have written the story of a homeless girl finding a home without the depiction of abuse, but, as he says himself, “the issue was far too important to marginalize.”

Due to the inclusion of this depiction, however, The Tale of One Bad Rat has been successfully removed from schools, libraries, and bookstores in Canada, with challengers citing local and national antipornography laws. The graphic novel is nothing that any sane person would consider “pornography,” and it was expressly intended to serve as a source of strength and comfort. Because it was challenged so relentlessly, however, multiple writers and artists from across the Commonwealth (including, most famously, Neil Gaiman) were continually called on to help defend it in the ten years after its release. The situation concerning banned and blacklisted books in Canada has recently gotten better, but throughout the 1990s and 2000s multiple people were charged, fined, and literally imprisoned on account of the comics they owned, imported, or ordered for their libraries.

Fiction and art can be extremely powerful tools with far-ranging effects, but censorship never hurts people who are already in a position of power. The victims of censorship have historically been the young, the queer, the poor, racial and ethnic minorities, and other people on the margins. Demanding that AO3 remove works with “problematic” content is a slippery slope, and I promise that fandom, as a collective community, does not want to go down that road.

This is precisely why it’s so upsetting to see fandom antis attacking communities of left-leaning young queer people, who are more likely to be survivors of assault or suffering from mental health-related illnesses. Antis are punching down, and they direct the blunt of their attacks toward those who are most vulnerable, not entrenched systems of inequality or, in this particular scenario, the social, political, and digital structures facilitating child abuse. If people posting actual child pornography are kicked off of Tumblr (as we can all agree they should be), they will undoubtedly post that material elsewhere. For people trying to understand the abuse they have experienced themselves, however, there may not be anywhere else to go.

The recent purge on Tumblr might seem like a victory in the fight to create safer online spaces, but the authoritarian impulse toward censorship that I suspect triggered this event deserves investigation and a careful application of critical thinking.

Bullying on Tumblr

About a month or two ago I posted a picture of a man holding a pig on Tumblr. It was a cute drawing of a cute anime character holding a cute cartoon pig in a cute way. It wasn’t exactly like the manga cover above, but it was close. The caption I used for the image was essentially this: “Even though this character is a jerk, I like to think that he has a soft spot for animals.”

One of my mutuals reblogged this picture with the hashtag “animal abuse” and then proceeded to reblog several posts about how pigs don’t like to be held and how cruel it is to pick them up. Because this person frequently writes about Steven Universe, my drawing came to the attention of a small but vocal segment of the Steven Universe fandom that has dedicated itself to “calling out” people who post “problematic” things on Tumblr. I ended up being sent a dozen violently angry messages, and I was tagged on several posts featuring videos in which pigs were harmed in legitimately upsetting ways. I didn’t respond to any of this, so the activity faded after a day, but the episode was quite disturbing.

This is not the first time that something like this has happened to me on Tumblr, and it didn’t surprise me. It still took me more than a month to decide how to respond to it, however. Should I unfollow the person who reblogged a cute drawing of a cute anime character holding a cute cartoon pig with the tag “animal abuse,” or should I just accept it as normal and move on?

To anyone who isn’t active on Tumblr, the answer should be obvious. If someone feels comfortable looking at the cute cartoon art you created and calling it “animal abuse,” then they are not your friend. You should unfollow them, and you should probably block them for good measure. Even if it wasn’t personal, and even if they didn’t intend for me to feel (or actually be) attacked, this sort of behavior is extremely unkind. Yesterday I wrote that it’s important to be patient with people who make mistakes on social media, since we’re all figuring out this method of social interaction together, but there is a world of difference between tagging someone’s face on a group photo on Facebook in 2009 and sending someone a message that says YOU DESERVE TO BE SLAUGHTERED on Tumblr in 2018.

The problem is that this sort of thing is normal on Tumblr. Sending someone hate mail or tagging them on a video depicting graphic violence is clearly harassment, but this type of harassment is so commonplace that even sane adults in their late twenties and early thirties seem to think it’s acceptable to do hurtful things if it’s for the purpose of promoting social justice. It goes without saying that harassing someone online has nothing to do with social justice, however, and the discursive atmosphere on Tumblr has become so radical that people’s views of what is offensive are completely skewed. Of course it makes sense to critique something that celebrates or otherwise promotes misinformation or discrimination, but “critique” is so valued by the affective economy of Tumblr that many people go out of their way to find and denounce problematic messages that don’t really exist. In other words, it makes sense to critique real animal abuse, but placing a cute anime drawing in the same discursive category as real harm done to real animals is bananas. To give an analogy, I think it’s fair to say that most rational people would not get as upset about the manga cover above as they would about the sort of cruelty depicted in the film Okja. Unfortunately, on Tumblr, there’s no longer any distinction between the two.

So this was my dilemma. On one hand, I don’t want to be associated with the Tumblr hate machine in any way, and I certainly don’t enjoy it when it targets me. On the other hand, isn’t this just the price of admission for Tumblr? And how can I be sure that it’s not me who’s the guilty party? Maybe it was in fact wrong of me to have posted that drawing? Maybe I should think long and hard about what I did to deserve being sent death threats from strangers…?

I recently started rereading the Harry Potter books, and that ended up being what it took for me to reorient my moral compass. There are a lot of bullies in the novels, and they’re bullies because they can get away with it. Other people see this happening, but they do nothing to stop it. Reading these books for children helped me remember something very simple: Bullying is cruel, and people who are friends with bullies are cowards. In order to be a good person, it’s not enough not to be a bully; you also have to refuse to be friends with people who tolerate bullying. Watching something awful happening and staying out of it because it’s none of your business is not a neutral action. By being friends with people who instigate bullying, or by remaining friends with people who don’t care if other people get bullied, you’re essentially saying that you don’t care who gets hurt as long as it isn’t you.

This is basic schoolyard logic, but this scenario is being played out by adults on Tumblr for the ostensible purpose of promoting social justice, which is why it’s been so difficult for me to recognize bullying for what it is. Nevertheless, I’ve come to the obvious conclusion that going out of one’s way to send hate mail or to leave awful tags on someone’s post is a choice, as is associating with people who routinely do such things.

I’m not extremely active on Tumblr, but I maintain a solid presence there, and I’m starting to get the feeling that the platform has passed its peak. The community has become increasingly toxic, and many content creators are leaving for greener pastures. For most of the writers and artists and genius shiposters I once followed before they left Tumblr, “greener pastures” seems to mean Twitter, which is sad, because… If Twitter seems like a friendly and sane alternative to your social media platform, then you might be in serious trouble.

In the meantime, I’ve been experimenting with PillowFort, but there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of activity there at the moment. More on this story as it develops, I suppose.