Fascinating tumblr arguments

I try to keep track of as much of the left as I can. One part of the left that I enjoy observing — although have never really found myself able to engage with — is the social justice tumblr set. Broadly identitarian feminist in its basic orientation, this set has sprawled out a whole mess of thoughts and positions that assemble into a somewhat coherent literature.

What I find so interesting about this community is that it is a dialectical community in the purest sense. All thought and theorizing is ultimately dialectical, but usually the dialectic happens between or among basically complete theories of, for instance, justice. So Rawls will come out with a theory of justice that is fairly complete, and then through attacks and rebuttals and revisions, you get some other set of theories flowing from it. But the tumblr arguments are purely dialectical in the sense that there never really seems to be an effort at putting together anything resembling a full theory. They seem to reject working within or towards complete theories.

It therefore resembles something much more like common law evolution. In common law, judges make up the law piece by piece as issues present themselves. They don’t try to legislate an entire set of rules all at once. And this is basically what you see in the tumblr set. While more typical political thinking tries to start general or at least become general, the tumblr set seems totally content in starting hyper-specific and remaining there. And not for bad reasons either. There is a developed meta-theory that explains why broad theories are bad: they necessarily miss and distort things, they enable domination, and they elevate the principle over the personal, among other things.

One of the interesting consequences of this piecemeal approach to theorizing is that it provides a rich set of discrete ideas and arguments that can be assembled together in different and new ways. As someone who is interested in argument in the abstract — I just like the whole enterprise of constructing and deconstructing arguments — this community is a fascinating one to observe.

For example, I saw an argument a couple of weeks ago on tumblr that was more creative than anything I’ve seen in other kinds of discourse. The background of the argument is an ongoing tumblr beef between those who identify as transgender (along with their allies) and those who identify as otherkin (along with their allies). Transgender people are, of course, those who identify as a gender other than their birth-assigned one (roughly speaking). Otherkin people are those who identify as a species other than their birth-assigned one (that is, human).

Transgender people basically have full legitimacy within tumblr (except for a small sect of tumblr feminists who accuse trans women in particular of oppressively appropriating the gender of an oppressed group, i.e. women). In order to try to boost their legitimacy within the tumblr community, some otherkin people have tried to compare themselves to transgender people. The argument is pretty straightforward: like transgender people, otherkin should not be told they are confused or crazy, should not be essentialized to their human biology, and their self-identification as a species other than human should be respected.

One of the responses to this attempted comparison is to say the comparison itself is offensive and appropriates transgender ideas and struggles. So this is not an attack on the substance of the comparison. It is an attack on the making of the comparison, an attack which says that the action of comparing in this case is an oppressively appropriating action.

This is where the real interesting argument comes in. One of the otherkins (I can’t find the post now) argued that it is wrong and contrary to intersectional politics to say that otherkins appropriate from transgender people because some otherkins are also transgender. Saying otherkins appropriate from transgender people therefore ignores the intersection of transgender and otherkin; it ignores that there are transgender otherkins.

From here the argument progresses in basically three steps:

  1. There are transgender otherkins, meaning the groups are not discrete.
  2. Those transgender otherkins cannot be oppressively appropriating from transgender people because they are transgender people.
  3. Otherkins that are not transgender can be allies to transgender otherkins and therefore support them and their beliefs/arguments.

So this argument relies upon existing rules about intersectionality within the dialectic and existing rules about allyship within the dialectic to defeat anti-appropriation rules within the dialectic. At the end of the argument, someone who is not transgender becomes able to appropriate from transgender people by using a transgender proxy individual that they are an ally for. One thing that follows is that if you belong to identity A, you can appropriate from identity B, so long as someone in identity A is also in identity B and supports that appropriation. The person who is simultaneously in both identities cannot be accused of appropriating from themselves — a nonsense notion — and others are allowed to ally with that person and what they have to say.

I have no real point in sharing this. I just thought it was wildly creative, more so than most of the things that run across this community of political bloggers. More people should check the tumblr stuff out for the arguments if nothing else.