breaking down babel

tumblr_mus5y0fd7W1qz8q0ho1_1280After 4 years of obsessive dedicated scrolling on Tumblr, I know you have several options to arrange your experience on the popular social media site. You can fill the jay-blue space with aesthetic posts featuring all manner of ethereal landscapes and fashion and carefully placed vintage chairs. You can make it teem with crazy cat gifs and irreverent text posts dotted with the occasional fandom (fan parlance for the community surrounding a particular media item like a TV show, comic, or movie) inside joke. You can meticulously reblog posts on specific social justice topics and write lengthy streams of meta. You can stuff your dash with posts from every fandom imaginable and reblog gifset after gifset of that one character who is your cinnamon roll, your sunshine, your baby. For clarification on the latter terms…see Tumblr.

One aspect distinct to Tumblr and its greatest asset is that it allows you to construct your own fortress of entertainment and knowledge. You are the gate-maker and gatekeeper, setting the posted bounds for what information you will receive from others. If Captain America is what you want to see on your dash, you will adjust your detective’s monocle and investigate the vast micro-blogging landscape to find the blogs that align with your interests. For the uninitiated, following a blog is like joining into a conversation; that person’s opinions and favored images and stream-of-consciousness musings settle onto your dash and invite you to look and read and respond.

For the main demographic of 25 year-olds and under, Tumblr represents a space where an individual wields the freedom to share in the open discourse and fan squealing (and fan dregs). They express themselves in a realm where emotions are heightened through a complex system of gif and tag use, and both rhetorical flame wars and incensed defenses of an OTP ignite from a single text post (I have borne witness to some harrowing ship wars).

Ideally, Tumblr exists as a space where everyone has a voice. If you can think it, you can not only blog and reblog it, but you can probably establish it as a meme future users will groan about. Whole blogs are dedicated to highlighting women of color with natural hairstyles, to shipping Luke Skywalker with Hermione Granger (I’ve never seen it, but I’m sure it exists), to discussing the problematic elements of Dragon Age video games and American foreign policy. Your dash is your door to a thousand conversations, and you choose which ones to listen to and participate in.

Some voices are louder. While each blog technically maintains its own space and has equal access to growing a follower base, some blogs inevitably become the equivalent of “Tumblr famous.” Theirs are the voices that take the most room, that are the most blatant, magnetizing attention like hair to a static balloon (a terrible analogy but certainly Tumblr-worthy). These blogs champion their interpretations of a TV show, defend their ships, assert their stance on identity politics as if every other is, of course, valid but inherently deficient. Disagree with a popular position or blog and you are setting yourself up for battle as followers bombard you with anonymous messages demanding your death. I’m not kidding.

Beyond the presence of popular blogs, tension emerges on Tumblr when ideologies clash. The cracks in fandoms become apparent when one blog points out that out of the Star Wars characters from The Force Awakens, white pairings such as Kylo Ren/Rey and Kylo/Hux attract far more fanworks and attention than interracial pairings like Rey/Finn. Another blog argues that race plays no role in this, explaining that Finn is just not as popular or interesting as a character. The next blog rips into that comment and lays out that this is exactly the kind of internalized fandom racism the first blogger was talking about. Arguments stack on top of each other as you scroll down, devolving into capslocked f-bombs and rallying of allies to oppose the “trash” on the other side.

I’ve scanned the anti- tags, the places where people can air their critical (and sometimes vitriolic) thoughts about a character or aspects of media they disagree with or find racist, homophobic, ableist, etc. I’ve also scrolled through topic-specific tags that brim with the stories of queer Latinx globally or track the presence of fridging (killing or harming female characters to create motivation/impetus for a male character) in Marvel comics. These are the arenas of tension on Tumblr, where words spear into your consciousness. In this realm, users unapologetically throw down challenges to the -isms they see pervading media or the world at large. They grab you by the shoulder and demand you to open your eyes to what you were blind to before, simply because you didn’t know. It does not entail you agreeing with every idea laid before you, but it does necessitate your interaction with it.

There is an alternative: you can gate yourself. The blue stretch of screen transforms into a comforting haven, a place to retreat from the shouting, the crying, the online picketing. Blacklist “racism” and”homophobia” and “fandom critical” and every character you dislike, and your Tumblr dash will become a Tower of Babel, enshrining all that matters to you as the din outside the walls fades.

While there are times where this is necessary for our mental health, the impulse to ward off what makes us feel uncomfortable or draws us into heated spaces of distress can easily become an excuse to avoid conversations we simply don’t want to have. I’m not only speaking about Tumblr.

On Tumblr, when someone confronts you about a social issue, it’s easy enough to dismiss them as a “Social Justice Warrior,” those oversensitive hellions making everyone feel bad and adhering to some distorted view of a perpetually “problematic” world. However, when we are presented with a problem from voices that are angry, grieving, hurt, we all too often pursue the avenue that allows us to judge their tone rather than deal with their message. How many times do we submit to this reflex outside of our social media use? How many of us balk when confronted with the bellows of black parents whose children are dead because of police brutality, with the cries of the exploited Chinese persons who make our shirts, with the wails of trans teens beaten in our city streets? Where are these voices, and those of so many others, in our lives?

It’s a question of space. We build Towers and collect within them all perspectives and ideas and peoples we value, cramming those who agree with us or share our race, our class, our religion into the remaining crevices. The terrible thing is that sometimes we do this unconsciously, never questioning the homogeneity of our lives. On occasion we peer through the slant of window, and we see Those People protesting outside, their yells knocking against the stone. Waving a few “We love you guys!” back for good measure, we retreat, cushioned by what we know and do not dare to unknow. We can’t know everything after all; we can’t hear from everyone. 

Should that stop us from trying, from inviting the conviction that we should be listening to certain people more? Is it possible that something does not burden my heart because I have not allowed it to?

Paul declares: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” in the passage 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, pointing out that he makes himself a “servant to all” so that all may be drawn to and share in the blessings of the Gospel. He presents a startling thesis on community: we must pursue the experiences of others outside of our own and inhabit them. We don’t necessarily become them-I can’t claim the experience of  a Chinese factory worker-but we allow the tides of others’ lives to pull us into understanding so that we may exhibit God’s love to them in ways that hold weight.

This posture towards others requires more than listening and nodding; it requires unlocking the gates surrounding our consciousness-crafted Towers so the stones can crack, slammed with the bouldered realizations of others’ suffering. Paul’s challenge suggests that not only should our minds be woke, but our hearts need to break for those we didn’t see before, either because of our blindness or our unwillingness. 

Instead of surrounding ourselves with friends who echo our opinions, newspapers and radio stations with a sole bias, books and movies that only make us feel good, and churches where issues of racism and inequity are headlines rather than realities, we should cultivate learning communities for ourselves that contain a diversity of voices. As we do this, we develop a multilingualism that allows us to build relationships with other people as we acknowledge not only all they are, but also what they are telling us.

Going back to Tumblr, this idea has manifested in my recent re-vamping of my dash. I’ve been reminded of how ignorant I am of so many things, including the plight of indigenous people in my own country and the struggles related to race and gender for black women outside of the U.S. I started searching for new blogs. I typed in keywords and scrolled and clicked and read the posts on unfamiliar ground. Then I pressed the “Follow” button and in that moment, a new voice took space on my dash, filling the blue with stories I need to hear more of in my life. I started following the blogs of native women raging against government abuses, black queer sci-fi fans, Asian media critics, a Disney aficionado who struggles with bipolar disorder. The blogs I already followed didn’t diminish in value; instead, I chose to value more blogs, more peoples, and give priority to those of whom I had once been ignorant.

These new blogs save me from safety, a kind of safety that would inoculate me and render me a passive contributor to institutions that are broken.  They prevent me from settling within my worldview without reflecting upon the ideas and actions I exhibit in my lifestyle that might actually be harming others.  I choose to educate myself with the understanding that what I learn may change my reality. Rather than immersing in my carefully-maintained space, detached from stories that provoke tension, I want to be profoundly shaped and informed by them. It reminds me of the classic evangelistic question: If you were told that the Truth existed, would you seek it–even if it meant your entire life would change? (my paraphrase).

This applies to other contexts as it animates us to consider how we would respond when confronted by pivotal truths. For instance, there is a tendency among many white people in the U.S. to dodge conversations about racism. Defensiveness flares as an effort to avoid being called racist, scaffolding over the lived experiences of people of color. The statistics are out there, the heft of research, the historical analysis and recent literature. However, there are still too few who seek out this information, who seek to educate themselves. Starting a journey into a world more complicated, more horrific, and more intimately tied to your lifestyle, mind, and heart than you previously thought is an intimidating prospect. It signifies prying oneself from a matrix of ease and safety to enter an altered reality. It’s a disorienting process, a painful upheaval…and we all need it.

We can choose to have conversations about race, sexual identity, politics, and poverty with compassion and an empathetic posture rather than sharpened blades ready to judge and condemn. We can choose to seek out more information about social issues from alternate points of view. We can choose to experience the discomfort of listening to the anger and frustration and alienation of others and allow our worldview to shift to encompass their experiences.

When our towers finally crumble, who will take up space on the new plain? Whose voices will we allow to shape our reality? Women of color? Gay and trans individuals? Immigrants? The disabled and those with mental illness? Saying that we love these people without making the effort to include them in our friendships and churches and self-education results in the rigid reinforcement of our ideological strongholds rather than the re-evaluation of them. We fear compromising our beliefs and diluting our convictions, that creaking open the gate will welcome a flood that will drown us–but does this point to a theological high ground or a lack of trust in the God who steers us as we enter this process of listening and learning?

Rather than walling ourselves out of anxiety, we should fear more that we have not upheld the other half of the greatest commandment: We have failed to love our neighbor because we don’t know our neighbor, and we are too afraid to change.

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