The future of the culture wars.

Star Tribune via Getty Images / An eating disorder treatment center.

Happy New Year, friends.

  • I never ended up doing a round-up of 2021, but I guess they’re hardly mandatory. My 2021 in a nutshell? I published so many articles I burnt out on my ability to write new ones for a while; two major hypotheses of mine were taken seriously; I fell in love with the work of Marshall McLuhan; I learned, though not conclusively, that audio isn’t my medium. Looking forward to 2022, which, in spite of Chicago’s newly implemented vaccine gestapo, I am optimistic about.

  • The advice column is back (with a male co-writer, once again). Get your questions in here.

  • The future of the culture wars. I mentioned this in my 2022 predictions post, but it’s worth repeating: I’m noticing a renewed interest in Tumblr, consumer culture of the 2000s and 2010s, and fandom as an engagement model.

    Not only are we seeing more apolitical, Tumblr and fandom-centric criticism podcasts, blogs, and TikTok accounts, but there have been a spate of “let’s unpack Tumblr” books in recent history and I have reason to believe that there are more on the way. And it’s not just nostalgic libs, either, though they definitely make up the lion’s share of Internet culture writing in general. I’m not the only person on the right (okay, right adjacent) working in this space. I suspect I’m just the loudest.

    But what does it matter? I think this means two things. The first is that I think people are spent on culture war stuff, and this is a nice reprieve. You can speak of the impact of falling in love with your internet friend’s alters or of writing fan fiction through gifs alone without it needing to fit into a left/right binary. People are spent. Most people aren’t political; all people want to talk about what’s going on.

    Do I think the culture wars are finito? Of course not. I do maintain they’re going to shift focus to tech though (big tech vs. anti-tech vs. techno-optimism as the three major camps), and this is the canary in the coal mine. Homing in on fandom doesn’t necessarily mean on capitalism, as some may assume. Once you put the lens on fandom, you realize cancel culture is only woke incidentally.

    You realize that the terrain is tech. Not anything else.

  • Irreversible Damage by Abigail Shrier. So, a couple of months ago a friend lent me his copy of Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage, and on Sunday, I finally read it. If you’re not already familiar with it, it’s about “the transgender craze seducing our daughters.” Wording not my own.

    I have to say, I am completely sympathetic to any pushback she received. It’s not that it wasn’t a good book or contained no valuable information. It’s not that it was hateful—anyone who says that hasn’t read it. It’s just that… it felt like it was missing something. Missing a few things.

    First of all, I was floored that Shrier only spoke to the parents of the trans men she profiled. She spoke to desisters and detransitioners, she spoke to adult trans men. But for the bulk of the book, she relied a lot on parental reports.

    She gives the useful and convincing caveat that parents know their kids best, and so it makes the most sense to speak to them.

    But the fact of the matter is, parents aren’t experts on their kids. They’re experts on certain aspects of their kids. There’s a point in adolescence where your parents are shut out of your internal world. That’s the pain of growing up. That’s the pain of being a parent.

    You might always be an expert on your child’s disposition, but when kids grow up, you lose the ability to predict what’s hurting them. Or how, precisely, they’ll react to that pain.

    Now, before you disagree with me, let me give an example.

    My mom has a great read on me, above average, I’d say. She knows, to give one example, that I have a strong escapist impulse. Not just when things get hard, but period. I bury myself away by nature. When I was a kid, this would manifest as countless hours playing The Sims, or playing dolls, or playing dress-up, or writing stories.

    But how does that get expressed today? She probably couldn’t tell you. She most certainly couldn’t. She doesn’t know that during a particularly lonely period in my early 20s, I walked across every bridge in New York. Or that when I got the flu in Ireland in 2014, I developed a habit of reading obsessively about mermaids, a habit that now comes back around whenever I’m really sick. Not many people know those things. Why would they? But they inform who I am. The same way that scrolling certain corners of Tumblr, or Twitter, or TikTok, or Instagram, and the unique social dynamics that exist therein, inform who kids are.

    This kind of disconnect is how parents get blindsided with things like drug addiction. They probably can identify the traits that might make their child susceptible to addiction—he had difficulty regulating his pain, he struggled with XYZ event, there was an injury. But none of the traits that make someone predisposed to addiction mean that they’ll definitely develop one.

    The other thing is that she just isn’t aware enough of what it means to be so online. Even if it is a social contagion, I’m not convinced that it’s a one-size fits-all “it provides community and identity.” There’s a big digital piece here that isn’t fully explored. And that digital piece is a pretty important one.

    If you’re going to blame Tumblr on “turning your kid trans,” you should probably know that your kid was following those specific accounts because she was a voracious reader of slashfic. Or that she drew fan art of anthropomorphized wolves, wolves she identified with, in some strange way. Not that she just logged on and became nebulously “addicted to the Internet",” and one thing led to another. There is no politically-motivated trans-agenda monster trying to convert your kids. There are certain attitudes that take root because of the way we use certain communication tools, though.

    Shrier also mentions the work of Dr. Ray Blanchard who doesn’t believe autoandrophilia exists, or if it does, that it’s incredibly rare. I have a lot of problems with Blanchard, for a lot of reasons, but this felt like a huge overweight.

    I’m not about to say that all trans men are autoandrophiles—let me be clear and say that I think that’s offensive and absurd.

    What I will say, however, is that autoandrophiles exist in high numbers, particularly in the spaces Shrier explores (Tumblr, Instagram, TikTok, and fandom more generally).

    This isn’t new or somehow obscured information.

    There are academics whose entire bodies of work focus on slash fan works (that is, fan art, fan fiction, and anything in between that portray male same-sex desire) and it’s well-known that the community is overwhelmingly women, many of whom openly and proudly will profess that they are sexually aroused by imagining themselves as men.

    There are more social media posts than any one person could sort through, particularly on TikTok and Tumblr, where women will describe how they self-identify as queer because they enjoy the idea of making love to a man as a man. This leads to an incredible amount of confusion for some people as many also wonder, “Does this make me trans?”

    Of course, the answer varies. Sometimes, yes, it does mean that person is trans. Other times, the answer is no, it’s the expression of a fetish. And that fetish is called autoandrophilia!

    But digital spaces impact our conception of gender in other ways, too. Here’s a question I brought up earlier today, on Twitter:

    When people report these sort of amorphous conceptions of what it means to be a “man” or a “woman” could we look to the phenomenon described above as a clue?

    I think it’s insufficient to conclude that anorexia (which was once an internet-born social contagion) and transgender identification are both mimetic, and call it a day.

    There was some hinting that porn might influence women’s self-perception, which I think is salient and on the right track. But we need to dig deeper—why can the Internet inspire people to starve themselves, to identify as the opposite sex, and to name another related-but-less-harmful example, body build?

    Even if it’s just waking up natural inclinations, things that always would have been, even if you would have been anorexic with or without the pro-ana forum, why does the Internet have this power? Why does the Internet have the same impact on discomfort with the physical body as acid does on someone with latent schizophrenia?

    What does the digital do to our relationship to our bodies? To the way we think? To the way we perceive the world?