Tumblr is directly downstream of the academy, which might be a little difficult to accept at first glance. When you take the occasional look into the various absurdities and neuroses, the asylum-wall scribblings of the broken individuals that populate Tumblr, you probably don’t immediately associate them with the manicured and orderly lawns of your state’s university. But that’s where they came from.
If you took a walk around your typical college campus, you’d see what I mean. You would see the putrescent heart of Tumblr-style social justice—which is not just identity politics but victim identity politics—festering unabated. Some of the manifestations are rather superficial. You’ll probably see “Safe Zone” stickers. These adorn the doors of professors who have received special training to be “supportive” of “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer” students. You’ll see posters advertising the latest campus speaker invited by the department of African American or Postcolonial studies. And you’ll almost certainly see signs of the rape hysteria that has lately gripped the collective mind of higher education, whether it’s a “consciousness raising” exhibit about violence against women or a handy pamphlet about “informed consent” distributed during freshman orientation.
In a thousand such tiny little ways, the contemporary college encourages its students to adopt a frame of victimhood. “Do your sexual abnormalities make you feel out of place? That’s not your fault. It’s the fault of a homophobic culture. Are you a minority student? Well, the historical antagonisms between your ancestors and the ancestors of your white colleagues have systematically disadvantaged you. Ladies, are you absolutely certain that the boy you’re going to get blackout drunk with tonight isn’t a date rapist? Rape is how men keep you in your place.” And on and on. Campus messaging constantly reinforces this frame. “The difficulties and frustrations and failures of your life are not your fault. Your fears are all well-founded. Mainstream society hates your kind.”
Unfortunately, though, this sort of ambient campus noise is small potatoes. Some of the other ways that our universities nurture the victim identity are official, institutional, and even more deliberate. The oft-maligned Women’s Studies Department is one these ways, and it deserves every bit of malignment it gets. It’s a four-year curriculum, guiding impressionable female undergraduates from those first awkward steps of imagining a hostile patriarchy all the way to those final triumphant strides of ascribing all the world’s ills to it. But Women’s Studies differ from many other departments on campus by degree only and not by kind.
In truth, whether you’re majoring in anthropology or sociology, psychology or history, English literature or philosophy, it’s hard to find a department outside of the hard sciences that does not take some form of the victim narrative as one of its core dogmas. Or one that does not proselytize those dogmas. Sociolinguistics, for instance, concerns itself with the everyday slights that speakers of “non-prestige dialects” face in a society that “arbitrarily” valorizes the speech habits of the powerful. And it trains the future language teachers of America to end “linguistic discrimination” in their classrooms. We’ll never achieve Utopia unless we recognize that Lil’Wayne’s English is every bit as sophisticated, articulate, and worthy of emulation as Shakespeare’s. They’ve descended quite a ways from classical philology.
And even within the sciences, the professoriate skews significantly to the left of the political spectrum, as study after study bears out. (There is much handwringing about this in higher education circles. Every once in while the liberal academics will conduct some research to investigate whether or not the fact that the overwhelming majority of their peers are liberal is the result of untoward ideological discrimination in the hiring and promotion process. Usually they find, much to their relief, no such monkey business at play. We can all rest easy.)
The active propagation of progressive ideas doesn’t stop at the level of the professoriate, however. It’s firmly entrenched in the administration and bureaucracy of the university as well. Almost any major university in America will have a cadre of full time staff devoted to making sure that identity politics weigh on admissions, on hiring decisions, on campus activities, on official school media and the like. Some of these offices have grandiose names: The Office of Diversity and Inclusion, The Office for Diversity and Community Engagement, The Division of Equity and Inclusion, etc. etc. Even more grandiose are their mission statements, which I leave as an exercise for the reader to Google. (Brace yourself for pure, distilled prog-speak.) The bottom line, though, is that these offices have direct input on all sorts of university policies. And their input is openly geared towards redressing wrongs—from the almost historically justifiable to the fantastically imagined—that their designated marginalized classes have suffered.
Campus speech codes are yet another avenue by which the regnant orthodoxy of our colleges is entrenched. (I would direct you to the website of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education if you want to go down that particular rabbit hole. They are a legal group involved in fighting these increasingly totalitarian codes, and they keep copious records of their ongoing suits.) Any student expression that violates the sensibilities of a protected group can be punished under these codes, which are generally so broad and vaguely defined that they are necessarily selectively enforced. And sometimes brutally so.
These things keep adding up. Ultimately, it’s beyond the scope of a post like this to cover all the different ways that American universities prop up the identity politics and the sort of social justice activism that thrives off of them. For my money, even the process of publishing in the humanities incentivizes such politics because it awards absurdly specialized work with pages in the journal. (There is no place, in fact, where the compulsively fine-tuned language of Tumblr is more closely matched than in article titles like: “Bakhtinian Heteroglossia and Hybridity Theory in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.”) The point is that our schools of higher education, by any number of official and unofficial means, advance the notion that a great deal of identity groups are de facto oppressed and marginalized by the greater society they are a part of, that it takes concentrated efforts at “inclusion” and “tolerance” to undo these oppressions, and that it ought to be the goal of any just institution to make those efforts.
This is why Tumblr is downstream of the academy. Tumblr is just a slightly less rigorous, slightly more crowdsourced approach to that same critique the academy advances. There’s a reason why there is such a high concentration of liberal arts credentials among the online social justice crowd, and it’s not only that rampant unemployment among people with those credentials leave them a lot of spare time for surfing the web. It’s also that online social justice activism is the logical extension of what they learned in college.
Tumblr, though, for all its pyrotechnics, probably doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things. It’s easy to laugh off their brand of wacky hijinks. Like I said at the beginning of this post, they’re broken people. You only get a creeping sense of dread, actually, when you start to think about what else is downstream of the academy, what other people graduate those same institutions with those same progressive frames firmly established in their minds. I mean, yes, some people leave their college days behind them and proceed to fritter away their time discussing thin privilege on fat acceptance message boards. But others leave their college days behind them and proceed to get jobs—jobs teaching your children in elementary school, jobs reporting national news stories, jobs in entertainment, jobs in publishing, jobs in DC. And they, too, take their just-upstream-of-Tumblr social justice directives with them.