Ring The Bells That Still Can Ring

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Tumblr Has Banned Adult Content, RIP the Tumblr That Was (The Mary Sue)

For a couple of years after my family moved back into our house post-reconstruction (following the fire we had back in 2001), we didn’t have cable television. My father claimed that he did this to encourage us to talk more with each other, but as with so many of his similar plans, he just wanted more excuses to spew out his inane prattle on any and all topics under the sun. Right after he built an addition to the house for his business, of course, then we just had to have a cable modem so he could have high-speed Internet, and we finally got cable television back.

I didn’t mind the lack of cable television so much, simply because I was finishing my undergraduate degree at the time and I was super-busy with school stuff, but I still felt compelled to watch at least some television at least once a week. (Those of us who grew up in that era when the living room television was the de facto hub of family life will likely always have weird compulsions to that effect. I just got a television for my living room last week — I still can’t believe that I can say things like “my living room” now — and that room finally feels complete now in a way that I can’t describe.) As much television as I watched before the fire, though, very little of it was accessible on local Toledo stations, so I had to find something new to watch.

Even though I’ve never been much of a football fan, I decided to make Monday Night Football “my show” for a while. When the season ended, I decided to stick with ABC during that time slot, which meant watching the 2003 reboot of Dragnet starring Ed O’Neill. That show didn’t last long (probably because the switch to an ensemble format after the first season made it just another police procedural, and took the spotlight off of O’Neill’s tremendous performances), but it interested me in Dick Wolf’s work enough that I switched over to NBC to catch some of his Law and Order shows, which kept me going there until I got cable television back (and promptly found out how so many of the shows I used to like on cable had turned rancid, which was probably a good thing since I was starting grad school around that time).

It was on one of those Law and Order shows (maybe SVU, maybe the original series) that I first heard the phrase “you can’t unring a bell,” when a judge said it to a defence attorney in response to one of those dramatic blurts so endemic in procedurals. That phrase stuck with me, and it’s easy to see why: It expresses an idea that applies to a variety of circumstances that we all face throughout our lives, and I sound smarter than I really am whenever I can drop it into a conversation. It’s just a very useful phrase, and I’m surprised that it took me until I was well into my twenties to hear it for the first time.

I think “you can’t unring a bell” expresses a truth about cultural shifts as well: Although cultural phenomena, ephemera and other fads may rise and fall, nothing ever really goes away. The embarrassing gewgaws of our childhood soon become collectors’ items whose “wonders” we laud to newer generations. Many of the horrifyingly inane songs that crowd actual good music out of our radio airwaves will, in time, come to be appreciated for the “spirit of the times” they represented. Even when that kind of cultural archaeology doesn’t happen on a widespread scale, the ease with which a small handful of people with similar tastes can congregate and communicate on the Internet means that none of these things, whether small or large, will ever really disappear.

The same is true for broader cultural shifts. When countercultural movements aren’t coopted by larger forces for their own needs (usually to help sell their stuff, as seen recently by how quickly car companies started using dubstep in their television commercials as soon as middle-class parents learned what “wubs” were), they endure long after the normally cyclical nature of our society dictates that they should. Some of this is rebellion for rebellion’s sake, with all its attendant problems, but just as so many people today have a genuine love of beat poetry, so too will people not yet born come to gain an unironic appreciation of Justin Bieber’s early work. That may be a scary prospect for many of us to think about, but that doesn’t make it any less likely.

More to the point, when these movements allow people to express themselves in ways that they couldn’t do so before, then they will find ways to endure, and attempts to suppress them will eventually become counterproductive. The early gay rights movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s may have been temporarily stymied by the widespread fucktitude of the Reagan years, but all the cultural walls that had been built up in that decade were shattered and then scattered like dust by the middle of the 1990’s. To the extent that cultural conservatism returned in the early 2000’s, the new breed of young right-wingers that emerged then, the “South Park Republicans” as the press called them, may have been homophobic, heartless pricks, but at least they wanted marijuana legalized. Even that virulent strain of right-wing homophobia had been dying out until the last few years, and it’s still nowhere near as prevalent as it was forty, or even twenty, years ago.

It’s clear that we’re in another one of those cycles where misanthropic cultural and political forces are attempting to use their power to unring a lot of cultural bells, especially around issues of sex and sexuality. I’ve been hit by this crackdown, as I’ve written about elsewhere (and consider this an invitation to buy my novel just to stick it to those oppressive assholes — it makes a great holiday gift!), but I haven’t suffered nearly as much as those people who make more of their living off of sex work and professions adjacent to sex work. For those young people who aren’t heterosexual and/or cisgender, however, especially those who may be geographically isolated from similar people (or even people sympathetic to their plight), the current rush to shut down these cultural avenues may be the most harmful.

While Tumblr is only one social media platform, its importance to marginalized LGBT+/SAGA communities can’t be overstated; we wouldn’t have so many different platforms if their unique qualities didn’t cause them to attract unique users with their own unique needs, and Tumblr certainly attracted a lot of communities in ways that other platforms have failed to do. I only use my Tumblr to post links to my blog posts and other major appearances online, but if I were a teenager, I probably would have used Tumblr a lot more to find other people like me to talk with, to help me feel less alone and to try to help others in plights similar to mine. For all its problems, Tumblr was doing a lot of good for a lot of people.

Beyond the issues involved with sex work and sex workers, Tumblr’s new rules and regulations lend a particularly vile right-wing falsehood a degree of seeming legitimacy: The conflation of sexuality, and the exploration of gender, with actual sex. It’s naïve to think that every young person now lives in a family, or part of the world, where it’s easy for them to find people who even accept them if they’re not heterosexual and cisgender, let alone support them. Tumblr was providing a place for many of these young people to feel less alone, less threatened, and even less suicidal. It may not be possible to fix a precise value on how much harm Tumblr has now done to these people, but suffice it to say that “too much” is an apt description.

We can, and should, talk about how much blame Apple deserves for its own efforts to whitewash the things that show up on their devices, or credit card companies for wielding their power like a cudgel and doing so many right-wingers’ dirty work for them. We can, and should, talk about how so many alternatives to Tumblr already exist, and will now be created in response to Tumblr’s new censorious policies. What is most important right now, though, is to show those authorities trying to oppress us that we will not be silenced, we will not be bullied, and we will never — ever — go away. We must do this not only for ourselves, but for the sake of people like us who might not have the privileges we have, and need to be shown that not only are there other people like them out here in the world, but that we care enough about them to stick our own necks out to fight for our common cause.

It’s far too easy for societal issues like these to get overlooked in the chaos of modern life, but that’s all the more reason for us to ring every bell we have, as loudly as we can, and demand the attention of allies and enemies alike. The possibility that this is the one right-wing cultural crackdown that does stick is always there, and that is a future that none of us can bear to live with. Cultural conservatism never went away on its own before, and it won’t do so now. We need to fight it with everything we have, for ourselves, for our allies, and the allies we don’t even know we have yet. If Tumblr won’t give us a platform, then we need to turn every resource we have into our own platforms, from which we can fight these battles. With all the lives at stake right now, nothing less will do.

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