Echo chambers

Earlier this week, I received a message on Tumblr from a person who had been a transfundamentalist. A transfundamentalist is a trans person who believes that a person is trans if and only if they experience sex dysphoria, (dysphoria about their sex characteristics), and who believes that having a gender identity other than the one assigned at birth is not a valid definition of “trans.” This particular person said to me in their message that they would like permission to subscribe to my posts because they wanted to get out of their transfundamentalist echo chamber.

I’ve been working on distancing myself from activist circles that have become echo chambers. By “echo chamber,” I mean a political or social group where all or most of the individuals involved share the same opinions, frequently repeat them, and don’t have much in the way of new ideas, or much evidence of critical thinking about the group’s opinions. Not all echo chambers are activist groups, but the ones I have been involved with happened to be activist groups.

Although it’s hard to tell when you’re in an echo chamber, it’s easy to stumble into an echo chamber, especially if your group is composed of people with a shared marginalized status/identity. People naturally gravitate towards others with similar values, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Where the problem begins is when you assume that people with similar opinions to yours necessarily have similar values to yours.

It’s not irrational to at first think that having similar opinions means having similar values. It’s true that your values are a major foundation for your political and social opinions. The pitfall is that an opinion that is reached by having one particular value can also be reached by a conflicting or opposite value–and two people who share the same value can have very different opinions with respect to how that value is expressed. Some people support building homeless shelters because they value the lives of homeless people and want to improve them. Some people support building homeless shelters because they believe that homeless people are unsightly.

I would rather surround myself with people who have similar values to me than with people who have similar opinions to me. I firmly believe that activism should be about coalitions of people with similar values and differing opinions, rather than about assimilation of others into having similar opinions.

When you’re only associating with people with similar opinions to yours, you don’t have to carefully consider your opinions (about how to go about the activism) because you can begin to take them as given. You are less likely to be able to question your opinions, or to want to question your opinions. I was once involved in a sex-positive circle where it was taken as given that consent must be enthusiastic and verbal (spoken) in order to be valid.* I was so resistant to questioning this opinion that I completely ignored anyone who thought otherwise. I thought that valuing consent was literally impossible if you didn’t have the opinion that all valid consent is enthusiastic and verbal.

I think that what helped me realize that I wasn’t thinking critically about consent was when I joined a discussion group related to sexuality in the d/Deaf community. I think that was when it became clear to me (I am hearing) that a verbal consent model contains the (really messed-up) assumption that d/Deaf people cannot consent to sex or have any kind of sexual agency unless they adhere to the standards and language of hearing people.

Around the same time, I witnessed a conversation where other autistic and neurodivergent people pointed out that nonverbal people have sexual agency, that speaking neurodivergent people can go nonverbal during sex (because of sensory processing atypicality), and that a lot of neurodivergent people cannot express enthusiasm in conventional ways. They brainstormed about methods of establishing consent that don’t require speaking or expressing enthusiasm in neurotypical ways.

Going about activism in such a polarized, you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us manner means your activism stagnates. There isn’t room to share new ideas, because stating a differing opinion automatically puts you in the “against the group” category. The above conversations about consent models were impossible in the sex-positive echo chamber I was once part of.

I once brought up those objections to the enthusastic consent model to members of that echo chamber (after I’d left it) during a planning meeting for a consent workshop, and the entire room went silent for a moment. Then the facilitator changed the subject. No one in the group spoke to me afterward about what I’d said. I was completely ignored. The group didn’t think it was important to emphasize the sexual agency of autistic, d/Deaf and neurodivergent people like I did, and they likely assumed (as is fashionable among neurotypical hearing activists) that the amount of autistic, d/Deaf and neurodivergent students at our college was negligible and unimportant.** Although they believed they valued sexual agency, they didn’t actually value the sexual agency of autistic people, d/Deaf people or neurodivergent people enough to have any place for talking about it in their consent workshop.

Echo chambers can develop online as well as offline.

The conversation structure on message boards can make it so it’s hard to see the entire conversation without putting in a lot more effort, and if there was an early message on the thread, it can become buried in the later messages. This makes it more likely that an echo chamber will form on a message board.

Similarly, Tumblr conversations are threaded such that once a post becomes popular, it actually is impossible to see all of the comments on it. If a person makes a statement that becomes popular but then later changes their opinion and edits the post, it’s very unlikely that people who reblogged the post will see any edits on it. This is why I’ve decided that I want my Tumblr to be a repository for resources, rather than a place where I develop arguments. Tumblr’s structure makes constructive criticism extremely difficult, and that contributes to the likelihood of pockets of Tumblr becoming echo chambers.***

I decided to stop following the #asexual and #asexuality tags on Tumblr because asexual activism done on Tumblr has unfortunately taken on some of the qualities of an echo chamber. If I make a post about asexuality, it will either be widely reblogged, or ignored (or I’ll get messages from non-asexual people who don’t take me seriously). Neither of those outcomes represent the effect I want my posts to have on other people. I want people to take me seriously and give me constructive criticism, whether they agree with me or not.

I have found some wonderful people on Tumblr who do give me constructive criticism, but there isn’t a culture on Tumblr where constructive criticism is welcomed. I’ve decided to stop doing on Tumblr the kind of asexual activism I like best–long critical analyses of things pertaining to asexuality. I’m going to do that kind of asexual activism on this blog only, from now on. So that if I’m doing my duty of critically thinking about my asexual activism, I won’t have a gap of three months on this blog without a new post.

* I didn’t yet know about myself that I would be nonverbal in sexual situations due to my atypical sensory processing, and I also assumed that a person either enjoyed sex wholeheartedly or was completely sex-repulsed.

** The people I spoke to knew I was autistic and that I go nonverbal in sexual situations due to sensory processing. I also knew several other autistic students at our college.

*** I do not believe that the phrase “Tumblr social justice” has much meaning because of the sheer diversity of social-justice-oriented movements that have come to Tumblr. I do not believe “Tumblr social justice” is an echo chamber. I do believe that there are activist circles (plural) on Tumblr that are echo chambers, but it is just factually incorrect to say that all of them are. I object to any person using this post as evidence that “Tumblr social justice” is an echo chamber or that social justice activism is inherently an echo chamber.

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Talia C. Johnson

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