Since publishing my essay Un-Identity: Climbing Down the Other Side of Peak Liberalism, I’ve connected with dozens of other leftists around the world burned out on the hypocrisy and stagnancy of liberal identity politics. Many of us share common experiences of trauma and oppression, some of which fit liberal identity narratives and others of which don’t. Each of us has come to this place of knowing that we cannot live our lives any longer in a state of perpetual outrage, evasion, false confidence, and reactionary, shame-driven, mob politics.
The title of that essay described a sort of mountain, which is what I see when I picture social justice in my mind. At the top, we’re promised this egalitarian utopian paradise, but the way there is constantly obstructed by one thing or another. Sooner or later—and this is where so much connectivity is happening now—we realize that no one has actually seen the mountaintop yet. We’re just believing in stories that other people have told us, or that we’ve overheard them reassuring themselves with. Upon further examination, we realize that this truth—that no one has seen the mountaintop—explains all the conflicting stories we’ve been hearing all along.
Climbing down is a choice I believe more and more of us are making. It’s a humbling process of admitting that we’ve spent a good chunk of our lives fumbling through a quasi-mythic landscape we still have trouble mapping. And along the way down, as we verbalize our political and personal changes, we start uncovering this person we used to be and begin to see more clearly how deeply affected our sense of self and power had become while on the mountain.
This piece is about the vampires many of us became in our quest for the mountaintop, but it’s also about another world beyond that landscape, where our utopian visions might actually still be grown.
How Social Media, Identity Politics, & Trauma Created Social Acceptance of Vampirism
The kind of liberal identity politics I describe in Un-Identity and join countless other marginalized peoples in critiquing have in fact been critiqued by leftists for generations. This particular social conflict between leftist unity and liberal divisiveness is nothing new. Nevertheless, I believe that in the 2000s with the advent and centralization of social media platforms, we entered a new period in this dialogue. This period has so far enabled unhealthy relationships between people played out in politicized terms and revamped social justice movements.
Both internet forums and sociopolitical movements have always had their toxic personalities. Social media cannot be blamed for producing them. However, it is my belief that popular social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have inadvertently encouraged toxicity, although I do not believe this was their intention. Instead, I think the promises of social media—the promises of connecting people across the world, providing a platform to raise awareness of injustice, and amplifying a voice of the oppressed—were intended as an answer to the relative isolation, limits, and ineptitude of earlier internet forums and social movements hoping to accomplish the same.
I first joined Facebook in 2005 as a way to keep in touch with high school friends as we graduated and moved away from home. Beyond known friends, Facebook groups offered a means of connecting with broader social groups, like GLBT people, Pagans, Deaf people, etc. from around the country, and eventually the world. This masterfully resolved the scarcity of brick and mortar community spaces or dispersion of demographic groups by permitting even the most isolated person the possibility of connecting with others like them through simply creating an account and joining a group.
I think Facebook recognized its role in this niche too. In 2006, the social media platform was one of the few places where gay marriage was permitted. We could indicate on our profiles what gender(s) we were interested in, and even list our same-sex partners as spouses. Add-on apps allowed us to expand on this information with an earlier, 2000s-era version of the dozens of genders now recognized by many social media outlets. Additional developments, such as the “like” button, the news feed, and the ability for individual users to share or up-vote links to articles, videos, and blogs to and from all their connections through it, created a platform with extraordinary potential for facilitating social awareness and change.
With this potential, however, are several drawbacks. Concern over “fake news” has only recently become an issue people expect social media to resolve. And concern over how the instant feedback of “likes” and other reactions affect our communication styles and content choices is yet to reach the same level of alarm in social media ethics. Perhaps most relevant to political discourse aided by social media though should be recognition that microblogging platforms like Facebook and Twitter indirectly discourage nuance either through character limits to posts or the instant feedback culture which seems to reward reactive, short, invective posts over long-form, more emotionally moderated content.
More than simply rewarding sometimes toxic behavior with a sea of likes and shares, microblogging platforms encourage a specific type of political analysis. This analysis avoids logical, constructive, contextual, or critical thinking in favor of emotional, destructive, selective, and reductive narratives which complement or reproduce classically politicized identity narratives.
For example, consider reactions to the recent wave of sexual assault survivors publicly describing their ordeals and in some cases also identifying people in power who perpetrated them. Almost immediately this phenomenon was absorbed into the classic feminist identity narrative of powerful men abusing powerless women. Experiences outside of this narrative, particularly those involving trans victims, were critiqued for “erasing” the experiences of women. Likewise, women sharing stories about being raped by trans people were critiqued for “transphobia,” and many men who shared stories of sexual assault by women were also shut down for the “sexism” of taking this moment away from women collectively and for “distracting” from the evidently more important issue of men assaulting women. After a few weeks of this, an additional layer of public shaming was added, and that was the apparent transgression of not naming the specific creator of the hashtag #MeToo when describing one’s sexual assault.
I’ve identified three major takeaways from observing these reactions. First, they were a reminder that liberal identity politics care more about preserving a specific narrative (e.g. men over women, white over black, straight over queer, etc.) than with actually acknowledging and ending the violent or oppressive acts themselves. Second, the microblogging structure of the social media platforms this movement took place on enabled a viral spreading of shame and guilt directed at survivors for the sake of preserving these narratives and an irrational set of social hierarchies or expected checkboxes (e.g. naming the creator of a hashtag, not acknowledging that minorities can be rapists, etc.). Lastly, the trauma of human existence is widespread and so far failed by the narrow-mindedness of identity-dominant thinking.
Older leftists I have worked with have often related their burnout in decades past from previous iterations of feminist and social justice movements. Their stories communicate a similarly observed irrational preoccupation with identity-based narratives to the detriment of resolution on the issues they aim to address. Where I believe my generation differs is that we are additionally dealing with a degree of instantaneous global connectivity previously unknown. Social media is not simply informing us about issues halfway around the world, it is enabling a cultural expectation that we will immediately and continuously offer the correct opinion and precise amount of properly constructed outrage regarding each and every one of them, or risk public shaming, guilt pressure, and accusations of all manner of -isms and -phobias. And while these politics may conceptualize themselves as radical, revolutionary, or far to the left, the reference points they consistently cite rarely predate post-modern liberal identity discourse.
Take for instance the romanticized image of the Stonewall Uprising regularly conjured up in contemporary political debates internal to LGBT+ folks. Many of today’s activists are utterly convinced of the “fact” that either trans women of color uniquely led the riots, or that their alleged presence at a New York bar in the 1960s is somehow relevant or obvious justification for trans inclusion in political movements today. References to the social advances enjoyed by Soviet trans people or the relative periods and regions of social acceptance enjoyed by pre-modern or ancient crossdressing and binary-defying people are even rarer than references to protests or uprisings only slightly earlier than Stonewall, such as Compton’s or Dewey’s. This selective history is indicative of the political context the narrative complements. The departure of mid-century liberal discourse from earlier leftist movements is the start of liberal identity histories.
My criticism of these politics is not coming from a place of purity or superiority. Rather, I have been the exact type of person I am criticizing. Before I left Facebook, my news feed was routinely swallowed by similar demands—for trans people to account for rapists who happen to be transgender, for Jews of the diaspora to account for the actions of the state of Israel, for Muslims to account for the actions of ISIL, for Wiccans to account for incidents of homophobia or transphobia in individual covens, for liberals and leftists to account for how the federal government spends our taxes, etc. Like many people my age, I engaged in these tactics and likely helped teach their art to those performing them today.
Late economist Mark Fisher described this form of social media based activism as vampirism in his 2013 essay Exiting the Vampire Castle.
“The Vampires’ Castle specialises in propagating guilt. It is driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd. The danger in attacking the Vampires’ Castle is that it can look as if – and it will do everything it can to reinforce this thought – that one is also attacking the struggles against racism, sexism, heterosexism. But, far from being the only legitimate expression of such struggles, the Vampires’ Castle is best understood as a bourgeois-liberal perversion and appropriation of the energy of these movements. The Vampires’ Castle was born the moment when the struggle not to be defined by identitarian categories became the quest to have ‘identities’ recognised by a bourgeois big Other.”
Prior to Fisher, however, Anton LaVey also correlated guilt as an influence tactic with what he called “psychic vampires,” or people who feed off the labor (emotional, physical, or otherwise) of others.
“Often the psychic vampire will use reverse psychology, saying: ‘Oh, I couldn’t ask you to do that’—and you, in turn, insist upon doing it. The psychic vampire never demands anything of you. That would be far too presumptuous. They simply let their wishes be known in subtle ways which will prevent them from being considered pests. They ‘wouldn’t think of imposing’ and are always content and willingly accept their lot, without the slightest complaint—outwardly!” (p. 75, The Satanic Bible)
Where LaVey observes reverse psychology employed by psychic vampires of his day, however, I would argue that today’s vamps are keen to make direct demands of other people, and that doing so is even now considered an acceptable moral standard or virtue we should oblige.
Responsibility for this cultural shift towards acceptable vampirism I believe does not rest solely on Facebook, Twitter, or social media in general. Rather, it is the perfect storm of these impersonal platforms combined with the failures of liberal identity politics and the continuation of trauma on new generations.
A Stab At Why We Become Vampires
“You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, ‘Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?’ And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.” Junot Diaz
Like Diaz and many other marginalized people, I grew up in a world where no mirror held my reflection. I was keenly aware of my queerness and troubled by gender at a very early age. Disability, sexuality, mental un-wellness, trauma, and pursuit of spiritual alternatives to the insular Christianity I grew up in added additional dimensions to my self-perception as a weirdo and clear deviant from the norm. Navigating a world where these things provoke violent outbursts and social punishments has pretty well defined my relationship to other people since before I was a teenager, and continues in many ways to define my (anti-)sociability to this day.
As I’d wager many people torn between presenting as one thing but being another have discovered, writing has always helped me bridge the fractures of my existence. And coming of age in the era of MySpace, Livejournal, and then Facebook, social media specifically offered me an impersonal means of experimental self-expression for the self that wasn’t always immediately apparent to people I wasn’t sure if I could trust. I think it’s on that bridge—having a means of saying something without actually saying it to someone, knowing you can read reactions before having to deal with them, and even having the option to delete and block people or feedback you don’t like—that the vampire started to take hold.
My vampire was an early-adopter of social media activist strategies, frequently sharing numerous articles and generating political commentary throughout every single day as soon as the possibility to do so became an option. Doing so gave me a sense of power and self-worth. Sharing political articles I agreed with reassured me that I had always been right all those years in communities that deny climate change and (at least from 1999-2002) wholeheartedly believed in an imminent apocalypse. Sharing in the outrage of communities beyond myself made me feel like I was part of something big, part of a family, part of a voice, real. More than educating others or raising awareness—the promises social media is justified through—I dove into the queer callout culture of the early 2000s, and reveled in the opportunity to publicly tear down others, finally part of a clique in power somewhere.
It was punishment for trauma I had endured. It was punishment my targets usually didn’t deserve. And it was punishment not only politically protected by the liberal ethics my generation inherited from previous identity movements, but it was punishment bizarrely accepted and even encouraged by many outsiders and some recipients, eager to demonstrate their submissive status and dutiful liberal loyalty to the most sadistic and vampiric among us.
My addictive engagement in this style of activism paralleled my descent into drug abuse, as it did with many of the other activists I surrounded myself with. We used drugs and activism as a cover for the frozen, traumatized state we found ourselves in. Objective or subjective but real enough either way, we perceived oppression and -phobia like walls of jagged glass shards closing in on us everywhere. Everything was wrong. Everything hurt. And there seemed no way out of either. Too poor, too traumatized, too addicted, too…everything to either seek or receive psychological help, we became a generation of social justice vampires, temporarily sated on a lifetime full of outrage typed out at lightning speed, sent without regret, and protected by the constant threat of publicly shaming anyone who would challenge us.
Importantly, we got here through being wounded, and not because of some innate character flaw or natural predisposition towards psychic manipulation. Wounded people are susceptible to vampirism. We give empathy to people who appear to be in need because we know what it is like to be in need and to be ignored. The guilty world that makes us needs no accuser, and in its shame rewards our social outbursts with whatever we demand of it. Vampirism is taught this way. It is made and rewarded by the same guilty culture yet to abandon the monstrous process it has initiated.
And our politics are not helping. Take for instance, popular insistence that the average lifespan of trans women (variously further distinguished as “trans women of color” or “Latina trans women”) is between 30 to 35 years (I have also heard 25) or that 1 in 8 (I have also encountered “1 in 7” or “1 in 12”) will be murdered that are routinely cited by alleged trans community advocates to justify trans political inclusion. Leaving aside the dramatic leap from murder rates and lifespan to non-discrimination ordinances, to my knowledge, no study has ever been conducted which could produce an average lifespan or murder rate for trans people of any variety (please correct me if I’m wrong). The closest data I can find would be a 2016 study by the Williams Institute which suggests there are 1.4 million trans people in the U.S. So then, for the 1 in 12 statistic to be true, that would suggest that around 117,000 trans people in the U.S. were murdered in 2016. GLAAD, on the other hand, reported 27.
These statistical fictions provide a free channel of criticism for conservatives whose research into the origins of this alleged data will not begin and end at “it must be true because a trans activist said it is.” Furthermore, this alleged data amounts to not only an expression of psychic vampirism when used to garner movement support, but also a form of psychological terrorism against trans youth, who I have witnessed falling into mental un-wellness upon internalizing the message that their lives will soon be ending. It is fitting then, that so many trans people find themselves attracted to vampiric relationships with the world considering the undeath our politics relegate us to.
Additionally, for those whose trauma aligns to classical identity narratives, liberal politics encourage this anger and sense of powerlessness. And for the traumatized who fall outside these narratives, right-wing identity politics are ready to pick up what liberals discard. The wickedness of our neoliberal state, however, is in the diversity it has assumed into its machinery and oppressive institutions. Failing to be universal under scrutiny, such identity narratives tunnel into analysis of increasingly micro-aggressive and interpersonal slights, paralleling a drive away from institutional changes and into cultural warfare for both right- and left-wingers. Yet at the height of my vampiric identity sectarianism, every woman and queer along with most of the men I knew had a sexual assault story. We are a generation of kids the world has touched and terrorized, gaslit and disowned. But our politics are yet to become as universal as our trauma.
For instance, concurrent to the recent #MeToo movement has been insistence on generalizations like “believe women” rather than “believe survivors,” which in turn politicize specific narratives that certainly help many women and girls, but don’t address the problem of sexual violence beneath the particular vehicle of sexist dynamics. These narratives become a form of gaslighting. We tell men and boys (and often by extension, many trans folks) that they didn’t grow up in a culture that sexualized them from a young age, subjected them to violently enforced, abusive gender expectations, or positioned them to be exploited later in life.
Collectively, we are tasked with accountability for the same system we have struggled against to survive. The first time I can remember being penetrated was by two boys in kindergarten—also the first time I remember girls (following the example of adults) ruthlessly teasing me for not being manly enough. As a student massage therapist, both men and women inappropriately asked (or grabbed) me to perform sex acts for them during our sessions. I started wearing loose long pants when I walk at the park alone on days I don’t feel like being catcalled by old men eager to tell me how great my body looks. I spent several years of my life putting on weight and ignoring my hygiene in hopes of being less attractive. A lifetime of being spit on, teased, excluded, and threatened for failing (or succeeding) to meet gendered expectations for masculinity have left me with a voice that changes pitch as a defensive mechanism, a heart rate and blood pressure which register specific traumatic triggers I am still too ashamed to name, an internal sense of self so dissociated sometimes that I’ve had nightmares based around not knowing how to gender myself, as well as a seemingly insurmountable compulsion to be in control, in charge, and completely severed from financial interdependence or dependence on others (along with a deep sense of shame when I fail at these things).
I personally didn’t realize the prevalence of male struggles under gender until I uncharacteristically made the radical decision to get a drink with a homophobe instead of yelling at him on the internet. I learned that he had been repeatedly molested by a gay uncle for most of his childhood, and even he admitted that his hatred of gay men now was projection of his uncle’s crimes onto others. He didn’t know another way to recover. Whereas liberal identity politics offered me the opportunity to perform my traumatized outrage as a reaction to homophobia, transphobia, and heteronormativity, conservative identity politics offered him the opportunity to perform his traumatized outraged as a reaction to the homosexual agenda and liberal destruction of the family. No politics offer us the opportunity to be outraged at sexual violence itself.
I’ve met others like him since then—male sexual abuse survivors relegated to the sidelines of popular feminist rhetoric and so taking refuge in vampiric conservative politics for the same reasons we do on the left too. Our traumas are politicized by culture wars in need of proxies. And none of us seem particularly better off or healed by their narratives.
Perhaps that is because in today’s age of haphazard integration between trauma and discrete identity politics, the performance of solidarity on the right or left is rarely about actual healing. Instead it is about reinforcing a politicized social generalization, that in turn justifies continued mistrust and separation. For those of us who fall outside these narratives, there is no mass movement of help coming. But like our friends who are narratively included, we fall onto a path with two main trails: be angry about how much the world has failed us, or learn to move the fuck on from it. All social pressure is towards vampiric anger, not resolution.
Back From the Grave
Coming down off the mountain, exiting the castle, returning from the grave, or whatever metaphorical landscape we define the vampiric phenomenon by, another world is possible.
And I am not just telling you that to reassure either of us that there is a mountaintop we’ll eventually get to if we keep trying. You know this truth too. Everyone who has not spent a chunk of their lives consumed by political narratives is out living in this world along with all those social media dropouts, post-leftist burnouts, and post-vamps who have already done exactly what you and I are doing now.
I believe a defining difference between this world and the world of the vampiric mountain is an actual embrace of human and planetary diversity. Whereas vampires are obsessively concerned with maintaining strict separation among equally discrete identity groups further organized hierarchically by victimhood/worth, the post-vampiric world acknowledges the messy and flawed, mixed race, mixed gender, mixed religion world we inhabit. This other world is a space to perceive one another from a horizontal power potential, where all are potentially comrades and equals, especially in the vulnerability necessary to see this world. Whereas identity politics patrol these sorts of hobbled together, impersonal communities that seek to define vastly different people by a common denominator, and then at least on some level, the shared victimhood of that label, in another world, we are already living, working, and loving side by side without the arbitrary division of these politics.
Freeing ourselves from vampirism necessitates also freeing ourselves from the thrall of identity politics. These politics rely on a perpetual powerlessness in order to maintain their boundaries. They assert that we are so weak without one another that we must face the world behind the shield of a larger group. The idea of healing or moving on from trauma, choosing not to be bothered by interpersonal drama or institutional issues beyond our control are direct affronts to this system because doing these things is to claim strength and sovereignty as an individual.
Alternative to vampirism is the choice to make ourselves vulnerable to the physical communities around us, where we connect to food systems, where we connect to healthcare, where we connect mutually to what was once the commons. This choice requires us to find the strength to refrain from taking personally the flaws in others we may have grown accustomed to attacking. This choice is about growing enough good faith to keep trying to work together. We will fail, often and messily. And we will offend and hurt one another in the learning process. But—and I believe those of you who have also dropped out of the vampiric system know this too—if we honestly want to see a world that is different, that is better, that is healed, then we must try something new until we get it right. I think exiting our vampiric landscapes requires more than the political re-attunement towards class unity rather than binary thinking that Fisher suggests, and more than the ah-ha moment of gaining the upper hand against vampires that LaVey suggests. I think we need more than reflections in the mirrors we create. We need a world to live in too. We have to change the very way we relate to one another.
Our survival is common. Our desire to heal from trauma is common. Recognizing those common conditions seems like a good place to start to me.