There is nothing to say whether the goodness of people will be our downfall or our salvation.
Just a few months ago, one of the very many bodies of children to wash up on the shores of Greece became the subject of a now famous picture. The child’s body was posed in such as way as to make the picture graphic but not too graphic. The child’s name was called Aylan Kurdi and his photograph caused a surge of public sympathy across social media as the world’s attention briefly turned to the plight of refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean.
The refugee crisis changed in that moment. Germany opened its hearts and borders to the refugees and they were greeted at railway stations by ordinary citizens handing out sweets and cuddly toys. Germany was showing the world how to be compassionate. Social media responded as only social media can respond: it took credit for changing things for the better. ‘See, we can make a difference!’ was the cry. ‘Oh, why can’t all leaders be like Angela Merkel!?’
Some weeks later, Merkel was facing a meltdown of support, her coalition divided on the issue of open borders. The refugee crisis was now worrying ordinary Germans and Merkel’s generosity perceived as a naive response to a situation made worse now that refugees would be encouraged to make the already hazardous journey in the winter months. Some countries began to erect fences. Politics became ugly in a way we’ve not seen in over half a century. Suddenly people are talking about the rise of nationalism and ethnic conflict. The Schengen Agreement looks less viable by the day.
None of that is to say that people’s initial response to the crisis was wrong. Real world politics are difficult. Policy documents tend to be long for a reason. Social media forces us to be brief and promote views that can be concisely expressed. It is easier to write ‘Terrible situation! This must end now!’ than it is to write ‘Terrible situation! This must end now but I understand that the issue raises extremely difficult questions that nobody at this time is capable of considering with an adequately cool mind.’ In fact, the second could not exist on Twitter since it’s longer than 140 characters.
Twitter does not filter by design but it does filter by accident. Memes and hashtags lend themselves to causes and causes lend themselves to simple ideas, sentiments, and solutions. Save this, support that, just say no. Currently trending topics are never: save this (if we can), support that so long as it’s not detrimental to our own safety, or just say maybe. The very survival of a meme relies on it being easily transmitted in the same way that the least potent viruses tend to be the most contagious. In the Twittersphere, the tendency of simple ideas to spread widely introduces a bias into the debate. People retweet what is easy. The character limit gently encourages us towards binary choices stripped of nuance.
This week saw the worst terrorist incident in Europe since the Madrid bombings in 2004. Twitter did not then exist. It does in 2015 and, naturally, the response has been enormous and followed a familiar pattern. Shortly after the incident, somebody created the logo that has come to define the tragedy. It was the peace symbol altered to incorporate the Eiffel Tower. The most popular slogan was initially #PrayForParis until a cartoonist pointed out that in the wake of a tragedy committed in the name of religion, perhaps we didn’t need more praying. That message also spread rapidly. However, the sentiment emerging strongest was one that asked people to look uncritically at Islam. Quite a few popular memes over the past few days have seen Muslims distance themselves and their religion from the events of Saturday night. Young Muslims in particular have responded by explaining the peaceful nature of Islam. Videos have also emerged of non-Muslims people reaching out to the Muslim community to express solidarity.
As noble, uplifting, and resoundingly right as these things are, we have to exercise caution. Twitter cannot dictate the terms of debate. The mob can be as kind as it is cruel and there is a form of mob behaviour behind memes which are reductive, sentimental, and telling us what we can or cannot say, think, or argue.
For example, you simply cannot discuss Daesh without addressing the rise of Wahhabism across the Middle East. It might not sit comfortably with modern liberal sentiments by which we’ve been told never to question a person’s religion or politics but, really, this debate is wholly centered on religion and politics in the very same way that Ben Carson’s Christianity is central to debate surrounding his candidacy for the Republican nomination. Similarly, we could not discuss the refugee crisis without talking about housing, sanitation, jobs, benefits, and many other potential problems up to and including the twin threats of terrorism and re-emergent nationalism.
It’s understandable that people witnessing a terrible event search for something meaningful to cling onto but memes, sincerely meant, are not meaningful and can be less than helpful. They are extension of the emoticon phenomenon. They not only reveal a paucity of expression but also a surrogacy of thought, feeling, and wisdom. They betray the millions of years of evolution that has made each of us capable of considering difficult questions, sometimes holding contradictory opinions at one and the same time, and arriving at the best of what are often many bad options.
Reducing a complicated situation to a meme is as miserly as telling somebody you love them by texting them a heart icon and the world’s problems are deeper than the lyrics of ‘Imagine’, however beautifully it was played on a Paris sidewalk this week. Lennon was right. It is indeed easy to imagine there’s no heaven. It is easy to tweet that too. Unfortunately, conceptions of heaven become more complicated when people are willing to annihilate themselves with plastic explosives in order to get there.