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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!?’Der Sp

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 Ben Carsonsentiments 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.




6 Comments on "Please note: a meme is not the same as a thought"

  1. You are absolutely right, David; the reduction of complex issues to a few soundbites invalidates democracy as a fit way to govern a country. TV and radio interviewers are guilty, interrupting their guests who are seldom given time to state a meaningful paragraph or, on occasions, even a meaningful sentence. Or else the interviewer seizes on a fraction of what the guest has said, twists it and bends it and then, like Mr Punch, uses it as a truncheon to bash the hapless guest over the head repeatedly, until the interview is over. It’s very damaging – and not just for the guest’s skull!

    • Thanks David. It’s not just social media though. This reductive approach seems to be everywhere. Political debate outside the quality press (and a few shows such as Daily Politics) is now pretty minimal and the last election three wasted weeks of politicians doing everything to avoid the public (Cameron was the worst culprit though Miliband did his fair share) and then getting the public talking about stupid things that had no real bearing on the future of the country. Like you say, the media don’t seem to care. They just want to make the next headline by coaxing politicians into a corner and saying one of the things they’re really not meant to say but which any reasonable person would understand is part of a nuanced response. It’s so frustrating when the Prime Minister won’t even subject himself to interview by Andrew Neil. Not just frustrating but anti-democratic. Yet social media is supposedly our future. I dread to think…

  2. Another interesting piece David, you are obviously a lot kinder in your general view of humanity than myself. Twitter in my view is just a personal projection tool, a symptom of how conceited and self obsessed we seem to have become. With regards to the Paris attacks I found the reaction something akin to the death of Diana, people today are all too keen to take any situation and make it about themselves, wallowing in some kind of reflected grief or projecting some sense of non existent stoicism. I was in Malaya during the 7/7 bombings, nobody I knew died or was injured in those attacks. Obviously I felt sorry for the victims, but how had it affected me personally?, what justification would I have had to feel upset? I don’t know whether it is social media or just a general change in society but when did a one minute silence turn into a two minute silence turn into a two minutes of applause, I mean we are the people who clap coffins for crying out loud. This for me is now starting to filter dangerously up the chain of command, how can you lock down a capital city for 3 days because of a terrorist threat?, during the 1970’s the UK would have been in a state of permanent lockdown due to the constant threat of IRA bombs, the terrorists must be rubbing their hands in glee at the Belgian reaction, what better incentive to carry out further strikes.
    As for complex issues, I suppose firstly you have to understand that they are indeed complex, which rules half of the population out at a stroke and then for those that do understand it then requires a willingness to confront cold hard reality which is seldom a popular choice, instead as we hear the mad axeman enter our bedroom at night we just pull the covers that bit tighter over our heads and hope he will go away, our outrage and surprise only surfaces when he has actually buried the said weapon in our skull. The media takes its cue from it’s political masters and it’s consumers, who wants to be told that it’s either less public services, higher tax or a massively reduced pension taken at a later date, or that terrorism can’t actually be stopped by bombs and guns, certainly not the British public that’s for sure.

    • Thanks Rob. Such a great reply. To be honest, my view of humanity is no kinder than yours and possibly a lot bleaker. I’m aware that I’m writing for a general audience and I do hold back in order to make one point clearly, rather than turning it into a ill tempered rant about a dozen like I’d do if it was my own blog. I absolutely agree with you. That one minute become two irritated me as well because we’re now quantifying our sorrow. Yet turning it into applause also hid the sad fact which was people weren’t observing the one minute silences. The ‘improvement’ actually disguised that we’d regressed as a society. I suspect/wonder if it started around the time of Blair and Iraq. My memory fails me but I seem to remember the applause first used in a context in which there were fears people would boo. Perhaps I’m wrong.

      It’s worrying because dissent of any kind is being marginalised. It’s the thin edge of authoritarianism which I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently. I’m no fan of Corbyn but his treatment at the hands of the media worries me because I wonder how truly free we are as a people to choose who we like for leaders. Or is that merely the safeguards we have built into our system? Around 1940, Orwell wrote (in ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’) about our lack of true democracy but said that it was an unspoken agreement between our leaders and the people. I begin to suspect that’s still true. Our stability is based upon a strict hierarchy which, in many respects, is to our benefit. However, it can slide too easily into state control. The Snooper’s Charter is, in my mind, misguided, dangerous, and doesn’t even do what it promises.

      More worrying is that it’s now becoming evident that we no longer have real debate. Cameron won’t talk to Andrew Neil yet will talk to Lorraine Kelly. Government announcements are made to school children who don’t answer back. Yet when Corbyn gives a nuanced answer to anything, he’s portrayed as dithering, unclear, or radical. Yes, he should have ‘I’d bomb them into oblivion’ when asked about ISIS but he gave a serious answer which didn’t satisfy people’s bloodlust. Politics is become Pavlovian: ring a bell, bark an answer. That cannot be right.

      A brief story. I wrote about this on my blog the other day and it’s still bothering me. I went into Waterstones in Liverpool last week, about ten pence in my pocket but wanting to buy a book. I walked in, there was a book signing. Didn’t know the ‘celeb’ but the queue was to the door. Turned out it was a woman called Michelle Visage. American. About as sharp as a tap. Upstairs, I found the book I wanted. New Penguin by Nabokov. Paperback. 99 pages. £15. I put it back. There, I thought, is the true state of the nation. The crass is abundant and available to all. Anything quality is priced out of our reach. Now apply that to politics, opinions, media, food, clothes, and pretty much everything. That’s modern Britain.

  3. Thank you David. Yes I think that democracy is now an illusion of choice, vested interests pretty much own politics and I don’t for one moment think that if the voters returned Corbyn to office he would be allowed to be a success, you would find the pound under attack, big business relocating jobs, the US and others isolating us internationally, in short anything to make sure that his tenure served as a warning not to be so silly to elect someone like him again. Don’t get me wrong I think that we are at the absolute zenith of human living standards, at least in the western world but when you see Trudeau being elected in Canada and Jeb Bush in with at least a chance of being the 3rd Bush in 3 decades to inhabit the white house you start to wonder if we are headed towards some form of government straddling monarchy and democracy, almost an elected monarchy if you like with the candidates chosen from a few political dynasties, Bush’s opponent of course if he makes the nomination will be Hilary Clinton, wife of Bill, what money on president Chelsea in 15 years time?. Nothing new I suppose, Pitt the Elder and Pitt the Younger spring to mind. Dumbing down is a phrase that has been around for a while now, in politics I think it is a symptom of the imported presidential style which came across the pond with american campaign advisors, perhaps the Sex Pistols were right when they sang ‘They made you a moron’. Anyway, how off the original topic am I.

    • The more I write about these things, the more I realise you can never be ‘off topic’.

      I wonder if the problems you identify have a lot to do with the ‘branding’ of our culture. Corbyn has been branded as ‘unelectable’ and that’s how the media will now present him. Once you’ve been branded, it’s hard to escape that brand. At the same time, there are established brands such as the brand ‘Clinton’ and ‘Bush’ which people can now work from. None of it should be surprising. We all make these decisions unconsciously and are naturally drawn to things we know, even if they’re less good than some other things we’d discover if only we looked that little harder.

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