Twitter has gone parenthesis crazy. You might have noticed them appearing around people’s names: three open brackets to start and then three more to close, so my name would now be (((David Waywell))) if I were to follow the fashion.
The practice of displaying names in this way began out in some hellish corner of the internet where anti-Semites gather. It was, more specifically, on the notorious forum 4chan, where much of the world’s stupidity and outright villainy originates. There, in a far right discussion group, supremacists (who are supreme at only their unalloyed stupidity) identify people they suspect of being Jewish by bracketing the person’s name in the belief that it makes searches easier. It is a vile little business but so are many of the things you find out there on the fringes. The good people of the internet, as often happens, now want to ‘reclaim’ the parentheses (or, in other words, take the poison out of the practice) by encouraging everybody to wrap their names in brackets. Now many people, Jewish or not, are identifying themselves this way. It is Twitter’s ‘I am Spartacus’ moment when the significance of ((())) is suddenly rendered meaningless.
‘Good’, we could, would, and should say. Except I’m also drawn to ask: is it really that easy? In meme culture, the compulsion to do something can be overwhelmingly powerful. As much as I’m drawn to start identifying myself as (((David Waywell))), as a true contrarian, I always take a moment to think: yes, but what happens if I don’t do that?
That is a hard question because, first and foremost, it might make you suspect that I have something to hide. That is the problem with dissenting when all around you are compliant. Why don’t you want to take off your trousers? What have you got to hide?
Well, the simple fact is that I have nothing to hide. I have quite normal legs. I am also not an anti-Semite and I never have been. But, at the same time, I’m not a plagiarist, arsonist, or murderer yet I don’t feel a compulsion to walk around declaring as much to strangers. When it comes to memes, however, there is a compulsion to do just that. Joining, in some ways, is as important as whatever that joining implies. So, I ask again: what does it mean if you don’t wrap your name in parentheses? Are you anti-Semite or simply lazy? Or are you, like me, wary of popular movements, even those with the noblest of aims?
I am wary not because I don’t agree with the sentiments expressed but because it places me in a situation where taking part (or not taking part) in some future movement becomes meaningful. You could interpret my not acting as if I chose not to act. Quick thought experiment: what happens if everybody on Twitter but myself declared that they never pick their noses, does that mean that I do? There is, I would argue, a natural instinct to answer ‘yes’. If I refuse to say that I never pick my nose, then surely it means that I do. Except, of course, it doesn’t. All you can say is that I refused to comment.
Another experiment: let us say that every week I attend a book group. I am there 51 weeks of the year but miss the week when they’re reading some Jane Austen. Does that mean I dislike the novels of Jane Austen? Obviously, it might, though I think you’d be reasonable enough to assume I was ill or on holiday. The truth, however, is that I would be missing because I do happen to detest the novels of Jane Austen. Throw in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and you’d define my idea of literary hell.
But that is the problem of joining popular movements. The instances when you don’t join become as revealing as the instances when you do. Just because I don’t wear that popular trending t-shirt that reads ‘I’m a good person’, it does not logically follow that I’m a bad person. I’m just a person who doesn’t declare that on a t-shirt. I reserve the right not to have to display my virtuousness at every opportunity. I am, I hope, innocent until proven guilty.
This is why I steer clear of all memes. A mob working in the name of the common good is still a mob. Today they might well be trying to stamp out anti-Semitism but another day they want to ban Donald Trump from visiting the UK and that, whatever you think about Trump, is bad. A similar mob gathers outside Trump rallies and attempts to stop their meetings going ahead. They thwart democracy because, in their minds at least, they are fighting a good fight. Except how do we decide which is the ‘good fight’? Who then decides which example of free speech needs to be silenced? Governments? The police? We head, I think you’ll see, into some bleak territory with alarming speed.
The dynamics of mob thinking are no doubt worthy of a PhD thesis. There is always a place for protest or for wearing your cause proudly but there is also a point where it can be weakened. Not all students wearing Leninist lapel badge are Leninists and, I hate to say this, not everybody with ((())) around their name is fighting anti-Semitism. Fashion is often unthinking. There is a point where it simply becomes fashionable to identify yourself to a certain group of people. Internet memes do the same. It does not mean that they are inherently bad but we should be cautious about describing them as inherently good. Blindly following any fashion is different to being fashionable and boldly proclaiming your virtue is very different to true virtue.