The Boston Bombings Are Not a Meme 2

The above tweet is an exam­ple of one of the jokes that trend­ed on Twitter while police and other law enforce­ment agen­cies hunt­ed for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. It’s not the most impor­tant cul­tur­al issue that emerged from social media – that would prob­a­bly be the var­i­ous racial digs moti­vat­ed by, at best, jin­go­is­tic igno­rance. But I had at least pre­pared myself for that prob­lem (which isn’t to say it doesn’t mat­ter). Turning a very real dan­ger into a video gamer’s inside joke, how­ev­er, caught me utter­ly off-guard. At its best, the tweet is point­less and crude; at worst, it casts a known ter­ror­ist in a harm­less and even glee­ful­ly pos­i­tive anti-hero light. Either way, the tweet is born of a gen­er­a­tion that leans far too heav­i­ly on media to inter­pret the world.

My con­ver­sa­tions are often dom­i­nat­ed by shared media. In fact, one of the first com­ments I heard at work the morn­ing after police first encoun­tered Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, for exam­ple, attempt­ed to put the chase in per­spec­tive. “The last man­hunt I saw like this,” my cowork­er said, “involved Tommy Lee Jones and The Fugitive.” I chuck­led, because I love Tommy Lee Jones and because it’s true. The last man­hunt I saw was Harrison Ford run­ning from Jones’s dogged US Marshal on AMC this last month. It’s the only “expe­ri­ence” I have to com­pare with what I read on Twitter and what I saw on a local Boston news feed. Some might point out that books, movies, and nar­ra­tives have always helped us to inter­pret the trag­ic, the sur­re­al, and the hard to watch. And that’s prob­a­bly true. As a writer I even hope that’s true, because if nar­ra­tives both trag­ic and comic can’t aid us in very real ways, peo­ple like me are wast­ing our time.

The dif­fer­ence in the last 80 years or so (make it longer or short­er if you need to), is that more than ever consumer-based media are draw­ing us into their sim­u­lat­ed expe­ri­ences. The dis­tance between the users of media and the con­tent is small­er than ever. IMAX and the lat­est 3D rave, for exam­ple, are per­haps the cur­rent com­pet­ing nadirs of this descent into ever greater immer­sion; at least, as real­ized in cin­e­ma. There’s also Netflix or Hulu, which encour­age us to “binge watch” and there­by enable arti­fi­cial close­ness with our favorite char­ac­ters. We share hours upon con­sec­u­tive hours with them, the “real world” kept at bay for what some­times feels like days at a time. I am guilty of such activ­i­ty. I speak in Bluth or Battlestar Galactica when I’m try­ing to find an anal­o­gy that can help clar­i­fy, amuse, or com­fort. Maybe this isn’t true for every­one, but for Millenials, for those close to 30 and younger, the desire for and the inter­ac­tion with immer­sive media seems almost per­va­sive.

And so: video games. The one form of con­sumer media that is most con­cerned with sim­u­lat­ing expe­ri­ence. Games like Grand Theft Auto depend on our choic­es, our “actions,” and for many of us such games offer the only par­al­lel for oth­er­wise rare cir­cum­stances. Because of this, it became a go-to par­a­digm for a ter­ror­ist on the run, a sit­u­a­tion that deserved some­thing like solemn assess­ment or minor shock, not (implic­it) anti-hero praise. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is not cool. He is not “insane” in an admirable way, as one tweet sug­gest­ed. He’s a ter­ror­ist, like Timothy McVeigh, Eric Randolph, or the myr­i­ad 9/11 per­pe­tra­tors. Those com­par­ing his posi­tion to the player-character in a video game know this. And yet, Grand Theft Auto is still invoked. Which doesn’t make sense because it is the shal­low­est prism one could use to under­stand the sit­u­a­tion, and while it’s “just a joke,” it’s also unpro­duc­tive dri­v­el that makes me think even less of a fran­chise I always felt veered far too eas­i­ly into a mur­der­ing rapist’s escape fan­ta­sy.1

But then, I relied on The Fugitive to enlight­en me about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and laughed when I did so. Not a long laugh, and I cer­tain­ly reflect­ed on how fool­ish it was to reduce the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion to movie ref­er­ences. But reduc­ing it in that par­tic­u­lar fash­ion was still one of my first reac­tions. Another was to com­pare it with Homeland, and while that anal­o­gy was more solemn, I was nonethe­less using the crutch of media to inter­pret an event I don’t under­stand but which (appro­pri­ate­ly and, per­haps, oth­er­wise) fas­ci­nates me. Most damn­ing of all, maybe, is that I start­ed writ­ing this very arti­cle as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was still being chased. Some of my first thoughts in the midst of tragedy cir­cled around media, and that was part­ly the case because oth­ers on Twitter forced media into the con­ver­sa­tion. Of course, I had cho­sen to use Twitter.

The tweet that opens this arti­cle is most dis­tress­ing because of the end­ing hash­tag: #BostonBombings. Having used Grand Theft Auto to con­tex­tu­al­ize the event, the short dis­patch then con­signs the tragedy to a media expe­ri­ence in and of itself. And the lat­ter fact relies heav­i­ly on the for­mer. Plenty of peo­ple used that very hash­tag and oth­ers like it to con­nect them­selves to a con­ver­sa­tion intent on relay­ing news, offer­ing prayers, and ask­ing ques­tions. But the joke in this tweet col­ors the tag that fol­lows it, and #BostonBombings is reduced to just anoth­er meme.

Personally, as I sat up late on Thursday night read­ing the hun­dreds of tweets about #MITShooting and #Watertown, I found Twitter enlight­en­ing and engross­ing. I couldn’t turn away, the local live feed from a Boston news sta­tion play­ing in my ear then and as I wrote this piece the next morn­ing. I felt like I was expe­ri­enc­ing this kind of event in a way I never have before, almost like I was close to it. And I was, because that’s the won­der of mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy. But I also wasn’t – obvi­ous­ly – and oth­ers on Twitter weren’t, and that mix­ture of actu­al dis­tance and arti­fi­cial prox­im­i­ty is the only rea­son I can see for such jokes to spread like sopho­moric wild­fire. We’re all plugged in, watch­ing, so the joke has an audi­ence with which to land. But we’re not there, so we can belit­tle the sit­u­a­tion with­out the account­abil­i­ty of stray bul­lets or city-wide lock­down.2

Before I move on from Twitter com­plete­ly, I should say that the tweet in ques­tion and oth­ers like it very much sup­port Marshall McLuhan’s much-quoted apho­rism “the medi­um is the mes­sage.” Twitter is capa­ble of plen­ty that is con­struc­tive or enter­tain­ing, much of the cov­er­age and con­ver­sa­tion sur­round­ing the man­hunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev being an exam­ple of the for­mer. But Twitter and Facebook far too often encour­age even the most thought­ful per­son to turn every polit­i­cal thought into a one-liner. There’s room for this, maybe a need in some cases, but when every polit­i­cal thought must be capa­ble of reduc­tion we’re left with a series of jokes respond­ing to jokes, and any­one who wants to dis­agree is dis­missed as sim­ply “not get­ting it.” I’m think­ing specif­i­cal­ly about when you respond to a friend’s hurt­ful or insen­si­tive (or sim­ply short-sighted) meme and are cast off into the waters of the over­ly sen­si­tive. I don’t think we need to do away with humor or Twitter, I just think we’re let­ting the most promi­nent media con­trol the con­ver­sa­tion, let­ting them dic­tate how we dia­logue (in short bursts) and there­fore dri­ving what we’re able to say with­in a dia­logue.

To return to the more press­ing issue, I play vio­lent video games and I do not think they are sole­ly respon­si­ble for school shoot­ings or any other kinds of ter­ror. But acknowl­edg­ing their impact on the con­ver­sa­tions sur­round­ing ter­ror, at the very least, is becom­ing more and more nec­es­sary. If you watch pro­grams like The Wire, The Sopranos, or other profanity-laden shows, the f‑word loses its sting. I know this because I was raised in a fam­i­ly that thought the “f‑word” was “freak­ing.” Now the harsh­er iter­a­tion hard­ly sur­pris­es me at all, and while I try to main­tain a cer­tain dis­dain for it, I’ve lost a vital sense of out­rage. At least, most of the time. Part of my sense of out­rage was lost with­in the nor­ma­tive desen­si­ti­za­tion that is grow­ing up, but part of it was the shows I watched in col­lege.

It would seem that some play­ers of Grand Theft Auto have under­gone a sim­i­lar evo­lu­tion in regards to vio­lence. Maybe not if it was in their face, in their own neigh­bor­hood, but from the dis­tance of Twitter, through the dis­tanc­ing anal­o­gy of sim­u­lat­ed vio­lence, they have tried to reduce the man­hunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to anoth­er chap­ter in their own unre­al world.

Unfortunately, or per­haps thank­ful­ly, their reduc­tivist analo­gies have made me recon­sid­er my own.

  1. Harsh words, I know, but I didn’t say that it was nec­es­sar­i­ly such an escape fan­ta­sy. I play games oth­ers might dis­miss as crude­ly (if not in the exact same fash­ion), but GTA has always seemed par­tic­u­lar­ly prob­lem­at­ic to me. []
  2. Even those in Boston may have been phys­i­cal­ly dis­tant enough for such humor, given the city’s dis­parate neigh­bor­hoods. But I imag­ine most of these jokes came from other parts of the nation and world. If not, the dis­tanc­ing effects of tech­nol­o­gy are per­haps more potent than I ini­tial­ly thought. []

Joel Cuthbertson

About Joel Cuthbertson

Joel lives and writes in Denver. An editor for the Ontological Geek, he currently works for the University of Denver and moonlights as a writer of fiction and screenplays. He encourages you to comment below, especially if you disagree with anything he says (but only if you do so with some sense).

2 thoughts on “The Boston Bombings Are Not a Meme

  • Rachel Killam

    What a thought­ful and well-written com­men­tary. From a writ­ing and intel­li­gence per­spec­tive, I appre­ci­ate your use of vocabulary-stretching words, as well as a writ­ing style that invites reflec­tion and engage­ment.

    I had to laugh at myself too, because I did not under­stand the tweet being that I am not a gamer. I learned that GTA stands for Grand Theft Auto, which I have heard of and seen plen­ty of ads, etc. about it. I agree that the tweet exem­pli­fies a strange detach­ment and glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of a trag­ic sit­u­a­tion. I am a shame­less non-gamer, but of course rec­og­nize that gam­ing is a huge part of our cul­ture (and the con­text for this site), and I don’t mind some Wii bowl­ing every once and while (does men­tion­ing Wii bowl­ing make me some kind of gamer pari­ah, or nerd?).

    There is much I appre­ci­ate about your per­spec­tive. What stands out to me most is your aware­ness of how the media medi­um impacts how we respond and inter­act with real vio­lence and tragedy. I also admired your own self-awareness in the fact that you play video games and how that might influ­ence your inter­pre­ta­tion of soci­ety. The fact that you think about what you are doing/playing/watching and can artic­u­late it, and help us all think about it, makes me happy there are peo­ple like you in the world. I know that prob­a­bly sounds cheesy, but as you men­tioned, we can be sound bite addicts and pare com­plex ideas down to over­sim­pli­fied and polar­iz­ing quips. It is refresh­ing to read your reflec­tive per­spec­tive, one that helped me think through the gam­ing lense, and about some­thing other than the gross­ly per­va­sive “var­i­ous racial digs moti­vat­ed by, at best, jin­go­is­tic igno­rance.”

    Thank you Joel!

    P.S. I Netflix-binge on West Wing

  • Joel Cuthbertson
    Joel Cuthbertson Post author

    Thanks, Rachel! Good choice on West Wing — early Aaron Sorkin is some of the best tele­vi­sion out there.

    I’m also glad you could appre­ci­ate the piece as a non-gamer. To be hon­est, I’m the least of the gamers who write for this site, but I do think games are a great entrance into the chang­ing land­scape of media and our reac­tions to it. While I did­n’t want to get away from the games them­selves, I real­ly think the big­ger issue here is the lim­it­ing nature of media and our unin­ten­tion­al capit­u­la­tion to speak in the way it encour­ages us to speak. I don’t mean to sound like a Luddite, but I do hope that some of the ideas in here can be applied to var­i­ous mod­ern media.

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