The era of COVID-19 has seen two processes of contagion. The first is, of course, the disease itself, with its terrible toll on individuals, communities and nations. The second, however, is what the WHO and others have termed an infodemic: defined very precisely a couple of weeks ago by a working group.
An infodemic is an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that occurs during an epidemic. In a similar manner to an epidemic, it spreads between humans via digital and physical information systems. It makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it. (Tangcharoensathien et al., 2020)
I’m working on a more detailed piece about the infodemic, to go alongside a collection of my photos from this year. In the meantime, however, I’ve been looking at the memes shared in my social media echo chambers. Sometimes they make me laugh but as a class of discourse they make me profoundly uneasy.
Memes are directly compared to viruses by the epidemiologist Adam Kucharski in his book, The Rules of Contagion (2020). He notes the problems posed by “simplistic anecdotes and ineffective solutions” for disease control and begins the book with an account of how he (accidentally) caused “a small outbreak of misinformation.”
The irony is that memes are simplistic anecdotes masquerading as panaceas. Like viruses, memes have no function but their own reproduction with no regard for the health of the host. Matters are further complicated by the fact that social media offer a perfect environment for them to thrive. Back in the day, “Frankie Says” was a meme, but it’s harder to edit a t-shirt than it is to share something online. One meme in particular recently caught my eye.
This meme is part of longer and bigger debates about education, race and identity. I do not claim any priority for this meme’s importance other than the fact I’ve spent my adult life teaching and learning about the Holocaust and for that reason find it deeply problematic, educationally and philosophically. My experience allows me to locate the sources of my ire because I have expertise: itself a suggestion that the reduction of history to lessons without content is not very practical. But I digress.
Firstly, the idea that the second and third parts of the statement can be accomplished without the first is problematic. Without the murder of six million Jews being remembered, the second statement makes no sense: what is the “it” that was required? And in the third statement, the “history repeating itself” is the murder of six million Jews that apparently the author thinks is optional to remember.
Second, and much more problematic, is the weasel formulation of the first statement. If the word “only” or “just” were added, the sentiment might make more sense (though as I’ve just explained I don’t think it really does). But as written it comes very close not to suggesting that education cannot be reduced to simply memorising (which of course is true and something that all good teachers work hard to ensure) but that education equals not remembering the murder of six million Jews.
This ambiguity is difficult because with a negative reading of an oddly formed sentence, the meme seems to be suggesting that instead of anchoring our understanding of the world to historical facts and debates, it should instead come from belief in an unstated mechanism that led “ordinary Germans” to be “convinced that it was required”. Setting aside the complex historical debate about degrees of knowledge, cooperation, acceptance and resistance this dismisses (the author of the meme can’t be bothered so why should I?), the implication is that children should be “educated” in some unstated monocausal view. Another word for this is indoctrination.
One of the key aspects of indoctrination is ignoring facts in the interests of clarity: such as, for example, downplaying the importance of the victim group of “what happened”. The sleight-of-hand with which this example severs meaning from content (thus rendering it meaningless) is the primary source of my anger.
Ironically, the indoctrinated have historically been very bad at spotting the writing on the wall because, well, they were indoctrinated to believe it wasn’t important. Such a process seems to have taken place very imperfectly in Nazi Germany, chiefly because the Third Reich only lasted twelve years. The debate about why and how this happened, which the author of this meme either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about, is ongoing. But the desire to present children with “lessons” without evidence is certainly among the phenomena involved: along with ensuring that the benefits of oppression and murder were widely shared, and that perpetrators were placed in stressful, confusing situations with alcohol to dull the senses when reality could no longer be explained but simply avoided. But reiterating the nature of that reality is crucial, educationally, because without it, the question “Why is this important?” is hard to really answer.
Because, finally, let’s not forget that forgetting victims is only in the interests of the perpetrators. Himmler termed the murder of European Jewry “a glorious page in our history that can never be written”. Hitler asked “Who now remembers the Armenians?” This meme asks us to forget the Jews and replace them with an amorphous “victim” group that makes the “lessons” meaningless. The Nazis oppressed and murdered a whole range of groups and individuals, but to try and remove their primary victim group is an assault on memory and an abuse of education. Subject (the Nazis) verb (murdered) and object (six million Jews) are all required for any conclusions to have any relevance. This is true, by the way, in teaching anybody about anything. The nature of the offence is a fundamental part of teaching to understand the past and (hopefully) avoid its repetition.
This is just one meme in an ocean of memes. As in Hamlet’s soliloquy, it is tempting to think we can “take arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them.” But this is a metaphor for futility. We are adrift and lost: what we can do (all we can do, perhaps) is sound out the ideas beneath the surface of individual examples in the hope we will find solid ground underneath.