What do you see when you look at this image above? The icon of a poppy. A poppy you might find blowing in the wind by the side of the road, or the kind you’d pick for its seeds to bake into bagels or cook up to make heroin. We know the connotations, but to one without visuality, it is simply a red flower. But it has become a symbol for the soldiers who gave their lives for our country in the world wars. We understand this because of the social understandings we have grown up with in the United Kingdom. Although before the wars, the poppy might have stood for nothing. It might have simply signified a new season due to their time of blooming. For a junkie it might signify their addiction. For someone with a chronic illness it might signify pain relief. Lately it seems to be taking on a whole other meaning in a bid to fight political movements such as Black Lives Matter. The poppy is polysemic, a text that can be interpreted in several ways depending on the observer. Sometimes the poppy might be anchored with the typical signifying language one might expect to see next to a war memorial such as ‘lest we forget’.
The term meme was first coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins and in its most simple terms refers to the imitation of something through the memory of many. So, in one way, memes are merely a pastiche of ideas and memories carried in our minds from person to person. A new meme seems to have insidiously snaked its way onto our screens. The poppy often now comes with political language attached to it, such as, ‘all lives matter’. This is called bricolage, the repurposing of an image for a new and unintended meaning. These three words have become heavily loaded with political power and they fully detract from the entirety of the sign that the poppy image has come to represent. Saussure, a leading linguist and philosopher, said frequently that language could be interpreted in numerous different ways and the phrase ‘all lives matter’ is an example of this. Ironically, when the words ‘all lives matter’ are teemed with a polysemic image such as the poppy, the meaning for both the language and the image become unambiguous with both words and images acting as anchor. Sadly, the poppy has become the victim of iconoclasm and this can feel disrespectful to the lives that were lost in the world wars. It has become ammunition against the backlash following the death of George Floyd. A sign of ‘us vs. them’, something we are seeing more and more of these days with the rise of social media.
Postmodernist Clash on Our Screens
Linda Hutcheon — literary theorist and critic — said ‘if modernism stood for form, purpose and hierarchy, postmodernism represented anti-form, play and anarchy’. Aspects of postmodernist theory exist to reject the idea that everything must fit into either one narrative or another. Examples of this are gender identity and gender roles. No longer is there the expectation that one must identify as their assigned gender, nor do we fall under obligation to be particularly masculine or feminine. Alexander Rosenberg — philosopher of social science — said postmodernism ‘does not attempt to solve the problem of what the right strategy in social science is by a close examination of the alternatives, their goals and methods. Rather, it purports to pull the rug out from under both sides.’. However, the real world seems to be progressing at an impressive standard, while the internet has been left behind. The irony of postmodernism and social media is that postmodernism rejects the modernist notion that there are only two stances, where the language and images shared on social media signify otherwise. Images are shared with emotive language which anchors the picture onto one political stance, putting the image in one tiny box leaving out room for any other ideas or viewpoints, making it monosemous. An example of this is the fallout that followed the death of Sgt Matt Ranata. Ranata was shot in September, whilst on duty, by a man in his custody in September of this year. The world was still recovering from the death of George Floyd and, online, those who opposed the protests against the police used Ranata’s death as though one could only cry for the death of either Floyd or Ranata. Not both, never both. One Twitter user said, ‘You should take the knee for Matt Ratana #mattratana #alllivesmatter’, with another stating ‘No protests or riots around the UK regarding the death either #AllLivesMatter not just #BLM’. Just because there are no protests surrounding someone’s death does not mean many were not pained by the news. Social media has caused us to become desensitised to the violence of the world with the constant access to images and videos depicting violence and death. Both the deaths of George Floyd and Sgt Matt Ranata were deeply saddening tragedies but both were used as mere pawns in this divide. The murder of George Floyd caused a huge rift in society where each person was deemed, by the language used on social media, either a racist or a hater of the police. There seemed to be no room for one to support both Black Lives Matter and the police force. We seem to have lost the ability to live in a world where we can be neither particularly left nor right leaning. We are either sickeningly liberal or far-right, no in-between. Where being pro-choice doesn’t mean one is pro ‘murder’, but that you simply support a woman having autonomy over her own body. Where being pro-life doesn’t mean you have been brainwashed by a church, but simply means you care greatly for the unborn children of the future. A world in which you can be a meat-eater and a lover of animals. A world where you can be either a vegan or a meat-eater and not be an inherently bad person for either choice. A world where you can be a feminist and not hate men. A world where you can be a man and not be a pig. A world where there are one million nuances of our human selves that cannot be conveyed with only one emotive word.
If there were none of the connotations attached to the words ‘black lives matter’ that support a movement, would individuals oppose it so vehemently? Unfortunately, those words hold heavy connotations now. The sign pictured below is the well-known sign that signifies the Black Lives Matter campaign. It is a sign that causes significant affect, just as the poppy does. The term ‘black lives matter’ has become a commodity. A visual object that is no longer just three meaningless words strung together. Ben Bradley, the Mansfield MP, expressed negative feelings towards FIFA for allowing the footballers to wear the slogan ‘black lives matter’ during a football match earlier this year due to the Black Lives Matter movement hoping to “defund the police”. These three words strung together are merely a statement, but they have become a representation of something entirely different. As a society and through social media, the symbol of both the fist opposite and the term ‘black lives matter’ holds the connotations that in order to support the idea that black lives matter, one must also seek to defund the police. What if the words denoted on the back of the shirts of those football players that day meant, literally, ‘black lives matter’ and none of the other ideas that have become indexical to those words? That the lives of black people being of importance is now considered by many a ‘political matter’ feels shocking at best.
The language used on social media platforms has become so polarised that meaning has become lost in translation. How often is the word ‘racist’ thrown around on the internet? Would that kind of language be so easily reached for were the conversations happening in the real world? Not everyone has been taught to think critically. I was once very guilty of this myself. You read something, you believe it. When it comes to people complaining that white people face hardships too, I have come to realise that often those people are crying out for support themselves. They aren’t arguing that black people don’t face hardships, but rather, trying to advocate for their own suffering. They are asking ‘why has no-one ever fought for the hardships of being from a socio-economically lower class?’. It is a fight for the hegemonic power. Just as those saying, ‘black lives matter’ are not saying ‘only black lives matter’. I hope that we can begin to move away from this binary world of either supporting Black Lives Matter or supporting the working class. Supporting the police or the death of a person of colour. Calling someone a racist is a weighted allegation. Calling someone a snowflake is equally as dismissive. It feels imperative that we search for nuance.
What really matters in the end is that each of us has compassion. The words and the language and the memes and the phrases can all be thrown about but at the end of the day, words are worthless. Are we actually living authentic lives? Because these visual components aren’t true representations of ourselves. The true representations of ourselves are nuanced and pencilled with a thousand shades of grey.