The Grey Area and the Practice for the Future

A few months after 9/11, I wrote in my journal that I was afraid that Iraq had nuclear weapons. I wrote it in response to sensational (and false) news report that inspired a forever war. I was a sophomore in college. My friends and I had seen the terror attack on New York City from our dorm windows. We watched the scene unfold on television and in real life simultaneously. I still distinctly remember the abject uneasiness that came from the attacks especially from the information cycles that followed. The intense discomfort of what happens next — will there be war? more attacks? why was there so much confusion at the government level? The unknowing of any concrete details and lack of leadership and the immense amounts of misinformation and double speak were overwhelming.

Now, in the midst of the Covid-19 coronavirus global pandemic, my students are the age I was during 9/11 in a similar and unfortunate amount of uncertainty. By contrast, they’ve been collectively sent home from school. We’ve been given advice that’s designed to slow the virus or “flatten the curve” as our healthcare systems cannot handle being overwhelmed.

Now there’s two ways of looking at the current moment of actions being taken: maybe we’re over-reacting in our prevention (though if this works, it will be a hidden success), or the fact that things like the NBA, NHL in Disney are shutting down means that we’re under reacting. But it doesn’t matter because it’s the unknown. It’s a very grey area.

As it is my research, I’ve been keeping track of the coronavirus memes for the last several months and I’ve watched how teens and college students deal with this event through gallows humor or irony. In a connected and productive world, these are the expressions of anxiety. (Keep in mind this is the year that started with WWIII memes if you remember that event which feels like 40 years ago.) In this case, the uncomfortable uncanny nature of this disease is amplified by the utter lack of plans or leadership. As Ryan Broderick tweeted, “does anyone else remember when everyone on Earth spent like four years electing a bunch of unstable populists who all bragged about not having any governing experience?”

I fortunately haven’t felt this way since I was 20 years old, and now I try to imagine how my students are feeling as they’re at that exact moment in their lives. I know our parents went through various moments of unknowing and uncertainty and that my generation (early millennial) had the privilege of relative calm until 9/11. Gen Z has lived the majority, if not their entire lives, with a forever war in a post-9/11 world — complicate that with the oncoming climate crisis and a populist reality television star as president and you have a model to work with for the future.

The variety of memes have acted as an expression of the unease, depicting nihilism or a yolo attitude, not so much a death drive, but rather an ironic twist on the inevitability of death while living in a very broken system and not really knowing how to navigate it. The extent of the overall feelings of economic inequality and disenfranchisement and lack of concrete news lead to a dismal outlook and discomfort.

In his 2015 book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Roy Scranton, a veteran of the misguided Iraq War that followed 9/11, writes, “The grim future I’d seen in Baghdad had come home: not terrorism, not WMDs, but the machinery of civilization breaking down, unable to recuperate from shocks to its system. That future is not going away.”

It is also important to recognize that this level of discomfort is not new to an incredible amount of people in the US. The marginalized, the poor, the homeless, migrants, refugees live with this nearly every moment of their lives. If you live without the constant unease, that’s a privilege (one in which I share). But this situation requires care, and perhaps practice, because this will happen again.

I remember reading an aphorism [now commodified] that premises: “if you ever wondered what you were doing during the [horrific event], you’re doing it now.” We’re going to get through this, but at a significant cost to privileged “normalcy” for years. This is very likely not the last time this type of event will happen in our near future. With the degradation of government institutions and oncoming climate challenges that include new diseases, we need to remember what we do now. It will be useful.

In contrast to the post-9/11 era, this is a global event with wide ranging victims in a world more broken than it was two decades ago. It’s alright to deal with this through memes, but also to consider how we are responsible for the shape of the future. As Amy Kapczynski and Gregg Gonsalves write in the Boston Review: “The question today is whether we can learn something from coronavirus that might not only help us mitigate the harm of this pandemic, but build a new infrastructure of care that allows us to better protect the most vulnerable — and us all.”

Scranton’s message is to consider that the Anthropocene is accelerating the unknown into our lives. He calls for a new approach to care, community, and humanism because our systems will not be there to support the concrete answers we seek. It will now always be a grey area.

We’re all gonna die someday, but while we’re alive, we can enjoy memes and consider the less fortunate. We have the bandwidth to do both. This is a global event that is still in the unknown. When we finally get to the end of this one, try not to forget the lessons that come from this. Consider this practice.

Digital Culture Expert. Cultural and Media Studies PhD. Co-author of the first peer-reviewed article on Pepe the frog. Teaches Media Studies at Queens College

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