January 6, 2014

The Quenelle Salute and the Urge to be Outraged

A number of people have written to me (rather excitedly) about the “Quenelle salute.”

Had I heard of it? Did I think the gesture was, in fact, anti-Semitic? Had I seen the photo above of the French soccer star, Nicolas Anelka, who flashed the symbol after scoring a goal the other day? Had I heard it was causing a major uproar in Europe? Had I seen the photo Anelka tweeted of Obama, Jay Z, Beyonce and some other guy supposedly doing the quenelle at an Obama fund raiser? …Did I know, in fact, that “Jay-Z, Beyonce, President Barack Obama and a supporter [were] brushing the dirt off their shoulders [in] an ode to one of Jay-Z’s hit songs”?

If this Quenelle thing interests you at all (it translates as “dumpling”), I would suggest you read Adam Yosef’s post, “Is the “Quenelle” anti-Semitic?” I’d start there because Yosef not only takes on the question — giving you all the skinny you need — but then unravel it so that it turns to dust. Summarizing the doings, he explains how the lockset explanation of anti-Semitism has gotten way out ahead of the confusing panoply of explanations for the behavior.  As he concludes:

So should we embrace the Quenelle? Should we adopt it as a revolutionary anti-authoritarian symbol? Quite frankly, no, and not least because it has a most ridiculous name but more importantly, because amidst all of the confusion about its meaning it does indeed serve no real or productive purpose.

If the Quenelle is hardly credible, however, why am I wasting the keystrokes?

It’s because there is something to attend to here, which is the fomentation and sensationalizing itself. It’s the anxious excitation and worked up outrage over behavior that is confusing, not-that-explainable and ultimately transitory attaching itself to cultural referents not so frivolous and transitory and then played up by social media for clicks and then replayed by traditional media for clicks. This time it was anti-Semitism, but not-so-distant examples have latched on to racism and death ritual. Remember, for example (if you don’t, more power to you), the brief outrage over “Trayvoning,” defined as the visual reenactment of Trayvon Martin’s death scene (mostly by white kids) by posing inert on the ground along with a bottle of ice tea and a package of Skittles?

First it surfaced on social media. Then, it got picked up by the buzz sites, the BuzzFeeds, the PolicyMics, the DailyMails, the litany of others…

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then it jumped to traditional media.

Same thing with the buzz over funeral selfies, an almost Dada-esque parody riffing off the concern about the effect of the cell phone on public culture. This started with a time-limited Tumblr blog

which then jumped to the buzz sites….

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which then migrated, again, to the traditional media (12).

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Years ago, I had a friend, a particularly bright guy but who was also a bit of a concrete thinker.  He then hit a skid of depression, got into therapy and started examining the way his mind worked. It wasn’t long before he was feeling better. One day, he explained his transformation. What he told me was, he had discovered “the law of multiple effects.” In other words, after seeing his wife one way, his boss one way and his kids one way, he realized people not only aren’t so simple but that there are typically a handful of contributors to any single behavior or personal situation.

With that law in mind, I can’t tell you what these fads mean … particularly, because I don’t think the explanations are all that uniform, if their actors and enactors can even tell you. I don’t doubt some number of haters are “Quenelling” because they equate it with anti-Semitism. At the same time, I’m sure there are people out there just looking for attention, which might be surmised from the kids above, or those LA crack merchants more than willing to embrace a photographer if their doings ended up getting published by an outfit like VICE.  And there are still more people, I’m sure, who are taking up these behaviors because they are either oppositional or faddists by nature. The problem is, I can’t tell looking at the photo of the rugby star or the kid on the train tracks at Auschwitz, and tell at all which category they fall in.

But the larger question for me — and what has becomes a critical buoy I find myself clinging to every day as I strive to parse the better and smarter nature of online media — has to do with context.

If people are still making this dumpling hate symbol a month from now and its meaning has catalyzed, by the point, into a true expression of enmity (and, its visuality is doing more than just boost the traffic figures of the online bottom feeders), then of course, let’s look deeply at it. Unless that happens, however, just like all the other shiny objects that attract for a moment, I’m not interested in participatory symbolism with the staying power of a flash mob but the media punch of a real mob. On the contrary, what I am interested in is a New Year’s resolution to help, at least slightly, raise the substance threshold of the echo chamber.

Note: Rugby star was changed to soccer star.

(lead photo: Ian Kington/AFP/Getty Images. Auschwitz screen shot:YouTube via The Times of Israel. caption: A young man displays the quenelle in front of the main gate of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. France considers ban on comedian at center of ‘quenelle’ row.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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