Example =/= epitome

We as a generation have an interesting relationship with clichés and analogies. In our mass media and pop culture saturation, it’s very easy for the hivemind to pick up on one theme, or one item, and run with it, at the expense of our paying attention to other equally worthy items. A recent example would be the collective outrage over Cecil the Lion, when cynics were quick to point out that we’re ignoring the gross animal abuses that take place on a much larger scale in our very own livestock industries for the sake of a single lion, rather humanely (if illegally) killed.

There is probably encyclopaediarum* worth of blog posts and articles already written on the disproportionality of trends in social media, but that’s not quite what I’m getting at here. What I’ve been thinking about is how, thanks to this pop culture (and social media) saturation for the last 50 years, one historical instance of a subject can be repeated and repeated, until it becomes the go-to example for that subject. In internet writings on any subject matter, 99% of the time this particular example will be the one to come up.
*[genitive plural, just like “years’ worth”, check your Latin]

To put my fact where my abstract is: need to draw comparison to a cult? You’ll probably end up naming the Manson family. Need a nuclear disaster? Chernobyl. Racial segregation? South African Apartheid. Need a mass murderer? Jack the Ripper will usually do the trick, or Ed Gein, especially if you want him to be a bit “weird” with his victims. More positive examples: in sport, footballers are so often looking for “the next [Beckham/Pélé/Maradona/Messi/Ronaldo]”, and hockey players are ALWAYS talking about Wayne Gretsky. It’s hard to talk about rock guitar without someone bringing up Hendrix or Jimmy Page (ew).
And of course, the one I’ve tried to avoid as much as possible – need a totalitarian state? Nazi Germany. A state where fearmongering wins out over rationality? Nazi Germany. Books are burned? Nazi Germany. Racism? Nazi freaking Germany. Is someone slightly controlling, cruel, or abusive of their authority? They’re “worse than Hitler”. Nazi Germany embodied the extremes of so many tropes of history that Godwin’s Law even states that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”

I’m not saying that these examples are irrelevant or unjustified: quite the opposite. (In fact, I’ve got a blog post coming up specifically about how comparisons to the Nazis are actually more cliché than they should be. They’re often perfectly appropriate – the rise of UKIP, alongside Katie Hopkins and David Cameron recently calling migrants “cockroaches” and “swarms” respectively, exemplifies exactly how insidiously the politics of fear can take hold, as they did in 1930s Germany). My point is that thanks to their repeated reference in popular culture, these examples become the only ones we can think of. Case in point: all of the examples I used above are based entirely on my familiarity with the internet and pop culture, and nothing to do with my knowledge of the subjects themselves.

My problem with this is sort of twofold: first, it impedes our expanding minds and limits our education to the bare minimum of understanding the subject. When one example will suffice, why do we ever need to look further into the subject, even if there are more appropriate examples of just slightly less renown? Moreover, the examples aren’t always the best, most appropriate, or most egregious instances of their subjects.
-to refer to the “next Beckham” in British football discounts the legacies of Alan Shearer, Gary Lineker and Frank Lampard. (I can’t expand much more as my knowledge of football is kind of limited to those “big names”, hence making my point exactly.)
-When you’re talking about innovative rock in the 1960s and 70s, I will not dispute the title of Hendrix as one of the absolute greats, but frankly Tony Iommi’s sound and playing style took rock guitar in equally new and inventive directions. I won’t even hear a case for Jimmy Page (hence the “ew” above) – one of the most sued-for-plagiarism musicians in rock history – when his contemporary Ritchie Blackmore was busy pioneering the neoclassical guitar style. Blackmore and Iommi just happen to be a little bit less famous. An up-and-coming player with amazing speed and tapping skills is more likely to be compared to Page or Clapton (ironically nicknamed “Slowhand”) than s/he is to Eddie van Halen, even though van Halen is a much more appropriate comparison.
-For mass murderers: Jack The Ripper only killed 7 people, granted in a rather brutal fashion. Ed Gein only killed 2. Elizabeth Bathory or Gilles de Rais make for much more brutal, frankly interesting and non-trite serial killers, but because Jack the Ripper was such a media frenzy even at the time, and because Norman Bates and Buffalo Bill were partly based on Gein, those are our “go-to” serial killers.
-To refer to anything and everything cult-related in the same breath as the Manson family simplifies everything we know about cults – in their many and varied forms – to one instance of a group of murderers led by a mass murderer. This gives us completely the wrong impression of what cults actually are and what they do – thus misrepresenting their effect on, and place in, society.
Apartheid. This is really what prompted me to write this post, since, as a half-South African who loves his relatives, I am particularly sensitive to representations of apartheid-era South Africa. I must first disclaim that in no way do I endorse racism or racial segregation. My problem with apartheid being the “go-to” example for racial segregation is that it’s presented, much like Nazi Germany, as this sort of unique evil that could only have taken place in its particular place and time, and “we” would never do that sort of thing these days. It demonises all white South Africans (for something that many of them opposed, and many more of them actually had no say in) as a unique group of racists in history, meanwhile discounting ALL THE OTHER EXAMPLES of racism and racial segregation. South Africa had racial segregation 1948-1994 – a total of 46 years. The United States of America’s much less known ‘Jim Crow Laws’ of racial segregation existed on paper from 1890 until 1965 – a total of 75 years. The state of Alabama did not posthumously pardon the innocent Scottsboro Boys until 2013. Need I go on? How about the caste system in India? As a matter of fact, all colonial powers and their relationships with their colonies? Of course those instances are going further and further back in history, and you could argue that the post-WWII world with the end of European imperialism demands different standards. Certainly, South Africa maintaining segregation until 1994 is pretty damn shocking, but at the same time there was also a racially-motivated war going on in the Balkans, genocides and all, that occupies far less of our attention today. What really stands out about the South African example of apartheid is that it is the one that, time-wise, coincided with the rise of mass media and popular culture, and so that became our “go-to” example for racial segregation – and, to make a linguistic point, it will ever remain thus while we use the Afrikaans word “apartheid”.
-Chernobyl works well as a counter-point, because Chernobyl was for an extremely long time the greatest nuclear disaster in history. BUT today we have Fukushima. Sources disagree on which was “worse”, because you have to factor in radiation levels (on which they seem quite equal), number of lives affected, etc. But Chernobyl remains the “go-to” comparison for nuclear disaster, sometimes giving way even to “Three Mile Island”, even though we now have a more present, more vivid example from Japan.
-Finally, the Nazis. I’m glad I’m getting tired of writing this post, because it is very easy to go on and on about the Nazis, and I don’t want to do that. But basically, all the points I’ve made so far apply here. -Totalitarian state? How about North Korea, the White Terror in Taiwan, or the DDR – all of which were/are more effective and controlling than the Third Reich? -A population gone hysterical with nationalism?  Cultural Revolution-era China. -War crimes, atrocities, and genocide? How about Imperial Japan: the horrifying treatment of prisoners, Unit 731, and the Rape of Nanjing, of which so many of my friends are ignorant? or the Armenian Genocide of 1915, which remains unrecognised by so many governments? And how about the war crimes of the United States of America – the only state ever to have used nuclear weapons in war, and napalm in Viet Nam? None of these caused nearly as much death as the Holocaust, it’s true (though the Rape of Nanjing caused an unimaginable ~200,000 in six weeks alone). But surely, if only for the sake of maintaining a full understanding of the world, these other instances deserve more of our recognition. Perhaps, you say, Nazi Germany represents all of the above. But so did the USSR in the 1930s, during which more than 20 million of Stalin’s own people died. Likewise, the regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge remains for me the most atrocious in history, during which a full QUARTER of Cambodia’s population was killed in four years alone. Needless to say, none of the above excuses or ameliorates the crimes of Nazi Germany, nor am I seeking to do that. All I’m saying is that, like Apartheid, these awful things can’t be viewed as something unique to their time and place, but have recurred throughout history, and we need to understand and be aware.

This post, grim though it was, has mostly been to make my point about what I’ve called the “go-to example”. Ultimately, it is both risky and limiting to continually use one particular example as a hallmark, standard, or milestone in any subject matter. The “go-to” example may be germane, and it may be effective – but it comes at the expense of our broader knowledge and, in the end, it probably says more about the pervasive role of the media and pop culture than it does about the subject matter.