Emojis and Our Return to the Cave Wall

cave drawing

Every so often, a new crop of emojiis is released, and there are typically two reactions:

1. Hooray! Finally, I can express my love of giant squid, while telling the world I’m craving tacos and that I have a cramp in my big toe, all without typing a flippin’ word!

2. What is the world coming to? Are we so lazy that we can’t use real language to express ourselves? I mean, I know texting isn’t supposed to be long and verbose, but seriously? Are we witnessing the death of language as we know it?

I’m not exactly on board with reaction #1 (I still use punctuation-based emoticons, dusty relic that I am), but I want to address reaction #2.  I’m decidedly old school when it comes to language. Even in texts, I still try to spell things correctly (although auto-correct seems to work against me), I still use full sentences, and I do try to avoid major slang or short forms. When I heard that “LOL” and “YOLO” were on their way out, I wasn’t all that disappointed. I maintain that it won’t kill us to think carefully about the words we choose when we’re on our devices, and to express ourselves in language of which our 9th grade English teachers would approve. I don’t, however, think the ubiquitous presence of emojis is reason to pull a Chicken Little. Here’s why:

  • Humans like language. We’re kind of fueled by our inability to shut up. How we communicate has changed over and over again since we climbed out of the trees, but the fact that we like to chat hasn’t. I’m not sure that emojis will ever satisfy our need to blab.
  • Communication through gadgets is limiting. Short forms may be time-efficient, but they make it very difficult to convey the deeper stuff. Seriously, how many times have you been offended or shocked by a badly-worded text that really wasn’t intended to be nasty? I can live with a little smiley face or cartoon critter at the end of a message, if it means it’s less likely that someone will misunderstand.
  • Not all humans are verbal thinkers. I live to flap my gums and wave my pen, but I recognize and even enjoy the fact that there are those who rely on visuals. If emojis ring true with these kinds of brains, then so be it.
  • You’ve probably noticed this, but emojiis aren’t exactly new, at least as a concept. Remember neolithic cave paintings? Hieroglyphics? Runes? Yeah, we started using visuals quite a while ago. You’ve probably also noticed little pictures of people on washroom doors, pictures with lines through them in no-smoking sections, along with arrows, squiggles and hand signals on road signs. Is working them into our texts and social media really such a coup?

What if our fascination with emojiis is a symptom of something bigger (as these things usually are)? Modern mainstream media presents us with a lot of information, bite after bite of words and ideas, and even if you’re a wordy person like me, it gets overwhelming. There’s a lot more to read than there used to be, a lot more to process. Can you blame us for wanting to go back to something a little more simple and direct, back to the scribbles on the cave walls that told us food was here and danger was there? I’m by no means advocating for doing away with complex thoughts expressed in words, but what if emojis are merely representations of our need to take a little breather now and again? Is civilization really going to come to a grinding halt because of cartoon poops or a little thumb’s up? At the very least, we should take comfort in the fact that these ready-made cartoon doodles are meant to convey emotion (it’s kind of in their name). In an age of virtual communication and geographic distance, we’re still trying to tell each other how we feel. We’ve just run out of cave walls.

Winky face, high-five, octopus, everyone.

Another Post About Gorillas, Zoos, And Children Falling Into Exhibits…Sort Of

gorilla hand and foot

I’ve read the recent news reports, and a healthy number of reactions from different camps, and yeah, the fact that an endangered animal who was basically minding his own business had to die makes me feel sick. There’s nothing about that story that makes me feel okay, no possible (or realistic) outcome that wasn’t going to be awful. There was one aspect of it that made me think, though, and given that it’s World Environment Week, I thought I might share.

A certain percentage of those who responded to the incident were outraged because Harambe the gorilla was killed despite the fact that he seemed to be holding the little boy’s hands, as if to comfort him, or at least assure him that he meant no harm. The folks involved seemed to anticipate the worst from him. I know almost nothing about gorilla behaviour, and I certainly have no idea what went on in the mind of that particular animal at that particular time. I can’t say one way or another if his intentions were peaceful. What fascinates me is that human beings would assume that Harambe, or any other wild animal for that matter, would want to be friendly to a human.

We hear stories about animals extending olive branches to people all the time. There are dolphins who rescue lost swimmers, lions who rescue children from kidnappers, pigs who warn farmers of violent storms, and others. Maybe the stories are true, maybe they’re exaggerated, but for the most part, I think they might be wishful thinking. Do I think animals aren’t smart enough to show us deliberate kindness? I think they are. Despite our use of tools and linguistic capabilities, there are many instances in which animal brains seem to think circles around ours. Do I think that all animals are mean, or maybe not as nice as humans? Hard nope. I cling to the notion that there are creatures nicer than humans. Let’s be honest, when it comes to niceness, humans don’t set the bar very high. An animal wouldn’t have to try very hard to demonstrate moral superiority. 

And this, fellow jerky homosapiens, is why I can’t just take for granted that Harambe, or any other animal in his situation, would act in the best interest of a human being, even an innocent young human. Quite franky, I don’t see what reason they would have to do so. We humans assume they will. We even expect it. This is the worst form of hubris. We’re bullies. We’re litterbugs. We’re loud, we’re destructive, and we probably even smell horrible, and yet we assume that non-human portion of life on the planet will put out tea and cookies whenever we decide to show up. On a regular basis, we dump all over other creatures, and we want them to like us for it. 

In my second year of university, we were assigned a novel called “Wacousta”. In one chapter, there’s an epic battle in the forest, with settlers battling native populations, blood and gore and general horribleness, a stellar example of our signature human inhumanity. Amidst the carnage, however, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and the local workings of nature continue their daily routine as per usual. As hard as it was to read, that scene stuck with me- nature likely doesn’t care about us, not much, anyway. I’m reminded of it every time a tree branch comes down on a car in a storm, or someone gets swarmed by bees. I remember the story whenever I think of environmental philosopher Val Plumwood’s “Being Prey”, in which she forgives a crocodile for attacking and nearly killing her. There’s a reason why pathetic fallacy is a fallacy

It’s been an awfully long time since we gave any part of nature good reason to be nice to us. When stories like Harambe’s come up, we shouldn’t assume that there are good intentions at work, not because there can’t be, but because we don’t deserve them. Happy stories of goodwill between our species and others need to be earned, and we’d better hope that other animals are much better at letting go of grudges than we are.

RIP, proud gorilla. I hope we can do better.