The very fact of having to say “I Am” often makes clear that you are not, else you wouldn’t have to say it and it wouldn’t be so shockingly viral-worthy when you do. If you truly were whomever or whatever you’re chanting, you wouldn’t need to chant about it, else it would be a redundant speech act that violates the communication norm of not adding information the listener already knows. Instead, it announces that, despite some kind of difference, there is an equivalency that is more important or salient. In this way, “I Am” works kind of like a retweet.

We are all bandwagon jumpers, and we are all annoyed by those who jump on after us.

Solidarity, given that it is a matter of prioritizing the collective over the individual, seems like it must be inherently self-effacing. So when people seem overeager to get in on hot “I am ___” hashtags and wave their personal flag of sympathy, it can make their gesture seem bogus, self-serving, even though their feelings are almost certainly not in bad faith. As Amanda Hess points out, piling on to an “I Am ___” meme is a way of “drawing attention to both the speaker and the subject” simultaneously; it may be that egotism and activism, sympathy and self-satisfaction are ultimately inseparable. Can you announce your solidarity without canceling it in that same gesture? Does unrecognized, unacknowledged solidarity actually exist? Or is solidarity nothing more in the end than that reciprocal recognition? Is solidarity even relevant to the work of actually making things different, better? Isn’t it the end, not the means?

When I was in high school, a friend of mine committed suicide. He was not an especially close friend, but we were much closer than the people who were eager to announce their friendship in the aftermath and “get in on the tragedy,” as it seemed to me then. Where were they before, when their sympathy might have mattered to my friend? I somewhat glibly thought that those people felt entitled to inclusion in the grief that had become a sort of morbid trend, a group phenomenon of precisely the sort that my late friend probably felt largely excluded from. The popular kids appropriate everything, I thought.

The outpouring of grief suspended school activities for a couple of days, and lots of people would just leave class to seek counseling from the psychologists they brought in, or to simply just hang out with their friends and avoid being alone. But the solidarity was pretty shallow, as solidarity goes, and hierarchies of popularity (and ability, and class, and so on) went on undisrupted. They proved resilient enough to accommodate the most radical of exoduses.


On The Popularity OF “I Am” / “We Are”


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