Is That a Thing?


My parents were fond of family vacations in campgrounds in the mountains. The summer I was seven, my mother used to tell me, I would be up out of my tent by six in the morning dressed in my fake buckskins, moccasins, coonskin cap, carrying my fake Tennessee Long Rifle and I’d march through the campground singing at the top of my lungs, Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.”

The real Davy Crockett was a frontiersman, an ardent foe of Andrew Jackson, and though illiterate, wrote a best selling-memoir during his lifetime, which helped to stoke the legend which persisted after his death. It was this legend that Walt Disney brought back to life in a new television series of three shows in late 1954 and early 1955. They took the country by storm, and at its height, Davy Crockett merchandise accounted for a third of all children’s clothing sold in the US.

It was the first mass-media fad, or cultural phenomenon or, as some of us would say today, it was a thing.

Now right there I have pointed out a characteristic of “a thing” in this new usage. Davy Crockett was a thing; Davy Crockett may be a thing again. But Davy Crockett is not a thing now.

The comedian John Oliver has a segment of his show titled “Why is this still a thing?” He features curiosities that he thinks should have ceased being a thing by now like daylight savings time, Ayn Rand’s philosophy and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. More recently he created a variation on this game called “Why is this not a thing?” which featured things that aren’t things but should be. His example was a Blue Man Group show where all the characters are dogs.

But the larger implication of this is that things can go into and out of thinginess, that being “a thing” is not a permanent condition.

You’re probably asking now, why is this important, and why am I talking about it in church? Why in this church? Let me ask you to put that question on hold for a few minutes and see if I can tie it in for you.

First of all, where did this sense of the word come from? The gold standard for researching word origins is the Oxford English Dictionary, and now the OED has a blog where lexicographers can write little essays on word evolutions. According to one of these blogs[1] the current usage that we are considering is the sense of “a thing” as equivalent to “generally known phenomenon.” The blog notes that “the NBC sitcom 30 Rock made a running joke of quibbling over whether something was ‘a thing’. (“Are you drinking red wine with tonic and olives?” “Yes. It’s an Old Spanish… Oh no, is that not a thing? They got me again!”)” 30 Rock ran from 2006 to 2013.

30 Rock was a television show, but I think the use of “a thing” is particularly acute on the internet, and particularly on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. One of the classes of things which are recognized as “a thing” in the internet world is memes.

Now I am about to go where angels fear to tread. I know that many of you are not social media users, you don’t like it, you don’t understand it, some of you are afraid of it and you are tired of your grandchildren sitting around the house staring at brightly glowing rectangles. I will bring this sermon back to a religious topic before we’re through, but I also think it is worth a little education on some aspects of internet surfing and social media usage for those who don’t use. Whether we use or not, we all live in a world in which social media has a profound influence – just look at the 2016 elections – and we are all better off by understanding how that influence works.

The word meme was coined, well before the internet, by the evolutionary theorist William Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. It was to be the cultural equivalent of a gene. Just as the genes, the DNA strands in each cell in our bodies, contain the code for making our bodies and for all the inherited traits what make us who we are, so Dawkins theorized that a meme would be a unit of culture independent from any particular human mind, but able to travel from mind to mind, just as the traits that genes carry are inheritable down through the generations. Like a gene, a meme could mutate in the process of copying, and might try to adapt if it found itself in a new environment, or perhaps could go extinct.

Look at the front of the Order of Service. There is a meme which is far older than the internet. We all know what words would be written with it – “Kilroy was here.” This little graphic, which anyone can draw, was taken by US Soldiers all over the world in World War II. Adolph Hitler thought Kilroy must have been an American spy.

The drawing and the phrase “Kilroy was here” is a meme – a little bit of culture with a life of its own. It came into existence at a specific point in time, and if everyone forgets it, it will go out of existence as an active meme, it will only live in history books.

Think about the soldiers in World War II, or the lives of anyone during that decade. How many conversations would you have had in a day, how many things would you read of see? We live in a world which is so much more densely connected. And the memes proliferate. And some of them become “a thing.”

Alexander Stern, a doctoral candidate at Notre Dame and the author of the New York Times article I read from earlier, thinks there are four main reasons why the phrase “a thing” became a thing.[2] First, the flood of content into the cultural sphere. There are just so many people writing, blogging, posting and exchanging pictures and videos and cartoons and drawings. Second, the fragmentation of that cultural sphere. The guideposts and rules and standards seem to be disappearing under the flood of content, so it is confusing and hard to know what end is up. Third, there is a closing gap between satire and the real thing. “The absurd excess of things has reached a point where the ironic detachment needed to cope with them is increasingly built into the things themselves, their marketing and the language we use to talk about them. The designator ‘a thing’ is thus almost always tinged with ironic detachment. It puts the thing at arm’s length.”

And fourth, a growing sense that these phenomena are all the same. “We call them all by the same name because they are the same at bottom: All are pieces of the Internet.”

The trifold insert has a good example of meme generation and evolution which has been called the hyperbole meme – hyperbole in the sense of exaggeration, not the mathematical figure. In 2010, someone who hated housework drew two cartoons to try to motivate herself. One had a somewhat calm and rational stick figure clutching a broom and the figure was saying, “clean all the things.” The next panel had the same stick figure in an excited state, wielding the broom aloft and shouting with open mouth “CLEAN ALL THE THINGS!” against a background of a comic-book explosion graphic. The contrast between the two apparently captured the imagination of viewers, for they picked it up and made many variations, including “read all the books,” “capture all the pokemons,” and, ultimately, at a meta level, “learn all the memes.”

Of course, this hyperbole meme started in 2010, so I doubt it would still qualify as “a thing” today. As I said, things go into and out of thinginess. Eight-track tapes and mimeograph machines and Esso gasoline and New White Rain Shampoo and the original Mitchell River Bridge in Chatham are no longer things.

All right, so enough of the cultural and linguistic criticism: what is the religious angle here?

Here’s the thing: the thing that gets me interested in this question is that I have been grappling all my ministerial career with a big theological question: “Is Evil a thing?”

As most of you know, I think that there is no room in a Universalist theology for a concept of evil as a noun, as a thing. Conventional Christian theology saw the world as a battleground between forces of good and forces of evil, and the good went to heaven and the evil went to hell, where they suffered eternal torment. But God was supposed to be love, the greatest love ever known, and so it was inconceivable to our Universalist forebears that God would let any of his creatures suffer eternal torment. Thus, no hell. That is to say, no punishment for evil.

Now it doesn’t follow from that that there is no evil in the world, and clearly if we look around we can see lots of bad things happening. Universalism to me means that we can call things evil as an adjective, but not use evil as a noun, as a thing, a power, a force with its own agency and purpose and plan. For as Quillen Shinn, one of the great Universalist evangelists observed, if you have a power opposing God you don’t have monotheism, you have ditheism, a religion like Manichaeism or Zoroastrianism.

That’s why I have always been interested in the question but immediately I have doubts that the popular use of the phrase “Is that a thing?” has anything to do with the theological point I’m after.

As Alexander Stern’s blog analysis shows, the question “Is that a thing?” or “is that still a thing?” cannot be understood without irony. If you strip away the irony, the speaker of the words “is that a thing” knows that the contemporary cultural landscape is flooded with pictures and texts and other content which cry in various degrees for our attention. We cannot pay attention to them all. So we engage in popularity contests. We will pay attention to the thing that other people are paying attention to. We will confer “thingness” insofar as the other surfers of social media have conferred thinginess, by reposting and reposting until something goes viral. Why do we need to hide behind irony? Because we espouse the value of individual, independent thinking but our actual behavior is that of the herd.

The question “Is that a thing?” really has its home in social media, so naturally when I was going to research it, I posted on Facebook to see if I could get examples. Here is one submitted by a Facebook friend of mine who I will call Paul, Whom I know a member of the folk dance community. Paul is a Gen X er, roughly the age of my adult children. The snippet he submitted was part of a general discussion of politics and race. Here it is.

“Person 1: Please note, just because my views are different and I support our president, does NOT make me a racist.

Person 2: Having a difference of opinion or choice does not make one a racist! However one who thinks another race is superior, is a Racist!!

Person 1. Oh, I know this, I support many of my opposite race.

Paul: Your opposite race? That’s not a thing.

Person 3: Paul, Ummm...yeah .. There kinda ARE different races on this planet.”

Now you might note that “Umm... yeah... there kinda ARE” as a especially characteristic style of writing which, if the writer were of my generation might have come out really hostile, something like “you idiot, can’t you see that there really are different races.” There’s a sort of fake humility, and a hedging of bets, in saying “umm... yeah .. There sorta ARE different races.”

To the actual point, a scientist would say no there are not in fact different races, we are all the same race, the human race. But the scientist would go on to say that race is a real category in the culture, particularly American culture.

But whatever your ultimate views on race, Person 3, missed Paul’s point entirely. Paul wasn’t questioning Person 1's assertion that there are races, he was questioning her statement that there could be opposite races. Logically opposites like high and low, hot and cold, dark and light are qualities which share every characteristic except one. So-called races of humans don’t fit into that definition. Even if you consider the races antagonistic to each other, you would not call them opposite. This is how I read Paul’s statement “that’s not a thing.”

You see, Paul is not saying that there are or aren’t races. He is saying that the word opposite is, you might say, inapposite, inappropriate, that it doesn’t fit.

And this points to a larger truth. The term “a thing” does not make a claim for ultimate existence. One person who tried to help me with my book a few years ago was an MIT physicist who writes books on black holes and quantum physics. He tried to steer me away from focusing on the question of whether evil is “real.” For in so much of physics, you have to sort of set aside the question whether something is real or not. Is light really a wave or a particle? It is both. Is Schrödinger’s cat really alive or dead? You won’t know until you open the box.

The meme “Clean all the things!” is not real in the sense that there is not a physical person going around shouting this slogan. But it is, or was, “a thing” because the image spread virally on social media and people who saw it would recognize it just as we all recognized Kilroy was here as soon as we saw the cover of the Order of Service this morning.

We can have knock-down drag-out debates in this church about concepts such as race or God or evil or love, and some will claim that these things are real, and some will say they are not. But the fact that we discuss them means each of them is, in the sense we are using it here, “a thing.”

In a sense, then, the use of this “thing” thing on social media and in contemporary conversation points to a profound shift in our view of reality. What is important is not what is actually out there but what is in here, in the mind of each of us.

In the short time we have left, let me shift the focus to this little band of rowdies we call the UU Meeting House. Is our congregation “a thing?” Do people talk about us? What do they say?

One thing they say in town is a different name for us than we ourselves use. Most of us call ourselves the UU Meeting House, and if the context allows a chance of confusion with the similar congregation in Provincetown, we might add “of Chatham.” But when Andrea, our departing communications coordinator, came here a little over a year ago, her public relations ear perceived that what we call ourselves is different from what the rest of the world calls us. In this town, among the other churches, we are “da UU.” So Andrea, being hip to the public relations implications of internet names, bought the domain names UUChatham and ChathamUU. Old habits, of course, die hard, and most of us continue to use the name we have always used, but at least we may have taken a baby step to becoming “a thing.”

But more deeply, what is the thing we are, and what is the thing we want to become? That is what I invite you to ponder.

One of our newest attendees told us on her first day in this sanctuary of her delight in finding this group, and what she said in her introduction has stuck with me for weeks. She said that in her retirement, she was looking for a way to “give back” some of the bounty that life had given her. If you’re looking for a way this place could achieve thinginess in the minds of the public, you could do a lot worse than to strive to be a place where we can each in our own way “give back” what life has so generously given us.

If you look around Chatham, one of the things that is still a thing about this town is that it still has a fishing fleet. And there is a thing about that. A few years ago, some of the families of fishing folk banded together to support one another when fate turned cruel, as it sometimes does for those who make their living from the sea. So there appeared this organization called Women of Fishing Families and they are now “a thing.”

And the person who pulled them together as “a thing” is now our new communications coordinator. Her name is Karen Murdoch and she is a high-energy can-do kind of person. I hope you can meet her soon. I am dying to see what kind of “a thing” this Meeting House can become with her help.

Amen.

[1]https://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2016/06/13/become-a-thing/?__prclt=CJ4VYpo

[2]“Is That Even a Thing?” by Alexander Stern, Opinionator blog, New York Times, Ap[ril 16, 2016.

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