The Illusion of Icon Uniqueness

This is part one in the series, “Tips for a Better Informed Public.”


When it was reported Brock Turner had become a rapist, I wasn’t stunned, or particularly moved; nor was I when images of the Syrian boy, Omran Daqneesh, surfaced to highlight the brutalities of war. Not because I don’t have a heart, mind you. But these symbols for sexual violence and war, respectively, while becoming internet symbols, changed little in my mind of the prevalence and ongoing nature of each. I was frustrated, in fact, of the attention going to each (and still going to Turner), knowing 1) that it would quickly dissipate from the public mind, and 2) that these incidents were not particularly special.

How these symbols took the internet spotlight isn’t fully documented, although it remains a focal point for study. Various attempts at explaining why Daqneesh became popular can be found trough a cursory Google search; The New York Times even has an article accounting reader comments of explanations on why the boy rose to attention, which range from speculating the color of his chair to the look in his eyes. The practical answer is it was a mix of luck and love for children. For Turner, it was probably a hate of white privilege and the “establishment.” What’s special about internet sensations is not their varying uprisings, however, but the nature of their impact which draws light to the issue of overly prioritizing icons. What happens to media icons is typically not unique. That doesn’t mean their stories shouldn’t be taken without care, but they should be understood as windows into ongoing issues, and as individual accounts, at that. But the public has a tendency to see what’s placed directly in front of it, and forget all else. These icons, then, are not taken as windows, but rather constitute social media’s complete knowledge, for the time being. So the boy becomes particularly shocking, and the Stanford rapist becomes particularly outrageous, as if one of a kind. The boy to the point of anchors crying, the rapist to the point of social media and his neighborhood terrorizing him.

The failure of the public to fit events into trends can be traced to Donald Trump as well, whose infamous “I alone can fix it” quote (with ‘it’ being the “rigged system”) resonated with many of his followers. The phenomenon of icon uniqueness is seen within his followers, who many likely believe he will solve their problems singlehandedly or with little help; but also with his detractors, who lambast him as an idiot, and often fail to realize the content of his message was a long time coming, from a large disheartened group. His followers fail to see the window of the rest of the world of politics, and the rest of the world, with which compromise is required; his detractors fail to see the window of angry Americans who do, and have been sharing his nationalist message. Both groups see him as special, taking in narrow information to believe he is omnipotent, or that he is apart from any political trends.

It’s not my opinion that the public should dismiss icons such as these, but it is concerning when such outcry stems from them, like they’re the first to happen, because then I worry they’re all the public is aware of. So then the question becomes: how do we change this narrow mindset, coupled with short term public memory? Are we supposed to just be aware of all the wrongdoings in the world all the time? And the answer is … yes, kind of. Aware of the more pressing issues, at least; what those may be depend on your morals and personal judgment.

It can’t be expected the deception of uniqueness will ever fully change—the power of scapegoats and martyrs is what’s driven human progression this far, and has proven an effective way to reach the general public, uninformed and informed alike. That is, a particular incident requires not too much explaining, and can be shared as one message to many groups. It’s an alternative to expecting the population to be well read, and talk about things as a whole—such would require the greater task of getting people to read regularly and thoroughly.

Perhaps this tendency to see uniqueness can be attributed to the nature of media itself. With its saturation, there is a need to market products as one-of-a-kind hits, enough to differentiate from competitors, before being shortly forgotten with other competitors trying the same technique. Apple, for example, expresses a keen confidence in the sizing up and slimming down of its iPhones as revolutionary. Another example is the recent Suicide Squad, which was well marketed but has since quickly lost place in the public eye. From this view, it can be said that we prefer to see things one at a time because of an overcrowding of information—too many films, or phones, or news is made available with the internet and television.

So there you have it: the visualization of martyrdom, the low amount of required knowledge, and an overcrowding of information lend themselves to the deception of uniqueness—reasons that have proven historically relevant, and that probably won’t change soon. But the deception can be at least moderated, by changing our own tendencies from moving solely from issue to issue, to understanding the larger play at hand. As a good place to start, read up on follow up stories of icons, and become familiarized with bits of information about trends until you have a clearer understanding.

With the knowledge that rape, and more inadvertent forms of sexual assault often happen, go ahead and hunt down Brock Turner over Twitter. Understanding children and their families have already been dying and are still dying, cry about Omran Daqneesh over Facebook. Just understand these incidents haven’t changed anything, within their realms; i.e., rape hasn’t skyrocketed from Turner, and the war hasn’t changed dramatically because of Daqneesh’s injury. The key is in keeping up with context.