A defining feature of our generation’s memes is avoidance.
The “I pretend I do not see it” meme, for instance, takes on an explicit, agentive approach to ignorance.
The “no thoughts, head empty” meme specifically stands out in how it brands the viewer as incapable of thought. This, along with “smooth brain” memes, creates a particular idealized image of ignorance. Not only do we wish we could not see it, we also believe we are incapable of meaningfully interpreting it.
What is the function of these memes? Are they aspirational states of meditative being? Or are they descriptive indicators of our current mental state under late-stage capitalism and an overcrowded media landscape that is constantly feeding us information?
The, “no thoughts head empty” meme acts as a form of self-care for activists and a way to “acknowledg[e] that you need your cup full to keep fighting,” Tumblr meme archivist Amanda Brennan said in a Wired article.
The article describes how these memes serve as a way for people to express their need for a break from the horrific realities of the world we live in.
But I believe this interpretation gives us way too much agency. When discussing these memes with friends, many indicated to me they did not use these phrases or images because they dreamed of having no thoughts, but rather because they felt their capacity for thinking was actually impaired.
It wasn’t that they wished to exist in ignorant bliss — they believed ignorance was their only option.
I think their reactions align better with the views of communist philosopher Slavoj Žižek, whose unofficial saying is “I would prefer not to.” Žižek utilizes this phrase to point to a possible response to global capitalism.
“Better to do nothing than to engage in localised acts whose ultimate function is to make the system run more smoothly … The threat today is not passivity but pseudo-activity, the urge to ‘be active,’ to ‘participate,’ to mask the Nothingness of what goes on,” he writes in his book “The Parallax View.”
More than being an act of resistance as Žižek frames it, our passivity or ignorance could also have developed as an act of survival. For instance, retail requires its workers to perform repetitive tasks for long periods of time. Having no thoughts is the only way we can get through the drudgeries of a work day.
Moreover, the sheer amount of tragedy that we are surrounded by and experience on a daily basis also encourages this desire for avoidance. We’re currently living through one of the biggest humanitarian crises in history. How on earth can you move forward in life constantly thinking about the amount of death and grief that has occurred?
It is not that we are incapable of having thoughts, but rather the structures we are forced to live under make having thoughts unbearable.
Does this mean, then, that the “no thoughts, head empty” meme is ultimately an act of rebellion? Could it be a sign of cultural resistance against a capitalist, oppressive society?
I don’t think so. Though I love the “no thoughts, head empty” meme, it ultimately feeds into our self-destructive urges more than it fosters a mentality of rebellion or describes our actual state of being.
For instance, when I want to distract myself from my thoughts, I often consume media in an excessively unhealthy way. I’ll listen to a podcast, watch a movie or even attempt to do both, all to avoid sitting in any anxiety or discomfort.
Sometimes, the process of ridding oneself of thoughts — the process of pretending not to see it — is more stressful than simply living with the thoughts themselves.
I think it is important to choose reality over distraction and sit with your anxiety, with the wrinkles in your brain, instead of trying to smooth them away.
In actuality, what we’re avoiding may be much more manageable than we think it is. This is not to say all the issues we face are solvable. Allowing a thought to rest in your head does not require you to immediately figure out how to fix it.
Instead of “no thoughts, head empty,” a much less destructive life philosophy could be centered on simply allowing yourself to have a full head. Just a bunch of thoughts, with no concrete reason or logic behind them and no pressing need to get rid of or act upon them.
There is no correct answer for how we should process experiencing and witnessing violence and the world’s horrific realities. But I believe ignoring tragedy — especially tragedy that’s not directly impacting you — will only further complicate matters and perpetuate these oppressive structures.
We would all prefer not to see it. But sometimes, we have to.