Indifference is an option
by Gordon Campbell
In January. the AV Club ran an article about the cultural tendency to hyperbole – it’s incredible, you really have to see/hear this movie/ this album / series three of Breaking Bad – on the one hand, and the stone wall of indifference that is ‘meh’ on the other. The trigger for their debate being Machete, the recent Robert Rodriguez movie that is either totally awesome or meh, with no room in between.
The AV Club article started me thinking about what an awesome word ‘meh’ is. Where had it come from? One way or another, all the web trails (including Wikipedia) lead back to The Simpsons, with the usual reference point being the ‘Hungry Hungry Homer’ episode from 2001. That episode (season 12, episode 15) includes this explicit exchange:
Homer: “Kids, how would you like to go to Blockoland?”
Bart and Lisa : “Meh.”
Homer: “But the TV gave me the impression that–”
Bart: “We said, “Meh.””
Lisa: “M-E-H. Meh.”
In fact, the trail of ‘ meh’ goes back further than that. In the Mojo the Monkey Helper sequence from the “Girly Edition” episode (season 9, episode 21) in 1998, I swear there’s a moment ( at 3.08) when both Homer and Mojo say ‘meh’ in unison when Marge nags them about their debauchery. But that’s not the Olduvai Gorge of ‘meh’ either. At the beginning of the ‘Lisa’s Wedding’ episode (from the sixth season) in 1995, when Marge rhapsodises about the fun she used to have with her loom, Bart shuts her enthusiasm down with just one word …’Meh.’ (The “ meh” is at 1.09 on the clip. Barely 15 seconds later someone else says ‘Whatever’ which is ‘meh’s’ older sibling.)
In other words, if The Simpsons really was the cultural catalyst for ‘meh’ it was a revolution long in coming. Origins aside, the tendency that was bothering the AV Club is genuine enough. There is a polarisation going on out there between a bullying hyper-ventilating cultural evangelism that will brook no dissent and the ‘I can’t be arsed’ shutdown that is ‘meh’. A lot of people and events are clamouring for our tribal allegiance, and a blank refusal to be recruited can be a perfectly sane response. ‘Meh’ is contrarianism, on a tight emotional budget. To use the AV Club example:
Hey, what did you think of last night’s episode of 30 Rock / the new Jonathan Franzen novel / Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs?”
The shrug that usually goes with it is the clincher. You’re on board, I’m bored. It was blah, neutral – no big deal. ‘Meh’ serves some of the same purposes as ‘whatever’, which is a word that will never die. Mainly because there are so many ways you can inflect it:
“Clean your room.”
2. Passive aggression in the face of obvious lying.
” I’ll call you.”
‘We could head downtown, or stay here and get a DVD.’
4. Signalling boredom, onset of tedium
“So, in the bar sequence in Inception was that a dream within a dream or a dream within a dream within a dream? “
That last meaning of ‘whatever’ comes closest to ‘meh.’ While the AV Club is right to argue that there is a prosecution case for treating ‘meh’ as a passion killer – You’re being enthusiastic? Oh, good grief – I think there’s a sense in which it can be a positive tool of recruitment in its own right. By pushing against the cultural bandwagon, ‘meh’ sends out a signal to all other anarchists and contrarians that hey, maybe we should lift out game, and reserve our enthusiasm for something a lot better than this piece of crap.