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We Are All Jim Halpert, and Everyone Else on the Internet Is an Army of Dwights

A few weeks ago, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump told supporters in Alabama that he’d seen footage of “thousands of people” in New Jersey “cheering” as the Twin Towers fell. There is a word for this: lie. Trump saw no such footage because no such footage exists. He nevertheless insisted on the story’s truth on national TV, telling George Stephanopoulos “it did happen.” There is a word for this: stupid. He later tweeted an article from the lunatic fringe conspiracy site InfoWars to support his stupid lie. There is a word for this: insane.

Then his rival Ben Carson got involved. Carson told ABC’s Katherine Faulders that he, too, “saw the film” Trump had seen. The film that definitively did not exist. Several hours later, his campaign clarified that he was thinking of the Middle East, not New Jersey.

There is no word for this. There is only a furrowed brow. There is only an alarmed murmur. There is only a sound of concerned skepticism. There is only 🤔. (If you are on an older machine, this emoji may not show up. Really it’s supposed to look like the image above.)

We often use emoji to replace words — 👍  means ”yes”; 😞  means “I’m sorry”; 🍆  means “let’s make baba ghannouj” — but the unicode consortium’s ideographic alphabet really shines when it says what words can’t say. 🤔, or “thinking face,” is the newest addition to a category of emoji I am going to call, for reasons of metaphorical expediency, halperts, after Jim Halpert, a character on NBC’s The Office. Halpert, the affable paper salesman played by John Krasinski, was the show’s straight man, and had a trademark habit of turning to the camera and mugging after other characters said particularly offensive, stupid, or insane things. Like so:

Words have been failing humans since words first existed, but they seem to be failing us at an ever-intensifying rate. As the Republican primary ambles on, poking its head down increasingly ludicrous corridors, as the democratizing, boundary-erasing effects of the web confront us with more and more arguments and opinions far outside our usual understandings of “normal” or “intelligent” or “true,” we find ourselves less and less able to engage in any kind of meaningful dialogue. Direct interlocution seems ill-advised, if not impossible. If we can’t even agree on the terms of a debate — such as, for example, “we should only say things that are true” — what’s the point of having one?

But, you know, this is the internet. Nothing exists unless it is published and performed. The empty text box and blinking cursor demand something. Hence the halpert, the perfect non-response response. To halpert is to surrender comeback in the face of absurdity, to resign yourself to passivity, to abdicate your side of a debate. But it’s not silence — it’s a search for sympathy, a plea to the universe, a call for witnesses: Do you see what is going on here? It is — in other words — how many of us feel, constantly, every day, online. By signing up for Facebook and Twitter, we’ve stuck ourselves in an eternal, infinite office filled with freaks, idiots, and weirdos, and consequently spend a huge amount of time turning to the metaphorical camera.

The oldest, best-known halpert is probably “facepalm,” a meme embodied by Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard; it and its exaggerated cousin “headdesk” are generally deployed in response to world-historical stupidity.

All members of the shruggie family, briefly in vogue a few years ago, are generally used as halperts: The “smug” shruggie (¯\_(ツ)_/¯) can communicate nonchalance or resignation in the face of obstinate irrationality (think “lol nothing matters”), while the “confused” shruggie (¯\(°_o)/¯) tends to indicate bafflement (“I dunno LOL”). Many kaomoji, the Japanese emoticon style to which shruggies belong, are effectively halperts; for a usage guide, see here.

(From the peanut gallery: Does the keyboard smash [“asdflkh” and variants] belong to this nonsense species of rhetoric you have just invented? The judge rules: No. Not only is the keyboard smash too forceful to communicate the halpert’s true affect, resignation, it’s also more often used as a substitute for “I can’t,” as in “I can’t with this,” which, despite being a good literalization of halpertism, is more often used to indicate not bewilderment but extreme, language-surpassing pleasure: “I can’t with this new Adele song.”)

And yet, ah, the kaomoji are merely rudimentary cave-scratchings compared to the full, rich library of the emoji family of halperts.

My current most-used is 🤔 (that’s thinking face, for those of you using older systems) but I have a longstanding love affair with 😬, or “grimacing,” the “yikes” to the “hmm” of “thinking face.” There’s the classic 😕 — technically, “confused” — a direct descendent of the :-/ emoticon, which may have been the first-ever halpert. There’s the self-explanatory 😑 (“expressionless face”) and 😐 (“neutral face”) — the former seems to communicate a kind of existential resignation; the latter, dejection. (Is 💅 a halpert? No. Halperts relinquish rhetorical power: “I have no response.” 💅 establishes it: “I have a response but I’m not going to say it.”)

And then there’s my actual favorites: 🙃 (an upside-down smiley) and 😎. Halperts are a natural response to 24-hour on-call communication with strangers and a hugely overwhelming content boom. But why insist that the reaction be despondent, terrified, or sarcastic? Why can’t it be affirmative, as all proper fatalism should be? 🙃 knows people are weird and stupid and crazy — and it knows there’s nothing to be done so you might as well enjoy it. 😎 puts on its shades, straps itself in, and says let’s see where Ben Carson is going with this 9/11 thing.

When Words Fail, There’s ‘Thinking Face’ Emoji