Lemmings? Lemmings!

I was in the middle of teaching my Freshman Composition class yesterday when it dawned on me that my students didn’t know what I was talking about. This kind of situation isn’t entirely unheard of in my class. I can go on for hours without making a point, or so my students tell me on a regular basis. But this time, I had a point, and I was making it clearly. At least, I thought I was making it clearly until I realized that my students didn’t know the meaning of a key term in the analogy I was drawing: lemming.

First, some background. My class revolves around issues relevant to popular culture. We analyze topics like education, work, and mass media. More often than not, we consider these issues in relation to social norms, and the questions we ask frequently have to do with why things are the way they are. In other words, we don’t just talk about what we consider normal. We also talk about why we consider certain things normal and whether there might be alternative ways of thinking about those issues.

As part of yesterday’s class, I asked my students whether there was any value in questioning our cultural norms and, if so, what that value might be. Among the answers was the suggestion that if we just go along with everything that our culture tells us to do, there’s no telling where we’ll end up.

“Right,” I said. “We don’t want to be lemmings.”

Blank stares.

“Lemmings,” I said. “You have heard of lemmings, right?”

“Lemons?” someone said.

Mings,” I said. “Lemmings.

Still nothing, so I asked for a show of hands to see who knew what a lemming was — and nobody did. So I told my students to whip out their smart phones and do some research. Here’s what they turned up:

The reason I mention all of this isn’t really to talk about lemmings. And it isn’t even to decry the state of education in the United States. I’m sure high school teachers have far more important things to do than make sure their students know that lemmings are best known for taking long swims that rarely work out as planned. Or that, as a result of their tendency to follow each other in droves to watery graves, they’ve come to represent mindless, self-destructive group-think.

My point — my larger point, anyway — is that words die if we don’t use them. When I was a child, I loved to castigate my friends for being lemmings. You really think Mr. Rogers cares about you? Fine, be a lemming if that’s what you want! Personally, I don’t think the guy even knows you exist. Yes, I was a very lonely four-year old, but I really knew how to hurl an insult. More to the point, I had a handy metaphor for the kind of person I didn’t want to be — i.e., a mindless follower.

So what does it mean that this particular metaphor is vanishing from our popular argot? For one thing, it means that we’ve lost a handy insult to level at people whenever they mindlessly go along with the crowd. Sure, there are others, but none have quite the same connotations as lemming. And an insult, it goes without saying, loses a bit of its punch when its intended victim remains blissfully unaware of having been insulted.

What’s more, we’re not just losing an insult. We’re losing a whole train of thought: To be a lemming is lame. I don’t want to be lame, so I won’t be a lemming. To put it another way, we’re losing a bulwark against conformity. Or, to put it yet another way, we’ve given rise to a generation of humans that’s far more susceptible to — well, to behaving like lemmings — than previous generations. By losing “lemming,” we’ve lost the ability to identify lemmings as such and, along with that, the ability to tell them to snap out of it.

Obviously, we need to get the word out. Or, more accurately, we need to bring the word back. We need to make lemming the insult it used to be, so here’s what I propose: After you’ve finished reading this post, click the “like” button. Then click the “reblog” button. And all of the “share” buttons. And after that, get on all of your social networking sites and talk about this post and how great of an insult lemming is. In short, do everything you can to drive as much traffic to this post as possible — and soon everyone will know why it isn’t good to be a…

Oh, wait.

Never mind.