The Zen kōan asks, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” There is not supposed to be a quick answer. It prompts the student to consider the inextricable duality of action and life – what can exist without being caused or created by something else? But to a student at the Claremont Colleges, there is a quick answer: the sound of one hand clapping is, in fact, snapping.
Snapping is, perhaps, the primary physical manifestation of what is a massive social shift a decade of internet in the making – a shift not only in how we debate, but in how we agree.
The story goes that snapping replaced clapping for beatnik poets, who performed in the basements of apartment buildings late into the night, as to not disturb the tenants above. Or maybe it’s because you can’t hold a beer and clap at the same time. Or because applause is a rather tasteless way to support people who are sharing deeply personal stories.
But the thing is, snapping isn’t just a quieter version of applause. Love it or hate it, it’s a form of social meaning-making. It’s the sound of re-evaluation in action – taking narratives that have been pushed away from the mainstream and validating them, prodding them back into the spotlight.
And if snapping frustrates you, that might be because you’re used to those value-marking parts of the institution operating in silence. The value placed on certain worldviews and certain speakers is a privilege, and like all privilege, it is blinding.
Just as social media has allowed us to push away ideas we don’t like by blocking, unfollowing, or just submitting to attention-thirsty algorithmic sorting, it has also changed the way we can endorse ideas that we do like. The line between appreciation and recommendation entirely disappears, as likes on Facebook appear as posts outright – “Liam Brooks and 2 other friends liked this” – and favorites become actions, not personal belongings.
Likewise, snaps aren’t only directed at the creator whose work the snapper is appreciating. They point at the work, yes, but more importantly they point outwards – at the context within which an idea is being shared.
It’s been said before in previous columns in this paper, but it bears repeating – before their careful analysis, some viewpoints that people raise in class will carry more weight. Whether tied to the mainstream by race, gender, dialect, ability, or age, the authority one has as a speaker is to some degree predetermined by the judgements placed on you by listeners from the moment you open your mouth.
Practically, this means that valid viewpoints that have every right to be heard in the classroom – and are absolutely worth hearing – can float in easier than others which have the same right and worth, but run counter to what people expect to hear.
Without the foundation provided by dominant narratives in media and education, stories that go against the grain have to push twice as hard. Why not give them an audible boost, in a way that doesn’t interrupt them or devalue anyone else’s?
It’s no surprise that snapping is branded as a decidedly feminist way of showing support, so much so that it’s one of the ways SJWs are parodied, right along the short, dyed-blue hair and TRIGGERED. But beyond its ties to the counterculture of the dimly lit underground beatnik scene, snapping is a practical way to counteract disparities in what viewpoints are considered worthy.
This, then, is the sound of one hand clapping: a way of making what was not, be. While snapping is not the desired response to the kōan, it is certainly one way of interpreting it: what does it look and sound like to create institutional support without an institution to stand on? The silence we value in classrooms is not neutral, because without acting against systems of valuation, we allow them to invisibly alter the way radical or anti-mainstream views are perceived and then restricted, rather than allowed to grow.
Snapping breaks that silence — not by drowning out opposing viewpoints, but by providing a bit of extra support to those that need it. With snapping, the institution becomes something to brace against; the silence, something to break.
However, in the end, there is one reason I hate snapping that I still can’t shake. I can’t do it. I never learned how. Catch me nodding vigorously instead.
Liam Brooks is a senior at Pitzer College.