The Case Of The 3 Monkeys Is Tearing Twitter In Two

May 13, 2016

Here’s a minor philosophical puzzle to ponder this Friday: The “see no evil,” “hear no evil” and “speak no evil” monkey emojis.

One monkey, three faces? Or three monkeys, each making a different face?

If you don’t know @jonnysun because of his status as a Weird Twitter icon, you might remember him from his interview with NPR last year. He’s the MIT Ph.D. candidate/playwright/artist/architect/engineer/designer who has earned a cult following for his absurd and occasionally profound tweets.

And he outdid himself when he posted this Twitter poll (with his characteristic misspellings, of course).

There are two days left on the poll. Debates are getting fierce. But as of Friday afternoon, with more than 150,000 votes cast, a slim majority — 52 percent — said the three emojis show a single monkey.

Which — respectfully — is just so wrong, in this writer’s opinion.

Jonathan Sun’s mentions are full of people desperately pointing out the truth — that there are three separate monkeys, of course — in the face of a majority of poll respondents, who insist on living a life built on monkey-emoji lies.

The voices of reason point to the Wikipedia entry on the Japanese art tradition behind the emojis. The very first sentence clears it up.

After all, the monkeys have different names.

They pulled up examples from the world of art. Surely three monkeys in a single sculpture provide a solid precedent for this being three monkeys at one time, not one monkey at three times.

No less an authority than Emojipedia chimed in, pointing out — again — the monkeys have different names.

But the poll results remained, with more than half of respondents insisting that it was but a single monkey.

They are passionate.

They argue from personal experience.

They have work-arounds for the “three names” problem.

And Sun told The Daily Dot that he, too, is in the one-monkey camp:

“Sun was surprised and fascinated by the deep and even split between the three-monkey and one-monkey camps, but he’s thoroughly thought this through and has come to his own conclusion: Despite the mythological origins of the three-monkey idea, it just doesn’t square with the way people use emoji in practice.

” ‘The one-monkey team I think is more interesting because they speak on the side of how these emoji are interpreted and used in day-to-day life,’ he wrote.

” ‘Their arguments are in usage and interpretation. My favorite argument is that the cat emoji is the same cat going through different emotions—why would it be different for the monkey? It goes back to how people project themselves as that character when they use emoji.’ “

The Two-Way reached out to multiple experts on East Asian art history and religious iconography, to see if they could offer any insights into the emoji dilemma.

Update at 3 p.m. ET:

And, dear readers, you’re in luck! Dr. Akiko Walley, a specialist in Japanese Buddhist art and a professor at the University of Oregon, suggested that we read up on Koshin belief in the Japanese folk tradition, which involves three worms that would report on a person’s bad deeds, and monkeys that serve as intermediaries between humans and the gods.

But, she warned, reading up on Japanese folk beliefs might ruin the Internet’s fun.

Because — as the correct half of Twitter has known all along — “it becomes clear that the monkeys can only be three monkeys,” she reports.

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