What Do You Meme?

Google Image

By Gaby Martinez

If you’ve ever worked for children anywhere between the age of 3 and 13, you know how effortless “telling it like it is” is for small humans. When my brother was 3, he verbally assaulted the poor bag boy at Von’s who forgot to shave his face that morning by repeatedly and abruptly informing him that he was a dirty man. Their lack of mastery in filtering and honesty is simultaneously refreshing and terrifying. This kind of polarized thinking is a defining aspect of early childhood. If you were the stinky kid or the kid with headgear in 3rd grade, don’t worry, your peers never forget it.

Over the past two years, internet memes seem to have modeled this kind of thinking, shaping our conversations about important issues. The images and the messages behind them spread quickly, much like a virus. The term meme is defined as “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”. The word originated with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who, in fact, used the metaphor of a virus to illustrate how memes operate.

Google Image depicting Donald Trump.

With ideas spreading via Internet memes alone, this comparison is pretty accurate. Hillary Clinton, almost overnight, was nothing more than her emails. President Trump, nothing more than a big orange ogre with tiny hands. All feminists are women with pixie cuts and black frame glasses, just as all Trump supporters are racist, xenophobic bigots. Memes have become an extension of human language and communication.

Therefore, we also have to be willing to consider the role they play in the spreading of polarized, satirical and reductionist mindsets. Unfortunately, so many of our conversations about important issues end before they even start as a consequence and for fear of being labelled with the dark mark of “social justice warrior”. As the saying goes, never discuss politics or religion at a dinner party. Keep the conversation shallow.

In his 1993 essay titled “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”, David Foster Wallace warned of the dangers of cynicism and irony so present American culture:

Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like a hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its content is tyranny.”

As digressive as the present conversations may seem, memes, with some due self awareness on our own part, could be a solution to the problem they’ve created.

As Christians who acknowledge the fall, we’ve also come to know that redemption follows. If we’ve learned anything from Dr. Mac, it’s that there’s only one direction to go from the post modern pit: up.  We need to ask ourselves, now that we’ve laughed at it, what do we do about it? Exposing hypocrisy through humor is a go but we have to be willing to see it through. Internet memes have the potential to spark conversations in that they reach the masses in a ways and speeds that other forms of communication can’t.