Saturday, July 7, 2012
Why Internet Memes Are Destroying America
So often when we "surf the web" we scroll through lists of links: news stories, blogs, pictures, videos - we read the titles and continue on with our day. We get the gist. We don't have time to explore every piece of the Internet, and that's okay. We have better things to do.
But little pieces of information nipping at our subconscious mind have a way of affecting the way we think, the way we see the world around us. Of course, some people have an almost ever-present layer of questioning that they wear to protect themselves from wayward misinformation. We call these people "skeptics." Skeptics seem to have a natural defense against this sort of information, but that is not to say they are completely immune to being swayed in this manner. On the other end of the spectrum are people who will believe anything they see or hear without questioning the validity of what they see. We call these people "sheep."
For sake of equity perhaps I should step back and alter my terms. Deep down skeptics enjoy being called skeptics. There is a sense of pride in knowing that you are shrewd enough to catch any piece of information that seems even remotely suspect before accepting it. Being somewhat skeptical myself, I think I would know. So let's not give skeptics the satisfaction. We'll call them "doubters." As for sheep. Isn't that a little harsh? No one would be happy about being labeled a sheep. Let's call them "trusters." So we have doubters and trusters, but as with fatalists and non-fatalists very few people fall into either one of these camps completely. Most of us reside somewhere in the middle. Almost everyone accepts at least some pieces of information on face value, and there are some pieces of information that almost no one accepts no matter how trusting they are.
But as I mentioned earlier - You don't have all day. You have important things to do. So let's get back to memes. Information is important. Whether or not we accept information is what shapes our world view. The way it is presented affects our world view. Whether you call them skeptics or doubters, sheep or trusters, they are the same people. The facts remain the same. But the perception can be altered considerably.
meme is, Merriam-Webster defines it as, "an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture." In modern Internet terms that means a picture with text, usually in a somewhat clever, humorous manner to get a message across or entertain. For instance, the image to the left is a fairly popular version of a Rick Santorum meme. This picture is circulated throughout many websites, and different people edit the text to say different things, most of which are meant to deride Santorum for his various beliefs, statements, or actions.
All politics aside, let's get down to the function of this meme. The picture is not a bad one, but it is meant to evoke a certain boy scout smugness that people have associated with Santorum. The text does a couple of things. The top text lets the reader know that Santorum is opposed to the act or orientation of homosexuality. The bottom line builds upon his already boy scout smugness by implicitly insulting his wardrobe.
The beauty of this image (from the creators point of view) is it leaves nothing to argue against. As far as I understand, Santorum opposes gay marriage and believes that homosexuality is a sin. I have also seen him wearing sweater vests. Indeed if one were to argue with it at all, the originator could always say, "Aren't you taking this clearly nonsensical image a little bit too seriously?" It's like John Stewart from The Daily Show, who chides news personalities who publicly disagree with or attack him for what he says on his show by making the claim that (and I paraphrase) it's a comedy show. And I must applaud Mr. Stewart. It is a comedy show, but he knows what he's doing. He has a political leaning, and he's got a good method for presenting his point of view without leaving room for rebuttal. Nicely done.
But what does this sort of presentation of information do to our public discourse? What is it based on? These are witty catch-phrases and clever multimedia presentations, but they lack evidence, logic, or intellectual character.
college liberal" meme. Let's say you're a conservative, and you've been reading this. You saw the last two memes and you weren't really able to identify with them. Instead of thinking, "Santorum sure is lame," or, "Man, Newt Gingrich really is crazy," you thought, "How disrespectful," or, "Stupid liberals... coming up with nonsensical pictures to make this guy look bad."
But now you're looking at the "college liberal" meme and you're thinking, "Hah hah! That's right!" Don't get me wrong. So am I. I see the Occupy Wall Street folks or other protestors that have been doing their thing over the years and I can't help but be annoyed by their antics, but do I take the time to question the logic of this picture? Who is this a picture of? Do we actually know what her political leanings are? Do all people holding peaceful protests start fights with the cops? What percentage do?
At the heart of these memes is an attack on hypocrisy or perceived hypocrisy. Deep down inside we hate hypocrisy. We hate it and it's easy to detect. Not to say we shouldn't condemn hypocrisy, but are we not all hypocrites? Do we not all say one thing while doing another at least once in our lives? From that point of view it makes sense that Jesus was so outspoken in his opposition to hypocrisy. He was the first and only non-hypocrite to have ever walked on the face of this planet.
Are Internet memes destroying America? No. And saying that anything is "destroying America" should be held suspect. We can't see the future, so we can't know that any one thing or group of things specifically will destroy America. Maybe it would be more accurate to have titled this blog, "Why Internet Memes Are Working Together With Various Other Potentially Harmful Things To Erode At The Perceptions Of Some Americans."
For those of you who are not familiar with memes, you should know that there are plenty of innocuous, entertaining, funny ones that are harmless, and definitely not destroying America. Even the very political ones can be enjoyed without necessarily destroying or corrupting your mind. But maybe an even bigger danger than swaying those in the middle is polarizing those at the extremes. As a conservative libertarian, when I see a political meme attacking libertarianism, conservatism, or individuals or stereotypes from those camps it isolates me. It makes me think, "Oh yeah?" And I proceed to pick holes in the arguments or positions of said memes. Then I see the ones attacking liberal personalities or stereotypes and I think, "That's right. What hypocrites." It's dehumanizing. That girl in the college liberal meme - she's a real person. I know nothing about her, but a picture of her with some text written by I-have-no-idea gives me that smug sense of conservative pride.
If you're reading this, please don't think that I hate memes. I have spent plenty of time perusing such sites as www.quickmeme.com, clicking next, next, next, and getting laugh after laugh. My intent here is to make you aware that memes are an easy way to sway or cement an opinion or point of view without any solid facts or logic. And one meme at a time is somewhat effective, but consider that there are tens of thousands of these, and when you read that many, no matter how many "defenses" you've put up, it is bound to affect the way you think in some way.
An innocent, funny meme for your enjoyment: