Meme by William Loring. Used with permission and encouragement.
Of course I have opinions on politics. They are many and they are strong. And like the opinions of most people, they are not in point-by-point synchronization with some monolithic party platform. They do not neatly fall to one side or the other of what is fast becoming a high and impenetrable wall on the border between Liberalstan and Conservatica. Partly because a) not every idea is at its core a partisan one no matter how hard we try to make it so, and b) thinking people realize the framework of any “-ism” gets increasingly bent and banged and in need of modification the more it is applied to actual living persons and events.
As a matter of fact, I am seriously considering backing away from any use of “liberal” or “conservative” to describe human beings as individuals or groups. Maybe ideas can be classified so, but the person who observes no exception to an ideology is hopefully as rare as I would like to believe. Tempted as I am to paint an entire population of voters with a broad red or blue brush, people I actually know don’t fit into those categories. Yet sadly, many of the same people who complain about being painted with that broad brush don’t see the hypocrisy in using it to paint “the opposition” with the enthusiasm of a majority shareholder in Sherwin Williams.
And that’s where the political memes come in. Once upon a time, in the heat of the last presidential election and slightly afterward, I found a certain satisfaction in sharing ones that seemed clever. Things changed. Maybe it was me; maybe it was the political conversation. I’m not naïve enough to think politics hasn’t always been ugly (and historically speaking even uglier than it is now). Until recently, however, bad ideas took a lot longer to travel. We couldn’t correspond instantly with everyone whose ideas we found offensive. Serious disagreement required effort and forethought. For that matter, so did agreement. I imagine Lincoln and Douglas could find a lot of common ground in being mutually horrified that days-long debate had been reduced to a couple hours of sound bites further reduced by commercial breaks. Twitter would have seemed like the apocalypse.
PREACHING TO THE PARTISAN CHOIR
Political memes as we understand them aren’t actually meant to communicate. We may think they are because the original concept of a meme was an idea that spread like a virus, but that kind of meme wasn’t intentionally created. Just as viruses spontaneously occurring in nature have been engineered and weaponized, so has the meme. Political memes are meant to whip up the base, not to inform the uninformed. Sure they often pretend to address the snowflakes or the fascists, but that’s so the sharer of the meme can get a little thrill out of feeling like he or she is sticking it to the (largely stereotyped if not outright imagined) opposition. If you were actually out to persuade someone, would you start by insulting their intelligence?
And for those who aren’t bright enough to understand why, the correct answer is “no.”
See how that made you feel?
DESIGNED TO DIVIDE
The virus comparison doesn’t stop with the rapid spread of memes. When we use our powers for good, viruses can be the source of life-saving vaccines. The political meme also inoculates us … but unfortunately the “disease” it protects us from is reason. See, to achieve reasonableness, we can’t just double-down on the ideas we already like. We have to weigh them against the ones that challenge us. Enough doses of the bad logic of political memes (we’ll get into that shortly) eventually trains us to think badly and call it smart. The (often poorly executed) “cleverness” of the political meme also reinforces the idea that sarcasm and irony are tools to be used by everyone. They’re not. Very few people can use them effectively as rhetorical devices.
Instead what we get most of the time is someone listening to a point of view not to fairly consider it, but to refute it in a way that gets in a zing. Doesn’t matter if said refutation actually makes sense, because it makes us feel briefly superior. And that’s what the memes are for: replacing reconciliation with the satisfaction of a cheap shot. Common ground is merely an obstacle.
LAPSE OF LOGIC
To me, one of the most troubling aspects of political memes is how easily they encourage people to forego critical thinking. We don’t want to fact-check anything that reinforces our existing opinions. And even if the facts are correct, how often are they used logically?
One popular style of meme is posting photos or quotes side-by-side to illustrate an implied contrast. For example, showing one politician reacting charitably to a disaster while another is one the golf course at allegedly the same time. Or maybe one person’s best words against another person’s worst. Photos and quotes have context, and in the digital age they are in infinite supply. Anyone can look bad or good for the split-second it takes to be exposed to a camera. Unrelated images and quotes tell us exactly nothing, but we’re willing to project a lot onto them.
Closely related is the meme that forgets we can do two things at the same time. Support good police officers and check bad ones? Both things can – and should! – happen. Yet any critique of unnecessary police violence must mean you hate law enforcement, and any expression of support for law enforcement must make you a racist. At least according to the poor logic of political memes. Neither stance should be a partisan issue, but too often we express one as reaction and negation to the other because we equate challenging viewpoints with censorship and react disproportionately. Kids, we improve when we think critically about our own positions, not when we start shouting about who’s rubber and who’s glue.
Then there’s good old Double Standard, and its second cousin Whatabout. Notice how people’s definition of “too much time on the golf course” tends to change with the party of the president? Or for what the first lady wears? Or moral lapses? And when people criticize us for letting Double Standard sidle up to the table, we invite Whatabout for reinforcement. He’s really distracting, constantly yelling about how your guy (or gal) did the same or something worse. We don’t let our kids get away with two wrongs making a right, but we let our politicians slide if they’re on our team. How about this idea: both of them can be wrong, or maybe the offense wasn’t really an offense at all. Hypocrisy is the oxygen feeding the flames of illogic.
Finally we have the presumed offense. In politics, for every action there seems to be an equal and opposite preaction. What’s that mean? Think about school shootings. Anymore after one happens, the memes start flying about what we presume the other side is saying. We don’t even wait for them to actually say it. Fortunately for us, this puts them into the position of either confirming our preconceptions (if one is right mustn’t they all be right?) or defending their position. We win either way without ever having to actually engage people of different viewpoints. Almost anything that looks like policy debate on television is merely the preaction reaction. And what happens on Facebook should stay in Vegas.
Only when we return to logical thinking, instead of defensive memery and one-upsmanship, can we hope to actually communicate instead of shouting over each other. The danger of memes isn’t just the momentary reaction as we scroll by them on our timeline, it’s how they retrain us to see each other as opponents instead of companions.
IT’S NOT YOU, IT’S MEME
At this point some readers will undoubtedly think I’m telling them to stop posting political memes. Nope. I’m telling you why I did. If you assume expressing my opinion means I’m telling you what to do, please re-read the previous section. That’s part of the big problem: the breakdown of logic has taught us to hear an argument or an opinion as a threat to our own freedom. “Snowflakes” come in red, white and blue. I am darkly amused when someone who posts about how people are too easily offended by mere words … then get offended by different words. Everyone is offended by something. The trick is not to justify your offense while minimizing someone else’s. Do that enough, and you’ll handle offense like an adult.
SO WHY SHOULD YOU CARE?
So why write about all this on a Christian blog anyway?
Nobody keeps their politics and their faith (or at least their moral beliefs) separate. If we think we do … Surprise! We’ve put faith second.
But if we put faith first, specifically faith in Christ, we are committed to being humble voices of reconciliation and justice. Humble voices often don’t feel like they’re accomplishing much. One at a time, maybe they aren’t. So we need to stick together and see Christ in each other and be Christ to each other. That means offering dignity and peace even when – especially when – it costs us. Peacemaking is a slow, relentless business. It requires listening more than speaking. Giving more than defending.
Humility isn’t fun. Tribalism and smugness are fun. Terrible, but fun.
Love your enemy. Don’t mock them. Don’t belittle them. Don’t make sport of their feelings and well-being. Love them.
If you can do that in a meme, let’s hope it goes viral.
Peace to you.