The Unfriendly Meme

In PeaceAble on May 24, 2015 at 11:14 am

I was just unfriended by someone over a meme. I bring this up because I was caught off guard by it, and because it is indicative of a couple of related major problems in this country: the substitution of easy imagery for actual thought and the tendency to personalize and over-simplify everything rather than to see the larger picture.

First, the offending meme. A picture of a bucolic rural scene; barn and man on tractor in the background; old Phillips 66 sign; in the foreground one of those roadside message boards, and written on it the words “God Bless the Old America! I sure miss her.”

Now my comment: “Which old America? The one that owned slaves? The one that imprisoned and stole the property and lives of Japanese Americans in an irrational fear response to Pearl Harbor? The one where there was child labor and sweatshops, and where only white men could vote? I could go on. The existence of some idyllic “old America” is a myth. America has always ben a great many good things and a significant number of not so good things.””

Harsh, I know. Too harsh? I won’t try to defend it on that point. I thought it was clear that I was criticizing the meme, not the person who posted it. I certainly never thought she would think that I was suggesting she actually wanted to return to those things. I thought that my last sentence made it clear that I did not think that America was all bad.

I was wrong.

Her response: “I was going to reply to your comment. But it was not worth the effort. With friends like you who needs enemies.”

And because I was wrong, because I had not been clear about the intent, and because my comment was more harsh than I intended, my first instinct was to apologize; not because I believe my opinion of the meme was wrong or bad, but because my choices in expressing that opinion had led to her feeling judged and demeaned. But I couldn’t apologize, or even offer further explanation, because I could no longer post on the thread. She had unfriended me.

There was another consequence to this unfriending, also. Other of her friends (one a mutual friend) could continue to post things about me and my comment to which I could not respond. One response: “It seems David has a big old bitter taste in his mouth when someone says something nice or puts up a photo or a sign of our flag. I guessing he was NOT BORN HE.(sic)” I was, of course arguing that what the meme was saying was not all that nice, so we disagree about the niceness thing; but there was no flag in the meme and if she was trying to say I must not have been born here, well I don’t have a clue how she got to that. As for bitterness, my comment wasn’t, in my opinion, bitter at all. It was, as I said, harsh, but so what? Are we supposed to treat every meme like videos of babies and cute animals?

Perhaps the harshness (which I think anyone who has read my blog or comments on other posts would agree is not typical of my comments about such things) deserves some explanation, however.

We are being told two things over and over by those who would lead us, and by the media which influence our attitudes and help to shape our culture.

First, we are told that we do not need to, and should not think too much about the complex issues facing our nation and the world. Every issue, we are told, can be divided into two distinct opposing camps and we must choose our side; every idea can be reduced to a slogan or a meme or a sound bite, and that these contain all we need to know about it. Ideological purity and adherence to a simplistic and rigid moral code are the only standards. We must be for or against, ally or enemy; there is no room for complexity, for nuance, for understanding the ecological nature of ideas, of societies, of human behavior.

And corollary to that, we are told that we should be afraid. We should fear the “other,” of course. Difference is threat, disagreement is attack, everyone is either friend or enemy. We are sold everything from goods and services to public policies to spiritual beliefs by appeals to fear. We fear our government, our police and military, our teachers, and our religious leaders. We fear our children, our neighbors, our communities. We fear the black people and the brown people and the yellow people, and the female people and the male people; and we fear anyone who does not share our ideas about what God might be like or whether there is one. We fear that science is right and we fear that science is wrong. One respondent to my comment presented the argument, which is a reasonable one given the reality I have just painted, that it is her “perception (that) lately there has been an increase in crime that just doesn’t make you feel safe anywhere.” In support of this she cites school shootings and terrorist bombings, and even the fact that several people she knows have been the victims of minor hit-and-run motor vehicle accidents in the past two years. But how realistic is the generalized fear these things engender? National crime statistics show that violent crime rates are at their lowest in 40 years, that crime over all is down and the deaths of law enforcement officers are at a 50 year low. Violent crime rates actually peaked in the 1990’s.

So why are we afraid to let children walk outside alone, why do we not feel safe anywhere? The Dali Lama was once asked how he could remain so centered and optimistic in the face of all the horrible things being reported around the world. He replied that things get reported precisely because they are not the norm. By the time we saw the spectacle of children killing children at Columbine, children had been dying in the inner cities for decades, but because the national media believed (along with most of the rest of the country) that such things were normal for the cities, they didn’t report it. But when it happened in the privileged communities of rural and suburban America, the story caused schools everywhere to begin transforming into high security facilities. Similarly, we don’t see a lot of “good things” reported simply because those things aren’t remarkable, they’re ordinary, they’re more common than the other. Also, of course, we need to know about the bad things that happen because they represent problems that need solutions; but we cannot find solutions through unrealistic fear, or through a haze of rigid either/or perceptions. Our reality is personal, shaped through the filter of our perception, but society’s reality is perceived through the filter of our cultural messages. The public media have become more interested in creating exciting, vivid and dramatic stories than in the presentation of facts. We not told what is, but how to think about what is. Something called the vividness effect causes us to attach importance to a story based on its presentation rather than its content.

The particular meme I commented about caught my attention because we are now being told by a great many people that America is in decline, that our problems are too great and too urgent for calm, rational discussion, that there is some imagined point in the past that, if we could only return to it, would eliminate all our problems.

There is no such point.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, The United States of America has seen tremendous progress as well as terrible tragedy. There is much work to be done, and there is even some backsliding, but that is the nature of cultural change. It takes time, it’s difficult, and it requires us to be willing and able to work together; we cannot do it by just shouting at each other and retreating into the comforting company of those who already agree with us. America is as great as it has ever been; but we are being told to look over there instead, see the bad things, fear what you see, all else is a lie.

I remember thinking these same things about the proliferation of issues-oriented bumper stickers in the second half of the last century. There was quite a bit of commentary about “bumper sticker arguments” and the danger they posed to rational discussion. But encountering (and actually being able to read) a bumper sticker was fairly random. Now social media has made the meme so ubiquitous that one cannot avoid being confronted with all kinds of foolish, ill-considered, fallacious, manipulative, and even outright deceitful and malicious messages if one is to enter that great modern marketplace of ideas. Technology has given us tremendous tools for communication, interaction, and cooperation, and all we can think to do is use them to drive us apart. My reasonable respondent talked about a rising fever of hate and entitlement. Part of this perception is the result of that technology giving a voice and a platform to people who have never had those before. As a society and a culture, we need to learn how to use the tools, how to act responsibly with all this new-found power; how not to let those who are already powerful use it to manipulate and control us.

The past is prologue, not prescription. There is no such thing as “the good old days.” Memory does not recall so much as it reconstructs the past. We need to replace a false nostalgia for an idyllic time that never existed with a commitment to see the world as it really is right now, at this moment in history; and we need to look forward to how we can do better tomorrow. The lessons of the past cannot be learned through rose-colored glasses, but through a more realistic, albeit sometimes harsh, examination of who we have been, who we have become, and who we want to be.

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