The Secret Language of Memes

I’m breaking a promise I made to myself last year, when I decided I would not post anything related to the election on Facebook. I’m aware I have wide range of friends with a variety of political views and it seems like every time I post something political, people sweep in with their respective talking points and nothing really gets said.

But I’m breaking that promise today, hopefully for a good reason. I’m breaking it because I want to explain something that the mainstream media and cable news networks do a lousy job of explaining. I want to explain memes.

I want to explain memes because I want people who did not spend their youth hanging out on internet messages boards to understand why many people my age are losing their minds over the meme that Donald Trump Jr. posted to Twitter this week.

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I know it looks like we’re overreacting. I know it gives people another excuse to shake their heads and think that we see racism under every doilie and behind every door. I’m going to try to explain to you, in a simple, common sense fashion, why memes like these are so significant.

Memes are inside jokes.

They might be pictures, they might be words, they might be a combination of both. For example, I belong to one internet message board where one of the members posts an image of a disproving bunny whenever she reads something that makes her upset.

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You wouldn’t believe how many search results you get for “disapproving bunny.”

Someone outside of the community might not understand why she does that, but we do, because it’s our inside joke. Every community has them.

Memes evolve over time. 

Someone makes a joke on a message board, or on reddit or tumblr (it’s okay, you don’t have to know what any of those things are) and someone else edits it onto an image of a nervous looking dog. Someone else decides it’s the perfect metaphor for a current situation and posts it to Twitter or Facebook and it spreads.

Because of how quickly memes evolve and change, it’s hard to trace them back. Sites like Know Your Meme try, but it’s like trying to write out a dictionary in sand.

All language is affected by context, and all language changes over time. That doesn’t make it meaningless. We use words and phrases today that had different meanings 100 years ago. That’s okay. We know what it means to us and what it means to our audience. We can use it and be understood.

Memes have a message.

So when Donald Trump Jr. posts a message comparing Syrian refugees to poisoned candy, people like me aren’t just seeing words over a stock image. We’re seeing a meme. In particular, we’re seeing a meme that’s been passed around for years on white supremacist message boards and websites. Originally it was M&Ms, not skittles, but the comparison was exactly the same.

And this isn’t the first time the Trump campaign has recycled memes from the white supremacist community. Last year Trump retweeted a “crime statistics” meme that cited data from a nonexistent, but official-sounding organization. The meme claimed that black-on-white murders accounted for 81% of U.S. homicides. That’s false. The actual number reported by the F.B.I. is 15%.

The “inside joke” there is that black people are violent and white people should be afraid. Guess who agrees with that?

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Just a guess.

These are two examples, but they’re not the only ones. This is not a matter of carelessness, or coincidence. Someone in the Trump campaign has been telling inside jokes with white supremacists for a while now, and they’re counting on the fact that only white supremacists will understand them.

That’s why we’re losing our minds. It’s incredibly frustrating to be the only person on the the archaeological expedition to the old abandoned mine who sees the murderous ghost miners.

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TELL ME YOU SEE THAT

The “inside joke” to the skittles meme is that Syrian refugees are dangerous. That’s an old joke. It was old when it was leveraged against Irish and Italian and German immigrants a century ago.

They can recycle it over a new stock image (which, ironically, was taken by a photographer who was himself a refugee) but they’re still telling the same old joke. As we say on the internet, “I see what you did there.” And I’m not laughing.

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Love before Judgment

It can be hard, in a house with three small children, to have any kind of adult conversation. That’s why when my husband I do manage to talk, these conversations often take place in pieces. A few minutes here, a few minutes there, a handful of texts exchanged during the day.

Often we’ll start a conversation on the way home from church that spans into the week, and this week we’ve been talking about judgment. It started because of something Andrew said in our adult Sunday School class. I might be paraphrasing here, but he said “Jesus started with love. Until I can love someone like Jesus does, I can’t judge them.”

“But…”

Because judgment is one of those topics in faith. We say “well, we can’t judge” as we’re judging someone. We can judge someone for being too judgmental. We can spin it into a slippery slope argument (well, if you can’t judge, how are you supposed to know right from wrong?). It’s very easy for conversations about judgment to get tangled up and go nowhere.

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Much like my garden hose.

This is the famous “judge not” verse in the gospel of Matthew (7:1-2, Contemporary English Version):

Don’t condemn others, and God won’t condemn you. God will be as hard on you as you are on others! He will treat you exactly as you treat them.

It’s the second part that always chills me. The NIV version talks about being judged by the same measure, which always makes me picture a scale where all the judgments I’ve made are piled up on one side, dragging the ground.

So here’s a straightforward, unambiguous commandment. Don’t judge. Great. Conversation over.

Except that it’s not, because everyone will invariably respond with, “But what about pedophiles? What about murderers? What about people who throw their trash out of car windows? It’s okay for us to judge them, right?”

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I think part of this is a language issue. “Judgment” in our context, is not always a bad thing. I try to exercise good judgment with my money. I weigh a lot of factors before making a large purchase, and I try to make sound decisions that will benefit our household. We call that judgment.

But that’s not what Jesus is referring to in Matthew, which is why I like the CEV better than the NIV. Jesus is talking about condemnation. He’s talking about the human reflex that allows us to rationalize our own flaws while looking down the weaknesses of others.

So can we condemn pedophiles? Murders? Litterbugs?

Andrew and I continued talking about this through the week and this is the answer that he came up with. He said we absolutely can condemn the actions. We can and should condemn the sexual exploitation of children. We can condemn murder. We can condemn littering.

But we can’t condemn the person.

And this is where it really gets tricky, because what does that look like in practice?

Jesus condemned the actions of the money lenders and the people who were economically exploiting others, but when he saw Zacchaeus, a dishonest tax collector, he called out to him and invited him into his presence.

And yes, Zacchaeus repented, but Jesus reached out in love first. It wasn’t conditional. Jesus didn’t say “repent and then I’ll eat with you.”

Of course, Jesus, being Jesus, knew Zacchaeus’ heart. We might reach out in love and never see it followed by repentance. The only repentance schedule we really have any control over is our own.

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This is my repentance schedule.

I came across this passage in Romans this week (13:8-10, CEV again):

Let love be your only debt! If you love others, you have done all the Law demands. In the Law there are many commands, such as, “Be faithful in marriage. Do not murder. Do not steal. Do not want what belongs to others.”

But all of these are summed up in the command that says, “Love others as much as you love yourself.” No one who loves others will harm them. So love is all that the Law demands.

It’s a shame that “love,” much like “judgment,” is also a word that we can’t seem to agree on the meaning or the application of. I’ve heard many people argue that judgment IS love, and they would want someone to point out their sin if they were the one sinning.

That is, of course, a steaming load of horse manure.

Because there is no “if.” We all have plenty of sin in our lives. And most of us go to the church on Sunday safe in the knowledge that no one will call us out on it.

And that’s what we want, isn’t it? That’s how we want to be treated. We want to be given the benefit of the doubt. We want time and space to work through our issues. We want to be accepted as a flawed, complicated human being.

We want to be loved.

It’s so much easier to accept that grace than it is to give it.