Type “mean-spirited memes” into your search line and nearly a million “results” will appear. I reached a point yesterday when I had just had enough of all of the gotchas, gibes and jabs being thrown across the political spectrum. So I added my comment to a string under a friend’s post of Trump’s misstatement that “…in a number of states the laws allow for a baby to be born from his or her mother’s womb in the ninth month.” The remarks were made during an address for the March for Life’s 45th rally. The President clearly meant to say “torn,” not “born,” intending for his statement to decry late-term abortions, as he did elsewhere in his address when he voiced support for the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.
Now granted, I could have chosen a more mean-spirited meme to address, but I’d just had my fill and wanted to engage in a meaningful conversation. I could easily have chosen a “safer space” than the Facebook page of a hard-left leaning friend, but then I would have missed the robust back and forth that followed.
I was a professor for much of my career and I am a believer that we learn best when we come up against that which challenges us; we learn when we have to wrestle with an issue. I have friends across the entire political spectrum and my feed is filled to the brim most days with nasty memes. My friend’s “calling someone out on a misstatement” may have been one of the least offensive of the bunch, but it provided a starting point for asking a series of questions starting with this: what value is there in mean-spirited memes? Now I appreciate satire and satire has certainly been employed, throughout history, to bring change. But when does satire (the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues) cross a line? Do mean-spirited memes move give and take conversations forward or are they shutdowners? Are they just easy grenade-like toss-ats or can they be effective in bringing change? And…can folks–on opposite ends of the spectrum–engage in debate without resorting to name calling (which is how, as you’ll see, the following conversation devolved and then evolved)?
I launched in to the conversation on my friend’s Facebook page by noting that mean-spirited memes do nothing but make those who create them and those who share them look petty and mean. And I asked in relation to the meme at hand, “would you want such memes to be created recounting every misstatement of yours?”
Here’s where the conversation went from there. I’ve done some condensing, but have remained true to the gist.
“Petty and Mean are Donald’s middle names,”one woman opined. “If he would actually think before he speaks, there would be far fewer opportunities for such memes.”
My response: “So incivility should be the response to perceived incivility? I’m reminded of a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’”
“No,”she answered. “Reminding people of what he truly is like is not incivility. He should not be allowed to just gloss over his disorganized and at times nonsensical sentences. His lack of presidential qualities is embarrassing.”
A man chimed in with this: “He flubbed up some words and was made fun of, but the words he meant to speak are even more asinine than his mistaken quote…#1 it is a huge lie, there are NO states that allow abortions that late in a pregnancy unless there is a severe threat of death for the mother giving birth and that is an extremely rare and understandable condition. #2. The problem isn’t that he flubbed some words, the problem is that this idiot just spews out whatever he wants to say whether it is true or not….. So he got teased for making a silly mistake, but the truth is he should be vilified and reviled for trying to spread false and dangerous propaganda about a subject he knows absolutely nothing about…. Please Donna, stop defending this turd, it only makes you look bad.”
My response: “Memes like this and your response do nothing but shut down conversations with those who hold opposing opinions. You’re using the same tactics you say you revile in Trump. I wasn’t defending Trump; I was commenting on the faulty approach of the meme. Could you see MLK posting this? I think I commented on this meme and others today because I’m tired of these mean-spirited slams being posted across the political spectrum. These Molotov cocktails do nothing but inflame. I appreciate satire. I just wish folks would talk to each other instead of ranting at each other.”
My friend then popped in: “Well I’m certainly not MLK, and never pretended to be. Lol I’m with [the previous male responder] on this. Personally, I am a Roe vs Wade supporter and believe it’s no ones [sic] business but a woman and her physician as to how her medical decisions are made.”
The woman, who had initially responded wrote, “Pro-life means supporting health care, early childhood interventions, education, etc. Pro-birth or pro-fetus is something else entirely.”
To which I responded, “You know nothing about me. I’m pro-life in every way that can be understood, and my entire history would bear that out.” My friend, who was a student of mine many years ago, said she knew that to be true.
I then wrote: “I was not defending Trump in posting my comment. Yes, Trump made a horrendous blunder. He often says ridiculous things. Again, I’m just tired of people today talking at each other rather than talking to each other. People–again, from across the political spectrum–throw up memes like this and refuse to listen to one another. The responses that have followed my initial post [ha-ha emojis among them] prove my point. Many of them are hate-filled and derisive and those responding have no idea who I am or what I think. They’ve leapt to conclusions because I didn’t fall in lock step to celebrate this meme. I don’t celebrate ANY mean-spirited memes no matter who posts them.”
A newcomer, who I’d estimate to be a twenty-something, put ha-ha emojis on all my comments and then wrote [I’m sharing her comments unedited]: “we don’t care what you celebrate or don’t ‘My initial posts prove my point…’ No one really cares about your points either This is Facebook and you’re wasting your time I sorta half read through what you said, but after the grammatical errors I stopped You’re the world Police of Facebook, right ? Here to condemn us all for being mean when really you’re probably the biggest bully here Know what I do to a bully? I tell them to fuck off I barely know [my friend who’d shared the meme] and she has nothing to do with how I think Go play by yourself”
Quite coincidentally, my friend noted that “our FB pages are our private playgrounds, where we can vent, share, educate or just laugh at what tickles us.” Private playgrounds, it seems, where people recreate and re-create publicly, and new arrivals are often bullied and kicked to the curb as just so much refuse needing disposal.
Well, I then said: “Thank you to those who engaged respectfully with me on here. I wish we could have had a conversation around my initial comment on whether mean-spirited memes have any value. I wasn’t looking to discuss Trump’s words or pro-life/pro-choice issues and, if you look back at my comments, I hope you’ll see I did my best to respond to each person with respect, honesty and caring concern.”
My friend concluded this portion of the conversation with these words [shared unedited]: “this is a very emotionally charged issue, I do get what you’re saying about memes, but I disagree that this meme falls into that spectrum and if it does so what, this really is FB and that’s all. I have no problem with how you feel about this, that is your right. But it is also Elizabeth’s right to feel the way she does, she has her experiences as you have yours. She is one of the loveliest woman I’ve eveh had the pleasure to know. Donna you knew exactly how my friends would respond, we’ve been thru this before. I lean pretty far left and I’m not a Christian so our friends are and will be very different. I must say you win this one as it appears Lizzie has left my page. Thanks. SMH”
And I said, “As I’m not welcome here, I will bow out as well.” Matthew 10:14 had come to mind, wherein we’re told that, if anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, you can leave and shake the dust off your feet. So, I unfriended my friend and shook the dust. But, as my friend’s page is set to “public,” the twenty-something replied, “I haven’t left your page I barely respond to people like Donna but I felt like putting someone in their place today People are so afraid to look within and search for meaning and the in between I saw a great shirt on a hiker yesterday and it said, ‘Make America Deep Again.’ Think about it”
Yes, indeed, let’s think about it.
After I posted this entry, a friend wrote to tell me that he’d attended a lecture last week by a visiting scholar, Armin Shimerman, from USC, noting that “he [Shimerman] teaches on Shakespeare and that was what his lecture was centered on. But more specifically, he spoke on why we don’t understand Shakespeare today. He posits that we, as a culture, have trouble understanding any literature predating the 1800s. The reason for that: we no longer teach Rhetoric., the basis of all the writings before that time. If we understood the rhetoric behind all the things Shakespeare wrote, we could understand the story better. He pointed to Aristotle’s three pillars of rhetoric: Logos, Pathos, and Ethos. The logic behind statements, the believability of the person making the statements, and the passion, or emotion being played on. I walked away from the lecture with my eyes a little glazed over, but I gained much insight. To understand the use of rhetoric, you can become much more persuasive in your life, and to not understand what is being done, you can become much more vulnerable. This comes to my mind as I view many rants and tirades on FB. There is little logos in any meme, but the image used can evoke some sense of pathos. The heavy emphasis is generally on the pathos, the trigger points and the words used. I too wish for more thoughtful discussions and always appreciate your essays. BTW don’t let the fact that Armin was also the actor that played Quark on DS9 detract from his pathos.”
My response: “I recognized the name, Armin Shimerman; I’m a Trekkie after all, though perhaps not on your exalted level! Thank you for sharing his and your wise words. I appreciate your wisdom and your caring concern. I have been reflecting on this whole experience, taking it as a case study in how I might better engage with those who are so quick to take offense and so unwilling to listen. I think my initial post must have been seen as an attack, but that was certainly not my intention. It seems often that, if you don’t fall lockstep into agreeing with whatever camp is onto whatever meme, folks will move to shut you down, refusing to enter into any kind of constructive debate. Not one person engaged with me on the topic of my initial post, the whole point for my posting. They went all over the map, down all kinds of rabbit holes and insulted me. Then they united to force me to shut down. Sound familiar? Perhaps I should have given more thought to how I would be heard and whether it was worth entering into this particular fray.
The shutting down of others, clearly seen in this exchange, provides a picture–in microcosm–of what’s happening across our society.
My friend, in a conversation that reopened a bit later on Facebook, told me she didn’t mean to make me feel unwelcome. But, I reminded her that she had sided with the one who had treated me reprehensibly. I was not made to feel welcome. I was castigated for speaking, and that–I said–should frighten her because the shutting down of free speech, the inability to engage in civil discourse in the public square (or on a friend’s Facebook page) should be opposed with everything we’ve got.
The entire tone of the conversation on my friend’s Facebook page shifted when another individual stepped in to tell me that she respected my thoughts and considered them valid. She went on to say: “I respect your statement and your question. I think sometimes what appears to be mean-spirited is an expression of legitimate frustration. I have to say that I don’t like name-calling and have had problems hearing this on both sides. I really can’t appreciate the terms “Libtard” and ” Rethuglicans” and so on…I don’t like the Trump referred to as “Cheeto” nor Hillary as “Killary” and when I reflect on this… – I think it just seems so juvenile. Like kids in the playground spewing names at each other. As an educator, I find myself encouraging little children to be more constructive and they are quite receptive when the ideas are presented in ways that make sense to them. Name-calling gets us nowhere I believe. But, legit expressions of frustration are in a different category and come closer to what you’ve suggested about parody. We can learn from each other when engaging in discussions about recent events such as this blunder. I AM frustrated that a leader could be so inept as to not catch such a gross error – it is curious if nothing else. I stick to my former observations regarding why he did not catch himself. I think the discussion is good and the original post is not without merit.”
My friend then added, “I do agree with what you are saying Donna; there are so many memes I do not share for this very reason. In saying that, there are some I share because of the creativity of the creator, some because they are actually funny, some because they trigger my pathos, and some because I’m simply in a mood. Like I said, my fb is my playground, and much of what I post is not there for any serious debate. Fb, for me, is a tool to keep up with people who are far away or a toy to find unusual things and share with my like-minded peeps. It is open for the public so anyone can comment and speak their mind. If I find something truly offensive I delete it. And no I do not believe people who have completely opposing beliefs can debate without becoming emotionally involved, which is why I do not debate the things I post.”
I said, “I would never suggest we not become emotionally involved…it’s how those emotions are shared. It can be an enormous challenge to debate, to address the other with respect, and to come away as friends, even when we continue to have opposing beliefs.”
My friend added, “I do agree with that. For me it’s just about letting people be who they are. Sometimes that frustrates me, or angers me, but in the end, I get over it as I realize I probably trigger stuff in others. But for me at this age, I’ve experienced enough to know my beliefs will not be swayed by debate. As I know others are shaped by their experiences and I will not try to change their minds. There will always be, and must be opposing forces in all things, the yin yang of it all. So, as we swing on the pendulum from one side to another, I choose to enjoy myself where ever it’s swinging at the moment.”
I should note that, as my friend’s page is set to “public,” she didn’t mind my sharing, on this site, the exchange that had been playing out there. And, odd as it may seem, I’m grateful that I entered into the conversation with words that might have been taken as offensive because I learned I shouldn’t do that in any future go-rounds. And, you know? I must admit that the creator of the born-torn meme was actually quite clever. A clear opening had been provided; it was easy to take direct aim and it would have been hard to miss the target. Mistaking born for torn? At the March for Life?! That was a beaut of a blunder; the President left himself wide open.
In the end, my friend and I came to a greater understanding and greater appreciation of each other, and I actually gained a new Facebook friend: the woman who entered in at the tail end, the one who acknowledged I had some good points, the one who shared her own views respectfully and thoughtfully.
Now, I have one last bit to share…
Coincidental to my entering into this exchange on Facebook, was my viewing of a CBS Sunday Morning segment that centered on the shutting down of free speech on college campuses. The professor in me perked up and zeroed in. I hope you’ll take the time to visit the link here: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/a-war-of-words-on-college-campuses/
In the program, an altercation at Middlebury College in March, 2016 was recalled that was sparked by the appearance of Charles Murray, a libertarian political scientist with the American Enterprise Institute. He’d been invited to the Vermont college to discuss his Coming Apart, a book that explores the growing divide between rich and poor white Americans. When he got up to speak, however, chanting and yelling students shouted him down.
The individual who had invited the author expected Murray would be controversial because of another book he had written, The Bell Curve. In that volume, Murray had suggested that race may play a part in determining intelligence, asserting that blacks do less well than white on IQ tests. CBS reporter Rita Braver interviewed one student who was looking forward to pressing him on these ideas, and Allison Stanger, a respected political science professor who had been selected to moderate the event because of her liberal credentials, was also eager to debate. When she and Murray were drowned out and shut down by the protests, Stanger lamented the missed educational opportunity.
Braver noted that Murray’s presence at Middlebury eventually resulted in violence. “When Professor Stanger was escorting Murray out, they were attacked by a mob that included outside activists, and she was left with a concussion and whiplash.”
Stanger was clearly saddened by all of this. She had reviewed The Bell Curve and had prepared tough questions that she never got to ask in front of an audience that was listening. She told Braver: “It was this real group-think mob mentality where people weren’t reading and thinking for themselves, but rather relying on other people to tell them what to think.”
Murray and Stanger were essentially told–or, rather, forced–to “go play by themselves,” and this brought me back to the suggestion that Facebook pages can be seen by some as private playgrounds where new arrivals can be bullied and kicked to the curb when they don’t fall into lockstep line. Shutting down. Shutting down. But…it doesn’t have to be this way. We can shake the dust, put our shoes back on, and start in again with respect for one another and a renewed determination to listen and learn.