August 18, 2019 | 73° F

CASTELLI: Meme culture is not necessarily tied to Right wing

Opinions Column: Conservative Across the Aisle


If there were anything the past two years have taught us, it is that a small innocuous green frog became the center of a counterculture movement. Pepe the Frog, created by Matt Furie, existed on the internet for around a decade before it was supposedly “co-opted” by Right-wing radicals on websites like 4chan. These images are “symbols” of the pervasive bigotry of American citizens. I mention this with skepticism because the out-of-touch journalists, social activists and older politicians who clutch their pearls at some edgy memes do not understand the sometimes apathetic and chaotic culture of the internet to the point where sharing some innocent meme may land you with the likes of some radical political ideology. How did it come to be that Pepe the Frog guaranteed a spot in future history textbooks? There are several possible explanations, much of which cannot be fully fleshed out due to word limits and the freshness of these developments, but I will try my best to analyze it.

A common misconception is that the rise of offensive memes are due to a rise of radical Right-wing ideology. The NPC Wojak meme, for example, depicts a Microsoft Paint illustration of a gray, bald man with a blank face, meant to mimic a non-playable character in video games who never deviates from its predetermined script, or people who do not think critically and are most likely going to believe whatever they hear instead of questioning it. The purpose of the meme is meant to poke fun at political activists, Left and Right, who regurgitate the same talking points and do not have any original thoughts, thus acting like NPCs. Those who call the meme “fascist” and “dehumanizing” clearly do not understand the purpose of the joke is to rile people up, regardless of political affiliation, and almost always they succeed in their endeavors. What makes these memes funny and appealing is the rapid reiterations and evolution of the joke, keeping them fresh and original.

These memes are not always created by members of the “alt-Right” nor are they “anti-liberal.” Most memes are not even inherently political. They are simply a template in which the creator makes a different reiteration of the meme. If it happens to be offensive or shocking, that is not indicative of the meme itself, but of the creator. Hillary Clinton’s condemnation of Pepe the Frog, therefore, is incredibly out of touch and ignorant of what meme culture is. The phrase “the Left can't meme” has its roots in the debate over individualism versus collectivism. While those who create memes are not always Right-wing, they tend to be more individualist and politically incorrect. They are not concerned with being offensive because they do not care about the group ostracizing them and are willing enough to risk making something, thus are more likely to contribute in meme culture. Generally, people on the far Left are concerned with the opinion of the group and are not willing to risk deviating from it. Those who create popular memes are not always Right-wing, but those who condemn memes as “hate speech” and “offensive” tend to be Left-wing.

Memes, specifically by niche groups such as 4chan and reddit, are often created with the purpose of seeing whether random, anonymous members on the internet can have an impact on real life. This is evident with the hoax that the "OK" sign was a symbol of white power, the suspect of the Texas Church Shooting as Sam Hyde and the ongoing trolling of Shia LaBeouf's “He Will Not Divide Us” project. There is a certain fascination that a collection of strangers from around the country, without leaving their homes, are able to have a lasting impression on the world outside of the internet. What is even more interesting is that the motivation is almost never some higher moral principles, such as justice or honor, but something rather mundane and even confusing: to have a good laugh and poke fun at the absurdity of people. Nowadays, activists utilize and manipulate memes in order to further their own political gain, whether it is to be relatable to the younger generation or try to appear laidback. Yet, it is exactly this that expediates the death of a meme. Memes are not meant to be taken seriously — they are meant for entertainment, the only place politics does not stick its ugly head.

Giana Castelli is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in political science. Her column, "Conservative Across the Aisle," runs on alternate Fridays.


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Giana Castelli

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