CASTELLI: Memes are important counterculture tools

Opinion Column: Conservative Across The Aisle

Peppa Pig, an innocuous children’s cartoon character, was scrubbed from its various video-sharing platforms in China due to its association with counterculture memes and “society people" — slang for unruly slackers and gangsters. The “cheeky little piggy” has sparked a tattoo craze and other subtle ways to take a jab at the communist government, which heavily monitors the media its citizens consume as an effort against western influence. Despite its pushback, Peppa Pig continues to grow among rebellious Chinese youth. 

The intermingling of popular culture and politics is a reality in our country, whether you like it or not. Regardless of what you identify as, politics crops up — quite ham-fisted, I might add — in everything we consume, especially in memes. Perhaps the worst offenders are politicians and corporations trying to appeal to the young demographic with cringe-inducing and out-of-touch memes that were relevant in 2012. These people go out of their way to market themselves to the younger generation and fail miserably, yet nobody tells them to stop. Why? Memes have the power to influence culture — as we saw in the 2016 presidential election — and they are scrambling to catch up. 

Richard Dawkins originally coined the term "meme" as a concept to explain the evolution of ideas and cultural phenomena. Examples of memes include fashion, slang and the sharing of cultural ideas, symbols or practices. Dawkins suggested that memes may follow the same pressure that genes face during evolution, that is, their replication relies on exposure to humans, who may refine or combine them and thus create new ones over time. 

The modern usage of the word "meme" refers to a humorous piece of media that is copied with slightly different variations and spread rapidly by internet users. The longevity of a meme requires that the meme have the flexibility for creative re-imaginings in order for it to evolve and stay fresh. That is why memes that convey a similar message are often collaged together to create a new joke, or old jokes are suddenly popular again because a new twist was added to them. 

What ultimately causes the death of these memes is when they go mainstream, which is where politicians come in. There is an unspoken rule that once a meme is explained or it leaves the niche realm of the internet, it is no longer funny. Especially when they are analyzed with an all-too critical lens, memes are no longer an art form, but a shallow political tool that can be abused. 

Conversely, when the media or politicians condemn an edgy meme, it spikes in popularity. Both of these effects are the result of the lack of knowledge on the account of politicians and journalists. Having a meme co-opted and popularized ruins the secrecy of it, and having it condemned shows an ignorant understanding of internet culture and its proliferation purely due to spite. 

Most memes are operating in the post-ironic era, in which memes curated contain multiple layers of irony that require an extensive knowledge of previous memes and trends in order to understand. Frequent internet users have been finding more difficult ways to make meme literacy exclusive to the internet in order to keep its cultural currency from deflating in value. Yet, there is a mischievousness among those fully immersed in meme culture to have their impact on society, often through various hoaxes that the media eats up. If memes have become exclusive to those on the internet, then why is there a desire — beyond the mere chaos of it — for them to be publicized?

Memes, at least the good and lasting ones, are indicative of the American spirit because they poke fun at the flaws in our society and are a means to rebel against them. It is a way for the younger generation, Left or Right, to communicate to a system that has failed them. The lack of understanding from higher institutions, as seen poignantly with the resurgence of Pepe the Frog, suggests a distance between the government and its citizens. Dismissive attempts to censor them in the name of hate speech just aggravates that divide. Memes are complex relics of culture that require context to understand and should be taken seriously. 

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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