By Chris Riendeau
This piece has had many names, as puns befit its contents and titling is an effective form of procrastination:
“Dr. Hashtag: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Meme”
“Generation Trump: A Play in Three Memes”
“Twitter, Tumbler, Snapchat, Spy.”
This piece has had many dramatic introductory sentences:
“Since the days of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, pictographs have defined human culture…”
“As the dust settled on that fateful night, many sought solace in the only refuge left: hashtags.”
This piece, much like its subject, will solve no problems, but may provide a new connection, a small amount of clarity, or just a short distraction before the crushing weight of it all settles back down upon you. This piece is about memes. This piece is about hashtags. I am truly sorry about that.
This past week, the feeds—as we’ve come to call them—were full of United Airlines memes. United Airlines forcibly removed a passenger who was bumped from a flight, bloodying him in the process. The art of the meme, the craft of the hashtag, is connecting current events with popular culture in a humorous way, in way that shows you are the cleverest of them all. “Get off my plane,” Harrison Ford growls in a scene from Air Force One, “This is United,” captions a scene from 300 where a man is kicked dramatically into a pit. This is #UnitedMovieLines, and we were enraptured by it. What better way to unify the population than complaining about airlines? Did you know the U.S. has some of the lowest-rated airlines worldwide? Our air-travelers truly are put into some compromising positions when flights are overbooked. Also last week, the military in Chechnya began kidnapping gay men and putting them in concentration camps.
Jared Kushner, a young man in the real estate business who married Ivanka Trump some years back, travels to Iraq to tour the area. He wore a navy blazer with khakis—the white privilege uniform—under his flak jacket, which was arguably an absurd choice in both fashion and practicality. His hashtag is #KushnerAtWar. His photos do not even need to be photoshopped, his captions are easy and plentiful: “Brooks Brothers in Arms,” “Saving Private Equity,” “Seal Team Six Sigma.” What they are all saying is that Kushner is a ridiculous and unqualified choice to lead any U.S. foreign policy initiatives. What they are saying is that Kushner seems to have more influence than actual Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. What they are saying is that Kushner is a child of privilege who has no understanding of hardship and the juxtaposition of his expensive suits and the uniforms of soldiers risking their lives in a warzone only serves to highlight how out of touch the administration is with government, and the military, and regular human beings who get bumped off of United flights because they don’t own private jets. What they are saying is the unashamedly wealthy own the government now and will destroy the rest of us as they enrich themselves and their friends. They are saying it in puns, though, because that is the only way anyone will share, retweet, reblog, and thus realize what is happening. Also last week, Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical weapons attack on civilians in Syria.
That isn’t to say there is a lack of information beyond the puns. That isn’t to say the hard stories aren’t being told somewhere, beyond the meme. You may read long think-pieces and academic theses on U.S. foreign policy, the history of airline regulations, Chechnya’s relationship with Putin and Russia. With what level of fluency, though, does the subconscious absorb this memery while the conscious mind slogs through these larger works, their points and counterpoints, their graphs and charts? How much easier is it to chuckle and internalize than to spend hours separating rhetorical flourish from sharp analysis? I have a friend who is sketching out an article on the subconscious influence of The National Enquirer, as it sits in our peripheral vision once or twice a week while we pay for groceries. Most of us do not read it, save the headlines, and typically only for a quick laugh, but we keep seeing it and she believes that to be significant.
The hashtags agree; #IfTheyGunnedMeDown shows us the collective influence of subtle imagery by pointing out the media’s use of unflattering photos of black people accused of crimes, while white perpetrators get suit-and-tie yearbook photos put up on the screen. People juxtapose well-lit photos of themselves in Navy uniforms or business suits next to goofy selfies from college holding a liquor bottle or flashing a peace sign, then they challenge the media to choose. It is white privilege summed up neatly in two images, the media giving the benefit of the doubt to the smiling Ivy-League rapist, but not to the unarmed black teenager shot by the police. In isolation, there is little power in choosing one photograph or one headline. There is little lost by one glance at the tabloids perched next to the Tic-Tacs. The power, however, accumulates over time, eroding the conscious mind as a river wears earth into a canyon, forming a gaping abyss of collective unconscious biases we must now leap over, Evel Knievel-like, to find the truth.
But what if that steadily flowing stream instead cuts a valley into a mountain, removing the wall between us and the real world? The hashtag has certainly proven itself able to inform as well as it distracts and misleads. Black Lives Matter is a prime example of a movement coalesced around a hashtag. To say there was not activism to combat police brutality prior to 2012 would discount the hard work of thousands of people, but #BlackLivesMatter gave a name and a slogan to something which was largely being ignored. #BlackLivesMatter made politicians get up on podiums and apologize for their insensitivity, for not addressing the issues and concerns of people of color. A movement moves on its marketing—people are currency in activism—and this movement has built some serious momentum since 2012. Actions, as they are wont to do, beget reactions, and half the top posts for #blacklivesmatter are now criticisms of the group. That isn’t to say their message has been lost in the valley of trolls. People are talking about this issue now on a scale even a Bruce Springsteen song couldn’t conjure up. Now, more than ever, it “ain’t no secret…you can get killed just for living in your American skin.” Progress continues to be made in spite of the trolls.
This morning, though, the memes have quieted down. The piece has been written and the storm has settled. Easter egg rolls, football contracts, the Boston Marathon are all trending. The long week is over, but I fear we’ve lost more than we’ve gained. #KushnerAtWar will not be the next #BlackLivesMatter. #UnitedMovieLines helped to tank the stock of United Airlines, but with a semi-monopoly on U.S. air travel, the stock has already rebounded, and the dip is hardly noticeable on an annual chart. The invisible seeds that have been planted inside of us by this spring’s blooming hashtags may never germinate. But they also have not disappeared. They are The National Enquirer, but they are also your deacon, your neighbor, your principal or your family. They are only one among many sources of information. We have not yet succumbed to seeing the world entirely through hashtags and memes, and although their influence is growing, it likely will never achieve primacy. But, as our attention spans adjust to quicker news cycles, these images tend to define moments more than headlines or books—at least in the short term. I make no judgments on whether this will help or hurt in the long run; as with all media, it is merely a tool to be used—its flaws are only magnifications of our own. You see, since the days of the Pharaohs humankind has turned to images to…
… ah, nevermind.
Chris Riendeau is a writer and musician from Wilmington, NC.