Memes can elect presidents and spark mass revolts. Why shouldn't they determine the fate of the world?
Most of us know that there's something up with Washington and the military-industrial complex that's running our world, which together are ignoring the very real threat of impending disaster due to the amount of carbon we're belching into the atmosphere.
The U.S. military is the number one burner of carbon in the world, after all.
Yet, though there have been significant pockets of protest, in general, activism has not taken off on the level required to spark change on the necessary scale. Part of this could be because there's just so much to protest, as every single day seems to bring another racist attack, another horrific report from the border, another apocalyptic headline. With the 24/7 news cycle constantly screaming or beeping out informational toxic waste, it's become too much information to bear.
Fortunately, memes have leapt in to provide an outlet for existential despair, suicidal ideation, hate, and other feelings too dark to express in the day-lit realm of seriousness. If reality is like the sun, impossible to look at straight-on, then memes have become like sunglasses for certain subsects of the online sphere—ways to comprehend events or express views without fully acknowledging their implications. This is visible in the rise of memes about mental illness and of course, politics.
tbh we should storm area 51 just because of this quote https://t.co/JhIrPsOhgs— Skoog (@Skoog) 1563546193.0
i hope i get murdered when i storm area 51— sad girl (@sad girl) 1563154435.0
This is the entire summer of 2019 compressed into one tweet. https://t.co/2pIS7PDTGC— Jimmy Chi @ PAX West (@Jimmy Chi @ PAX West) 1563314125.0
The Area 51 Raid Could Be a Blueprint for a Revolt
In recent times, memes—or rather, a single meme, which blossomed into a Facebook group and spawned posts and tweets—have successfully persuaded one million people to RSVP that they are "going" to invade Area 51, the U.S. military base that has long been the subject of conspiracy theories. This is a clear example of how quick and effective memes are at mass mobilization.
Soon enough, people began to understand the implications of this spontaneous unification. Critics began questioning why people were rallying around an impossible and pointless Area 51 attack (sorry—I wish it were possible as much as the next guy, believe me) instead of a raid on, say, the ICE prisons at the border where people are actively dying in U.S. custody.
The truth is, though, it's becoming clear that serious, genuine attempts at changing the world have difficulty catching on in today's nihilistic, fragmented society. Fifty years after the summer of '69, hope doesn't hold the sway it used to; we don't believe that anything like 'give peace a chance' will work. We've watched too many optimists fail. We've seen too many cult leaders carted off to prison, too many men we thought were great exposed for who they really are.
We've seen the explosive production that defined the 20th century launch globalization in the 21st century, which has resulted in mass ecological crisis and waves of displacement that we know will only worsen as the earth warms. We've been told to turn off our lights as carbon companies churn out more pollution every year.
We've seen lies infiltrate our television screens from both sides of the political spectrum. We've watched pundits say the world will end in ten years because of climate change, then we've switched to FOX to see other pundits saying that climate change is a conspiracy.
Really, there's not much else to do except fall into complete depression and/or anxiety, or laugh it off. Perhaps merely incidentally, memes help us to do the latter, allowing us to alchemize those two polarized reactions into something unified, if only in its distortedness.
Memes as Tools of Social Change—Or Alt-Right Solidarity
After all, for all their flaws, memes do something vital for any healthy social movement, something that few digital users would care to admit. Memes foster community, presenting an alternative to the lonely echo chamber of the social media sphere and the capitalist system at large, which thrives on competition and the cult of the individual.
There is revolutionary potential in this resilient unification. Imagine, for example, if someone could shape climate change into a contagious meme. Imagine if "storm the Exxon Mobil factory" could collect the number of comments and RSVPs that this event has. Could it be that memes are the best hope for humanity?
Memes are perfect revolutionary devices because they allow us to connect and unify in the most anonymous of senses, permitting secret or radical thoughts to catch on like wildfire. Sometimes, this can have horrible consequences. Being implicitly neutral, memes are just as useful at fostering the rise of the alt-right and electing Trump as they could be in unifying protestors against climate change, or around the next Democratic presidential candidate.
But while memes can fuel hate, they can also fuel—to quote presidential candidate and meme Marianne Williamson—love. Perhaps the rise of memes says something about love; perhaps it proves that while we (as Gen-Z and millennials, to make a sweeping generalization) can't tolerate the intimacy of real, genuine bonds anymore—while ideas like "love will save us" feel antithetical—we can tolerate intimacy through the synthetic, chemical bonding that occurs through internet friendships, which allow us to remove ourselves from the equation, to strip away our public personas and instead to distill ourselves to something fluid, changeable at will.
In that anonymity, we feel the freedom to be ourselves, outside of the cage of the 'self' we perform in the real world. We can admit our flawed natures and fears; we can admit that we are "in shambles," while still preserving a self-effacing detachment. Always, there's the oddly comforting possibility that it's all a joke.
Needless to say, we need some new climate change memes
If Revolution Were a Meme
More and more, memes are becoming one of the primary ways to comprehend the truth of ourselves and our world, a truth so submerged in layers of complexity and misinformation that sometimes it only feels possible to discuss it in the liminal space of half-seriousness, half-absurdity that defines the memetic sphere.
Memes allow us to address what's breaking us down—such as the unchecked greed and corruption that began way back in the early stages of global colonization and is now causing climate change—without risking the kind of vulnerability that genuine emotion (be it hope or anger) requires. Memes allow us to commit to traveling across the country to rally and protest not because we think it will work, but because we think it will fail.
That's the kind of abandon it's going to take to protest climate change, or its forefather—late-stage capitalism—both of which can feel so overwhelming that it's hard to act at all. To really fight climate change and the capitalist systems that created it, maybe we need to stop taking everything so damn seriously. Maybe we need to lighten up—to rage against the apocalypse—to do something utterly absurd, like hold a collective dance-off at the site of the next pipeline in the Pacific Northwest, or a mass juuling session, or all throw tide pods at ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods' house—or something else, something that could only come from the belly of the Interwebs. Something that will flicker on cell phone screens across the country and across the world, provoking smiles or raised eyebrows, calling people to action in spite of themselves, pulling Americans out of their inclination towards apathy.
Maybe the Area 51 revolt could be a lesson. It's proof that today's Americans can and are willing to rally around specific causes. It's proof that memes are extraordinarily powerful weapons or tools, depending how they're used. It's all this, and it's none of this, because memes elude serious scrutiny, existing in a space that looks something like freedom.
Image via CBC