The Subtle But Dangerous Attitudes of Verbal Meme Culture
I get it; memes are funny. Reposting people’s snarky tweets can be funny. Finding someone who worded a belief of yours all nice-and-neatly in a few sentences in such a way that people will comment “so true!” and “preach!” on your Facebook status if you share it… it’s just too good to pass up, right?
But the more I observe the internet habit of using short and punchy one-or-two-liners to make comments about political or moral issues, the more I get frustrated with what it’s turning into. While I love the internet and the awesome opportunities and connections it provides, I want to share some concerns I have with what I’m going to call “Meme Culture”… and I’m going to be talking particularly to the Church.
1. A Culture That Thrives on Mocking Others
When it comes to getting our political or controversial points across on the internet, finding the funniest meme about it seems to be a common trend. We enjoy sharing a good BURN on the other side… we want to point out the nonsense that the opposing theory holds… we want to stress that my view is held by reasonable and intelligent people, and that the other view can really only be held by idiots, or (insert insulting political term).
DISCLAIMER: Posting a well-written, funny tweet is NOT automatically bad, and sarcasm is not automatically bad. I love when I find a post that says exactly what I think in a much better way than I could’ve said it! (Did you notice that I ramble?) And humor is great… I am all for bringing more laughter into the world!
But there are days when I scroll down Facebook and see meme after meme after meme that use mocking tones, dismissive phrasing, name-calling, or just plain rudeness in order to make their point and get a laugh. And when Christians follow this trend and use humor to deride, dismiss, belittle, condemn, and name-call those who think differently from us… well, it’s not good! We like to throw out the whole “oh but I’m just speaking the truth!” as our reasoning… but there is an abundance of Scripture that references HOW we are supposed to speak! We are supposed to speak truth in love (Eph 4:15), we should speak words that are edifying and not unwholesome (Eph 4:29), we need to use gentle answers to turn away wrath (Prov 15:1), we should repay evil with a blessing instead of more insults (1 Peter 3:9), we should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger (James 1:19), and on and on.
I think mockery has become too easily accepted, and it can be very harmful. I get hurt when I see memes that make fun of what I believe, and I wish that the person who posted it would realize that there is more to it than that, and more to ME than that. I want to extend the same grace to everyone else in what I share. If we want to be a good witness, we have GOT to stop behaving like the world and using their same methods of arguing. We shouldn’t be willing to use every nasty trick in the book to get our point across just because it’s “the truth”. We must learn to be loving and grace-filled in our speech, in our posts, and in our attitudes towards others… EVEN with people we completely disagree with.
2. The “Dude, It’s Just a Joke!” Attitude
Scenario: John posts a snarky meme about something controversial. His Facebook friend Sally comments and says “Well that’s not the way it works, what about this?” John replies, “Oh my gosh, it was a joke! Seriously, take a chill pill!” Have you ever seen that happen? I have.
DISCLAIMER: I do want to be fair and say that the poster has a right to do that. It’s their shared post, if they want to delete comments or say “no debating here”, that is totally fine! Not everyone wants to get into these kinds of arguments, and if Sally had responded rudely (as often happens), John can totally say “nuh-uh, not on my post”.
But I also think that this attitude can be unhelpful and can come across as very defensive. You might want to only use the post “as a joke”, but those mini-paragraphs don’t get everything right. What if the point of the meme is problematic? What if there’s something major it missed? What if it is factually incorrect? What if somebody is personally bothered by its tone and they want to make a case for their side? You absolutely have the right to moderate the comments on your posts… but you also have to understand that when you post something publicly on social media, friends absolutely have a right to comment. The views you represent, the posts you deem worthy of sharing, they might get seen by people who don’t agree with you, and getting comments about it is just part of the social media culture.
I also get that sometimes people post something and only really agree with 70% of it. But if they don’t specify that, viewers will likely assume that the poster is endorsing 100% of the message. Your friends might be offended or confused by that 30% you “don’t really mean”. When that happens, what is the best way to respond? It might be to moderate the comments, especially if anyone gets nasty. But instead of being defensive and deflecting the responsibility that we hold by sharing that post in the first place, as Christians, we should ask “Is there any truth in what my friend said? Do I need to rethink how this meme was phrased? Even if I still think they’re wrong, how can I reply graciously?”
3. No Room for Growth
DISCLAIMER: Okay, so there are definitely some non-negotiables in the world of morality that are evil no matter what. Racism is wrong, abuse is wrong, cheating is wrong, murder is wrong, etc.
But when you start breaking moral questions down into categories and sub-categories, situations become complex with increased factors to consider. That doesn’t mean that right and wrong still don’t exist in a very real sense, they do; if a majority of people believe in something that’s wrong, it doesn’t make it right. But it’s possible that the truth of a situation (be it moral, political, social, whatever) may be bigger than you think. And maybe, just maybe, that 3-sentence meme is not enough to cover all of the situation fairly.
Occasionally when two people disagree, it’s because one of them is right and the other is just selfish or crazy. But that is probably not the case nearly as often as we think! When we judge the motivations of another person without being willing to listen to their story, or if we dismiss the stories that they’ve already shared, we are allowing our sound-bites to take out all human complexity and reduce each other to easy but inaccurate labels. It may feel better to lump everybody into “us” versus “them” categories, but that just creates hardened hearts; it builds up walls that block every attempt that someone with a different viewpoint might use to get you to see their side. We are all human, and we all have blind spots. Even things that God reveals to us when we are young get refined and perfected as we mature and grow; we may go from thinking “this one thing God told me is the way it works all the time and in every situation” and instead He might correct some of that and say “but don’t forget this over here; now let’s put the two of them together and see the bigger picture”.
Repenting when we make mistakes, having an attitude of humility, and being willing to listen to other people is a much better way to represent our faith, and so often God uses that to help us grow. We should be honest, and we should care about truth. But we have to remember that internet memes are such a small snippet of what is true… and sometimes it’s kinder to give up the opportunity for some laugh emojis if it’s at the expense of some truths that the meme is dismissing.
In writing this, I know that my blog is only one perspective, and it does not contain all the “truth” in this divided culture either. We need people to stand up for what’s right. But if we, as the Church, are neglecting the Scriptures that points us to compassion and kindness, and instead are justifying patterns of cruelty, mockery, or callousness in our speech and actions… I think there are attitudes that we seriously need to change. In this culture of division where verbal assaults are going on everywhere we look, maybe it’s time to swallow our scornful replies, and instead look to see how we can use our faith to listen, uplift, and point people to the eternally gracious heart of Jesus.