May 20, 2015 – Memes are the lingua franca of the online world – a thumbnail of our collective feelings about events of the moment—and usually they have something to do with Kim Kardashian, the latest disgraced politician, or someone from Florida. The memes that flood our Twitter feeds and the news cycle are awash in awkward screengrabs with pithy captions highlighting the lowlights of human behavior. But the immediacy of social media has empowered a new generation of cultural critics. No longer content to mock human foibles, the collective consciousness of the Internet is stepping up to speak truth to power. While global news networks cover celebrity plastic surgery, college kids live stream political corruption and police brutality. Ratings-obsessed cable news outlets grind up the day’s events into a bland paste of factoids and paid opinions, while the Twitterverse offers the counterpoint to the establishment-friendly narrative of “Keep Calm and Keep Buying.”
Take the mainstream media’s recent abortive attempt to meme-ify the recent political protests in Baltimore. One of the more infamous personalities of the Baltimore Uprising was Toya Graham, a young mother seen smacking the alphabet out of her teenaged son in full view of news cameras. The fifteen-second clip was looped endlessly and made the rounds on social media. News outlets primed to make it the “go to” image of the Baltimore Uprising. Graham later confessed during an interview that her goal was to get her son away from the protests before he caught the attention of the police. Some praised Graham as a model of attentive, albeit extreme, parenting, but critics saw the crude display as indicative of the same violence-as-conflict-resolution mentality she claimed protecting her son against. Less explored was what caused Graham’s sixteen-year-old son to take to the streets alongside hundreds of other Baltimore residents in the first place.
The controversy surrounding the Baltimore Uprising centered as much around the way the story was covered as much as the story itself. Images of a burning convenience store come to mind as quickly as those of a handcuffed and obviously distressed Freddie Gray being dragged to the back of a police wagon. Regardless of who’s responsible, CNN or @TeaPatriot1776, no one is served when events are defined by a single image or partial image. A photo of Lindsay Lohan doing community service may push more traffic on a blog, but it doesn’t help understand the root cause of her behavior. The same could be said about a close up of a burned out police car taken in front of a row of abandoned homes on a lightless, half-paved street in a major American city where 25,000 residents recently received shut-off notices from the city water department.
Compressing complex social issues into viral-friendly content does more than distort our view of the world; it robs us of the ability to think critically, to ask the right questions about what we’re being told. Turning Graham into a poster child for Tough Love distracts us from the truth. Logging onto Facebook and tagging desperate people grabbing what they can, when they can as “undocumented shoppers” doesn’t shed light on the conditions in Baltimore. Had anyone in the media asked Michael Graham, he likely could have expounded at length upon the daily indignities suffered by America’s poor and black citizens. Instead, talking heads tut-tut over estimates of property damage, entreat from their well-heeled guests the usual gnashing of teeth over the state of the black family and “black on black crime,” and nod somberly over bromides about “urban” schools and “income” & “achievement gaps.” Absent is any serious interest in finding out why so many unarmed citizens are shot dead by police every year, or why the police –who are doing the shooting—seem to be in a constant state of fear for their lives.
It’s easy to ignore the grim legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining and over-policing but history informs our shared present. It’s easy to look at the images of impoverished black people spilling out of a ransacked convenience store and conflate isolated opportunism with the genuine expressions of outrage by the overwhelming majority of Baltimore’s protestors. Lamenting a photo of a burned out liquor store as an example of black pathology glosses over the fact that Baltimore’s history of discriminatory policies likely means that liquor store is the closest thing to a grocery store that neighborhood has. But once the image is posted there’s no one around to ask questions like how poor people in a marginalized community are supposed to buy food. It’s simpler to forego the whys and the wherefores of all these black bodies sacrificed for the sake of “keeping the peace.” But wouldn’t it be better to face these facts of history? To try to answer these complex questions? To ask ourselves if what we’ve been taught to think about “those people” can possibly be true? Wouldn’t any of that be preferable to dismissing Langston Hughes’ “Warning”?
“Negroes, Sweet and docile, Meek, humble and kind: Beware the day They change their mind!”
Instead we get lots of memes about “Black Friday” starting early in Baltimore, despite the fact that, on matters of race, a meme-centric approach to critical thinking leads to little more than out-of-context MLK Jr. quotes forwarded from a relative’s AOL account. Not to mention those photos of the Baltimore city jail captioned as the new site for their NFL team’s training camp. Some people may laugh, others may cringe, but whatever people think, we would all do well to recognize that our responsibility as citizens doesn’t end with a clever turn of phrase typed over a picture of Madonna tongue kissing Drake.