Are memes the new opioid for the masses?
For anyone who has been a part of the internet for the last couple of years, the term “meme” should be familiar by now. Long past its time as an obscure relic that only the people with an “in” will get, and long past its confinement to only websites like Reddit and 4Chan, memes have become the very lifeblood of internet communication, achieving in a single picture what languages as brief as English take to achieve in multiple sentences.
Everyone’s making memes now, and everyone’s sharing them as well. It has gotten to a point when memes are fast becoming a global language of their own, with memes in even the obscurest of languages making sense to its viewers. And while the thinkers and cultural elites of our time are content to gloss over them as a passing fad or ignore them altogether, I think that is a huge mistake.
From memes thriving on and latently refuelling the patriarchal, racist, and homophobic elements of global culture to them being at the centre of movements like the latest GameStop fiasco that happened over at Wall Street, memes are shaping global life as we know it. And while the things I touched upon are already being discussed by some media outlets (albeit in an inadequate and in a grossly misunderstood way), I think there is one aspect of memes that people fail to pick up on, even when it is staring them right in the eye.
Memes are often known for tackling pretty serious issues in an irreverent and sometimes tone-deaf way. While this might seem offensive to some (and to be fair, there are more than enough problematic memes on the internet), it shouldn’t seem that surprising given that memes have been borne out of the genre known as comedy. And as any funny comedian knows, the only thing that changes something from being tragic to being comic is time.
We weep at our miseries, but when enough time has passed, we laugh at them. In a world where nothing is certain, laughing at our own private hell gives us a feeling of special catharsis. Through this catharsis, there is a feeling of twisted pleasure, of getting back at someone or something for some wronging, even though it is just a feeling and not something concrete. It only makes sense that in a space where all of our real-world sorrows and our real-life sufferings are amplified, the feeling of real-life catharsis would be amplified as well.
And since this is something everyone would be able to take part in from the comfort of their own homes (both in terms of consumption and distribution), it’s no surprise that this would become our go-to method for sticking it to the man. Because even if a comedy skit is more engrossing and better, it wouldn’t have the instant reactivity found in meme culture these days.
Even if a full-on stage production is better, due to obvious reasons, it might not even be produced. This is where memes come in, and this is the atmosphere that has resulted in an example that convinced me to write this piece.
Recently, a new play was put out by an up-and-coming bard on the inhabitants of Mt Olympus, and of Zeus personally. Now, the Greek god has been at the centre of controversy for years now, and even though the new play had some interesting bits, it wasn’t anything that we haven’t seen before, and before the works of giants such as Ovid and Sophocles -- the work basically just retreads ground the inhabitants of Greece have known all along. This becomes a boon for Zeus, as he basically all but dismisses the play altogether, and makes it clear that it isn’t even worth his time.
Such a strategic move did wonders, as drawing from the same bunch of lightning bolts that he had used in the past would only make the points mentioned in the play hit harder. But following this, something happened. Aside from detractors of Zeus, there are many supporters of him too. So, they came onto Facebook and made a DP filter which could be used by the digital netizens of Greece.
Funnily enough, while supporters were thrilled at the idea, detractors started using it as well. They didn’t do it in support, mind you. They did it ironically, as a way of pointing out the absurdity of the whole situation. Sure, this doesn’t make sense on paper. How do you point out the absurdity of a situation by inadvertently lending support? Well, it all depends on the timing and context. By using the frame in a specific time and context, the idea of using a frame to end support is mocked. And by extension, the absurdity of the whole situation is pointed out as well.
But while this works as a collective catharsis, to the outside world, this has the opposite effect. To the outside world, if people lack the specific context present here, it might seem like the support is real. And that is the issue with catharsis through memes. While we are laughing at the world, we are doing so within set bounds delineated by the gods. And while this helps us to cope, it neither does anything to fix our issues, nor does it challenge any of the tyrants of the world. Essentially, it becomes an opioid for the masses, while the powerful continue with their barbarism.
But here comes the hard part. What else can people do even in a situation like this? Do they speak out? Not if they don’t want to get incinerated. Do they want to take to the meadows? Not if they don’t want to get burned. And this ties in with the overall narrative I’m trying to pull here, and why understanding memes is important.
Because whether it be Norse gods or Greek gods, all of them are corrupt and favour the powerful, while regular people are left to fend for themselves. And when there is nothing to do, where nothing one can do can tip the scales in one’s favour, the only thing one can do is scream into the void.
And if that screaming into the void isn’t analyzed and accounted for, problems can only get worse, not better. And if problems keep on getting worse, well, that is a story for another day.
Nafis Shahriar is a student of business and a freelance writer.