Creating a World That Works for All
This past Tuesday, BK staff members and some lucky guests were treated to a wonderful Author Day presentation by Chuck Collins, co-founder of both United For a Fair Economy and Wealth For The Common Good. Collins is working on the forthcoming BK book 99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality Is Wrecking The World and What We Can Do About It. Normally I would take a moment to explain the idea behind the book, but that subtitle has really done it all for me (good work, team). Chuck's presentation was informative and entertaining and shed a lot of light on the book's content and what he hopes it will achieve. However, digital fiend that I am, I was especially struck by one thing he said repeatedly: the word 'meme.'
For those of you unfamiliar with the word (or for those of you who, like me, were familiar with the word but never bothered to look up its definition), a 'meme' is defined as "an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture." To be honest, I was completely unaware that memes existed outside of the internet, where they are, generally speaking, "ideas propagated through the web." This sounds innocuous but, in reality, internet memes have become so numerous, powerful, and complicated, that an entire web database exists to keep track of them. Chuck's presentation marked the first time in which I'd heard of an internet meme given such credence in an offline conversation and it got me thinking about their presence and power, especially in the context of political and social events and movements.
As you would imagine, during his presentation Collins more than touched upon the Occupy Wall Street and other Occupy protests/movements. In pointing to the power of storytelling and solidarity, Collins showed photos from the 'We Are The 99%' Tumblr, a blog forum in which people can share stories of their own hardships and contribute their own voice to the movement. And yep, you guessed it, 'We Are The 99%' is a meme. As internet memes spread, they often evolve, as did this one. Now, in addition to the 99%, there is also the meme of the 1%, in which the more financially privileged members of society declare why and how they stand with the other 99. Wonderful. In this way, two memes have come together to build support and collaboration for the common good. However, like everything on the internet, there is only so long (and it's not very long) before a mocking and/or dissenting counterpart pops up. Enter: 'We Are The 53%', a conservative counter-movement of people claiming to represent the 53% of Americans who pay taxes and, even more importantly, 'The 9%'....of people who are left-handed.
I'm all for freedom of expression and I fully embrace the creativity that the internet and its residents have to offer, but I recently found myself questioning this value. As we're all aware, on November 18th of this year, a group of students at the UC Davis campus gathered in protest, during which they locked arms as a sign of commitment and non-violence. After they refused to comply with the police request that they leave, UC Davis police officers walked across the group, spraying pepper spray down the line of unmoving students. I'm sure I'm not the only one who was shocked and sickened by this seemingly casual and unwarranted act of violence, and I doubt I'm the only person who felt somewhat similarly, only a few days later, when I learned that this event had become a meme. The original photo of Lt. John Pike soon became the template for rampant Photoshop recreations and reinterpretations, eventually spawning videos and a fake PepperSprayCop twitter account, all of which spread rapidly across the internet.
I guess I should have known better (if only I'd learned my lesson from the similar 'Don't Tase Me Bro!'), but I was surprised to see how quickly the original image -- so powerful on its own -- was being replaced by these new iterations. Some people commented that they felt the same way I did, while other friends and internet commenters disagreed, stating that certain images added a historical weight or context to the event or arguing that any image that introduces what happened to a new audience is one that is powerful. While I failed to see that impact at first, I've given it more thought, and I've come around a bit over time. We might not like all memes but, at the end of the day, there's no stopping 'em. And if more memes mean more movements, then I certainly wouldn't want to.