Amelie Lee ’23
March 5, 2020
If you’ve ever tried to explain memes to an adult, you’ve probably realized the complexity of this cultural phenomenon. No matter how hard you try, it’s nearly impossible to encapsulate why a blurry photograph with a singular misspelled word is more entertaining to many members of Gen Z than comedy television. However, the absurdity of millenial and Gen Z humor has blurred the line between what is offensive and what is a humorous representation of a cultural movement.
It’s no secret that young people use humor to deal with trauma. After nearly every major current event or crisis, the internet community responds instantaneously with online humor. There are many online forums, for example, that exist as places to share memes about abusive or repressive childhoods. There are seemingly infinite memes about 9/11. Hours after the the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleiman, memes about WWIII ran rampant on Reddit and Twitter.
Older generations are usually quick to dismiss a conversation about this type of humor. For many, there’s a preconception that such serious subjects shouldn’t be joked about, or that comedy equals tragedy plus time. Yet, as a younger generation forms an entire culture around being able to laugh at themselves through relating to both positive and negative situations, I believe that joking about serious issues is okay—we just need to be conscious of who we’re laughing at.
While it’s difficult to discern what exactly makes a meme “ethical,” I think that taking a closer look at exactly who you’re laughing at can help you distinguish whether or not a line has been crossed. To some extent, many people are willing to laugh at themselves and commodify their own trauma through humorous relatability with others. There’s nothing wrong with groups who are able to post memes about their own damaging childhoods or making fun of outdated ideas on sexism or racism. However, the issue gets confusing when we look at when the focus of memes is no longer oneself, as memes tend to commodify other people’s trauma, making fun of the past or present plight of certain groups of people in a satirical or humorous way. For those with a history of trauma, offensive memes can act as microaggressions to already oppressive societal constructs.
After discussing an offensive joke with a history teacher last semester, I came to this conclusion: my personal metric for humor relies on who is being made fun of. If the basis of a joke is undermining a victim or reinforcing damaging ideals, it’s crossed an ethical line. If the basis of a joke is making fun of a perpetrator or offender, then the basis of its humor is more satirical rather than offensive. For example, if someone tells a police brutality joke that is making fun of an abused person or reinforcing stereotypes in the black community, that is absolutely unacceptable. However, a meme making fun of the police officer that committed the act of assault can come along with guilt free laughter.
Recently, with widespread fear about the coronavirus, there’s no doubt that xenophobic and blatantly racist memes about the Chinese and cultural eating habits or livestyles have crossed this line of social acceptability. Similar online activity was a problem with the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreaks, with racial stereotypes being used to make fun of those affected by the illness. In cases like these, it’s clear that further undermining victims and basing humor on racism is unacceptable.
Obviously, it’s impossible to stop your brain or body from finding something funny. There have been times that I’ve laughed at memes that contradict my own rules about ethics. The subreddit r/ImGoingToHellForThis, a community of people who enjoy memes that push the lines of what is socially acceptable to laugh at, encapsulates this well, often featuring offensive jokes about police brutality, rape or the LGBT community. Some of these are truly disgusting, making fun of those affected by racism, transphobia or violence. Yet others seem to simply acknowledge entrenched power structures, laughing at stereotypes themselves rather than victims. When observing this type of humor, I’ve learned to take a critical perspective—I never want to accidentally hurt someone by posting or engaging with content that is harmful to victims.
Memes are complicated, as well as satire and human perception of humor. In fact, Scripps College Core 2 offers a class on memes, diving into what they mean about the modern perception of art and humor. As Professor Adam Novy says, “Jokes can let off steam and build community. But every in-group has an out-group. Try not to punch down in a meme, by which I mean, don’t pick on someone with less power than you.”
Image Credit: MEME