Meme series (Post 2) – One Thing Leads to Another
I am not responding to or critiquing memes here on the basis of whether I agree or not with their underlying points. I have opinions which I may mention from time to time, but that is not the point of the discussion on this blog. I’m more interested in how these memes convey their messages and what principles I would put in place if I were the “meme police.”
I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be free to post these things or that they are totally useless for getting ideas across. Far from it. Obviously, people are free to say anything they like and post anything they like and make any memes that they like.
Likewise, I am free to critique them as I like. I’m getting these thoughts off my chest and offering them to you as food for thought.
Some Popular Immigration Memes
Immigration, especially immigration to the United States, is a big political subject in 2018.
Although clearly a spectrum of ideas are held by people on these topics, the issue has generally become polarized into two groups:
- Group A: Those who agree with the “get tough” stand that the current 2018 government is taking.
- Group B: Those who disagree with the current government policies and think the USA should be more welcoming.
The polarization of this issue makes it ripe for meme makers.
Here’s a couple that have shown up in my social media feed.
I have several problems with this:
(1) The biggest problem I have with this meme is that it is full of falsehoods. A simple google search shows the claim that illegal immigrants get this long list of benefits is not true. According to Snopes, only public education for children is given for free to illegal immigrants. If (or rather, when) you don’t trust Snopes, it’s usually not hard to check the claims elsewhere.
Sometimes, when a poster is called out on facts like this, their response is to say, “Big deal, the underlying point is still true!”
No matter whether I agree or disagree with the underlying point, I hate that argument. Using falsehoods weakens the point. If I agree with the underlying point, I don’t want to see someone using a weak argument that’s easily refuted. If I disagree, it doesn’t convince me to change my mind.
If your point is worth posting about, it’s worth taking the time to find truths to support it and not lazily pass on lies.
Principle 1: Check facts and don’t share falsehoods. Lies do not “support” anything.
(2) The message of the meme is not what the poster means.
Full disclosure: I can’t read minds.
Nevertheless, what my friends mean when they post this is usually something like: “Illegal immigration is bad (that’s why we use the word ‘illegal’) and illegal immigrants take advantage of our generosity. This should be obvious! Other countries realize this and are harsher than we would ever be. Why can’t our country be sensible?”
What I hear when I read the meme is: “North Korea, Afghanistan and Iran are countries we should emulate! We should kill or give lengthy prison sentences to illegal immigrants! Trying to help them is bad!”
When I see people in comment sections arguing against what the meme literally implies, the poster usually falls back into saying, “no, no, that’s not what I mean. I just mean….”
Principle 2: If you don’t agree with what a meme actually says, then don’t repost. Find another one.
(3) The meme reduces a complex issue to a bumper sticker.
Yes, I know. Memes are basically the bumper stickers of the internet.
Yet a bumper sticker (or a meme) can make a single clear point regarding one facet of a complex issue. In this case, the meme takes a complex issue and recasts the whole thing as a simple, obvious (and false) choice: Either harshly punish illegal immigrants or face debt for being too generous.
The meme ends with the encouragement to “repost if you agree!!!” But I’m not sure what I’d be agreeing to. That illegal immigration is illegal? That the US is in debt because of illegal immigration? That repressive regimes do a better job of handling immigration than the US? The only clear thing that the meme says to me is that the poster is a member of Group A above.
Principle 3: Make one or two clear points. Avoid oversimplification.
(4) Multiple exclamation points. I can’t resist adding this. For jaded internet surfers, multiple exclamation points immediately spells “crazy,” and they will dismiss the message instantly.
Principle 4: Don’t use multiple exclamation points.
My knee jerk reaction to this meme was positive. It makes a single point by illustrating that people who want to limit immigration to the United States are hypocritical since they, themselves, are here only because of immigration.
A second look made me see things wrong that I didn’t notice at first.
(1) The meme equivocates. This meme doesn’t make bald faced lies like the previous example, but it doesn’t mean precisely what it says.
For example, would the poster be satisfied if we only allowed people with Native American ancestry to make immigration law? Of course not, that would be silly. Would the poster be satisfied if the United States had no immigration laws at all? I doubt it.
And yet, anyone reading the meme probably understands that it’s using hyperbole as a way to make the point that the United States is a nation of immigrants who should be tolerant of other immigrants.
So does this meme fall afoul of my second principle? (Principle 2: If you don’t agree with what a meme actually says, then don’t repost.) Maybe. Or maybe the hyperbole is obvious enough that only the intended message comes through.
(2) Independent of the wording, I think the meme actually supports the opposite of what the poster probably intends.
This meme is generally posted by people in Group B who support more relaxed immigration laws. But think for a minute about immigration and the Native Americans…
Immigration of Europeans to North America most definitely did not benefit them. If we are learning from the history of the Native Americans, we would probably shut the door tight and bolt it! “Beware!” the lost North American civilizations would say. “Even the nicest immigrants carry disease and death. Beware!”
Talk about mixed messages! Invoking Native Americans to support liberal immigration policies is arguably self-defeating. I think Principle 2 applies.
As an aside, my husband has been researching his French Canadian and Colonial English ancestors and found that negative attitudes toward immigration are nothing new. The following anti-immigration sentiments directed toward French Canadians in the late 1800s and early 1900s sound like some of the rhetoric we still hear today:
“In Vermont, one scholar described them as “an abominable crew of vagabonds, robust, lazy men and boys, slatternly women with litters of filthy brats….The character of these people is not such as to inspire the highest hope for the future of Vermont if they should become the most numerous of its population.” In Connecticut another asked: “Is our good old fashioned New England to pass into a middle age of mediocre brain and body; are we to become so foreignized that our [Puritan] virtues and culture are to become extinct?””–(From https://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/news/2017/03/05/history-space-vermonts-french-connection/98739474/)
And: “One Massachusetts official called French Canadians “the Chinese of the eastern states” in an 1881 report that described them as “indefatigable workers” who had no interest in assimilating and drove American wages down.”–(From https://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/24/opinion/bonjour-america.htm)
I would suspect that our fears about immigration are as baseless as these fears from the past, but that’s all I’m going to say on the matter here because it would be an oversimplification.