Public Rhetoric and the 'Art' of Memes and Gifs


When the nation was gripped with the prospect of a dissolved Union, a key political race for a Senate seat in Illinois was shaping up to be a defining moment which might literally 'make or break' the country.  The hot button issue at the center of this sociopolitical storm was that of slavery, specifically whether or not the soon to be newly minted State of Kansas should be a place where the practice of slave-holding would be allowed.  On one side of the ring was the incumbent, Senator Stephan Douglas.  In the other corner was the man who would eventually become the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.  Douglas would embody the philosophy that argued that slavery was a State issue that didn't require Federal meddling.  Lincoln sought to counter this with making slavery a moral issue and one that tested the fundamental doctrine of the United States that "all men were created equal".

By now, some of you are already thinking, "What in the world does this have to do with memes and gifs!?"  Well in the run up to the election, the two politicians had agreed to a series of seven debates.  Each debate was a total of three hours long, and not three hours we might be accustomed to on today's 'news' which typically features sexy people trying to shout over each other in multiple, highly produced segments accompanied by dozens of mind-numbing commercial breaks.  No, these were two dudes taking for three hours in three parts: An opening argument which lasted one hour, followed by a one-and-a-half hour counter argument, concluding with the original presenter being given thirty minutes to rebut the counter argument.  These Lincoln-Douglas debates would draw massive crowds, the kinds of which, when adjusted for population growth and urbanization, would be equivalent to filling today's major sport's stadiums.

The American Attention Span and..."Squirrel!"

The intense focus and commitment to civic engagement that would be required to languish for hours in the country fields and town squares of 1850's Illinois is nearly impossible to imagine these days.  Like the character Doug in the Disney-Pixar film Up, we seem to be so easily distracted by just about anything that comes into our peripheral or auditory space.

And while I have become more and more a fan of brevity the older I get, I wonder if we perhaps have reached a cognitive point of no return in terms of our inability to carry on extended conversations.  Nothing seems to illustrate our proclivity for bite-sized public rhetoric more than our quick-draw use of memes and gifs on social media.

Hey, I get it!  A lot of them are quite clever and pack a concise punch.  And lest we forget, there was a similar visual rhetorical device in use in the 1800's that continues to this day; it's called political or 'editorial cartoons'.  

Harpers Weekly Political Cartoon.jpg

So I am not opposed to the creative use of a single piece of visual social commentary.  What concerns me is our inability to move beyond this into a more comprehensive dialogue.  Rather, the use of most memes and gifs are like a rhetorical hit-and-run.  I found a short but thoughtful article called "The Current State of Public Discourse", in which the author says it best:

People are always expressing themselves and their beliefs. With the proliferation of the internet and the increase of media availability, it would seem that we are participating in public discourse more than ever. But if public discourse is communication and at its heart communication is an accompanied experience that involves initiated expression as well as response, then we as a civilization are failing terribly.

I even created a meme a year or so ago to communicate a similar point using the wildly popular (bad pun intended) image of the late actor, Gene Wilder, in the classic 1971 version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  The accompanying text reads like this:

Good Luck with that.jpg

OK, so it is a bit long-winded for a meme, but you get the idea.  And isn't it telling that something like that might be considered 'long-winded'!?

Of-course the last few years, and the political crazy train we rode straight off into Eastwood Ravine, haven't helped.


Take, for example, our current President, Donald J. Trump, when he Tweeted a gif from a well-known alt-right Reddit forum wherein it edits old WWE footage to depict him beating up a CNN reporter.

Trump CNN.gif

Certainly we have come a long way from the days of Lincoln and Douglas.

A way forward: start talking to...

So is there any hope?  If so, what might we do to get us to a better place?  Well I could only think of one piece of advice to offer, and it's a personal challenge for myself as well.  There are some people out there that I think have some crazy ideas.  To make matters worse, some of them are not only unhinged from reality, they are assholes as well.  So here is the advice: start talking to those people.  That doesn't mean we stop opposing their policies and attempts to seize power.  After all, our willingness to have an extended conversation with someone we disagree with doesn't legitimize their beliefs and behaviors.  It's just a recognition that we are all human beings and as such are equally not immune from craziness and asshole-ery.  And if at the end of our conversation our views have stayed the same, that's OK.  At least we can say that the manner in which we walked out our convictions had much more in common with a three hour debate than a ten second gif.