Why The Left Can’t Meme, According to Science
A meme, according to Richard Dawkins who coined the term in 1976 in The Selfish Gene, is something that “conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission.” For Dawkins anything could be a meme, a more simplistic definition might be that a meme is anything that becomes popular.
For an atheist like Dawkins, God, or the concept of God, is a meme. Someone, somewhere, at some point in time needed to find a way to explain things and the idea of God or gods did the job. That first story-teller then told others and those people told other people and all the while people told their children about God and those people grew up and told their children all while people created music and other forms of “great art” in a process that all the way up until present day.
Yet, despite Dawkins coining the word “meme” there is a meme that says that the left can not meme. How can this be? Dawkins is not exactly a flaming right-winger.
In today’s world memes still serve to convey cultural transmission, but what makes them different is that unlike Dawkins’ book is that the humorous images on internet we call memes are quick and to the point and often rely on some template from the already existing pop culture.
These templates form a sort of rules of road for aspiring memelords. Break the rules, break the meme. For example, consider this redundant and failed meme from Ilhan Omar:
Handshake memes require two individuals or groups of people, who normally would not agree on anything, to agree on something. Additionally, this meme fails and breaks the rules because “canceling all $1.6 trillion student debt” and “#CancelStudentDebt” are actually the same thing. This would be like Donald Trump shaking hands with Trump voters and agreeing that Trump is better than Joe Biden.
But, what does this have to do with liberals and conservatives?
Dr. Danna Young, who is a liberal, last year published the book Irony and Outrage which sought to explain why liberals succeed more at satirical comedy, but fail at political talk shows, or outrage programming as she called it, and why the results are flipped for conservatives.
Political psychology has its problems, but when done correctly it can provide general insights into how liberals and conservatives view the world and help us understand the other side better. Young notes:
The data show that the relationship between tolerance for ambiguity and viewing satire is significantly different for liberals and conservatives. Similarly, the relationship between tolerance for ambiguity and viewing outrage is significantly different for liberals and conservatives.
By tolerance for ambiguity, Young means that liberals are much more willing to see gray, whereas conservatives are more black and white, especially when it comes to matters of right versus wrong.
Good satire is ambiguous, the point the comedian is trying to make is hidden and the audience has to work to figure out the joke. Satire that is too obvious quickly devolves into old-fashioned insult comedy, which is usually either offensive or boring. It is also why, according to Young, conservatives who tried to create an alternative to The Daily Show failed.
Memes, on the other hand, are not ambiguous. Most internet memes are built around images, that convey a specific, easily recognizable point. The Distracted Boyfriend meme conveys the point of someone (the boyfriend) reacting to either the latest trend or things one should focus on (the other woman) at the expense of yesterday’s news or what one knows one should focus on (the girlfriend). The accompanying text or pictures imposed on the three faces removes any ambiguity of meaning.
Other forms of memes, such as reaction GIFs, serve a similar function. Michael Scott asking Toby Flenderson “why are you the way that you are” makes it clear that Michael disapproves of whatever was just said. It really is that simple.
The inspiration for this article are these tweets:
Memes are simple, not because “hierarchal power structures” make them so, but because the template provides a framework for the joke. If your meme, needs several steps to explain the joke then it is not really a meme. For example, what does this mean?:
Is the DGA trying to argue that Brian Kemp is bad at his job? If so, what does Stacey Abrams or 2020 or the DGA’s plans, have to do with anything? There was no gubernatorial election in Georgia in 2020. Are they trying to argue Abrams is the rightful governor of Georgia? If so, this is the wrong meme format, an Among Us imposter template would be better if you wanted to make that point.
This is not to say that people on the left can’t meme any more than the right can not do satire. The popularity of The Babylon Bee shows the right can challenge the left in that niche area of the culture, so surely the possibility also exists for the left to do the same.
Political psychology is general, liberals ultimately are not total relativists and have debate with other liberals and conservatives are not uncritically differential to authority and have debates with other conservatives. People do not fit neatly into social science boxes. But to claim liberals and conservatives are the same betrays all evidence and logic and meme-ing is a form of humor that fits better with psychological traits known to appear more often in conservatives than in liberals.