Imagine a picture of 25 bodies of African descent sprawled lifeless across the ground with their faces hidden. Their clothes are worn and torn, and behind them is an eroding, paint-chipped building. In the middle of this picture is a man carefully trying to step over the bodies; his hands are in the air to help him balance as he desperately tries to make his way through the awful consequences of what appears to be a massacre.
Not horrified yet? At the bottom of this picture in bold, white letters appears: "Excuse me ... pardon me ... excuse me..."
This is a prime example of an image macro, a picture with overlaid text often pointing out characteristics of the depicted character or ideal displayed in the picture.
I stumbled upon this image as I scrolled through my Facebook news feed a few weeks ago. Seeing these types of image macros on social networking sites is common, and websites such as reddit.com and 4chan.org cater to people who create and share image macros and memes.
By definition, a meme is an idea, behavior, style or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture. They can be shared rapidly through the Internet—causing the memes to "go viral." In turn, countless people form new ideas about that meme and the culture it stemmed from. Often when joke image macros go viral, they become memes.
Viewing image macros like the one I described, can make people desensitized to what the picture is displaying which, in this case, is a massacre. In other cases, it can perpetuate stereotypes of races, women, religions—the list goes on, and none of these people or groups can defend how they are being displayed.
All too often, image macros and memes are humorous only at the expense of another person or group of people.
This is a call to hold humor to a higher standard. If a joke can't be made without it being at the expense of another person or group, how will we ever resolve our differences and become a more unified human culture? Image macros and memes may not aim to cause divisions between groups of people, but some of the images highlight concepts that are inherent and enduring cultural differences between groups. Pointing out the faults of another group of people does nothing but make the person viewing feel more powerful and "right" for not being a part of the culture or group at the butt of the joke.
Another image macro to imagine: a photograph of a young, voluptuous woman. She's all dolled up with her hair and make-up styled perfectly, wearing a low-cut blouse. At the top of the picture in bold letters it says, "That awkward moment when ..." In the middle of the picture, just above the young woman's chest it says, "when," and at the bottom of the picture it just says, "damn."
The phrase, "that awkward moment when ..." is used in a lot of memes; the phrase and images became popular through rapid digital sharing. There are plenty of innocuous ones: a picture of a person with their fly unzipped and the phrase, "that awkward moment when ... you forget to examine your zipper."
However, the woman in a low-cut blouse is reduced to having nothing of interest or worth but her body. In reality, she has hopes, dreams and thoughts. And she's probably never seen herself displayed in this image macro.
We must recognize our privilege when sharing and viewing these types of images. Some of us are fortunate enough to own a computer and have Internet access. Even if we do something as simple as "liking" a picture on Facebook of a discriminatory image macro, we are perpetuating a stereotype, continuing to belittle those unlike ourselves, and reducing human beings to nothing but what the image and bold, white letters makes of them.
When a friend of mine confronted the person who posted the two above described image macros on Facebook, he quickly responded, "It's for the LOLZ," and continued to post more degrading images.
That phrase, a meme-ified version of the Web classic LOL (laughing out loud), shows that, to him and to whoever actually constructed the images, it's all just a joke. Our culture, and especially our youth culture, is unaware of the consequences of these images. A joke is funny when it doesn't hurt you personally, but what about the people that it does hurt? Image macros that stereotype those of Asian descent as overly studious or label African Americans as "ghetto" perpetuate the oppression of those groups. Images are too easily available for viewing by too many for them not to have consequences.
I'd be lying if I said that I didn't find some memes and images hilarious. I've looked through thousands of them throughout the past few years. But, needless to say, I do not LOL upon viewing image macros and memes that reduce women as only valuable in the bed or the kitchen, or images macros and memes that make light of genocide. These images degrade and attempt to homogenize our beautifully diverse cultures; and, come on, there are just some things that are never funny.
Intern Allie Jordan is a senior communications studies major at Millsaps College who loves Wilco, photography and travelling. She denies her brick city hometown and strictly identifies herself as a Jacksonian.