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The Asymmetric Meme Warfare of “It’s OK to be White”

Warren Reed/Flickr

Engineering an elegant meme is one part art and one part science. Trying to strike just the right chord to both make your point while also harnessing the mysterious chthonic energies that can make the meme contagious.

The memetic hivemind of the right-wing message board /pol/ recently found that magic touch, striking gold with their “It’s OK To Be White” meme. On the surface, this could be mistaken as a weak-kneed plea for tolerance. It’s only OK to be white? Something like “It’s Great to be White” would be more provocative, while not being any different from the ethnic pride afforded to minority groups, right?

But the gifted meme-makers peer beyond these shallow waters to greater depths. Not content to spread a viral “message,” they instead make the message an expected response in the real world. The more tame and inoffensive the message, they realized, the more absurd the outcry surrounding it would be.

Like the performance of some sort of digital Andy Kaufman, the final product isn’t the meme itself but the process of enveloping the audience in the act. It’s eliciting a second-order reaction: a response from normal people to the pearl-clutching of hall monitors. But how could anyone anticipate a freakout over a message as anodyne as “It’s OK To Be White”?

That is a matter of understanding the psychology of the of militant progressives intent on policing thoughtcrimes. Observing the usual pattern of responses to messages in public spaces containing the slightest departure from their approved orthodoxy, these intrepid memers figured out that anything that references whites while not being hostile to whites, anything benign, would be enough to trigger a hysterical response from many in this faction.

There have been numerous instances of the targets of the meme falling right in line, reciting the lines of the script just as orchestrated by their off-stage directors. This one by a bluecheck a couple of days ago is a good representative of the responses, demonstrating the meme’s power in action:

The bluecheck highlights the fact of someone saying “It’s OK To Be White” as something that ought place him outside of polite society, oblivious to how ridiculous he sounds. Scrolling through the hundreds of replies (many of which are from trolls themselves who know the plot and are part of the act, as it were, but also many that are not) one sees the ubiquitous response: “OK.. and? Is it not OK to be white?”

And there it is: a massive coup in the meme wars. The only winning defense strategy available here would have been to ignore the provocation, but these sorts are pathological and can’t help themselves. And the meme warriors knew this. What distinguishes this meme campaign, and other successful ones like it, from those that fall flat, is the precise insight into the enemy’s psychology and the ability to exploit it.

But does such a brilliant meme campaign have any effect beyond making some manipulable foils look foolish and some laughs? It probably does. Given the scientific research in recent decades into cognitive biases and belief formation, doubt has been cast on the usefulness of reason in service of persuasion. We know that evidence and sound arguments aren’t particularly effective at changing hearts and minds. But a meme, or in this case a meme plus the tableaux created by the circumstances surrounding it, is not an argument per se. It has the capacity to be more visceral, less abstract, and thus more alluring and compelling. And unlike in the case of advertising, where large swaths of the population are numb to its tricks thanks to oversaturation, memes aren’t sullied by profit motive and have the capacity to be organic and authentic.

Many in the internet trollosphere joked after the election of 2016 that they “memed Trump into the White House.” No one really thinks that it was the work of creative trolls that brought all the disaffected working class voters to the polls in Midwestern swing states. But the power of memes should not be underestimated, especially when wielded in a sophisticated manner. It’s propaganda, and propaganda can persuade in ways that reason cannot.

Though it has an almost exclusively negative connotation in contemporary usage, “propaganda” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A non-rational (though not necessarily irrational) attempt to persuade by aesthetic or emotional force is just an aspect of the classical art of rhetoric, transmuted for the electronic, digital age into memes. No one thinks that rhetoric can only be employed in the service of lies, but propaganda did come to have that reputation.

And what is conveyed by a meme, a piece of propaganda, like “It’s Ok To Be White” and its produced effects? The message is there exists a significant contingent of stark-raving mad people in the country, to whom your mere existence, dear normal white person, is anathema. If it weren’t so, how could they get angry about such a truism? That’s their propaganda, one that is in service of ideological mobilization. This expansion of the political sphere (“whiteness is a problem with political solutions”) can be attenuated by another kind of propaganda: banalities that force ideologues to tip their hands.

Another popular meme floating around these days is “the Left can’t meme.” This one also has a certain resonance. There’s something about the dour self-seriousness infecting both the antifa and Resistance factions of left-wing American politics today that seems distinctly incapable of good humour, which is a necessary component of meme-ing. While dead-eyed, Vox wonks bash readers over the head with spreadsheets, even late-night comedians have become professional scolds, seeking to punish obstinate wrongthinkers. It’s precisely this situation which the “It’s OK To Be White” meme homed in on and exploited. While the Left still has many means of propaganda at its disposal—the universities, mainstream media, Hollywood—if they continue to lose the meme war to the jesters on the technological front, they are in for a bad time. As H.L. Mencken once put it, “one horse-laugh is worth ten-thousand syllogisms.”