Memes, Political Persuasion, and Political Intimidation

An interesting and important post at Quillette: Confessions of a Social-Justice Meme Maker.

I observe that political memes today tend not only to be oversimplified, which goes with the nature of the medium, but also to be insulting.  Political communication today has too often abandoned persuasion in favor of approaches which are believed to rally ‘the base’ while insulting opponents.

I am again reminded of something that Stalin’s master propagandist, Willi Munzenberg, said to Arthur Koestler back when Koestler was still a Communist:

Don’t argue with them, Make them stink in the nose of the world. Make people curse and abominate them. Make them shudder with horror. That, Arturo, is propaganda!

A very high proportion of political memes today would cause Munzenberg to nod in approval.

In addition to stirring up one’s own side (good for contributions and for election day turnout!), a sufficiently vitriolic stream of insults can intimidate opponents from speaking out, lest they themselves be subject to such attacks. This intimidation is more effective, though, when a political side largely dominates the channels of communication, as the Left dominates most American media today.

The insult-and-intimidate approach, though, does have a downside: it may well alienate people who are somewhat aligned with the opposing side but may still be persuadable.  Even if they are intimidated from speaking out, they may still remember the sting of the insults when they alone in the voting booth.  Few practitioners of meme-driven insults and other forms of hostile political communication seem worried about this side effect of their work, though.

A factor that should not be underrated: many people get a certain kind of pleasure from engaging in cruelty while feeling virtuous and also reinforcing their sense of membership in an in-group.  See this horrible example from the UK.  I’ve seen no evidence that this particular incident had anything to do directly with memes, but I’m confident that the same kind of attitude is well-represented among the forwarders and makers of malign political memes.  My 2018 post Conformity, Cruelty, and Political Activism is relevant here.

As I noted above, memes oversimplify, by their very nature.  As the author of the linked Quillette post winds up her piece:  “Everything worth knowing is much more complex than any slogan can possibly convey.”

While this is true, it is also true that the kind of simplification represented by memes is by no means a new thing.  Political cartoons, for example, can be seen as a forerunner of memes.  Is the effect of today’s bad memes any worse than that of scurrilous political cartoons in, say, 1900?  I think that it may be: In 1900, literacy (in a broad sense) was on an upswing, and key cultural institutions of society were encouraging more of it, as did the technologies of the time. Whereas today, literacy (in the sense of being able to read, follow, and understand arguments of some complexity) seems to be on the decline, a trend certainly aggravated by the short-attention-span nature of much Internet media.

Neal Stephenson wrote an interesting little book called In the Beginning Was the Command Line.  While the book does talk about human interfaces to computer systems, its deeper subject is the impact of media and metaphors on thought processes and on work.  He contrasts the explicit word-based interface to systems and to information with the graphical or sensorial interface.


As an example of a sensorial interface, Stephenson uses something he saw at Disney World–a hypothetical stone-by-stone reconstruction of a ruin in the jungles of India. It is supposed to have been built by a local rajah in the sixteenth century, but since fallen into disrepair.

The place looks more like what I have just described than any actual building you might find in India. All the stones in the broken walls are weathered as if monsoon rains had been trickling down them for centuries, the paint on the gorgeous murals is flaked and faded just so, and Bengal tigers loll among stumps of broken columns. Where modern repairs have been made to the ancient structure, they’ve been done, not as Disney’s engineers would do them, but as thrifty Indian janitors would–with hunks of bamboo and rust-spotted hunks of rebar.

In one place, you walk along a stone wall and view some panels of art that tell a story.

…a broad jagged crack runs across a panel or two, but the story is still readable: first, primordial chaos leads to a flourishing of many animal species. Next, we see the Tree of Life surrounded by diverse animals…an obvious allusion (or, in showbiz lingo, a tie-in) to the gigantic Tree of Life that dominates the center of Disney’s Animal Kingdom…But it’s rendered in historically correct style and could probably fool anyone who didn’t have a PhD in Indian art history.

The next panel shows a mustachioed H. sapiens chopping down the Tree of Life with a scimitar, and the animals fleeing every which way. The one after that shows the misguided human getting walloped by a tidal wave, part of a latter-day Deluge presumably brought on by his stupidity.

The final panel, then, portrays the Sapling of Life beginning to grow back, but now man has ditched the edged weapon and joined the other animals in standing around to adore and praise it.

Clearly, this exhibit communicates a specific worldview, and it strongly implies that this worldview is consistent with traditional Indian religion and culture. Most viewers will assume the connection without doing further research as to its correctness or lack thereof.

I’d observe that as a general matter, the sensorial interface is less open to challenge than the textual interface. It doesn’t argue–doesn’t present you with a chain of facts and logic that let you sit back and say, “Hey, wait a minute–I’m not so sure about that.” It just sucks you into its own point of view.  I’d suggest that the “Tunnels of Oppression” that have been implemented at many American universities (here, for instance) represent a similar approach to persuasion…as did the Obama administration’s propaganda video game (2013) featuring space aliens, global warming, and gender issues)

While the educational profession has tended too often to surrender to the sensorial interface, the emergence of blogging–essentially a text-based medium–temporarily created a trend in the opposite direction. But the number of blog-writers and blog-readers remains small as a proportion of the population and and as compared with the short-attention-span-oriented social media platforms, and the failures of K-12 education have arguably created a large segment of people who will never be able to deal easily and naturally with text. Memes can have a disproportionate effect on such people.

Your thoughts?

18 thoughts on “Memes, Political Persuasion, and Political Intimidation”

  1. Nothing she posts even qualifies as a “meme”. Looks to me like this author is probably someone who Claire thinks is great, once again reiterating her terrible judgment.
    Has there ever been a time when “persuasion” was actually more effective than just attacking the other side and making people want to avoid Them? I think that by now it’s been made very clear that claims that today sees a lack of intellectually rigorous debate like in The Good Old Days is delusional whining by a combination of those who lament that they don’t control the dialogue anymore (the Establishment of both parties) or that they don’t get the respect and deference they deserve for having seized the levers of power (the left).

  2. “In the Beginning Was the Command Line” Was really about *nix systems and the fact that you could do far more, easier, with a command line. The fact that everything in a *nix system is a file, and that all the config is text files, makes the command line quite unlike the Windose dog’s breakfast approach. As well the bastard son of FreeBSD and Darwin, Os X is so brutally controlled, its useless as anything other than an example of how to screw up a *nix system.

    My prejudices aired. ;)

  3. That article confirms my belief that we are headed to a largely illiterate society. There are now “Graphic Novels” that are just long comic books. Now we have “Marvel’s Graphic Novel’s” which seem to be the principle source of movie scripts these days. I wonder if kids who spend their time staring at their smart phones will be able to read serious books when they are in college? The US seems to be rapidly losing ground in technical fields. The executives of many big tech companies, like Twitter, seem to be disproportionately “South Asian” with the social prejudices of that society. In reading the story of “Theranos” and the cultural cult-like behavior there, I noticed that the author of “Bad Blood” made a brief mention of the partner of Elizabeth Holmes who is “South Asian” and his behavior, which is more typical of upper class Indians. I wonder if Americans are inviting the arrogance and feeling of superiority of tech savvy foreigners.

    I keep seeing comparisons with the late Roman Empire and wonder if our growing illiteracy is part of it.

  4. To extend Mike K’s point, it’s not hard to find population projections that India will likely displace China as the most populous country by the middle of the current century. The US will likely slip to fourth behind Nigeria. India, to my knowledge, does not have the immense sex differential caused by the One Child policy.

    Nobody in Europe cracks the top twenty except maybe Russia.

    Yes, projections .. but also the future belongs to the people who show up.

  5. “India, to my knowledge, does not have the immense sex differential caused by the One Child policy.”
    You’re correct that it isn’t as bad but it is substantial: 943:1000 according to this:

    I remember reading years ago that the Indian government was trying to crack down on ubiquitous ultrasound parlors that would determine the sex of a fetus for a few rupees with the expectation that girls would more likely be aborted.

    Memes are all surface and no substance. She spewed into a cesspool and and was surprised by what splashed out on her. The difference between memes and editorial cartoons was the desire of most outlets not to become echo chambers, in other words, editors. That doesn’t appear to be operative many places. Few modern outlets seem able to publish simple, coherent sentences or worry about trying to appeal to an audience outside their cozy little niche. They won’t insult their audience by by exposing them to anything that might cause them to question their own smug certainty.

  6. Very much page 1, Chapter 1 of The Screwtape Letters “Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false”, but as “academic” or “practical”, “outworn” or “contemporary”, “conventional” or “ruthless”. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church.”

  7. If you have a strong stomach and a glass of wine or something stronger nearby, click on the link that’s titled “See this horrible example from the UK”…it is indeed horrible.

    Would these girls have had their target girl hanged for witchcraft or burned at the stake for heresy if they had that power?

  8. That Times link is behind a paywall, but this gets around it:
    Particularly horrifying is the total abdication by the adults:
    “Teachers were initially supportive but withdrew their backing after the other sixth formers accused the girl of transphobia”
    Little Red Guards run amok, and the most disturbing thing is, who is there who can call them off? It’s some sort of mass hysteria that no one controls, so how can it end?

  9. It looks as if the bullies have hit on a strategy to legitimize what they’ve always done. “Social Justice”: no justice and a society that would make a jackal recoil in revulsion.

  10. What about a parallel with Australian “libertarians” who are strong advocates for prison camps for those trying to (legally) enter a country and/or being potentially exposed to a virus?

  11. Speaking of memes, all any GOP candidate is going to have to do this fall is show plots of the dollar vs ruble, the price of gas, and the price of a few basic groceries.
    And the Dems are going to respond with pictures of Jan 6, coat hangers, and white supremacists.
    I’m pretty confident which side is going to win that contest.

  12. Brian, re the meme-maker: key thing in my mind isn’t whether or not her work followed some definition of meme-ness, but rather that she had the courage to change her political views…and to do so publicly.

    Re Claire: pretty significant accomplishment to create & maintain a successful for long-form essays with a substantial readership. She’s shown courage in taking on sacred cows. I often disagree with her, but even then, she generally makes me think.

  13. In the Donbass, after the large surrender in Mariupol, the situation is staring to fall apart for Ukraine in the east. As the Azov and Azov stiffened forces are steadily defeated, this will be the end of serious Ukrainian resistance. The rest of their forces are not that impressive.

    It will be weeks, but this will drive the smart people into fits, as they explain. ;)

  14. I remember reading years ago that the Indian government was trying to crack down on ubiquitous ultrasound parlors that would determine the sex of a fetus for a few rupees with the expectation that girls would more likely be aborted.

    That is not even mentioning the practice of murdering new wives to collect their dowries. “Kitchen fires” is a common cause of death for young women. They are doused with kerosene, often by the mother-in-law. Then they are set afire. The British tried to stamp out the practice of “suttee” but it persists in a warped fashion.

  15. }}} “Everything worth knowing is much more complex than any slogan can possibly convey.”

    And it explains the juvenile nature of PostModern Liberalism that pretty much every notion they have can fit on a bumper sticker.

  16. Here is someone who agrees with my illiteracy comment above.

    There is a sense abroad that generational change has placed the essentials of our constitutional system and its supporting culture at risk. Many Millennials — the generation now in their 20s and 30s — have soured, not only on fundamentals like freedom of speech, but on the American story as such.

    And why ?

    The teachers in those crowds denounced him for giving short shrift to the powers conferred on this new generation by their superior technological tools. The kids weren’t reading less, or spending less time on assignments, because they’d been seduced by the superficialities of the Web. No, they were simply smarter and more efficient than their Boomer elders, masters of thought-ways far beyond those offered by the pedestrian low-tech education of yore. That’s how Bauerlein’s many face-to-face confrontations went — until today, when ardor for social media has cooled and the social and psychological costs of technology have become more apparent.

    I think this about right and I may have to read that book, “The dumbest generation grows up”

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