OPINION: ‘Overheard’ memes are divisive and harmful

Graphic by Nina Potischman

“Overheard at PZ:

Person A: ‘So dude what are you taking this semester?’

Person B: ‘You mean classes or drugs?’”

The conversation above is an example of a common post that appears in the Facebook group “Meme Queens of the 5Cs,” which has more than 6,200 members. These members are given access to “memes related to the 5C experience” with the understanding that they will not post memes referring to specific people without their consent and that they’ll be mindful of how the content affects others.

For the most part, these vague rules are followed. The group is home to an eclectic variety of memes, from Vine compilations to complaints about the weather. It’s a gallery of comedic content, well-designed for procrastination. More recently, however, it has become a place to call people out, complain and sow division between students.

Of course, the good students of the 5Cs would never directly call out their peers. Instead, they listen in on their conversations and report on them, keeping the identities of the speakers anonymous.

In Meme Queens, posts like these (called “overheards,” or OHs) are increasingly common. To be fair, the OHs usually seem innocent enough. The post I mentioned above, for example, is a humorous conversation that plays into the stereotypes of Pitzer College.

In general, a poster will be in the right place at the right time, positioned perfectly to intercept a fragment of a conversation so bizarre it guarantees them hundreds of likes in the Facebook group.

Yet on a fundamental level, overheards are unethical and bring our society closer to a “1984”-style dystopia, where all public conversations are at risk of being documented and preserved on the internet in perpetuity, and where anyone can chime in and identify the speaker.  

Overheards are allowed in Meme Queens because they don’t call people out by name, therefore not violating the rules against referencing specific individuals.

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They do, however, reference specific conversations and take people’s words without their consent to be used as a form of humor.

For the most part, our conversations are not performative. We don’t speak or crack jokes or reveal secrets with the understanding that our words will be available for analysis by thousands of people.

We joke and we whisper and we chat with our friends. We shouldn’t have to sequester ourselves in our dorm rooms to be given privacy. We should be able to speak directly with our friends in public without having to worry about being made into a joke.

Of course, there’s another component to the overheards. Sometimes, people say incredibly ignorant things, like false statements or privileged opinions about race or economic status. This is obviously unacceptable, especially at the 5Cs, institutions renowned for their progressiveness.

But when people do or say things like this, the cure to it is not calling them out. Even when done anonymously, calling people out only reinforces their confidence in their ignorance. To them, if it makes this many people angry, it must be right.

In reality, their beliefs are something to be remedied. This is not done by walking away from the ignorance to post it in a meme group. This is done by talking to individuals on a personal level, treating them as equals — “calling in” instead of calling out. This is done by explaining how what they said or did was wrong, not simply taking their words and stringing them out in public for the world to see.

Furthermore, posting overheard snippets of offensive conversations without names attached does nothing but generate rage without a focus, rage that spills over to target and stereotype entire groups.

When physical descriptors are attached to the conversation (for example, the person’s race or gender), people begin imagining the words coming out of the mouths of every person that fits that description, causing division and conflict between groups and continuing the cycle.

Confrontation is always difficult, but even if “calling in” is too uncomfortable, “calling out” is never an acceptable alternative, especially in a Facebook group intended to bring people together through shared experiences in humor and quality memes.

 

Eamon Morris PZ ’22 is from Orange, California. His roommate collects plastic water bottles.

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Eamon Morris

Eamon Morris PZ '22 is from Orange, California. He's one of TSL's opinions editors.

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