Memes and the ‘alt-Right’

I despise my generation. I make no secret of this- although  I realise that my aspirations to be a great writer are largely scuppered by this, as all the greatest writers usually embodied the spirit and mood of their time.

The one subject on which I believe I can speak for them, however, is memes. An internet phenomenon that largely goes over the heads of the now middle-aged millennials that dominate the mainstream media, memes speak to the human condition in a way that other forms of literature cannot; or at least our catharsis is of a more compact, easily digestible form- perfect for a generation weened on electronic light, and nauseated by silence.

Since the late 2000s, memes have moved away from their nativity -embarrassingly Kitsch to us now- as pictures with some standardised caption on them, and have branched out delightfully into a whole oasis of irony and absurdity, capturing with sometimes genius precision the contradictions, pretensions and absurdities of our time- and yes, our time has a bucketload of those, just like any other human age.

There is something about the usual, clichéd teenage brew of sexual frustration, loneliness, despair and identity crisis that has mingled with the pressures of the 21st century to make an art form that is almost entirely misunderstood by anyone over the age of 20, and yet speaks truths about our world which can be appreciated with a great deal less effort than reading Shakespeare, or something else, you know, written down on paper.

This communication breakdown has spawned a political phenomenon: the MSM has been shocked by the “sudden” emergence of a “political movement” called the “alt-Right”.

“Alt”, of course, being a clever double-entendre between “alternative” and the computer key- given that this “movement” is seemingly contained within the internet’s dark, bodily-fluid-stained walls. Now middle-aged journalists seem keen to describe frustrated teenagers composing ironic, inappropriate (“edgy”) and offensive jokes as the heralds of a new political philosophy; connected somehow to the rise of Donald Trump, the prominence of right-wing ideologues such as Milo Yiannopoulos, and even Katie Hopkins. What connects these disparate parts?

They crave attention, and the society’s rules of conduct for dialogue (political correctness) don’t apply to them: either because they can hide behind their computer, and when that defense is breached hastily decry that it was “only a joke”  and/or because they thrive by breaking those rules. In fact, if it weren’t for their breaking those rules, they would cease to exist. If we didn’t find Katie Hopkins so appalling, she would have to get a real job.

The same is largely true of meme-page admins: if the outrage generated by their posts didn’t pull in more traffic, their position would become untenable. They too, would have to get a real job. Their position is better than Katie Hopkins: their minds can understand the concept of irony, which gives them another defense against the judgement of the outside world.

Which is not to say that meme-culture is definitely, empirically speaking a dangerous thing. But my gut tells me it must be: for all its comforting, cleansing hilarity, I can’t help but feel that something has been let out of the box, that will never climb back in. The cottage industry of wide scale, faceless outrage is here to stay, and I believe we will all, in the end, suffer.