Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Monday, May 22, 2017

Racist Memes

A white college student is accused of killing a black college student (they attended different colleges), and it has been reported that the defendant is a member of the "Alt-Reich Nation" Facebook group. Of course the defendant is entitled to a presumption of innocence as a legal matter, and anyway I'm only in possession of what facts the media has reported. But it doesn't look good.

This reminds me of a piece that Jesse Singal wrote last fall. The piece explores the motivations of the trolls who generate and spread racist and anti-Semitic memes such as the "Pepe" meme that became so notorious during the 2016 election. Singal points out that the standard (and understandable) outrage that these memes generate is mostly what drives their creation, and he argues that people who criticize the memes fail to understand the motives behind them, which are not necessarily racist. (In fairness to Singal, he points out that it's not the victim's job to assess the intent of someone posting Holocaust memes.)

Anyway assuming the allegations in the college stabbing are true, and assuming the killer was motivated by racist materials shared virally online, I think this points to an important factor that Singal's piece mostly didn't address, which is that the underlying intent of the racist memes is of limited relevance to their effect on the world. The people spreading racist memes must be held to account even if they are not themselves racist.

But another way of putting it is that racism isn't just about intent. The introduction to Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night says, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." If you spend your time spreading racist ideas, riling people up, making them feel bad and oppressed, then maybe we can say that you are engaged in racism, despite your protestations that you are "not a racist."


Post a Comment

<< Home