If You Really Want to Be an Advocate, You Might Have to Sacrifice Your Memes Sometimes

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“Shoot first and ask questions later” has always been spectacularly bad advice. And whether there’s a gun in your hand or a camera, the consequences of heeding it can be swift, harsh and irreversible.

The internet is a gift. We’re in the process of ruining it, but it’s still accomplished more than I could ever hope to list off here. The trouble with the internet is that it still has a few lessons left to learn before it’s done growing up.

One of these is — you guessed it — “shooting first.” When your infant has grown, they may take you to task themselves for making their entire childhood public in photographic form without their consent. On that note, let’s talk about memes depicting real people.

Plenty of memes are harmless fun or even wholesome. But plenty of other “meme-worthy” material is the product of shooting first — and sometimes just plain mean-spiritedness. Whether you’re merely a trafficker of internet memes or you consider yourself a social activist, there’s plenty of good reasons to think twice before posting photographs or videos of strangers when you don’t know their story.


What’s the Problem with Memes Getting ‘Personal’?

The problem we’re getting at here is best understood with an example.

This is difficult viewing if you don’t like watching people being at best condescending and at worst cruel to someone, especially when they show potential signs of being autistic, as many of the commenters under the video point out. You can visit Twitter for the original piece of content.

In the video, a student is using a computer at school to play a video game. After a disappointing turn of events, the student flies out of his seat and into a rage, which earns him lots of unhelpful cries of “Sit down, bro!” and “Chill!” and “It’s just a game!” This only makes the outburst worse, which, naturally, just fuels further teasing.

It’s hard to imagine laughing at somebody who, through no fault of their own, might have less control than we do over their behavior, language and state of mind. It’s even harder to imagine being willing to post this online for a laugh.

This clip stood out for all the wrong reasons. It’s also far from alone in the internet’s lovingly curated collection of people being filmed in compromising positions without their say-so. There are tons of examples of viral content remixed out of leaked performance art videos, stolen school photographs, and ill-advised YouTube uploads by kids who just didn’t know better at the time.

You Can Keep Your Internet Points

One thing we didn’t need from a global internet was the frothing and clamoring to canonize oneself in digital form. There are never enough Upvotes, Retweets, Likes, Pokes, and Thumbs Up, Down, and Sideways to go around.

I know complaining about our “One more upload until I’m a celebrity” culture isn’t exactly a hot take. But there’s something especially sad about hanging your whole online identity on uploading footage of other people. You’re not the subject of the video. You didn’t design the camera that captured it or the countless websites that now host the footage. You’ve created and contributed nothing. And you have (as in the above example) more than likely made somebody’s life a living hell for a while.

It’s fair to criticize the writing and direction of the “Star Wars” prequels. But was it fair for the subsequent memes to almost totally ruin young Jake Lloyd’s (“Anakin Skywalker”) childhood? We can’t always separate the art from the artist. Can we not at least do so for the sake of children?

Posting Personal Memes Without Permission Is Cyber-Bullying

You never know what you’re going to overhear or witness. And every one of us hopes that our lives yield stories worth telling over dinner and dates. But there’s a choice to make next time you see someone doing something “funny” or “weird” in public. It involves reaching for your camera or leaving it in your pocket. Choosing poorly means making public a story that someone else probably doesn’t want to share with the world.

It’s also a setback for advocacy issues. Every time we laugh at someone with autism, Tourette’s, anxiety or any of dozens of other personality disorders and mental health issues, instead of reaching out to them and gently educating the people around us, we further delay the coming of a dignified, judgment-free society for all. Laughing at somebody’s “otherness” is juvenile. And every time we go viral by lowering ourselves to that level, we reduce ourselves collectively.

To be clear, there is something different to be said about filming situations where there is a clear abuse of power or injustice taking place. But for the most part, many videos of others that are uploaded online are often cruel and unnecessary, and fail to take into account the stories behind the actors.

Would you be able to recognize all the signs of autism if you saw just one or two of them presenting at once? How about schizophrenia? You might not have known that traumatic brain injury is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide, but it can present itself — sometimes publicly — in many different forms that most people wouldn’t be able to recognize, understand or immediately sympathize with. These are far from the only conditions with that effect.

When Memes Are a Step Backwards for Advocacy

There’s a reason we cringe now when somebody uses the words “gay” or “retarded” derogatorily. We did a little bit of learning about other people’s circumstances. And then we collectively grew up a little bit and started experimenting with other types of humor.

Disabilities and mental illnesses, major and minor, are all around us. Nobody asks for them or to have our travails made public. All most of us are asking for is to be left alone and be given a helping hand should we need it. That kid’s viral video on Twitter has become a teachable moment. But it was already that, wasn’t it? Without the camera, in a slightly different country, it would’ve been just a room full of students, who know what autism looks like, giving calm and comfort to one of their peers.

Real advocacy should have started in the classroom and at home, with a fuller education about the things that make us the same and different. Real advocacy happens when we reach out to take each other’s hands instead of reaching for a camera to score easy laughs and internet points. That student and his “tantrum” are already out there in the world. We can’t take back his 15 minutes of unwanted fame, but we can do a little better for the next kid.

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