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Make America Meme Again: Interview with Heather Suzane Woods and Leslie A Hahner - Jennifer Reinwald

In recent months, news outlets like CNN, the BBC, and The Washington Post published articles warning parents about white supremacist groups using social media spaces to recruit young white boys to their cause. These articles offer warning signs to look for and instructions regarding how to have conversations with one’s children about the dangers of these groups. Since the 2016 election, rhetorical scholars have been interested in how the election of Donald Trump bolstered white supremacist ideologies, especially as they manifest on social media platforms. Drs. Heather Suzanne Woods and Leslie A. Hahner explore this issue in their recent book, Make America Meme Again: Rhetoric of the Alt-Right (2018, Peter Lang Inc.). Using such case studies as Pepe the Frog, Woods and Hahner trace the history of memes and how they became symbols of the so-called Alt-Right and white supremacy. Below, Dr. Woods and Dr. Hahner have answered questions regarding their book, covering such topics as how to study memes and how those opposing the Alt-Right have used memes and might continue to do so in the future. Make America Meme Again reinforces meme literacy as a critical skill for navigating our political present and future.

Jennifer Reinwald: In your discussion of the weaponization of memes, you note that “Memes are especially subject to seeming politically neutral because they are read as humorous” (150). What makes humor more inclined to be read as neutral?

Heather Suzanne Woods and Leslie A Hahner: Humor frequently feels neutral or light-hearted, even if its effects aren’t. As anyone who reads satire or political cartoons knows, humor can move politics. Memes appear to be pithy artifacts--stupid and ineffectual because they trade in jokes. In the case of memes, humor isn’t always (or even frequently) the only function of a meme. Instead, humor becomes the top-level affect that gives cover for other work happening in the meme. Doing something for the lulz (or now: galaxy-brain shitposting) means that people can say or do something offensive or aggressive, and, when called on it say, “I was just kidding” with some credibility. But people have been using humor to argue for a while now, in part because when used correctly it invites more and different people into the conversation. Using it incongruously, for instance in dark humor, can be more revelatory than simply stating a fact or claim. So the affect is powerful and inviting without seeming so--that’s a lot of rhetorical work being done!

JR: What do you see as the challenges of studying memes? How does your book help future scholars address these challenges?

HSW and LAH: One important challenge is that memes move quickly. They are frequently cyclical, and move in and out of internet culture with a rapidity that makes them difficult to study. As we wrote the book, we wanted to make sure we weren’t focusing on a singular meme, as it was likely to become irrelevant (or normie) even between drafts of the chapters. Instead, we tried to provide scaffolding for understanding memes as a form of digital communication. That’s why we spend a great deal of time offering theoretical and analytical frameworks for persuasion in digital culture. Those frameworks can be imported for other purposes--even beyond memes--in ways that we hope will develop the study of digital rhetoric.

JR: Your book leans fairly strongly on the metaphor of “warfare.” “Information warfare” and “memetic warfare” are two examples of this metaphor. Why do you make this choice?

HSW and LAHWe wanted to use the word warfare for a number of reasons. First, it carries with it certain implications, about violence, division, power. Warfare, as a metaphor, has affective and material strength, and it highlights the impacts of memes and meme culture. Second, because key figures associated with the Alt-right movement use it--we wanted to highlight its strategic importance for the Alt-right. For instance, Jeff Giesea, better known as the “man who built the Trump army,” proposed using memes as a form of foreign disinformation, or PSYOPS. The connections between memes and warfare are not metaphorical, but significant for a wealth of purposes. Third, we wanted to clarify that, like war, memes can be a powerful tool for destruction, and can do so in various theatres (another warlike metaphor that we use). The stakes of memes often need to be demonstrated for the mainstream public, and even for some academics, who may underestimate this form of disinformation. Finally, and relatedly, we wanted to clarify that like war, there are winners and losers, and that the Alt-right appear to be winning the meme war.

JR: Until the recent shootings in El Paso and Dayton, the alt-right seems to have moved out of contemporary media discourse. Is this an issue of decline or lack of attention? Based on your research, what is the move of rhetoric going forward?

HSW and LAH: It’s not an issue of decline. There have been a number of setbacks for the Alt-right, including low turnout at important rallies, a nationwide resistance to discriminatory policies they favor, and some technological shifts (deplatforming key figures, quarantining key meeting grounds). But the Alt-right’s exceptional at regenerating itself, in part because its ideology and population are both amorphous and can shift to meet the needs of the rhetorical moment. And it can go “underground” until it’s effective to associate the movement with visible institutional or other structures.

There are folks doing good scholarly work on the Alt-right (and its affiliates), but it takes some time to make it through the peer-review process. At the same time, in quicker moving journalistic media, the Alt-right seems to frequently come up in response to violent events. The Alt-right uses eruptions of violence to aggrandize its identity and force. The Alt-right also benefits from a fairly good conservative media infrastructure that quashes what they see as “politicized” interpretive accounts of those events. This conservative ecosystem has minimized information on the Alt-right, including deep dives on the complexity of the Alt-right. Governmental/institutional hearings that could be used to talk about the radicalization of young white men into the Alt-right movement have largely become opportunities for conservatives to spin the left as intolerant censors of ideas and commerce, which may be especially persuasive given the current political climate. We’ve also noticed the debate shifting away from the Alt-right to focus on the so-called violence of “Antifa,” goaded in part by the President, who recently identified them as terrorists. It’s an unfavorable rebranding of an antifacist movement (who wants to be pro-fascist?), and this inversion of terrorism claims might just work.

Rhetoricians (and our transdisciplinary allies) can highlight the polysemous and contested nature of symbols, including Antifa and Alt-right. At the same time, we can clarify the real, serious, material effects of language use, as well as opportunities for a persuasive response. As we mention in the book, simply presenting people with the facts is not a viable solution--we need to take into account the myriad tools rhetoric offers to tell a more compelling story. Also, we should support journalists and other public intellectuals who do this work, especially in light of budget cuts and violent attacks against those who speak up.

JR: In your discussion of “dank memes,” you note that “those who had “dank memes”—and those who could deploy them effectively—had the ability to reach and activate latent audiences toward political participation.” How do we out dank the alt-right? Should the Left be concerned with out-danking the Right or is there a better option for encouraging political participation?

HWS and LAH: The (dirtbag) left has some dank memes, but not everyone (especially liberals) wants to use them. For instance, we have some colleagues doing interesting research on Gritty, who has become an anti-fascist icon. We have also seen pop culture icons taken up in memes--Princess Leia at the Women’s March, for instance. For us, dank memes set the ground for debate--they are proactive rather than responsive. They also break some rules about civil discourse, which many liberals continue to champion. But the Alt-right isn’t playing by civility rules, and if the rules are inherently exclusionary, we need to rethink them. We don’t need to be civil to someone who advocates for the violent destruction of large groups of people. As optimists and believers in the Republic, we are in strong favor of institutional political participation like voting, etc. But there are structural problems that prevent that--partisan gerrymandering, unfair voter ID laws, widespread voter disenfranchisement. We are in favor of having political conversations and organizing through memes--we already see that happening in leftist meme groups.

In late October, a tech contributor to the New York Times, launched Elizabeth’s “Warren’s Meme Team.” We love that more folks are trying to use memes to forward politics. But, the launch is so late, it is almost absurd and shows the lag the left, particularly Democrats, need to fight against. It is a good effort, but ad hoc efforts and even organized meme campaigns--from the Women’s March, UltraViolet, etc.--have been happening for months, if not years. It takes concerted, behind-the-scenes invention and discovery--not a New York Times article and a few tweets. So, we are hopeful, but would want folks to understand that if they are just starting now, they are aiming for the next midterms. It is perhaps better to start following current meme stashes and build on what is already happening.