It’s 3 AM. My head is buried in my phone as I surf my social media feed. Politics, international events, friends’ lives all flow together, interrupted only by a flurry of memes. Scrolling through memes is my favourite way to pass time. Text from a famous politician’s speech, a still of a Malayali actress winking on-camera – anything can be instantly transformed into a meme for social consumption. I like these little nuggets of humour because they’re great for solidifying friendships – and even flirting with someone that you might otherwise be too shy to talk to. A good meme is a low maintenance, un-demanding way to express oneself and participate in any group or community by showing that you have the same interests as other group members.
Meme culture, however, is not always as harmless as it seems. Memes that suggest women belong in the kitchen, others that deride the ‘anti-merit’ reservation system, yet more that perpetuate caste-based stereotypes and slurs that play on untouchability find large audiences online. In January 2017, Round Table India published instructions on how to report such groups to the police and cyber cell if reporting the material on Facebook was ineffective. While they managed to have one such group removed from Facebook, several others continue to flourish.
The creators of such lazy humour are often upper caste, upper class, ‘edgy’ and educated young men (and also women) with a target audience of social groups that are like them. Things people would never say publicly find their way onto social media, safe under a cloak of anonymity.
If you object to such humour, people tell you to laugh it off – ‘it’s just a joke!’ As if this humour is divorced from the everyday realities of women who grapple with patriarchal oppression and Dalit and Adivasi students who deal with jibes about getting in on reservations, not ‘merit’. As if ‘merit’ emerges from a vacuum where a person’s inherited caste capital, socio-economic background and upbringing are inconsequential.
These seemingly benign dollops of humour are also a “site of ideological reproduction” that serve as tools for othering non-dominant groups and reinforcing social hierarchies and stereotypes. Humour, as Danielle Bobker argues in her piece, ‘Toward a Humor–Positive Feminism’, is a vital, elusive and continually evolving aspect of human experience, but it often serves oppressive ends. Just because something is online, doesn’t mean it has no impact in real life.
Memes cease to be amusing when they are produced and enjoyed exclusively by oppressor groups. The invisible power dynamic underlying such ‘humour’ dictates that the creator doesn’t just get to make an offensive ‘joke’, but also gets to tell the oppressed party to treat said material as a ‘joke’. This social power is not shared or circulated amongst the tellers, laughers and the objects of such jokes, but centred in the oppressor alone.
Memes, and a larger comedy culture, that reproduces societal oppression online, can’t just be laughed off as trivial. By producing and sharing such memes, we put the burden of explaining the reason for their offensiveness on the affected groups, whereas the responsibility should lie with the creator of the joke.
To borrow from Molly Ivins, when satire is aimed at the powerless, it’s not just cruel, it’s vulgar. Meme-making may be easy, but being funny is not.
Akshita Sharma is an 18-year-old student at Government Law College in Mumbai.