On meme culture and the Patriot’s Day 2013 Boston Marathon bombing

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Taken Saturday, 16 April, 2011 in Danvers, Massachusetts

My mother’s family is from Boston, we have deep roots there.  Two years ago this weekend we were all celebrating my sister’s wedding.  My Facebook feed — full of news organizations, ministries, and many Massachusetts friends and relatives — started lighting up like a Christmas tree early this afternoon with news of the Patriot’s Day bombing at the Boston Marathon.

And the entire media and social media world followed with the typical array of stories, memes, condolances, love, and prayers — posted from all over the world.  In the face of disasters and tragedies, our society now creates the digital virtual equivalent of an on-site memorial shrine.  It’s quite striking actually.
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I don’t know if the first “digital disaster” in American consciousness was the World Trade Center bombings of September 11, 2001 or not.  It was the first major American disaster in quite some time, and both captivated and horrified the world in a way I’ve not seen since.  By 2001, e-mail and internet was something most people had, and those were the first event-oriented memes I remember seeing in e-mail forwards.  Meme culture has been a common tribute response to disasters ever since, and like I said, it’s quite striking.

Now, I definitely collect memes — mostly for use in blog posts or as a source of encouragement to others — but I question their value somewhat.  I reject the use of memes by people who use them as a soapbox to run off at the mouth with hatred, vitriol, disrespect about some perceived injustice to one’s sense of entitlement in the world.  Okay, you keep polluting my eyes with disturbing and toxic images and rhetoric, who — exactly — is served by that anger?  What makes me most angry are people who expend a lot of energy on vitriol and outrage against a certain issue, but do absolutely nothing to affect positive change in the world to make any meaningful impact toward righting that apparent wrong.  I have no love for people who do nothing but stand on street corners holding signs and shouting either, but meme culture is far lazier.  If the beginning and end of your campaign for social and political justice is to vomit memes all over your social media feed?  I promise you, pictures of sleeping kittens would bring EXACTLY the same level of effectiveness…but would be ever so much more pleasant than ire, fire, anger, vitriol, and hatred.
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But I think memes do have their place in our culture.

In our high-speed, 4G, data saturated, sound-byte culture of speeding through life at a furious clip with a 24-hour news cycle chirping along in the background as we tweet and text our way through the day, memes invite us to take a breath: memes invite us to take a breath, hold a thought in our heads, have a simple mental and emotional response to a graphic, and then resume our day. They make us laugh, they make us smile, they make us angry, they make us nostalgic, they make us reflective, they make us think…

Memes make us reach out and touch our own humanity in a collective response with others. And while they may or may not be the most effective or productive response to any given situation, they are a response. May our thoughtfulness, our love, our compassion, our joy, and our hope not begin and end with mere memes. My background is steeped heavily in the study of history, and the notion is very often raised “those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.” That’s true enough, but in our high-speed, search-engine-driven, wiki-culture, what does “remember” even mean anymore? I pray it does not mean the fleeting graphic equivalent of a sound-byte without genuine depth of thought or care.

Do you remember the 26 January 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, India? I happened to be stuck home in bed and seriously ill that month with what ended up as pneumonia. The house where I was renting a room at the time was located at the base of the foothills of my city, at the mouth of a cañon. I had no television, and radio reception was dodgy. I did, however, have internet. I quickly found a passion for the BBC World Service, for when the NPR stations switched to music overnight, the events and stories of life around the world still went on — and were reported — as North America slept on through the night. I remember the extensive coverage of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake clearly, as it was the main story for weeks on the BBC World Service. I remember one interview with a local Gujarati man who was thoughtful and mused that it was good that the world was taking note of Gujarat, but would the world still remember Gujarat in a year?

I don’t think the world did, but I have never forgotten it.

We say our love, our hearts, our prayers are with the people of Boston. I hope that is really true. For me it is true because — on some level — there is an aspect of ancestral “home” to Boston (though that particular city has never been my own home). I hope it is true that our love, our hearts, our prayers are with the people of Boston in a lasting and meaningful way…not merely as the latest selection in the *Disaster of the Month Club* meme-fest. May our words to each other encourage, uplift, inspire, and bring hope — and may they do so in a lasting and meaningful way.

And of all the thoughts, prayers, memes, and tributes to mark this shocking and tragic day, the following one (posted by my friend Linda) gave me the most pause. Thank you and bless you Mr. Rogers, yes — “remember the helpers.”
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Another friend remarked:

“Numb….just plain numb….this tragedy in Boston….it’s not going to end, is it”

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To that, my reply will take us to Flanders, to France, and to Gallipoli in the years that followed the great battles of the Great War. To read the story of the origins of the Flanders Fields Remembrance Day Poppies in more depth, click here, but the gist of it is that the poppies that grew alongside the fields of grain in the beautiful farmlands that became ravaged wastelands in the battles of the Great war grew best in the churned-up and turned-over soils created by the battles that raged. Beginning in 1915, the battlefields began to bloom with poppies. It was this story in my mind when I replied to my friend:

“Life is beautiful my friend, but sometimes it takes awhile for the wildflowers to carpet the battlefield.”

Life is beautiful, and though some days all you can see is the mud before the poppies, there is hope…and God is still on the throne. — VKS

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2 thoughts on “On meme culture and the Patriot’s Day 2013 Boston Marathon bombing

  1. I hope my 2cents is perhaps of more value being kept in my head and heart–as I have nothing to add to your wise words, respectful reflection and words of caution to a digital generation full of verbiage. Thank you to Mr. Rogers for reminding us, as Anne Frank did so poignantly many years prior, that there are still good people in the world…..hope all is going well in your neck of the world Val—peace to you—Julie

    • You know, for all the plethora of memes and commentaries and posts, I don’t have much to add to Mr. Rogers. So much of the media out there focuses on all the badness in the world. If you’re looking for what’s wrong with the world, you’ll surely find it…and miss all the goodness, blessings, and beauty along the way.

      Verbiage and sentiment are nouns. Love and compassion are verbs.

      My world wants badly for peace, but life’s calendar turns a page on Friday and Annie is about to explode with 2+ baby guinea pigs, so I’m pretty much sparkling through the week. Hope you’re mending well. Blessings to you!

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