The easiest way to explain memes is that they are the bumper stickers (BS) of the Internet and, like bumper stickers, the sentiments they convey may be superficially appealing but are usually simplistic attempts to bypass critical thinking. This is often done by making an implicit argument rather than an explicit one in an attempt to manipulate the viewer’s feelings while making them believe they are thinking.
While there are any number of memes that have become very popular (despite their appalling ignorance), there are three that I have seen in the last week that all attack a position I believe is important. My hope is that you will take a moment to reflect on the ideas these memes convey, and will be willing to speak out when you encounter these or other similar memes on the Internet or in social media. Without your active, polite, and thoughtful opposition, memes like these spread, infecting and corrupting the public understanding of whatever topic they address.
Disclaimer: The three memes I address here are all related to the nature/definition of marriage and the validity of the “sanctity/Biblical definition of marriage” defense. I am not here making a case against same-sex marriage (though such a case exists, and I agree with it). I’m also not addressing the morality of homosexuality. Finally, by opposing these memes you will undoubtedly draw fire from the people posting them. Proceed only if you value the truth more than people’s good opinions!
The first meme lists a series of famous marriage failures ranging from Tiger Woods and Jesse James to Brittney Spears and Kim Kardashian. Then it says “But somehow it is same-sex marriage that is going to ‘destroy the institution of marriage.’ Really?”
The list is painful to read, but there is some truth to it – all of the individuals listed have contributed to harming the institution of marriage through their thoughtless and very public actions. The problem comes when same-sex marriage is introduced. The implicit argument conveyed by this meme is that it is misguided to oppose same-sex marriage on the belief that it will damage the sanctity of marriage. In fact, there is almost an accusation of hypocrisy implied, as if one is hypocritical for opposing same-sex marriage when these other things are damaging marriage.
This is what we call a “false dichotomy” – an example of when two things are portrayed as being the only two options, when in fact there are other options – including the option that both are true or both are false. In this case, the two options are portrayed as mutually exclusive when in fact they are not mutually exclusive. All of the situations that this meme mentions do indeed contribute to the destruction of the institution of marriage. But that doesn’t mean that same-sex marriage won’t further the destruction of marriage, and it doesn’t mean that opposing same-sex marriage is somehow hypocritical – especially when those who oppose same-sex marriage consistently oppose the other abuses of marriage this meme describes.
The second meme, titled “Defending the sanctity of marriage…” is similar. It features three comic panels, each portraying a couple wishing to get married. The first panel features a drunken heterosexual couple who met one another at a casino only hours before. The panel is labeled “Legal.” The second panel features another heterosexual couple, one of whom (it is not clear which) has been married and divorced six times, and wants to be married again. This panel is also labeled “Legal.” The final panel features two men who have been in a committed relationship with one another for 20 years. This panel is labeled “Illegal.”
Of course the problems for this meme are similar to the previous one. It’s a false dichotomy to imply that either the first two causes (bad marriages) or the third cause (same-sex “marriage”) could violate the sanctity of marriage, but not both. They all three do – The first violates the idea that marriage is not something to be entered into lightly, the second violates the idea that marriage should be for life, and the third violates even the definition of marriage. So all three of them do violate the sanctity of marriage.
Again there is the implication that defenders of marriage are being hypocritical. But even though the first two scenarios are damaging to marriage, it doesn’t make it sensible to allow more damage to be done through same-sex marriage, and of course it’s not like supporters of marriage wink at the first two cases. In fact, the entire line of argument in the meme depends on the first two couples being assaults on marriage to which most people already object.
The difficulty is that the first two cases are already legal. I’m not sure we could use the law to prevent the first one, but the second one is to some extent a result of no-fault divorce, introduced first in California of course, a few decades ago. Overturning no-fault divorce is a worthwhile goal, but it would be an even longer and more difficult battle than preventing same-sex marriage. Either way, the damage from the first two is already done, but that doesn’t mean we should sit idly by as the deathblow is delivered to marriage via the third case.
So much for the logic of the meme. But of course propaganda doesn’t depend on logic, and this example is no different. Notice that in both of first two panels, the characters are designed to play on prejudice. The woman in the first panel is overweight and looks like a loose woman, while the man looks like a skinhead, and both of their faces are caricatures. In the second panel, the height mismatch between the man and the woman strikes one as lopsided and, combined with the somewhat dopey expression on the man’s face, makes her look predatory while he is a simpleton. Again, both faces are caricatures. Finally, in the third panel we are given a picture of two handsome, well-dressed men, one of whom is wearing glasses (playing to the cultural feeling that glasses make someone look more intelligent), while the other has a neatly-trimmed beard. In addition, the body language changes from the lecherous poses of the first two panels to a much more gentle and affectionate appearance in the third panel. The couple, appearing to be in their thirties, explain that they have been in a committed relationship for twenty years. The problem? Homosexual relationships are notorious for promiscuity – very few relationships last 20 years.
Of course neither of these memes explores why marriage is defined the way it is, whether alternative definitions of marriage are coherent, or why the state chooses to recognize and privilege marriages in the first place. Doing so engages the brain rather than the heart or a poorly formed conscience, and would tend to undermine both the feelings of hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness they are attempting to create in those who oppose same-sex marriage, and the sense of moral superiority created in those who support it.
There is one more meme related to the topic of marriage, but I’m saving it for a separate post, since it is significantly more involved. Stay tuned.