A picture, the saying goes, is worth a thousand words. Now, whether those discounted thousand words are worth anything or not is a different question. The irony is not lost that the most literate society in the history of the world has become an image culture. Rather than long, well thought out arguments, we argue via the Meme; a medium whose sole criteria is not truth, but cleverness.
But it is not just cleverness that makes them so popular but their convenience. With artistic flair, they can “yada, yada, yada” the important details away. With only 1000 words to spare, most of the energy must be devoted to toppling the Straw Men they have constructed. Straw men may easily fall, but they have an uncanny ability to destroy any healthy debate.
Take a recent example posted to The People for Bernie Sanders Facebook page. It has two panels, one with a child in the womb with the caption “Every Life is Precious” and the second has the washed up body of an immigrant child featuring the caption “Not my problem.” The statement is obvious: Pro-life people only care about life in the womb. Life outside the womb, not so much.
Of course this is a common accusation leveled at Pro-lifers. But truth be told, no actual Pro-Lifer actually thinks this way. Step one, complete, Straw Man constructed.
They also fall victim to the hidden logic of their Meme. They are essentially saying that Pro-lifers are really pro-life if and only if they care equally for those outside the womb as they do inside. It doesn’t take a professional logician to realize that this goes both ways. In other words, why do The People for Bernie Sanders and their ilk assume that this logic does not apply to themselves? They have compartmentalized the two issues and then attempt to call the Pro-lifers out on (allegedly) doing the same. Either they should be separate issues or not. But if you choose to separate them then you can’t call someone out for doing the same.
As I mentioned this is a variation on a common accusation—Pro-lifers cannot speak out against abortion unless they are willing to take care of the babies once they are born. Straw Men are notoriously limp and can’t really hold newborns. This argument ignores the actual work that does go on to help single moms, adoption and adoption services, etc. by many Pro-lifers. But, and this is important, even if they aren’t willing to lift a finger to help, this doesn’t justify the act of abortion. Abortion is wrong because it takes an innocent person’s life, not because somebody wanted the child. No sane person would say to a single Mom who is struggling to make ends meet with two kids and can’t find any help that she should kill one of those kids. Yet, that is what Bernie Sanders and his friends are saying.
This is what I like to call the either/or fallacy. It is assumed that just because you work hard to stop one injustice that you don’t care about other injustices going on. What if both abortion and the death of child immigrants are great tragedies? What if both represent a failure of the human family to protect their most vulnerable members? What if a person is moved to action by the plight of one suffering group more than another? Is this a denial of the misery of the second group or is it an admission that I am not superman and can’t help everyone? There may be more emphasis by Pro-lifers on abortion because you must first help your own before helping others. Our obligations to our fellow American citizens are much clearer than our obligations to citizens of other nations–not because they are worth any less but because we can only help so many people. Charity begins at home. What would you think of a man who ignored his family and only helped other people’s families?
I think this is why this is usually more a liberal tendency than a conservative one. The liberal tends to think that big government can help everyone. But even our huge government is limited in the amount of help it can offer overseas. Sometimes there are battles that are worth fighting, but they may not be our particular fights. While we should do all that we can to help immigrants, there is nothing wrong with it taking a back seat to some issues here at home. The common good of the homeland takes precedence.
It is a gigantic leap from panel 1 to panel 2 in the Meme. In fact it may be an uncrossable chasm. The truth that abortion is wrong has nothing to do with immigration. It is a red herring that attempts to undermine the credibility of those with whom they disagree. It may be clever, but it bears no relation to an actual argument.
Just because you can draw does not absolve you from doing some actual thinking through of what you draw. The truth is more subtle than the artist is willing to admit or sort through. An analogy will help. I know of no one who does not have a lock on the door of their house to keep themselves and family safe. No one I know has an open door policy where a doorbell unlocks the door automatically. We all have an obligation to vet each person that comes into our homes. In other words, we have a policy in which we discriminate who should enter and who should not. Dad may not let any teenage girl visit his son Elroy until he vets them, but this does not make him sexist. Elroy may protest, but until he convinces his dad that this is not the most prudent way to handle the situation, his protests will look more like hissy fits especially if he accuses him of misogyny.
The government too has an obligation to vet who visits the country. An open door policy is not possible. Prudence dictates how this would best be accomplished. It may be that an entire class of people is turned away until a proper vetting process is put in place. Perhaps this is not the most prudent measure, but the debate should center on that and not calling people Islamaphobes.
Memes and their twin sisters, the protest sign, have become the new Sophistry because of this glossing over of significant facts. The bad elements of Islam are a threat. Islam itself is extremely divided and it is very hard to separate the threats from the non-threats. It is reasonable then to make sure you are able to do so. Any alternative to the recent Executive Order has to deal with these facts. One could decide to be like Elroy’s dad and keep all the Muslims from troubled regions out. That may not be the most prudent measure, but even if someone chooses this approach that does not make them Islamaphobes.
The problem is not the memes per se, but the fact that we now have adopted memic thinking patterns. I will admit to being one of those annoying people who actually asks someone to explain their meme to me. Usually I find that the person posting is either non-responsive or can’t really explain them because the ever-present intellectual gap.
To all but the oblivious, it is obvious that we are more divided as a country than ever. There are many reasons why this is the case, but in truth they all boil down to one thing—we have lost the ability to sustain an argument.
One who is familiar with the details of our founding cannot help but be struck by the peacefulness with which George Washington and then his successor John Adams took power. This is not because all the Founding Fathers were on the same page, but because they were men who could sustain an argument without resorting to violence. This fostering of arguments in many ways in written into the relatively short Constitution. In this way they were much like the Medieval philosophers like St Thomas who saw the great practical value in intellectual argument.
A good debater is one who can repeat back to the person their argument and understands it. Many of St. Thomas’ contemporaries were struck by the profundity of the Objections to the questions in the Summa. He was able to succinctly and often more convincingly put forth his opponents’ arguments than they could themselves. The point is that a good debater can find the specific place in their opponents’ argument where they went off the rails and put them back on track. We call this “common ground” but it is really common sense—if you want to argue with someone, you must start at the place where you agree. When debate occurs through memes like The People for Bernie Sanders’ post that obviously does not happen. If we have any hope to survive as a country this part of the American heritage must be restored. There are only two ways to win men over to your side, by appeals to reason through argument or by force. I am afraid that only one of those paths is open to us right now.
St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us!