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Almost All Memes Are Dangerous

If you want to understand politics today, you’ve got to understand memes. These are images but it’s best to think of them as viruses. They spread from person to person and cause mental infections. And while the ideas usually have perhaps a grain of truth almost always the meme is designed to get you to believe something uncritically.

Memes are so dangerous, it’s not often wise to release them into the wild without a safe container. So here’s one I’ve seen floating around, and I’ve carefully removed the hazardous edges to explain how it works.

This class of meme, if it had a Latin name, might be Announceious Single-Reasonum. That is, the person sharing the image is telling everyone what they believe and giving one major rationale they think is good enough all on its own.

It gets worse. This particular meme uses something beloved by English teachers everywhere: parallel construction.

I can’t show you the actual verb employed in the meme because it gives away the topic. That’s how utterly toxic these viruses are. But there is power in using the same word. It ties together the first and second half of the meme, giving the argument weight.

More context; read carefully.

Now the meme is starting to feel bulletproof. The two things are clearly connected. Or at least, the things are the same. One was already done, the other should be done. Right?

Okay. It’s time to descend into the biohazard lab. Put on your gloves and goggles. To make sure no one gets hurt, I’ve hidden the next image behind a link. Take a deep breath. And when you’re ready, take a look.

This is an enormous area of policy discussion, and really there are almost no serious proposals for a complete cancellation of all federal student loans [1] and the experts don’t anticipate that happening anyway [2]. Plus if you think about it what happens to all of the students who are currently in college and incurring debt? And what prevents colleges from increasing the cost of education further, since they know the government will pay it?

Obviously these details can be discussed and maybe even worked out, but the meme makes a blanket statement proposing “cancellation.” And this is the first way that memes cause injury. They make assertions as if they were true and complete. But they often aren’t. A total cancellation of all student loan debt is not a feasible idea. That’s not what you want to hear if you’re one of those 45 million people, but it is the truth.

At this point, the right thing to do is to stop reading the meme. Any image that mentions a policy idea which is unworkable is not worth your time. But that’s not how our brains work. We can’t stop. We have to keep going.

Try not to get infected.

Responding now is like trying to get spilled milk back into the jug. The word cancelled is obviously wrong. Nobody took a look at a bunch of specific tax returns and then decided to throw them out. But in any case, if someone got away with not paying taxes, shouldn’t we go after them and make them pay their taxes? What does other people’s student loan bills have to do with any of that?

If you carefully take it apart, the meme doesn’t make any sense. Yes: we do have problems with the cost of education and student loan debt. Yes: our tax code has problems too, especially with regard to the ultra wealthy.

But these facts are not connected. They are two very real issues, but they don’t have anything to do with each other [3]. And yet, this meme insists that they do.

And like all viruses, the host is infected. And chances are that this virus will be shared with others.

There is no other choice. All we can do is to implore one another: think carefully before you click.



[3] Okay, sure, they are both vaguely related to government corruption, but what’s not related to that?

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