Saturday, August 24, 2013

What is the intent of a Facebook 'meme'

Facebook includes a great many 'memes' - which are usually photos with some text superimposed on them, making some point about something.  Topics run the gamut, from one end of a spectrum to another.  All sides on any issue make use of them on Facebook.

Whenever I post a meme, usually a re-posting from someone else - I've only originated a handful of them - I'm constantly bombarded by complaints from people who castigate me for posting such a meme.  There comments typically fall in one of several categories:
  • The meme overgeneralizes - not everyone in some category mentioned by the meme engages in the evidently silly behavior mentioned in the meme.
  • The meme is incomplete - it omits/ignores certain facts, or it fails to include mitigating circumstances
  • The meme is biased - it's not consistent with a wholly objective analysis of the situation it claims to represent
  • The meme can be interpreted to imply that certain groups are always responsible for bad behavior while other groups are never responsible for that behavior
These incessant complaints about memes, it seems to me, are missing the point of posting the memes.  A meme is not capable of nuanced analysis.  Its capabilities for a full 'fair and balanced' presentation are sufficiently limited that such a requirement can't ever be achieved by a meme.  It's not quite so limited as a simple slogan, but it's not far from it.  The basic characteristic of Facebook memes is their one-sidedness.  Of course they're biased!  Is anything that anyone says ever wholly unbiased?  Of course they don't comprise a comprehensive analysis - the medium simply precludes that.  How one interprets a meme depends on the individual - you may read something into it that's not actually explicitly in the meme - implications can be quite subjective.  We may not agree on how to interpret the meme, after all.

So just what is the intent of a meme?  I certainly can't answer that in a wholly comprehensive way - I can't speak for everyone who posts them.  But it seems to me that the intent is to provoke a discussion.  I know when I repost memes, I'm often interested in hearing how the "targets" of the meme would respond to what the meme says.  Whining that the meme isn't comprehensive, or overgeneralizes, or fails to be 'fair and balanced' is simply avoiding the issue that the meme presents.  Is this true? Is it accurate?  If not, what can you present that shows that?  If the information is inaccurate or misleading, in what way is it so?  What are your sources that you believe validate your dispute of what it says?  If you're concerned about what it implies, rather than what it states explicitly, are you willing to accept that your interpretation of what it says might be different from my interpretation?  If our interpretations are different, which of us is 'right'?  Is it possible for us to decide that?  On what basis?

A meme is not a debate - it's a statement.  Such a statement might stimulate a discussion/debate, but it isn't a self-contained presentation of all sides - it is not a self-contained presentation of all conceivable sides.  Please let us discuss the merits or demerits of the meme's content without whining about it not being what a meme cannot be.  I enjoy the opportunity to learn how other people, who think differently from me, see the issues contained in the meme.  But please don't bitch to me about the meme on the basis of some criterion it can't possibly achieve!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The perils of whistle-blowing

As I write this, Bradley Manning has been sentenced to 35 years in military prison for passing classified documents to Wikileaks containing information about military atrocities going on in Iraq.  The extent to which the revelations actually caused the military any harm, other than to its reputation, isn't known with certainty, but seems to be negligible.  And Edward Snowden is a fugitive after he leaked classified information about the National Security Agency's massive eavesdropping policies.  What these two cases have in common is that the whistle-blowers revealed classified information, which is clearly illegal and represents a compromise of security.

But the problem with the 'security' classification of this information is that it was, effectively, being used to cover up what amounts to illegal activities.  We have seen this many times during my life.  Politicians like Richard Nixon used a similar tactic ('executive privilege') to deny access to information that would be embarrassing or even criminal.  Yes, those who reveal classified information usually have broken laws - laws that are necessary for national security, but laws that also allow unscrupulous people to cover up their misdeeds.  I have mixed feelings about both Manning and Snowden - no question they broke laws - laws that are necessary for national security.  But the deeds being covered up also are illegal.  Should someone be tried, convicted, and sentenced harshly for revealing the truth about criminal activities?  Why are not those committing those revealed crimes also on trial for their actions? 

Any whistle-blower must confront the reality that revealing what truths they have is not going to be well-received by the unscrupulous.  The target of whistle-blowing is quite likely to fight back with accusations of their own, teams of lawyers, and the tacit support of government, including judges!  For instance, we now have laws in several states that make it illegal to film agricultural practices (e.g., industrial production of foodstuffs from livestock) that might reveal extreme cruelty to the animals.  The agricultural corporations and other big producers don't want anyone to know how the food they buy is produced, and they have the explicit support of state governments in their wish to maintain secrecy about their practices.

Several years back, my wife and I were photographing some thistle flowers in the Texas panhandle, when an unmarked car drove up and an armed security guard told us that we could not photograph the chemical plant several miles away.  We explained what we were doing and he admonished us to be sure not to shoot towards the plant, and we agreed not to do so.  After he drove away, we noticed that many of the thistles were malformed in ways that suggested the toxicity of the conditions in which they were growing - no doubt something the company operating the plant would not want to be known.  No, I didn't know the identity of that company at the time, so I can't name them now.  If I could, I would.

Choosing to be a whistle-blower is quite likely to result in loss of your job, and may well lead to your arrest and conviction for various reasons, often seemingly unrelated to the deeds you revealed by blowing the whistle.  Your reputation can be smeared, your life destroyed, and the people whose criminal activities you exposed are likely to escape scot-free.  Is this really the sort of justice system we want in America?  Are we not becoming a crypto-fascist police state where the rich call the shots, backed up by government police power, and the rest of us have to toe the line?  The 4th Amendment to the Constitution is becoming irrelevant in our so-called justice system, where "probable cause" is no longer required for many searches and seizures.  I repeat:  is this the sort of America we want?