What’s in a #BernieMeme? (And What Is Not)

What’s in a #BernieMeme? (And What Is Not)

This, the 51st month of 2016, as one meme puts it, has been full of ALL THE FEELS for me and so many others in the US and around the world. I mean, let’s be clear: in the course of two weeks we progressed from armed insurrectionists white supremacists praying in the Capitol while causing violence and trauma to the blessedly peaceful inauguration day. It’s been A LOT to process. So it’s excellent that we’ve had memes of Bernie Sanders sitting at the Biden/Harris Inauguration on a folding chair in his winter coat and mittens to help make social media safe for us again. In this analysis, I plan to talk about the very real benefits of this kind of serious play, and also its limits. Specifically, I want to point out that while these #BernieMemes have a powerful place to play in this new era, they are not a magic ticket to heal all religio-political wounds—and explain why.

This may be a longish one. Thanks for hanging in there with me—I think you’ll find it worth it.

My Background and Expertise and Interest

As a reminder, I am approaching this as a communication scholar who studies stress, trauma, and conflict communication. I also have PhD concentrations in media, narrative and society and rhetorical studies, so this kind of delightful thing is just up my alley. I also teach interpersonal communication on the university level from my current area of research, so I’m coming with that background too, as well as personal experience of deep conflicts with those across the religio-political divides.

I grew up, if you’ve been following my stuff, as a pastor’s kid in what I’ve started calling “Christian Bothsidesism”—in other words, in the belief that the extreme religio-political right and just the ordinary left were both really extreme and also “just as bad as each other.” I wrote about that here and here. And it really took the revelations of the last four years to really see how much my “moderate Christian nice” upbringing left room for support of fascistic authoritarianism and all sorts of other nastiness.

Anyway, with all this background in place, as someone who currently identifies as progressive and feels release from the collective abuse from the previous administration, I’m definitely feeling the Bernie mittens right now. They have brought me tremendous joy over the last few days. I’m definitely enjoying sitting with Bernie.

And yet I’m not investing #BernieMemes with some sort of magical power either—and I think it’s key we recognize their value, but also their limits, especially when it comes to reclaiming people who are still clinging to right-wing ideologies.

Can the #BernieMemes Bridge Our Religio-Political Divides?

So to dive in: However much I love the #BernieMemes — and again, don’t get me wrong, I lurve them — I also am cringing quite a bit as I’m seeing suggestions that Bernie memes might be the one and total thing that can bridge all of our religio-political differences.

This opinion piece by a comic over at CNN boils down to just that.

When I hear stuff like that, it makes me cringe hard.

Here’s Why I Cringe.

See, that kind of advice is the kind of advice offered in a lot of relational manuals that only work in mostly-functional relationships—you know, the kind where people make mistakes but everyone really means best, and forgiveness comes easily because there is a genuine basis for trust.

This is not healthy advice to give in dysfunctional situations where power dynamics are uneven and one person has suffered bullying, abuse, and/or trauma at the hands of another.

Even More True on the Systemic Level

That’s true on the interpersonal level, and it is also true on the systemic level, in which one group is insisting that another group is less human or ought be allowed less human rights than another. (After all, as we all know, while compromises are often necessary, human rights aren’t the same as pie, where if one person gets a piece it diminishes someone else.)

And let’s face it: for anyone who still doubted it, the events at the Capitol OUGHT to have been the proof that there is nothing functional about how the religio-political right has been acting toward the left. As I’ve mentioned several times before, they’re the only side with self-described Nazis. They’re also, despite bothsidesish projective rhetoric to the contrary, the only ones who have staged an attempted coup on the Capital building.

And their ideology and policies alike have been only about building and maintaining power at everyone else’s expense. I mean, the completely unnecessary body counts from the pandemic combined with the complete sabotaging of public health experts ought to have been plenty of evidence to show that.

There May Be a Few Relatively Reasonable People That Bernie’s Mittens May Move

For those that see this proof—whether before or now—sure, #BernieMemes may absolutely help to welcome those people over to reality. But for others, as I’ll discuss, this could be a landmine situation if you expect to win them over about genuine religio-political topics.

Low-Stakes Common Ground?

Let’s be clear, then. Yes, yes, yes—communication scholarship is clear that inoffensive things like #BernieMemes absolutely have the capability of providing a low-stakes form of common ground and things to laugh about together with people who we may have trouble crossing the divides with.

In some situations, this kind of thing may even help humanize the left for people who have been wrapped up in demonization of it. After all, there’s something beautiful about seeing this particular image of Bernie Sanders, dressed down and bundled up and assertively wearing recycled mittens amongst the pomp and circumstance of the inauguration.

And Yet, Let’s Be Clear Here—There’s Only So Far This Will Go

Because the people who are laughing about the meme don’t actually have to talk to Bernie, or listen to him, or take his ideas seriously—it’s a very low-stakes form of humanization we’re talking about here. I mean yes, the humanization is there. Because of the non-verbal humanity of Bernie’s full body presenting itself to the viewer, it’s hard to fully dismiss the reality and humanity of Bernie in these memes, even as he literally becomes objectified.

To some people, this kind of recycled image could be a starting point to help build a road back to reality for some people who have been caught up in the disinformation on the right. It could also be super helpful for those who agree in principle with the left but are still trying to bridge that socialized discomfort with actually overcoming socialized unjust moral disgusts for liberal people and policies of various sorts.

That’s no joke. And yet…there’s a huge barrier to be crossed here.

Why the Left Needs Humanization to the Right

And let’s be clear: there’s a huge need for the left to be humanized for the right now. There is clear evidence for that. Brene Brown, on a recent episode of her podcast Unlocking Us, recently cited a peer-reviewed psychological study that showed the damage of the demonization of the left of the last four years (and—let’s face it—what came before as well).

This study had members of the alt-right identify how human they thought various groups were, and the average for “Democrats” was 60.4%.  These same members of the alt-right scored “white people” at 91%.

That disjunction is fascinating if also disturbing, if only because it makes it clear: these alt-right folks don’t see Democrats as white, and that’s why they don’t see them as fully human.

Ding ding ding! There it is, right there: white supremacy.

(Of course, many Democrats ARE white, but then, the concept of “race-traitors” has been around as long as racism has been.)

Democrats as Three-Fifths Human?

Listen: this number—60.4% absolutely stunned me. And the reason it stunned me so much was this: 60% means that these members of the alt-right saw Democrats, when they thought of them as a group, as pretty much exactly three-fifths of a person.

If you’re thinking about that number and thinking back to the Constitution, three-fifths of a person is a hugely important number. That’s the number plantation owners were allowed to count their non-voting slaves in terms of the coming up with numbers for the electoral college.

It’s stunning—but not surprising to me—that this is the number that members of the alt-right came up with for Democrats. And in retrospect, my Christian “right-leaning moderate” background honestly carried many of the same prejudices.

How My Socialized Bothsidesism Led Me to Be Terrified of Democrats

After all, as I’ve pointed out before in this space, I was forced in high school to listen to the unhealthy rhetoric of Rush Limbaugh in the car. And even back then, when as a “moderate conservative” I recoiled from his language, I was still terrified of Democratic ideas and how they might lead me astray.  

I was so terrified of taking Democrats and their policies seriously—mostly because of their demonization as “baby killers,” to be honest—that it took me a decade and a half from that point to vote for my first Democrat. And it took me until very recently to see how bigoted those stances I was raised with truly were.

My Long-Assed Process of Rehumanizing the Democrats

I can promise you, it took WAY more than a Bernie meme to get there. Bernie memes might have been a good step in the journey, sure—but it took a LOT of experiences and relationships and willingness to keep my mouth shut and listen to get to the point where I genuinely appreciated the humanity of Democrats enough to take them seriously.

And that was then, long before any of the recently traumatizing sh*t went down. And—again—I would in no way have considered myself part of the “alt-right.” I would not have espoused their name-calling or violence. And yet I, too, took a long-assed time to see Democrats as fully human.

So yeah, Bernie memes are a gorgeous thing, but they aren’t going to do the work on their own, and definitely not for the hardened cases.

That Isn’t To Say We Don’t Need These Bernie Memes!

Before this previous administration, the American Psychological Association’s annual stress index never recorded fears for the future of the country as higher than financial or work concerns, and well over 60% of participants. This previous US administration has brought this country down a long, dark hole, and the rhetoric at the top was paired with policies that caused measurable damage to people’s lives.

This research, especially combined with what we’re learning about the Capitol attack, shows us in stark terms how VERY MUCH we needed this new administration in this country—and the more lighthearted and humanizing rhetoric that came with it.

What #BernieMemes Do Well

So yeah, this stress research shows us how very much we needed the laughter (plenty of evidence shows laughter decreases stress) of the #BernieMemes.

It also shows us how much we needed this displaced and manipulated image of Bernie to help us feel and express our other feels as well. After all, the non-verbal communication of this lovely man, sitting there in bundled up in the cold, expresses for us collectively, in the midst of the pomp and circumstance of this strange inauguration, how so many of us feel in this dark pandemic winter that was disrupted so recently with violence against those who supported a peaceful transition.

In some ways we are all Bernie, sitting through this season the best we can, using whatever resources we can to keep ourselves and others warm all masked up and distanced from others to try to keep others literally healthy. And looking a little miserable in the process.

These #BernieMemes show our humanity to others. And some may pull out of their fog of disinformation to register that.

And Yet Bernie’s Mittens Are Weirdly Not Silver Bullets of Reconciliation

But these #BernieMemes are not magic.

Not everyone will have the eyes to see.

And some of those who do will get super defensive of their own virtue, an exercise they’ve had plenty of modeling for over the last four years.

When Bernie’s Mittens Likely Won’t Do Much Good

As I said in my last post here, people I know from my “Christian moderate” past (as I might be doing now had I not shifted) will decry the views of the alt-right as much as the violence they perpetrated, while insisting that “everyone knows” that their primary leaders and their policies couldn’t possibly have played a part.

They will try to tell you that rhetoric doesn’t really matter, or that if it does, it’s only an extreme faction that has been mobilized—a faction they disclaim.

In these circumstances, I don’t think #BernieMemes will go very far. In these cases, I’m honestly not sure what will.

Why We Should Keep Going with the Memes Anyway

None of this should stop us from glorying in the beauty of the Bernie memes, and other delightfully humorous memes. Memes help start conversation, they help us cope, they can set rapport, they can help people who are openminded enough to make the gradual journey to be more and more open.

These are all excellent things. I am not among those who think memes aren’t valuable. They are extremely valuable. They are part of what we can do to move step by step for a healthier world for us all—and that’s not only the serious memes, either. #BernieMemes count too.

But Yeah, They Are Not Magic

But they are not any more of a silver bullet than anything else is in communication.

(I’m about to start a new semester on Zoom, so this is a thing that will get said many times in my classroom, as usual—there are no silver bullets in communication. To think we can fully control communication leads to trauma and abuse.)

Let’s Take a Second to Be Sad that Silver Bullets Don’t Exist

It would be easier in a lot of ways if there were, wouldn’t there? And it makes sense that we would want one: after all, the last four years, and longer for many vulnerable populations, have been traumatic ones for us.

And now, we are stepping into a new era—it would be nice to feel like everything would somehow just heal, and very quickly.

And yes, in a lot of ways the inauguration, and the #BernieMemes that came with them, are an instant shift for the better. That shift is profoundly welcomed by those of us that rightfully felt the extreme pain of the last few years.

Not Going to Get Us to Some Fabled “Unity”

But let’s be clear: this picture of Bernie is not—certainly not on its own—going to fix the problem of unity in this country.

It will help us all blow off some steam, and that is valuable work to help us all heal.

It will help humanize the left to at least an extent and with some audiences. And that is valuable work.

Advice for the Courageous Folks Who Do Try to Rebuild Relationships

But to those of you who think you might want to venture out to rebuild some relationships with stubbornly radicalized right-wing folks, #BernieMemes in hand, I say this, which is the same advice I give to those in my interpersonal class looking to approach people that have deeply hurt them: if you decide to go forth to try to build bridges, make a careful plan for how you may do this thing.

If you want to approach those you think you might have a shot of reclaiming, take care about the effort. Set yourself some careful parameters and boundaries around the effort. Set yourself up some social support. Enact self-care. Remember it’s okay to walk away, and work ahead of time to figure out when that line might be crossed for you.

Breaking Through Bothsidesism

In short, remember this: both sides are NOT the same here. The disinformation from white supremacy has been aggressively dehumanizing people on the left for decades (and even centuries!). And while the left isn’t immune to white supremacy, in the last few years the right’s been working aggressively and overtly to radicalize enough people that they perpetrated an attempted armed coup that brought the Confederate flag inside the Capitol building for the first time ever.

The left is responding, as did Bernie Sanders did, with creating memes and, in the case of Bernie Sanders, chuckling before creating merch that helps older people get fed. The new administration is hiring people who represent vulnerable populations, and working to turn back some of the worst damage as quickly as possible. And advocating, albeit imperfectly, for inclusive policies that take care of as many people as possible in these difficult times.

What Then Shall We Do?

In the end, let’s all have fun with the #BernieMemes. And if you strategically want to help try to reclaim people from the world of alternative realities, go for it—but do so carefully where you’re able. And remember that it’s simply not okay for anyone to continue to support the rhetoric or policies that have created so much pain and outright deaths for so many. It’s simply not okay.

And remember: our overall goal is to care for people’s needs the best we can, especially the most vulnerable. It would be great if the great political divide could be healed right away, especially where it impacts our interpersonal relationships, but I don’t see an easy path to that.

What there is an easier path to is advocating for accountability for those who created the divide, and working to help heal ourselves and other vulnerable populations that have suffered way too much over the last four years and beyond.

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can, where we are, with what we’ve got, to continue to work toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.

P.S. I’d love to see your favorite #BernieMemes—please toss them in the comments! Thanks much!

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What’s in a #Berni…

by DS Leiter Time to read: 13 min
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