The latest internet tempest in a teapot – CNN’s crypto-threat to dox someone who spread anti-CNN memes – raises an interesting question: should meme-makers be left anonymous?
That’s not a First Amendment question. Since I haven’t heard a convincing argument that CNN’s threat rises to the level of illegal blackmail, I guess CNN has the right to publish the guy’s name and address. That will probably change as legal standards evolve, but for now, it doesn’t seem to be against the law. The question is whether, as a social norm, we should in general respect meme-makers’ anonymity?
I think we should – and it’s because while they admittedly straddle the line, memes are more art than discourse.
Shitposting memes exist in the same political grey area as standup comedy. It’s never clear how seriously comedy should be taken, and that’s a feature, not a bug. It lives from that ambiguity. Comedy has to be about something to have any power, otherwise it’s just empty puns and grandpa jokes. At the same time, if you can pin it down completely, it’s just an essay, and it’s not funny anymore. The comedian’s dodge – "hey, man, lighten up, it’s just a joke!" – is frequently insincere, but of fundamental necessity. Comedians need to be able to say things they don’t have to take responsibility for, or they can’t practice their art. And because they don’t have to take responsibility for it, we’re never sure how much they mean it. And because we’re never sure how much they mean it – or even what, exactly, they mean – what a comedian says is to some degree public property. The best comedians just sort of identify social pressure points and knead them. They mean some of what they say, but not all of it – some of it they’re just saying to get a rise out of people, because a rise is there to get.
It’s similar with art of any kind. The creator’s opinion on what a work of art means is interesting and relevant, but interpretation is ultimately public property. "What it means" is up to the individual who experiences it in the context of his community and its historical experiences. Art is either multivalent, or else it’s stale.
Memes are more art than dialectic. It is rarely obvious exactly what the original poster meant by them. Frequently, even he doesn’t really know – like a skillful standup comedian, he’s merely identified a social pressure point and kneaded it. Posting a meme doesn’t even imply agreement with its content in the same way that posting an essay does. They’re often meant iroonically, in a sense that conflicts with the facial interpretation. But the defining point is that, once released, memes take on their own meaning. They’re about how the public reacts to them, something that’s not ultimately up to the creator.
The particular meme that got this started is a case in point. It shows one wrestler body-slamming another, and the President’s head is superimposed on the slammer while the CNN logo is superimposed on the slam-ee. What does it mean? Well, that’s slipperier than you might think. Maybe you have an idea what you think it means, but an interesting thing happens when you talk about it with other people. For example, something I wouldn’t have considered on my own but heard from someone else: wrestling is by and large fake, so in choosing a wrestling metaphor, the meme-maker is really saying that this whole conflict between the President and CNN is staged theater, a symbiotic relationship that advances their individual interests in exploitation of the public’s attention. Put that way, it’s suddenly not so obvious that it’s pro-Trump – nor that it’s even anti-CNN in exactly the way you might have thought. Is this the author’s actual intention? To ask the question is to miss the point, because it ultimately doesn’t matter what the author intended. Memes, like art, and unlike discursive essays, have their interpretation structured by people’s reactions. Their meaning is in how they are used; that’s how memes work.
Since they’re not about the author, or what the author intended, and since they don’t have a stable interpretation or agenda anyway, we already have a strong case that it’s a bit absurd to hold a meme author responsible for what we’ve decided the thing means. But the objection goes even deeper than that. An additional point about memes – and art, and comedy – is that creators need an indulgence to practice their art effectively in the first place. There’s a reason that Christian Contemporary music is, and Socialist Realist novels are, so bland, and that’s because they’re not the products of an authentic artistic process. They’re propaganda, advertising. Real art can be, and certainly should be allowed to be, transgressive.
We have social norms about what kinds of things are OK to say, and it is right and necessary that we do. Behavior has to be structured and cooperative, or civilization doesn’t work. But norms are not prescribed by pure reason – rather, they result from a generations-long process of culture- and consensus-building. They have to be allowed to evolve and change. At the same time, there have to be (social) consequences for violating them, or they can’t do their civilizing work. This presents a conundrum: how does something that can’t be flouted evolve and change? The simple and obvious answer is that it doesn’t without an indulgence. And so we have things like standup comedy, and art, and literature, to which we grant such indulgences.
Shitposting Memes perform a vital social function – even, or perhaps especially, the ones that are offensive by design. If nothing else, they’re a way of probing the gap between what is actually taboo and what are illegitimate attempts to manufacture taboos by interested parties in the service narrow political goals. But like any norm-flouting art, they need an indulgence to happen at all. I submit that authorial anonymity is precisely the fitting indulgence in this case.
CNN doesn’t have a legitimate right to decide what is and isn’t political taboo. We the People do. All of us together. CNN’s doxing threat is an attack not just on the individual who created the meme in quesiton, but on one of the evolved processes we have for separating real, publicly-endorsed taboos from those that are merely manufactured for the gains of narrow interests. This, above anything else, is why we should push back against CNN’s threat. Whether they have a First Amendment right to publish the originator’s personal details that they can "reserve" is beside the point: they should not have a social right to do it. We the People deny them that right – and for the simple reason that these aren’t CNN’s rules to make.