What Memes Mean: 'Trayvoning' and the Problem of Irreverent Humor

Each Wednesday in What Memes Mean, Kirk Bozeman questions the significance, humor, and subtexts of viral videos, memes, and other Internet fads.

The recent shooting of Trayvon Martin was a sad tale, sparking much discussion on a number of racial and social issues. (Please see the collection of links here for CaPC’s articles concerning the tragedy.) Recently, an attempt at a Trayvon Martin related meme sprung up, though (thankfully) it was put to rest quickly.

The meme was similar in form to memes like “planking” and “Tebowing,” but unlike the usual silliness, things got pretty dark. Participants took photos of themselves posed lying on the floor face down wearing a hooded sweatshirt, with a can of iced tea and bag of Skittles sprawled out nearby, intentionally mimicking the final posture of the victim. They dubbed it “Trayvoning.” Facebook pages containing the uploaded images were shut down quickly after they were reported for offensive content.

Obviously the posters found this funny, or they wouldn’t have taken part. Modern humor has taken a deeply irreverent turn.

These days, we love humor that leans to the irreverent side of things: Family Guy is always at the top of the Hulu popularity list, and shows like SNL and channels like Comedy Central have made irreverence their bread and butter. Many times this humor is positive in effect, specifically when it is satire—irony, sarcasm, and so on are used to bring to light cultural vice or folly. TV personality Stephen Colbert and Austin’s The Onion are perhaps the two most popular examples of clear cut satire, here incisively directed toward American culture at large. Even within Christendom, things like John Acuff’s site Stuff Christians Like are satire well-directed at the listless over-churched (i.e., we American Christians).

Satire like this is good and healthy, and it is always “irreverent” in its attempts at exposing unexamined taboos and ideas, intentionally breaking the PC barrier in order to get us to “snap out of it.” In other words, it’s not really irreverent in the proper sense—it just looks and feels that way. This kind of irreverent humor can be prophetically poignant stuff, making us see the foolishness in our thoughts and actions we would prefer to simply ignore. But a problem arises when satire is popular: We find out that irreverence is fun, and we see how far we can push it. And if nothing is standing in the way, we will probably push it into places it shouldn’t go.

Irreverence is fun. Add this to the mix of an intensely pluralistic era where little if anything is defined as sacred, and you evidently need to be prepared for humor to get pretty dark and disgusting. “Trayvoning” is an example of what happens in a Net-ready culture where irreverence is cool, anything goes, and freedom of expression is a higher good than loving our neighbors. Irreverent humor in a world where nothing is worth revering, means something like “Trayvoning” becomes something allowable and “funny.”

Evidently, if nothing is defined as sacred, eventually nothing will be treated as sacred—in this case, a human life. “Trayvoning” is not satirical; it’s simply disturbing in its irreverence. Certainly as believers we shouldn’t take part in these things—we ought to be definers, guardians, and champions of the sacred.

Some things are funny, some things are not. Poke fun at prevaricating politicos, take aim at greedy big business, slap the hand of the hyper-PC, pick on pretentious celebs, but your irreverence needs to have a purpose and an ending point. Racism, murder, rape, emotional and physical abuse—things like this are decidedly not, nor should they ever be, lumped in with the things we find funny.

About Kirk Bozeman
  • http://www.StephenNewport.com Stephen Newport

    Interesting, I’ve recently held a similar wonderment in how Christians display a dying man bludgeoned and nailed to a cross in any given space or opportunity they get….

  • Ryan Rishaug

    I’m not sure where this idea that the internet creates this sort of activity comes from. Culture has had irreverent jokes, or brutal humour for much longer than the internet has exist. People make sexually crude, completely inappropriately in public just like they do on the internet. The internet is just a means to show those jokes more prominently. These activities have always existed, they just never got airplay because the internet didn’t exist before.

    But yes, your main point on something like that not being an acceptable joke is a pertinent one.

  • http://steamtunnelpilot.blogspot.com Sergius Martin-George

    A cogent, thoughtful, and necessary piece. Recently, some friends and I decided to take our own stab at evangelical satire with our new website, The Steam Tunnel. I think I’ll make this piece required reading for the staff.

    Also helpful is Doug Wilson’s A Serrated Edge, which lays out a Biblical case for the necessity of Christian satire, as well as offering some helpful suggestions for doing it well. I offer this endorsement as anything but a “fan boy” of Pastor Wilson, though I have been an admirer of much of his writing and, of course, of his public engagement of atheist Christopher Hitchens. That admiration did not, of course, hinder us from making Wilson himself the target of one of our Steam Tunnel pieces, Federal Vision was All a Big Joke. The piece was reasonably well received, though we’ve yet to hear from Pastor Wilson with his own reaction.

    Sergius Martin-George


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