Once it became settled that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would be our two choices for president, many wondered if we had perhaps reached our darkest possible timeline. Maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t, but one thing is for sure: it’s definitely the dankest. No, I don’t mean that climate change is making things any more damp or musty. I’m talking about internet memes…well one in particular that is causing a stir lately, Pepe the Frog. You see, Pepe, which like all internet memes is just a goofy tool for trolls, more often stupid than funny, has been officially recognized as a hate symbol.
While you take a minute to process the gravity of that fact, let me also clue you in on its idiocy by offering some brief context as to what Pepe, a cartoon of an anthropomorphic green frog, actually is. Originally created as a character in a webcomic called Boy’s Club in 2005, Pepe was appropriated into an internet meme in 2008 when a comic frame of him preparing to urinate, along with the slogan “Feels good man,” began circulating on the website 4chan. From there, various depictions of Pepe with differing expressions began flooding message boards and the rest was history; eight years later, Pepe ranks alongside Rage Comics, the Ancient Aliens guy, dat boi (o shit waddup) and Harambe (RIP in Peace) among the most recognizable and culturally pervasive memes of our time. And now, inconceivably, he has been characterized as a symbol of hate and white supremacy by the Anti-Defamation League alongside such images as the Swastika, a burning cross, and the Iron Cross.
You can blame Internet trolls for this nonsense, who over the past years have chosen Pepe to be the butt of a lot of mean-spirited and in many cases legitimately perverse jokes. Do a quick Google search and you can find images of Pepe wearing a yarmulke and looking gleefully towards the destruction of the Twin Towers, or of the ordinarily green frog colored brown and using racist epithets. Normal, decent, everyday people do not find this to be acceptable behavior and of course condemn those who take part in it. However, the difference between those of us who are able to look at this situation reasonably and the voices on the regressive left who see Pepe as the second coming of Adolf Hitler is that the reasonable side is able to just not take things so personally.
Look, I know I am a privileged white man, so I’m not supposed to be able to speak as to what it feels like to be targeted by a hateful Pepe meme, although I am still able to empathize and realize that it can’t be very pleasant. But come on everybody, even a cursory understanding of 21st-century “Internet culture” tells us that the vast majority of these hate messages are just the result of rampant trolling, not the reorganization of the Third Reich!
In case you are not familiar with the word “troll” as it applies to the Internet, it is a term used to describe professional provocateurs, people who post and interact online with the sole purpose of getting a rise out of others. This shouldn’t come across as an endorsement of methods which are needlessly crude, and I don’t deny that there are any trolls out there who are explicitly bigoted, but the very nature of trolling precludes the necessity of being inherently hateful. It’s about getting a reaction and society seems to be falling for their charlatanry.
Of course, trolls don’t necessarily have to be anonymous, and the more public kind are the ones that really got the “Pepe-hate” train rolling. I’m speaking of the alt-right, the right-wing but non-traditionally conservative political movement that has exploded over the past year and a half with Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. Alt-right commentators tend to be younger than the stereotypical geriatric establishments of the Republican and Democratic parties and thus seem to be more Internet savvy, allowing them to take advantage of certain trends and yes, troll. Milo Yiannopoulos, an editor for Breitbart News Network and the most recognizable face of the alt-right movement short of Trump himself, openly admits that he is a troll and a provocateur, and Trump’s campaign has seemed to follow suit throughout this entire election cycle.
It’s why The Donald just appears to say or tweet anything and everything that crosses his mind, because his gameplan appears to be based on just keeping the media talking about him, be it positive or negative. Seeing the reaction that Pepe memes were getting on the left, it became a savvy political move (based on the aforementioned strategy) to incorporate Pepe into the Trump brand, and so Donald and members of his campaign have tweeted out variations of the meme. None of them actually depict the frog in anything remotely resembling a hateful context but naturally the left seized on a fresh opportunity to label Trump as every kind of disgusting person imaginable. As it happens, the Trump-Pepe alliance worked both ways: the use of Pepe was validation for the left that Trump truly was a racist, and the association with Trump was enough to push the meme over the top from being a stupid joke to being labeled a hate symbol.
There is plenty of blame to go around for this overreaction and I want to make it clear that I’m not opposed on principle to the group most responsible for it. The Anti-Defamation League, a more than 100-year-old organization that was founded to combat anti-Semitism but has since taken on a broader role in opposing bigotry in general, serves a noble purpose, one that no reasonable person could possibly deny. Of course hatred and intolerance are blights on society, of course they still exist in some form (and realistically always will), and of course they should always be confronted. So the question then becomes, is Pepe inherently racist just because it has been hijacked by a bunch of low-life trolls and a few racists posting on shady message boards?
Well, suppose that these people had chosen the presidential portrait of George Washington to be their avatar instead of a cartoon frog, would we then forced to concede that that image is racist? By the same logic that led to Pepe’s being declared hateful, it would seem that we would have to shun the most famous image of our first president, which of course would be absurd. Even the ADL seemed to realize this fault in its logic upon its stigmatization of Pepe; if you read his description on the ADL’s website, it says “because so many Pepe the Frog memes are not bigoted in nature, it is important to examine them only in context.”
So then…why must it be considered a hate symbol at all? Anything could be appropriated for bigotry given the right context. And I don’t want to hear that the volume of racist memes is enough to warrant this treatment. The swastika isn’t a hate symbol because a fascist political party used it as its symbol. It’s a hate symbol because a fascist political party that started the deadliest war in human history and systematically killed millions of people used it as its symbol. If Twitter trolls and the alt-right ever committed genocide, I must have missed it.
Before wrapping this up, I would be remiss not to mention the other key player in the assault on Pepe, one Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the role that the regressive left played in Pepe’s witch hunt. Clinton’s calling attention to Trump’s use of Pepe on her website, where she naively (or disingenuously) calls Pepe a symbol of white supremacy and says Trump’s use of the meme is “horrifying,” was the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of getting mainstream backlash against Pepe; the ADL made its decision within three weeks of Clinton’s cheap political attack. Was Clinton’s decision to go after Trump this way purely political theater, or did she actually believe that he was being bigoted? I’m inclined to believe the former, although the very fact that she was able to go after him in such a way is indicative of a systemic problem with the left, that it is so willing to see racism wherever it looks that it doesn’t even bother applying critical thinking anymore.
The left plays on small (though still problematic!) instances of racism on the right, such as many older, uneducated, conservative Republicans believing President Obama was born in Kenya and expands on them, insisting on a narrative that racism doesn’t just exist, it is as rampant today as it ever was. This narrative is then used to craft a false dichotomy in which they are the crusaders against hatred and the right the harbingers of it. This is of course totally untrue in mainstream politics, even in the unstable climate created by the 2016 election cycle.
Really, we should be past the point of debating whether or not bigotry is an acceptable social position for anybody to hold, because it demonstrably isn’t just by observing how the public reacts towards cries of racism. Claim that somebody is a bigot and even without proof you can turn the media and the tide of public opinion against them. Show that somebody is a true racist, a true sexist, a true homophobe, what have you, and the vast majority of Americans in the 21st century, from both sides of the aisle, will agree that the person is despicable. It’s only this boy-who-cried-wolf strain of racism (based largely on oversensitivity and distorted fact and usually referred to broadly as “systemic” or “institutional” racism) that still exists in as great abundance as the left says it does, which is convenient because of its ethereal nature; there aren’t a whole lot of solutions that can be presented for something that doesn’t have a solid definition. If you want to see the real reason why a harmless meme was turned into a symbol of white supremacy, look no further than this. It has already claimed Pepe and turned Trump into Hitler, who knows what’s next?