The Trouble with Meme Activism: Sometimes to Speak is Not to Speak

In the past couple of years, I have noticed that periods of social unrest are often accompanied by a corresponding outbreak of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I am referring, of course, to the accompanying blizzard of memes on Facebook and Twitter that display a quote famously (and probably incorrectly) attributed to Bonhoeffer: “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

In most cases where it appears, the quote stands as a comprehensive indictment of anyone who has not yet expressed public outrage over some event that has captured the attention of the current news cycle. The meme is a cultural syllogism: A terrible thing has occurred. You have not said that it was terrible on Facebook or Twitter. You are a terrible person. The reasoning seems to be that if you have not publicly condemned it on social media, you are complicit in its terribleness.

I suppose we should not be surprised by such reasoning. In the age of social media, it is not enough to possess moral convictions. There are no longer any unpublished thoughts. We are now expected to leave a public record, especially of those things about which we disapprove. Public statements, especially in social media, are now considered to be a form of social action.

But in most cases where quotes like this appear, they are usually something less than meaningful action. They are merely a form of virtue signaling intended to place social pressure on those who do not hold the “right view” of whatever incident prompted the post. Of course, social pressure like this is nothing new. Nor is it necessarily bad. Public expressions of disapproval have always established the boundaries of right and wrong. The lessons begin in infancy and continue throughout our entire lifetime. In social systems, both large and small, the rules of acceptable behavior are taught by suffering the frowns and slights of others. Shame works hand in hand with acceptance to bind people together. And to get them to do the right thing.

The real problem with meme morality is its tendency toward reductionism. What is intended as a manifesto proves only to be a cliché. It is a statement of the obvious. We think we are thundering like God on Sinai when in reality we are only expressing a mundane truism. War is bad. Racism is evil. Be nice to others. Treating such assertions as a form of social activism reduces moral behavior to mere sentimentalism. It is the kind of speech that James 2:16 condemns–the digital equivalent to “be ye warmed and filled.” It makes a demand without offering any corresponding action that will address the problem.

Sentimentalized language is trite. It states the obvious but so broadly that it offers no real help to the reader or the listener. Sentimentalized speech is characterized by what Wendell Berry calls “the sickly beauty of generalized emotionalism.”[1] This sort of vagueness is a common feature, not only of social media but of bad preaching. Such preaching paints with a broad brush. Its target is so large that it aims at nothing at all. It may make us feel, but it will not help us to act.

There are, of course, contexts where the mere assertion of an idea is an act of bravery. To speak the truth aloud lies at the heart of the Christian act of preaching. Speaking can be a form of activism, but for that to be the case, it must be speech that goes against the grain. There must be a potential cost to the speaker, as well as a genuine interest in the welfare of those who disagree. Without these, it is cheerleading at best and the voice of the mob at worst.

We should not be surprised to find that many confuse sentimentalism with activism. Croatian sociologist Stjepan Mestrovic has observed that emotions are the primary object of manipulation in postmodern culture. “Today, everyone knows that emotions carry no burden, no responsibility to act, and above all, that emotions are accessible to everyone,” Mestrovic writes.[2] One result of this is something Jeremy Begbie has called “conspicuous compassion,” an emotional expression that becomes an end in itself and produces “very little in the way of positive, practical action.”[3]

Emotion can be a wellspring of action, but it is not always necessary. It is possible to act apart from feeling or even contrary to feeling, a condition that is sometimes called duty. Like Jesus, we are at times called upon to do that which we would prefer not to do (cf. Luke 22:42). Or we may refuse to do what we would like to do (Col. 3:5). Sentimentalism believes that feeling by itself is action. More than this, for the sentimentalist, emotion is an end in itself. The aim is to feel, and feeling is enough. “Sentimentalists typically resist any challenge to their way of life,” Begbie observes. “They are much more often moved by strangers than by those close to them, since the former require no personal sacrifice.”[4]

True activism not only seeks to change the situation but also aims to change thinking.

Meme activism often fails on another critical level. It tends to be coercive. The aim of such statements is not to engage, debate, or persuade but to silence. True activism is persuasive rather than coercive. It not only seeks to change the situation but also aims to change thinking. To do this, the language that accompanies activism must seek to elicit rather than impose the desired response. Speaking that is coercive throws off the persuasive responsibility of speech and employs language as an instrument of brute force. Theologian Joseph Pieper rightly calls this form of communication propaganda and notes that its use is not limited to the official power structure of a dictatorship. In his essay “Abuse of Language–Abuse of Power,” Pieper explains, “It can be found wherever a powerful organization, an ideological clique, a special interest, or a pressure group uses the word as their ‘weapon’.”[5]

An essential component of propagandistic speech is the element of implied threat. But Pieper notes that the threat can take many forms. In this category of threat, he includes “all the forms and levels of defamation, or public ridicule, or reducing someone to a nonperson–all of which are accomplished by means of the word, even the word not spoken.”[6] It is not its strength of statement, the fact that it may disagree with the viewpoint of others, or even its emotional tone that renders such speech abusive. It is the desire to squash all opposing viewpoints merely by force of statement alone and to demean those who disagree. “The common element in all of this is the degeneration of language into an instrument of rape,” Pieper explains. “It does contain violence, albeit in latent form.”[7]

Today’s public discourse is not only inclined toward coercion; it is addicted to flattery. By flattery, I mean more than the practice of empty praise. That is indeed a form of flattery. But more broadly, flattery is the habit of telling others what they want to hear in return for gain. It is speech, as Joseph Pieper, explains, whose main objective is one of “courting favor to win success.”[8] Pieper wrote his essay a decade before the birth of the internet and nearly two decades before the founding of Facebook. Yet he anticipates the era of social media, observing that this craving for approval may reduce theology to mere entertainment whose primary purpose is to gain a following. Flattery in this broad sense is the language of choice for all whose primary objective is to gain a large audience. It is especially the lingua franca of social media, where being heard is often a function of likes and shares.

The pandering that is a mark of flattery may seem far removed from the bullying of coercive speech, yet they are actually two sides of the same coin. Both are the stock and trade false prophets and false teachers. The apostle Paul criticized the Corinthians for being smitten by false apostles who sought to use them to build their platform. He observed, “. . . you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or puts on airs or slaps you in the face” (2 Cor. 11:20). The pandering of these false teachers catered to the audience’s expectation not only in the content of their teaching, which avoided those aspects the Corinthians found offensive but in their manner and mode of delivery. In this case, the audience wanted to be treated in a demanding and arrogant way. A manner which they mistook for authority.

Whether or not Bonhoeffer said the quote attributed to him makes little difference. It is often true. To speak is to act. But it is equally true that our speaking may also be acting in the theatrical sense. We are not trying to change anything. We are trying to build a platform. We are curating an image. We are seeking an audience. We are collecting likes and shares the way we hope to collect crowns in heaven.

[1] Wendell Berry, Standing By Words, (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1983), 33.

[2] Jeremy S. Begbie, “Beauty, Sentimentalityand the Arts,” in The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2007), 53.

[3] Ibid., 54.

[4] Ibid., 52–53.

[5] Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1992), 32.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. 28.

2 thoughts on “The Trouble with Meme Activism: Sometimes to Speak is Not to Speak

  1. This is very convicting. I read the last line over and over … A detriment to making disciples and to sharing the real Gospel. You are helping me to ask some serious questions of myself and of my writing. Thank you for continuing to encourage us!!!!

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