On Memes and the Slipperiness of Rhetoric

12 05 2012

I have seen this meme floating around lately. The image attached to it varies (some variety of norse-flavored fantasy), but the caption always reads thus:


I smiled and chuckled the first few times I saw it. How clever, I thought, a nicely done zing, regardless of my opinion on the subject matter. I started watching people reply to it and realized they didn’t get it. Then I realized I didn’t get it. Then I realized, the ‘getting’ is in the getter. Then I thought of Aristotle.

Aristotle was the first person I saw identify the effective rhetorical strategy of making an argument by presenting only part of the syllogism. You state the major premise and the conclusion, letting the listener provide the minor premise. The effort they bring leads them to commit more fully to the conclusion.

Of course, rhetoricians can be tricky. They can use this method to mislead listeners to support a poor argument so long as they can trust their audience to share a belief in a mediocre minor premise. A lot of politics gets its oomph from this–tacitly endorse shared presumptions, suggesting they support the argument being made. The audience’s use of their own mediocre assumptions commits them more fully to the political point, and resistant to those wishing to point out the mediocrity of their position.

It can also lead to dramatic misunderstandings when the presumptions brought to bear on the material differ. Like when you’re me, reading the aforementioned meme.

First, I see the high-fantasy tone of the images and think immediately of all that entails (for me). The for me is parenthetical, because I am not aware of that when I first encounter the meme. I think of escapism and fantasy, wish-fulfillment. Then I see the conclusion, “I don’t see any frost giants,” and think, oh yeah, there sure aren’t any of those around; they’re just fantasies. I look to the ‘all the wicked people’ and think, oh, but there are plenty of those around.

I see ‘Jesus’ and ‘Odin’ am put immediately in mind of the eschatological direction of both Norse and Christian myth, of the struggle with their enemies at the end. So, filling in the blanks, I read the whole image as ‘well, there aren’t any frost giants around to fight, so why would you worship Odin? Christ is concerned with human wickedness, and there is tons of that, so go with the need, right?’

Which is not how most people read it, it seems. They see in the frost giant statement an assertion of Odin’s efficacy in solving problems (‘he took care of the frost giants’) and in the presence of wicked people the inefficacy of Jesus (‘see, he’s been at this for a while and still pretty bad’). The high fantasy art is meant to emphasize Odin’s toughness, drawing to him the romantic imagery of power and warrior prowess.

I like my take better, but, then, that’s the point, right? Because I produced the material needed to satisfy the argument being made, I’m happier with it. It feels natural to me in a way the other take doesn’t. The other side just seems silly and a little alien. Note, too, that I’m invested in the meme almost solely based on its rhetorical functions, as a kind of mental exercise. The content is fairly innocuous to me, so the meme’s efficacy largely relies on its intellectual-rhetorical flourish.

That seems to be standard for this species of memes–they aren’t about argument, really, but about generating the illusion of agreement. Nothing spectacular in that insight, I know–but it makes me wonder a bit about how the mechanisms behind it may play a broader role in discourse.




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