Can we start taking serious things seriously again?

Courtesy of Unsplash | Meme culture is leading people to overlook the serious issues plaguing our society.


Troy Smajda | Staff Columnist

Let me start this hopefully inspiring diatribe by prefacing that I consider myself a goofy person. I am the president of the Duquesne Comedy Club, and there is nothing I enjoy more than a good joke and taking life very un-seriously.

Now, that mostly works because I think (or at least blindly hope) that I have a decent moral compass of what’s to be taken seriously and what’s not. But of course, don’t we all? And that’s the problem I’d like to confront: I feel like we’re all taking the wrong things seriously, and the actual serious issues are overlooked and subjugated to meme material.

Boy, that sounds didactic, so let me explain my finger-wagging self. The most obvious issue I’m thinking of is politics. Today, politics is some untouchable, undiscussable leper that we all avoid publicly and consume voraciously privately, leaving only the most trivial things as serious conversation topics.

But why? It’s all anyone absorbs on their phones all day, so why all the beating around the bush? Why is this all-important topic something we all spend endless amounts of energy on privately but then tip-toe around in real life? I believe it’s because we can all run away and hop onto Instagram and look at a feed full of self-assuring memes that pacify us to feel quaint and distanced from our deeply entrenched divides, all while ignoring said divides.

I’m not suggesting life be all politics and seriousness (that stinks!), but we need to draw a line between the serious and the trivial, for our own good.

Not to pick another piece of fruit that’s already hanging very low, but something I’ve been pondering this entire pandemic is that COVID-19 has somehow been turned into a political “debate” by the Republican party. Most people take it very seriously, but to some people, it’s not real — a ruse, a meme. How can that be? How can something so objectively real and serious become such an arguable truth? If this pandemic is not serious and what we should put our complete focus on, then what in the world is?

There must be something I’m missing about the fakeness of it all when I watch my nurse mother come home crushed by the weight of a 15-hour shift. It seems quite serious to her, and to write it off as some fluke, some fad, some deep-state conspiracy seems to reflect a big, fat inability to reason with reality. And however you want to take that, at the end of the day, it’s a problem. We just can’t seem to take reality seriously.

This inability to cope with the objective reality we’re all supposed to share has led to real repercussions, the terrorist attack on the Capitol being the most obvious example.

I could go on all day about serious issues that are subjugated to meme material or simply written off such as the pandemic affecting people of color at alarmingly disproportionate rates, climate change, pillaging the earth for its resources, the increasingly rich exploiting us all and, most importantly, the fact that some of us simply can’t have conversations with certain other people. When’s that going to end? When will someone on either side genuinely realize this is all childish and make sincere efforts to bridge this divide? How long as a society can we keep heading in this un-serious and jaded direction before someone turns around and asks why we’re heading in that direction in the first place?

By now I hope you get the point I’m pedantically making: We need to address the serious issues head on; we can’t keep using meme culture as a pacifier.

I know I can’t solve all of society’s problems with some sincere words, but I think that’s part of the problem. Why can’t sincere words fix all this? Maybe because it’s very easy to make fun of what I’m saying, and that is at the core of our problems: We can now turn anything sincere into an ironic meme and laugh at it from a distance. The most basic problems are constantly right on our feeds and instead we look right over top of them at memes ruining the seriousness of real issues.

I don’t have any good solutions to this problem, but we need to start by confronting the small problems. Hold the door for everyone, be genuine, don’t be so sarcastic all the time; instead of looking to roast or embarrass or prove a point, seek to inform and to teach and to guide.

I will close with the advice of Charlie Chaplin at the end of The Great Dictator: “We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness.”