Internet Meme Culture and the Tragedy of Tibet

Believe it or not, the word meme was coined all the way back in 1976, and since then, they have pervaded every corner of the internet. I think back to the early 2010s. Memes then consisted of one of two things: a badly drawn face from Microsoft Paint or a very specific image with a chunky white text caption. Those years gave way to memes like Trollface and Conspiracy Keanu. Nowadays, we’ll take photos of just about anything and caption it “mood.” Almost any picture can be a meme, and all at once, this reveals both the strange evolution of humor and our failure to do our due diligence. Most of the time, memes are fairly harmless. They’re just photos or gifs or tweet formulas that circulate so people can look at them and avoid doing homework. They’re jokes in a non-verbal form, and just like jokes, some memes can be offensive or distasteful. (Ah yes, one of my favorite vintage memes: Ancient Aliens’s Giorgio Tsoukalos.)

Image source: KnowYourMeme

Before you roll your eyes, hear me out. I love memes as much as the next person. I have over a thousand memes saved on my phone, and if you don’t have a meme folder yourself, I ask you one question: What are you doing with your life? My problem is not so much with memes, but more with certain people who begin circulating them. 

Image sourceREUTERS/Stringer

Back in June of 2015, someone posted this photo to my Twitter timeline as a reaction photo. The caption said something along the lines of, “When _____ is so hot you just.” Had it not been for a small detail in the background, I may have liked the tweet. I may have laughed. I may have swiped on and gone about my day, undisturbed by a photo of a man literally on fire. We are exposed so many to films and tv shows with intense special effects that it is easy for us to assume that this is edited or photoshopped. How do you feel when I tell you it’s not?

Look at the photo again and notice the man in the background wearing a blue and red scarf. This is a scarf patterned with the flag of Tibet, a territory going through an intense cultural genocide instigated by the Chinese government. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if American news isn’t going to tell you about this, who is? This photo is of a Tibetan man named Jamphel Yeshi, who was in India and self-immolated in protest of the Chinese president’s visit to the country. And if you think this is an isolated incident, it’s not. According to The International Campaign for Tibet, around 155 Tibetans have self-immolated since 2009. If the conditions in Tibet are so atrocious that 155 people believe setting themselves on fire is the only way to protest effectively, something very wrong is happening. And yet, not many people seem to be aware of this. 

This is a real image of someone who willingly set himself on fire to protest for his basic human rights. The man then passed away after being taken to a hospital and yet this photo was posted on the internet, along with an article about political protest. And after all that, someone took it and tried to turn it into a joke. Imagine someone taking a photo of a protester for Pro-Choice or Black Lives Matter and attempting to turn it into a meme. It would be disrespectful and irresponsible. 

In the end, most memes are relatively harmless. We see them and laugh because they’re edgy or witty or relatable — often all three — but there are also times when photos can be taken wildly out of context. When something seems a bit off, it can be beneficial to question why you feel that way and do some further research. My own background knowledge of Tibet quickly made me aware that something was very wrong with this photo, but I’m sure I’ve seen other pictures used inappropriately as jokes and didn’t even realize it. When you know something is wrong, speak up, so instead of spreading a bad joke, we can spread awareness. 

For more information on human rights in Tibet, you can visit The International Campaign For Tibet’s website at savetibet.org, or Free Tibet’s website at freetibet.org.