Good and Evil in the Age of Memes

The Good and Evil Angels by William Blake (1795)

There is a surreal feeling of living through a stream of atrocities in this Age of Memes. Pictorial blips of absurdity amongst the bomb blasts and rubble of cities. Sometimes I wonder if people I know in Gaza have seen the latest meme that labeled them all terrorists? I sincerely hope they haven’t. Have they seen my posts attempting to humanize them? And that’s when I feel pathetic. A feeble voice with no agency. As if a meme could stop the siege or the barrage of bombs that have been incessant for over a week now. I can’t lift the blockade to let food and medicine in. I can’t make Israel turn on the taps and let the water flow. So, like others I share memes.

The meme has become a sort of refuge for many of us in these times. A way to make sense of something far too horrendous to consider. How else can we process the images of limp and lifeless babies and small children? Limbs torn from bodies? Of doctors and nurses drinking water from IV bags because there is no potable water left? Surgeons performing life-saving operations and amputations without anesthetics? Hands reaching through rebar and crushed concrete? Hospitals reduced to pebbles and dust? In this Digital Age we’ve seen carnage streamed to us like never before, from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria to Yemen, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and beyond.

But the memes. Amidst them all the memes keep coming. Punctuating those livestreams. And part of me welcomes that. Those memes that give us an arms length between an unimaginable, excruciating pain and a thick fog of numbness. A separation of comfort, making the lives of others more like a comic strip than some unfathomable nightmare. A string of images that give us some temporary reprieve from emotional darkness.

We are a peculiar species. Living on a ball of moist clay, adrift in an endless expanse. So determined to demonize, then dominate, then rob, then annihilate the other. All the while ignoring the rapacious maw of ecological catastrophe hubris coming for us all. Will there be a meme for that too? And who will be left to respond to it with the right emoji?

Perhaps the memes protect us from a gnawing thought in our head. That, in the end, we will all be Gaza. That this is the endgame, after all. Walled off from the rest of the world and cut off from the most basic tenets of human decency. Labeled so casually by the wealthy and powerful as “animals” and “monsters”. Reduced to numbers in the media. Our homes, our memories, even our children, seen as a sad statistic. Collectively punished for the crimes committed by a few of us. An acceptable number in an ironically ridiculous “war on terror.” We see it already in the way refugees and migrants are being treated. How easily we pretend they are not really us? Or that we could not possibly become them in a nano-second as our planet’s biosphere keeps spinning more and more like a top out of control.

I’ve been reminded lately of that quote by Hannah Arendt: “the sad truth of the matter is that most evil is done by people who never made up their minds to be or do either evil or good.” And maybe that sums up this Age of Memes best. This stream of unconnected digital comics isn’t necessarily evil or good. They are just projections of our selves, for better or for worse, on to screens. Projections of our better angels and lesser shadows. A two-dimensional talisman we use to protect us from looking too closely at that pocket-sized mirror for fear of seeing ourselves staring back amidst pulverized rubble, bones, and blood. And maybe if we realized this, any sardonic impulse we may have next time to otherize that “other” might be erased.

Kenn Orphan is an artist, sociologist, radical nature lover and weary, but committed activist. He can be reached at