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Thursday, May 17, 2018

Why Memes Can Be Dangerous

What is a meme? A meme is defined by Google as “an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation.”[1] When I hear the word meme, I think of a picture with text written on it that someone posts on social media. But the definition of a meme is much broader than that. I’d consider short messages such as taglines, titles of newspaper articles, and short, inspirational quotes as memes. We’ve all seen plenty of memes.

Memes can be extremely beneficial because they are able to convey a message in a summarized, simple, brief, memorable format which can be easily transmitted from person to person. While these inherent qualities of a meme make them extremely beneficial, they also make them very dangerous. Let’s take a closer look.

A Real-Life Example

Have you ever had a disagreement with someone only to later realize that you were actually saying the same thing the whole time? I’ve seen this happen more times than I can count.

Recently, a friend asked me if I thought Jesus came to destroy religion. I responded by saying, “No, I don’t think Jesus came to destroy religion.” He then informed me that a Bible teacher who I greatly respect had made the statement that Jesus came to destroy religion, and then followed it up by saying, “So that means you disagree with so-and-so.” I could’ve responded a few different ways. One way could’ve been to argue my case for why Jesus didn’t come to destroy religion. Another way could’ve been to decide that my friend was right and I needed to rethink my perspective. And another way could’ve been to ask him for more clarification on his definition of “religion.” This turned out to be my response.

As our discussion continued, we discovered that our definitions of religion were different. My definition of religion was “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power.”[2] His definition of religion was an “institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.”[3] After hearing his definition, I was able to see why he had concluded that Jesus came to destroy religion. While on earth, Jesus combatted the institutionalized Jewish religious system which had created numerous extrabiblical commandments that they imposed on people within the institution. So yes, Jesus did destroy that type of religion. But he certainly didn’t come to destroy the belief in and worship of God. Quite the contrary.

What could’ve happened if I wouldn’t have entered into a deeper discussion with my friend on his meme and simply accepted it at face value? I easily could’ve drawn the conclusion that Jesus came to destroy God-worship.

This is why memes are so dangerous. Although it’s very easy to remember and pass along the simple statement, “Jesus came to destroy religion,” if I don’t understand the intended definitions of the words in this meme, I can easily misinterpret the intended message. The same could be said for any meme we stumble upon. It can become very easy for the intended messages of memes to be misinterpreted.

How Can This Realization Impact the Way We Live?

No matter what we do, we can’t get away from using memes. The title of this article and the subheadings in it are forms of memes. They give you a brief summary of the information contained in this article and are helpful for that reason. But if you simply read the title and subheadings, you may misinterpret what I’m trying to say when I say that memes can be dangerous. You may conclude that I’m totally against memes and want to rid the earth of them. But if you read this entire article, you’ll know that’s far from being my stance on memes.

I’ve developed three suggestions for changes we can make to minimize the danger of memes. First, we can make a sincere attempt to understand what the meme’s author is saying before accepting or rejecting it. I’ve stumbled upon countless memes which are very eye catching, but when I dig deeper into the author’s intent, I’ve discovered that they don’t mean what I thought they meant. For example, if you read the title of a news article, don’t assume you know how the article ends. Journalists are pretty smart. They want you to read their articles, so they’re going make the titles eye catching and not give away the conclusion so that you take the time to read them. I’ll admit it, I do the same thing. Personally, I don’t pass along memes unless I both understand the author’s intent and agree with it. It’s too risky to my credibility.

My second suggestion is that if you share a meme, be prepared to explain it. Those of you who are connected with me on social media probably know that I very rarely make one-liner posts. I’d probably get more engagement if I regularly posted one-liners, but posting one-liners doesn’t give me an opportunity to explain myself. It’d be very easy for someone to get offended by a misinterpretation of a one-liner and lose trust in me. Maybe someday I’ll decide to start posting more memes (without full-fledged articles), but for now, I think it’s too risky.

Lastly, I would encourage you to challenge your friends when they share a meme with you. Instead of firing back with “LMAO, OMG, or WRONG,” respond by entering into a discussion with them about your two interpretations of it. I think you’d find such a discussion to be quite fascinating as you attempt to understand each other’s interpretations of the meme’s simple statement.

What do you think? Do you think memes are beneficial? Do you think they can be dangerous? Can you think of a time when you and another person interpreted the same meme differently?

[1] “Meme,” Google Dictionary, accessed May 16, 2018,
[2] “Religion,” Google Dictionary, accessed May 16, 2018,
[3] “Religion,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, accessed May 16, 2018,

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