It’s More Than Just a Meme

By Ryan Smythe

It’s an odd day when real-world headlines match up with a recent string of comments made on everyone’s favorite salt-fueled nightmare, QuidSecrets.

“Anyone know why “the art of chasing” page uses a symbol of white nationalism as their profile picture?” one commenter wrote on August 26.

The image in question wouldn’t have been an issue as little as two years ago, but now it’s a noted dog whistle for white supremacists throughout the Western world. The Art of Chasing only added this as its profile picture on July 20 of this year.

A quick Pepe history lesson: Pepe the Frog was first introduced to the world by artist Matt Furie in 2005 in the webcomic Boy’s Club. Its use as a reaction image started building steam in 2008 on 4chan, but it took years to gain mainstream appeal. Pepe had a good run as a pseudo-pop culture icon for a few years, right up until white supremacists started using it as a symbol of their group.

You can see Richard Spencer, a figurehead in the resurgent white nationalist movement, start to talk about his Pepe pin right before he gets fucking rocked.

The use of Pepe as a profile picture in 2017 is problematic, full stop. The New York Times published an article in 2016 detailing the meme’s fall into the hands of white supremacists after the Anti-Defamation League added it to the organization’s list of hate symbols. The Washington Post covered an assistant principal’s children’s book that used a version of Pepe to tell an Islamophobic story earlier this year. CBS News wrote about the death of Pepe after Furie chose to kill off his creation. No matter your stance on the continued use of Pepe outside of white supremacist circles, the frog’s ties to this movement aren’t secret.

When The Art of Chasing chose to move on from their previous profile photo of Ron Weasley from one of the early 2000’s Harry Potter games to Pepe the Frog wearing a chaser’s headband, the anonymous admin remained silent on the well-known ties to bigotry of the image until a commenter raised concerns about what it could mean.

It’s hard to judge the honest stance of an anonymous person.

“It’s ok I am not alt-right and don’t mean it as a hate symbol. No worries,” they wrote. That was it. That was the extent of this anonymous person living in 2017’s response to concerns about white supremacy.

In a conversation with the anonymous admin over Facebook messenger, they continued along this line of thinking.

“It’s a meme,” the admin said after being asked why that image was chosen. “It’s also just a common meme,” they responded after being pressed with the fact that it is a symbol for white nationalism.

Pepe the Frog stopped being just a meme in 2016 when the online mess of white nationalists coopted the image to help spread their hateful message. Furie attempted to save his beloved creation by teaming up with the ADL and by publishing an essay in Time.

“Before Pepe the Frog was a meme designated a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League, he began his life as a blissfully stoned frog in my comic book Boy’s Club, where he enjoyed a simple life of snacks, soda and pulling his pants all the way down to go pee,” Furie wrote. “The problem with Pepe is that he’s been stamped a hate symbol by politicians, hate groups, institutions, the media and, because of them, your mom. Before he got wrapped up in politics, Pepe was an inside-joke and a symbol for feeling sad or feeling good and many things in between. I understand that it’s out of my control, but in the end, Pepe is whatever you say he is, and I, the creator, say that Pepe is love.”

That love died earlier this year. Furie’s attempts to reclaim the frog through promotion of what it should be fizzled out as the white nationalist grip on his creation grew tighter. Now he’s shifted focus to a more aggressive route by filing lawsuits against those using the image for hate. Unsurprisingly, Furie’s targets didn’t respond too kindly. “Should you choose to file suit against Mr. Cernovich, we will be delighted to embarrass the fuck out of you – and set up a malpractice claim by your client against you,” Mike Cernovich’s lawyers responded. “Because if you really don’t understand fair use, you should leave copyright law to lawyers who do.”

Cernovich, despite his claims that he is in no way affiliated with the “alt-right”, the term modern white nationalists tend to use when describing themselves, came to prominence by fueling the rumors that then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was involved with a pedophile ring run in the basement of a pizzeria. These claims helped push hundreds of people to harass and threaten the store’s owner and employees, including a number of death threats against the owner. On December 4, 2016, a man entered the store with an AR-15 and fired three shots during what the shooter claimed was an investigation into the theory that the store was harboring child sex slaves in its basement. The restaurant does not have a basement.

Whether or not Cernovich is directly tied to the “alt-right”, he remains a bigoted asshole.

Any use of Pepe the Frog in 2017 requires a clear statement around the purpose of its use. Assuming that posting the frog’s image without commentary will fly by without question or concern is a dangerous and foolish choice at best. Pages with an extensive history of activism may be able to get by with a delayed response or apology, but that would require an impeccable history of progressive messages.

While the majority of posts shared through this page range from unimpressive shitposts to genuinely entertaining shitposts, a few cross the line into deeply problematic territory.

The feminist group in question was created with the explicit purpose to give people seeking a space free from racism, bigotry, sexism, xenophobia, etc., a place to breathe and discuss matters important to them without fear of a toxic response.

Quidditch is a sport that prides itself on how progressive we attempt to be. Our efforts are far from perfect, and there is a mountain of work left to complete before we can hold our heads as high as we pretend to today, but at least there are people trying to make this sport, and the world, a better place. Posting sexist bullshit like this, no matter if it’s attributed to a name or to “anonymous”, is bad. Salt is enjoyable in moderation, but if it spills into the well it will poison the water. Words have power, and hateful words can kill. You may not set the match that starts the fire, but you sure as hell added fuel to the pyre.

*~*~*~*~*~*

Say what you will about the origins of Pepe, but ignoring what the frog has become is ignorant at best and dangerous at worst. What started as a near-universal reaction image that anyone from your younger sister to Nicki Minaj could use in daily conversations online tumbled into the same category as the swastika.

Before Nazis appropriated the swastika, it was a sacred symbol of spiritual principles in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, three of the oldest religions on Earth – Hinduism is quite possibly the oldest. It used to imply something fortunate, lucky, or auspicious, and while those meanings are not completely lost, they took a backseat once Hitler chose the symbol to represent his genocidal band of monsters. Religious temples, texts, artifacts, monasteries, etc. with ancient ties to this symbol still use it, but Western culture still views the swastika as an unacceptable sign of hate.

Modern white nationalists haven’t marched through the streets of Mokra; modern white nationalists haven’t orchestrated bombing runs on London; modern white nationalists haven’t shipped millions of people off to die in concentration camps. Flags with Pepe the Frog haven’t been flown over the rubble of a ruined town by murderous conquerors looking to eradicate anyone who doesn’t fit their twisted worldview.

That shouldn’t be the standard we follow when deciding what images to use and what words to say. Those standards should never be met, and we as a society should fight to prevent events like the Holocaust from happening ever again.

During our conversation, the anonymous admin of The Art of Chasing brought up the #SavePepe campaign as the reason why they were using the frog’s image as the page’s profile picture. There was no mention of this campaign until after our conversation on Monday, September 18. While this is a good reason in theory, it requires a statement making the poster’s stance abundantly clear.

When presented with this argument, the admin of the Art of Chasing responded with, “True, maybe if I post an article or something people will stop complaining.”

A half-assed post months later isn’t enough. A half-assed post months later is an assumption that people truly don’t care. Fighting hate takes more than a hashtag.

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