There’s a moment in the history of Hasan Piker, Twitch streamer and himbo leftist extraordinaire, that subtly exposes a fatal flaw in how humor works on the left. A video clip shows Piker reacting to an edited clip of an interview between him and Cenk Uygur, his uncle and owner of American liberal media organization The Young Turks. As shitpost-esque edits of Uygur asking Piker to clarify his stance on whether America deserved 9/11 play, Piker laughs uproariously.
In these edits, Piker begins his response with a “Yeah,” before the clip cuts and blaring music plays, indicating that there is no deeper meaning to Hasan’s belief that America brought about 9/11. Later, he explains what the clip didn’t capture: according to Piker, 9/11 was the culmination of years and years of American imperialism upon the Middle East, the product of a generation’s burgeoning rage against America. Thus, Al-Qaeda’s desire to destroy the World Trade Center was “understandable,” as it was a retaliation against the imperialistic American forces that had been plaguing the Middle East.
Piker’s choice to make a controversial joke and retroactively explain its meaning is one that more leftists should use to disseminate information in an accessible manner. Memeing is the future of approachable politics, and left solidarity and politics could be improved upon if leftists could stop taking themselves so seriously and learn to make jokes that open doors for the discovery of deeper theories.
The internet’s divided reaction to the joke showcases one of the most consistent problems with modern leftists: respectfully, people need to learn to shut up and just meme for once. It’s not exactly a unique idea (certain leftist meme pages on Instagram, such as @dankleftistmemes, already share quick, accessible content), but it is one that still seems to be almost taboo in left-leaning circles. Compare this with the infamous alt-right pipeline, wherein alt-right ideology—often in the form of memes—is funneled through YouTube, Twitter, and 4Chan in front of young and impressionable teenagers.
Although I never found myself on the alt-right, I’ve certainly been exposed to it. I distinctly remember watching Jordan Peterson videos when I was 13 years old; drawn in by his Canadian accent and consistent in-house references, I watched more and more of his videos about the mind and human psychology. I didn’t think too much of it, but there was a point in time when I opened YouTube and found myself looking at a video titled something along the lines of “Shapiro Destroys Liberal Feminists Compilation #42.” I never ended up watching it, because I was wary of that type of content and had already developed a personal ideology, but years later, I came to the realization that this had been the alt-right pipeline at work: YouTube’s algorithm had neatly packaged right-wing ideologies into accessible gateway videos such as Peterson’s work, before pushing viewers toward a variety of different concepts, from anti-feminism to anti-immigration.
I wasn’t the first to discover this notion, by any means: Rebecca Lewis of Data and Society, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to studying technology, published a study titled the “Alternative Influence Network.” She claims that this intangible, ideological web on YouTube allows users to absorb increasingly right-wing content, under the guise that they’re simply “exploring” their own political ideas. And so these users are led to believe they’re coming across these videos of their own volition, when in reality, the AIN traps them in watching content that effortlessly gets them hooked on anti-feminist, racist, homophobic content. All the while, the algorithm relies on efficient humor, often using simple memes and racist imagery to generate cheap, continued laughs. It’s no wonder that, by creating an ecosphere in which bigotry is allowed to stew and generate hatred for the left, teenagers lurking on the internet often find themselves ensnared by alt-right content. The content’s easy-to-absorb, low-quality memes often focus on inaccurate statistics and can easily be reshared at a moment’s notice.
On the other hand, leftist content (originating primarily from BreadTube, the side of YouTube that focuses on progressive content) is focused on serious education rather than humor—channels such as Philosophy Tube and SOME MORE NEWS feature often-inaccessible video essays rather than fast, easy-to-digest content.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: everyone appreciates a well-researched, argued, and documented video in which the creator thoroughly explains anarcho-capitalism or the downfalls of white feminism. But leftist YouTubers could stand to make more jokes, more shitposts, and more of anything humorous while also having a meaningful message.
The effects of the alt-right pipeline and its memes aren’t random: they can be seen in history. Brenton Tarrant, the New Zealand terrorist that attacked two different mosques and massacred over 50 worshippers, was last noted as having posted “Well lads, it’s time to stop shitposting and time to make a real life effort post” on his 8chan account. Tarrant is an example of the alt-right pipeline having worked to its most dangerous degree. On the other hand, taking a look at leftist memes reveals one consistent truth: leftist memes either naturally assume that their viewer has a deep understanding of the leftist policies and theories that would make the meme funny, or are composed of entire paragraphs. If the joke becomes so long-winded that they lose the humor they purport themselves to have, there are clearly better ways of making the joke funny. There’s no need for the joke itself to be long and complicated; the leftist theory it’s trying to convey can be explained after the fact.
To be clear, I’m not saying that leftists are inherently unable to understand memes that have a lot of context behind them, and I don’t think leftists are too dumb to understand good humor—I’m just arguing for accessibility and easy understanding by making more memes that are simpler in message. This type of humor seems to exist within an echo chamber; the only people who constantly interact with leftist meme accounts enough to “understand” these memes are leftists who aren’t going to learn anything new. And although most popular accounts on Instagram do operate via an echo chamber—as social media relies on a self-sustaining algorithm—these leftist Instagram meme pages have much less of a reach than the alt-right pipeline on YouTube. Memes should still enable leftists to teach people about theory and introduce them to left-leaning ideas. There’s a lot of room for improvement, and, hopefully, leftists in general will begin moving toward taking themselves a little less seriously.
By Kenneth Kim