The novel coronavirus might rightly be called the crisis of the meme. Trapped at home with our eyes locked on screens, the funny quips and images across social media platforms have been our comic relief, coping mechanism, and a conduit to the world outside.
Last week, Mississippi State football coach Mike Leach decided to join the fun by tweeting an amusing image of old woman who had presumably had it being cooped up with her husband.
In the meme an old woman sits knitting a noose. The caption reads, “After two weeks of quarantine with her husband, Gertrude decided to knit him a scarf.” Now, for anyone acquainted with even the basic concept of how jokes work, the meaning here is crystal clear. Gertrude’s husband is driving her crazy.
But for those on the left skilled at uncovering racism beneath every utterance and pixel, the meaning was much, much different. By Thursday, after complaints, Leach had taken down the tweet, apologized, and had been sentenced to “listening sessions” and trips to civil rights museums.
So what made the meme offensive to those who were able to squint hard enough to find racism? Well, nooses are associated with lynching, the old woman is white, and the photo appears to be old timey. The latter point is significant. We can imagine a similar meme with a millennial girlfriend knitting a colorful noose for her beau, which would not elicit charges of racism. This being an old white woman in the early 20th century, surely she must be a murderous bigot.
This is a prime example the two very different and often contradictory definitions of racism in the United States. By the more traditional definition, which requires intent and animosity, Leach was not even remotely engaged in racism. But by the more modern leftist definition, racism occurs when, even unintentionally, a person fails to take into account how others might interpret his statements or actions.
For the “that’s not funny” brigade, intent is irrelevant. Nobody really thinks Coach Leach was trying to send visual dog whistles to his racist Twitter followers. He was trying to make joke at a time millions of Americans and scared and tense, and when yes, a lot of couples are experiencing just a little too much quality time.
The fallout has been swift; disappointment expressed by his athletic director, at least one player transferring, and of course the punishments. And let’s be clear: mandatory sensitivity training and trips to museums are a punishment. They are intended not only to make Leach more aware of how he unintentionally engages in systemic racism but also to make an example of him.
From Leach’s standpoint, you can see why he’s just taking his medicine and trying to move on. Earlier this year he deleted a tweet critical of Mitt Romney’s vote to impeach President Trump, because espousing conservative values causes more trouble for a football coach than it’s worth. So it is understandable that he would apologize and try to move forward.
But that doesn’t mean we have to accept this situation as anything other than dangerous nonsense. It is not enough to merely roll our eyes. We have to be clear that our society will not be policed by absurd claims of bigotry rooted in nothing more than intentionally misunderstood outrage over innocent remarks or images.
Mike Leach did nothing wrong. His punishment is a farce, and all of us should stand up and say so.