It all goes back to Plato.
An old guy with a handlebar mustache, tattoos visible on his upper arms, says something in an animated tone. A younger man wearing a baseball cap speaks back while gesturing. The old man shouts. A chair flies through the air. Finally, the old man is yelling, red in the face, while pointing in an aggressive manner.
Each panel comes complete with text, and makes for a mini debate — proposition, rebuttal, reaffirmation, second rebuttal, and a final statement.
The resulting memes — based on a scene from the reality TV series American Chopper, which stopped airing in 2010 — aren’t always all that legible. But suddenly, they are everywhere on social media, illustrating everything from the difficulties of pet ownership to the intricacies of the gender wage gap.
me talking to my cat 5 times a day pic.twitter.com/XldODAfqAg
— mothma’am (@drakesgurl420) April 4, 2018
Its popularity speaks in part to the fickle nature of mass taste. If the Distracted Boyfriend meme captivated us with its stark simplicity, then the American Chopper more than makes up for its aesthetic shortcomings with its ability to present complicated ideas.
More broadly, in an era of performative social media dunking and tribalism run amok, the Chopper offers a lighthearted way to demonstrate that you actually understand the viewpoints of people on both sides of an issue. And beyond demonstrating your personal virtuosity, dialectic — the argument between two opposing points of view — turns out to be a fairly effective way to convey ideas and information, one that dates back to Plato’s famous dialogue but can be difficult to replicate in conventional media formats.
The American Chopper format touches on important cultural themes about class, money, politics, and reality television that are relevant to 2018. And by forcing the meme author to sympathetically engage with both sides of an argument, it manages to disrupt some of the most dysfunctional elements of online discourse.
American Chopper, explained
The meme derives from a reality television show, American Chopper, that aired on the Discovery Channel and then later its sister network TLC between 2003 and 2010.
The show focused on Orange County Choppers, a custom motorcycle manufacturing company located in the town of Newburgh, New York, in the Hudson Valley. The stylistic differences and vocal arguments between the show’s main protagonists, Paul Teutul Sr. (known as “Senior”) and his son (known as “Paulie” or “Junior”), was the central driving force of the show for most of its run. But after one particularly heated argument in 2008, Junior left both the program and the chopper shop to start his own business.
The meme (which was created in 2011 but didn’t really explode until March 2018) is based on the pivotal scene from the original series in which Senior fired Paulie in a profane, violent, not-that-convincingly-acted moment:
The Teutuls then returned in a somewhat different format with a show called American Chopper: Senior vs. Junior that detailed the rivalry between their two shops. It was canceled after two seasons, but a rebooted version of the show is scheduled to come out this May — with the producers doubtless hoping the meme will have enough staying power to still be around at the premiere.
The central joke of the Chopper meme is to reimagine this scene as a heated disagreement about a highbrow topic rather than a profane dispute about work schedules.
The Chopper meme implicates Trump-era class politics
Part of what makes the meme work is that you don’t actually need to be familiar with the show to read the facial hair and cap as class signifiers. At the same time, the dispute is clearly taking place in an office setting — reflecting the reality that the Teutuls are wealthy business owners and television stars rather than struggling workers.
This dichotomy between economic status and the sociocultural aspects of “class” has become a hallmark of the Trump years, in which political disagreements between white Americans have come to be deeply polarized between the more and less educated even while the policy orientation of the GOP remains overwhelmingly focused on the wealthy.
The Teutuls are, in this sense, the perfect Trump-era Republicans — a couple of lowbrow regular guys who happen to be incredibly rich business owners who’d probably appreciate a big tax cut for pass-through income. They’re the social and political antithesis of the young, debt-burdened recent college graduates living in expensive cities and struggling to make a living in creative fields — the sort of people who’ve been enthusiastically creating and sharing the Chopper meme.
Just imagine these two arguing about effective communications strategies for an elite aquarium:
But it’s also just a damn good way to communicate.
Socratic dialogue is a good way to teach
A person looking to write a column on the gender wage gap from a progressive perspective often faces a dilemma. Do you focus on the broad headline facts — which are striking and don’t receive the level of attention in public debate that they deserve — even though people with a more conservative view have a well-known objection to the standard characterization of the gap? Or do you delve into a more sophisticated version of the debate, knowing that you’ll immediately lose a large share of the audience?
With the Chopper meme, you don’t need to choose.
The meme functions, in this sense, as a miniature version of one of Plato’s dialogues. Rather than a conventional prose argument, in these books, Plato gives us drama, with Socrates debating one or more fellow Athenians to eventually reach his conclusion. The dialogue format makes the line of argument more memorable and allows for the simultaneous presentation of a clear thesis and a deeper understanding of the issues.
As Stephanie Carvin of Carleton University says, the memes aren’t just funny — they turn out to be genuinely informative.
Is it weird that I feel that I’m learning a lot by reading these? https://t.co/cwfI2xiqpx
— Stephanie Carvin (@StephanieCarvin) April 8, 2018
Arguably, the real lesson here is that a more dialectical form of writing could have been serving us better all along.
I find myself learning and retaining actual information and points of disagreement from the American Chopper meme. Maybe we should have been blogging in dialectics all along.
— Derek Thompson (@DKThomp) April 6, 2018
After all, one hallmark of the Chopper meme is that for a given instance of it to be any good, the author needs to genuinely understand Junior’s stance and present a coherent and sympathetic version of it — an attitude that is antithetical to much of current social media practice.
Chopper memes are an antidote to the social media dunk contest
The dialectical form of instruction contrasts with a pattern of interaction and debate that is all too common on the modern-day internet: Rather than engage with each other’s ideas, debate participants simply “dunk” on the remarks of others, aiming to receive praise from their followers.
Michael Grunwald, for example, promoted his lengthy essay on Scott Pruitt’s real record at the Environmental Protection Agency with a brief and necessarily oversimplified tweet.
— Michael Grunwald (@MikeGrunwald) April 8, 2018
The environmental journalist Rebecca Leber then quote-tweeted Grunwald, arguing that his tweet was missing crucial context about the full scope of Pruitt’s activities.
you can’t talk about Pruitt’s lasting damage without talking about how he’s attacking science & expertise, pursuing buyouts & restructuring offices, and his pulling back on state work. An incomplete picture to focus on EPA’s regulatory rollback alone. https://t.co/uJsX58Ud1g
— Rebecca Leber (@rebleber) April 8, 2018
Grunwald then fired back, asserting without evidence that Leber hadn’t even read his story.
This has been another episode of Didn’t Read the Masterpiece Theater. https://t.co/D0ugt6ApJZ
— Michael Grunwald (@MikeGrunwald) April 8, 2018
The reality of this unnecessarily contentious back-and-forth is that Grunwald’s article does note all the things Leber accused him of downplaying, but it’s also clearly true that Grunwald is downplaying that stuff in favor of his core thesis: “The truth is that Scott Pruitt has done a lot less to dismantle the EPA than he — or his critics — would have you believe.”
A more dialectical presentation would reveal a disagreement over points of emphasis. Leber and Grunwald are both smart people and skilled writers who are very familiar with the relevant issues here, and no doubt either of them could write a Chopper meme that lets Junior make some good points.
Instead, they shouted at each other unproductively, just like the father-son duo at the heart of American Chopper.
And that’s the beauty of the Chopper meme — by giving the author a degree of distance from the argument, it allows us to transcend the tendency of online debate to degenerate into precisely the kind of chair-throwing pointlessness that it depicts.
via Vox http://bit.ly/2FF4XI0
April 10, 2018 at 06:07AM