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James on Dividing and Conquering

06/08/2014 Comments (89)

One often sees memes floating around on the web: graphic illustrations of this and that. Some of them are short and pithy.

Some are funny (at least to some of us):

Some claim to represent information that you need to know. Lots of these should be taken with caution. Why? Because lots of them are often conceived, not to inform, but to manipulate.

Case in point:

What is the message of this meme?

While you ponder that, here's another with the same message stated more clearly:

What do we notice about the structure of each meme?

In both memes we are invited to notice heroes and villains. In both, figures like soldiers, cops, firefighters, and EMTs are the heroes, valiantly saving lives and doing it for peanuts, in contrast to an obvious, greedy, selfish, cowardly villain.

If the identity of that villain is unclear in the first meme, look at the second, which makes the point with the subtlety of the business end of a truncheon. In short, the point of both memes is to generate a feeling (not a rational thought) of contempt for the French Fry Slinger, not to generate the thought "We should be paying soldiers, cops, EMTs and firefighters a lot more."

Now, imagine another meme exactly like the first one, except that it reads:

McDonald's CEO: $9,247/hour
Law enforcement officer: $18.27/hour
Firefighter: $16.04/hour
EMT/Paramedic: $15.59/hour

The contrast is clarifying, no? Suddenly, it  becomes extremely clear that the purpose of the first two memes is to direct your attention away from so much as thinking about that third meme. Their message, in obfuscated English, is "Let us all hate the Bad French Fry Slinger! He is selfishly demanding pay that is nearly the same as--or even more than!--these great heroes! Let us all take up torches and pitchforks and be very angry at this poor slob in his low-paying powerless job because..."

Because what  exactly? Because he's responsible for depressing the wages of underpaid cops, firefighters, soldiers and EMTs? That's rubbish. He has no power. He doesn't sign their paychecks. He (and just as often she) is often on public assistance because the company he works for won't pay him a living wage and pressures him to go on the dole to supply what they refuse to pay him (which means that, yes, you and I pay taxes so that the company doesn't have to pay wages--effectively putting companies like Walmart and McDonalds on welfare). But the worker getting ripped off by his company and at the very bottom of the corporate food chain? He and she are struggling to get by on two or three jobs.  Such people have, quite simply, nothing whatsoever to do with whether cops, firefighters, soldier, and EMT's are not paid a living wage.

On the other hand, the McDonald's exec has everything to do with how much the French Fry Slinger makes and a vested interest in ginning up public hostility to his attempt to raise his income. Which brings us back to the real purpose of such memes. For as long as you are heaping scorn on the French Fry Slinger for his imaginary greed in desiring a living wage, you are not heaping it on the exec for his real greed in denying it to him. Likewise, as long as you are aiming your outrage at the French Fry Slinger for somehow being mystically to blame for the shameful treatment of the cop, firefighter, EMT and soldier (and their families), you are not aiming it at the people who cheat them out of their just wage and neglect them to death in VA hospitals.

In short, it's the old strategy of "Divide and conquer." Don't get played.

My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man with gold rings and in fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while you say to the poor man, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you, is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme that honorable name which was invoked over you? (Jas 2:1–7)

Filed under rich and poor

About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.