September 8, 2019

CHANG | Sunny Memes

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Seeing Sun memes and Facebook comment threads about the work I and other columnists have produced is my guilty pleasure. I love setting the sort method to “All Comments” and methodically plugging through all the replies: Good discourse, illogical arguments and trolls’ messages all the same. The comments typically come from all sides of the political spectrum, alumni, current students and even members of the public who find it a good use of their time to crawl the Facebook page of a college newspaper.

But what are our responsibilities as Cornellians and Sun readers to promote dialogue on this campus? And, how can Sunnies improve our work by responding to these comments — vitriolic or otherwise?

After just six days of classes, we’ve already been blessed with a plethora of meme-worthy Sun content. One commenter, bemoaning Niko Ngyuen’s ’22 “Let the Haters Hate” even wrote, “I see we’re starting our bullshit horrible opinion articles early this year huh.” Some have made it to the Facebook group “Cornell: Any Person, Any Meme.” Some have incited keyboard riots on the comment sections of The Sun’s Facebook page — see a platform pattern here? Regardless, it’s exciting to start a new semester with some “blistering hot takes,” as our editors like to put it.

Inasmuch as the negative reactions to our columns are columnists’ worst nightmare, criticism and satire about what we write are welcome and duly needed.

I’ve had memes made about me, columns that flopped and sharp retorts thrown at me both in person and online. After I published my first column on why President Trump shouldn’t be impeached because of the political fallout, Daniel D. Dauplaise ’07 wrote a letter to the editor comparing me to Fox News. While I didn’t appreciate that comparison — because I don’t have the correct skin tone or ideology to appear on-air there — that was a learning opportunity for me. Being a columnist meant I needed to develop a thicker skin and clarify my writing.

Jack Ross-Pilkington ’21 posted a meme back in May that put titles of my columns on different quadrants of the political compass. I fit in the dead center of the plane, with “I’m Exhausted by Politics,” in the bottom half for libertarianism with “Identity Politics is an Absolute Necessity” and “Capitalism is Worth It.” It was a pretty funny meme — in fact, I still keep a screenshot of it in my camera roll — but his point also struck home. I didn’t have a consistent political stance and I needed to either be at peace with my political oscillation or change the way I wrote my columns and thought about the world.

Other columnists have also been the fodder of flaming comment wars. Michael Johns’ ’20 recent column “The Republic for Which It Stands” praises the American flag for being the “ultimate anti-fascist symbol in world history” while criticizing leftists radicals who refuse to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance or affirm the Stars and Stripes. The online fallout for this column wasn’t exactly pretty. To my (extreme) surprise, no one “angry reacted” the post. But the comments are golden. They include memes about brainwashed American patriots from a current student, a comment from an alumnus bemoaning his inability to escape The Sun’s op-eds, gifs of the American flag, the bald eagle and the hammer and sickle.

Beyond being a way to spend my (always decreasing) spare time, the comments section for political or deeply personal columns make me wonder if this sort of feedback is really helpful for columnists. As Michael puts it, “this kind of behavior will do nothing to dissuade me or other writers from engaging in the public square.”

My thoughts are similar: If you want to have an actual conversation about something and possibly change my opinion, shoot me an email. Don’t expect me to read your mind based on a gif or a sentence-long diatribe. Unlike New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, I can stand being called a bedbug, but I wouldn’t understand the reasoning behind such name-calling.

The comments section for Nguyen’s column seem to have more substantiated opinions. In that way, comments sections might be helpful for the opinion section’s content. The top comment, with 74 reactions, is “love to see the same column written 384297 times in every newspaper on the planet.” It’s these sorts of comments, along with other warranted affirmations or negations of Nguyen’s point, that might make a columnist think.

Was this column too similar to the content put out by the hordes of right-wing, libertarian or free speech advocates across the country? Did the contextual examples for Cornell’s campus worth publishing? Only Niko can answer these questions, but us Sunnies can use experiences like this to reflect on what we write.

I wouldn’t say that these responses to my writing changed my worldview. But they have forced me to be more vigilant in my writing and research. I’m thankful for that. I don’t know what the response to the “hot takes” produced by my colleagues will be like in the future. But my hope is that our readers can fill our Facebook feed with a mix of memes, serious questions and arguments. I encourage you, dear reader, to think about how your comments might be received by a columnist who’s already a little insecure about our writing — because we all are. I ask you to consider your responsibility to making Ithaca a stronger space for discussion.

If you don’t hate me too much, track me down in the Physical Sciences Building, where I often hang out, or in the 9:05 a.m. section of Linear Algebra to chat with me in person. Or, find me online. With more constructive feedback, we Sunnies might just write a better paper.

Darren Chang is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Swamp Snorkeling runs every other Monday this semester.