Have you ever been in an argument or a debate with someone who is obviously losing their footing, having no way of recovering, so they pull out the straggliest straw man you’ve ever seen in an attempt to divert the conversation away from the fact that they actually have lost?
We all probably see this happen on social media more often than anywhere else these days.
Let me give you an example: Take John T. Atkinson, the Virginia Beach City Treasurer who has made it his life’s calling to oppose extending light rail from downtown Norfolk into his city by leading the “NO Light Rail in Virginia Beach” opposition movement. You would think that such a high ranking public official would craft his organization’s argument around fiscal data, concerns about infrastructure, traffic patterns, use and ridership, and long term sustainability. But if you thought that, you’d actually be wrong.
Instead, the No Light Rail in Virginia Beach Facebook page is littered with nonsensical memes that divert the arguments about light rail away from logic and sense and towards the bizarre.
Ah, nothing like invoking a stink face into your argument over hundreds of millions of dollars and decade’s worth of mass transit. Yes, even millennials like me can tell a straw man when we see one.
However, it was a different meme of Atkinson’s that the local internet took issue over that twisted his straw man into something more sinister and quite telling:
Yet again, Atkinson has pinpointed a specific group of people and marginalized them. Made them to feel unwanted and unvalued. This time it’s children and families. The purpose of this meme is to take our attention away from his arguments around the economics of light rail and bring our attention to the social experience of being on public transportation; you know, with the annoying and inconvenient other half. What is most striking and unsettling about this meme is Atkinson’s commitment to framing his argument around exclusion and the preservation of a specific type of entitlement: the entitlement of the older middle class white curmudgeon.
Many, on both sides of the light rail debate, responded to his meme with distaste and frustration. And rightfully so. Venturing into public spaces means that you will come into close contact with the public. Meaning, people who are often different from you, who have different values, incomes, cultures, ages, religions, skin colors, genders, hair textures, family structures, taste in food, smells, health, and bodies. What Atkinson continues to reveal is that his concern around light rail has less to do with economics and more to do with his anxiety of diversity and his desire to preserve and be surrounded by his own type of public: one that looks like, acts, and have the same values as him.
This point was aptly pointed out by AltDaily, who posted a meme in response on Facebook:
The message was heard loud and clear. 13 News Now picked up the story and reported on the feuding memes. While many thought it went too far, shouldn’t have inserted race into the discussion, or that using memes to argue in general is childish, I would like to point out that images, gifs, and memes are a new form of cultural information sharing and actually can communicate very effectively the nuances of our culture and used in arguments. And the cultural argument that Atkinson has been forming is one of exclusivity and prejudice against all types of people who are not like him. This absolutely needed to be pointed out and countered.
For many in our cities, isolating themselves into monolithic bubbles of inclusion is not an option. Either by choice or by necessity, they rely on public transportation to get them to work or to their doctor appointments. Every day they sit next to other people that they don’t know and strike up conversations. They venture into spaces that also accommodate people who are different from them with wheel chair lifts and information written or spoken in Spanish. They smell other passenger’s lunches and hygiene. They watch how families discipline their children. They sit next to veterans and listen to their stories. They cram into tight spaces and fight over seats and hold onto rails that other people have gripped. And they get where they need to together in a beautiful picture of a diverse community, one that Atkinson does not value.
As a parent to three young children, I would love to go in on Atkinson about his lack of empathy for parents who are raising children the best that they can, and for suggesting that being around my children is a burden and not the social connection that he desires, but I will leave that to the internet commenters. What I want to communicate to him is that he is envisioning, building and constructing a city of exclusion. One that makes thousands of his residents who are non-white, millennial, and/or raising children, to not feel welcome. It keeps the antagonistic divide against cities alive. And all of that is being exposed in his crusade against light rail. As for me and my family, that is enough to keep us living in Norfolk and not in Virginia Beach. But it seems that is just fine with him.