Tuesday, 30 August 2016

The Linguistics of a Meme: Harambe and Tragedy

I was not intending to write a post like this, but I asked my friend Abbie if she wanted me to write about anything specific on my blog, and she said "Harambe". A seemingly silly request at first, but then I got thinking... what goes into creating a successful meme? Especially one that has risen out of tragedy, like Harambe has. 

If you didn't know, Harambe was a gorilla that was killed in his enclosure at Cincinnati Zoo after a 3 year old boy climbed into it and the keepers thought he was in danger. But in actual fact, all the evidence pointed towards Harambe actually protecting the little boy using instinct. So, after this terrible injustice, social media got fired up, and Harambe was made into a meme.

Memes are basically anything that goes universally viral, and there is usually some element of humour to it. So, in the face of tragedy, how has this gorilla become an international sensation?

The only way to dissect humour is to look at it seriously, which is quite ironic. We can do this by using simplified linguistics:

1. Harambe Himself

The name Harambe is, for many in the Western world, unusual. It can't really be associated with anything else that people would recognise on a global scale (unless you count the fictional village of Harambee in Disney's Animal Kingdom) and so when you say the name, you instantly make the connection to our furry friend. Not just that, but the very fact that it is an unheard name in the Western world is enough to gather a few laughs, even if it is slightly inappropriate to be making fun of a traditional African word. People can find humour in anything they don't understand. 

2. Human Error is always Mocked

The whole reason why Harambe is dead is not because he was doing anything wrong, but because humanity made a wrong judgement call in killing him. Technically, the world is not mocking Harambe for being dead, but the humans with the gun that killed him. This was seen as the wrong decision, and we all know how human failure is mocked. You only have to take a look at shows such as You've Been Framed or other shows of the same sort, that urge people to send in videos of them falling over or hurting themselves by accident, to know that human find other humans hilarious when they get things wrong. 

So no, like all things, the animal in the spotlight isn't actually the main reason for the meme spiralling, but the mother who let her child climb in the Gorilla enclosure and the person who shot Harambe, who quickly became public enemy number one. 

3. The Human Impulse to Ignore Tragedy

It is a fact that humans can't cope with tragedy very well. So, when something terrible happens, people often look for opportunities to turn a negative into a positive. It is just a way of coping, and this is the case for Harambe. Humans, even if they are meat-eaters, do not like to hear of unjustified animal death, and so turning Harambe into a meme is a modern way of honouring the dead and fighting for a cause they believe in. 

Even if it is the least they can do, humans love to feel like they are making a difference, and uniting together for a cause feels like you're changing the world. Its got a High School Musical "we're all in this together" vibe to it. And Harambe is just another example of this phenomenon. 


Okay, this was just a bit of fun, but if you look deep enough, you can find meaning in anything. Harambe is a meme, and memes will become part of history, so maybe by keeping Harambe's memory alive with humour future generations will learn not to make the same mistake as the guy who shot our poor gorilla. 


1 comment:

  1. Thank you for explaining this, I actually didn't know where it came from, just heard it referenced every now and then!


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