Pepe the Frog is an internet meme, it started out life as a cartoon image of a frog, someone posted it somehow, somewhere on 4chan and shit just blew up. However, its recent use in the presidential election and the overwhelming number of images depicting Pepe in less than favourable circumstances have thrust the image into the public consciousness. Most notably with the Anti-Defamation League, who label the frog a hate symbol.
Memes on the internet are really similar to the way Dawkins describes them when he coined the term a million years ago. The tldr of which is that memes are information we pass on without the use of genes. See that tldr? That’s a hot meme right there. Other hot memes include stuff like making fire, or building sturdy shelters to live in. These are things we don’t just know how to do naturally, but once we’re introduced to the concept we can usually replicate it for ourselves.
If a meme is a good meme, it will spread throughout populations. It’s limited only by who it comes into contact with and whether they decide to replicate it themselves. In internet terms this usually means reposting the information on social media sites, such as 4chan or Twitter.
Pepe’s meme life started out as a happy frog, which eventually became a sad frog, which eventually became a smug frog. The smug frog is often used in front of imagery that would make one feel smug. Here’s a picture of someone using the smug frog to support their idea of body positivity:
Nothing hateful about that right? So what’s the dealio with the ADL adding it to their hate symbols list?
As a meme spreads and develops, it becomes a free entity which can be attached to anything. One person might think its funny to be smug about body positivity, whereas another person might think its funny to be smug about 9/11. Pepe, being a funny lil smug frog, has been a meme that has been replicated into numerous situations. Some are obviously distasteful and some are totally benign – the important thing is that it’s just a joke. You see the smug frog, think “hah, look at how smug he is while he’s doing ______” and that’s literally it. The frog itself has no hateful meaning.
Think about fire, its a meme we developed to keep ourselves warm and to cook food on. Now, fire has been used in a lot of negative situations, such as arson, immolation and blowing up Syrian homes. Do we call fire “evil” or “hateful”? No, because fire itself has no hateful meaning.
But this goes for a lot of the things the ADL dubs as “hate symbols”. I’ve touched on this before with a post about the swastika. Historically the swastika has a much longer history than the Nazis, but the Nazis were such an imposing and powerful force that we still feel their reach today. In recent memory, the most notable use of the swastika is one of war, terror, and crimes against humanity. We can all agree on that, and we can understand why people may see it as a symbol of hate.
However I totally disagree, a symbol being used by a hateful group, doesn’t make the symbol hateful. It just means the group are hateful. Have you ever seen a swastika murder someone? Was it swastikas that were experimenting on children? Did swastikas force people into concentration camps in WW2? Heck no. All of the above can be attributed to people and people alone, they united under a symbol, under a meme. A set of information that could be easily passed a long and replicated by others who agreed.
Just because one hateful group of people use a symbol, does that make all people who have ever used that symbol hateful? Not at all, I myself wore the swastika as an avatar on Twitter for a while just for the shits and giggles of seeing how angry people would get. I’m very much not a hateful person. The same goes for Pepe – yes there may be hateful people using the symbol, or there may be insensitive or offensive jokes that you don’t like, but the symbol doesn’t belong to the hateful or insensitive minorities. The symbol belongs to everyone, its a meme that is owned by whoever decides to replicate it next, just like fire.
Will Pepe be used in hateful situations in the future? Absolutely. But its misleading to tell people that Pepe is a hateful symbol only used by hateful people, when that’s really, really, really not reality.