OPINION: That’s not what I said. You know exactly what I #meme.

It’s January 3rd, and the news that President Trump ordered an airstrike which killed a top Iranian general, one of the country’s most important and revered figures, has just broke. Iran has promised revenge — news outlets are in a frenzy, the President is firing off tweets, and the U.S. Embassy in Tehran is issuing a strong suggestion that all Americans leave Iran immediately. All signs point toward imminent disaster between these two powerful countries. And amidst all this chaos — jokes and memes under #WWIII is trending worldwide.

Fears of being drafted and video game screenshots of war and violence bombarded social media. On the video platform TikTok, users took advantage of the green screen feature to show themselves doing their skincare routine with the backdrop of trenches behind them. There’s tweets about meeting best friends in prison after evading the draft or passing around the aux cord in a tank. 

This reaction to the possibility of a world war seems completely inappropriate, but not unexpected. Today’s teens are very familiar with impending doom. It’s hard to recall a time when climate change wasn’t a daily headline, or the news of another mass shooting wasn’t a weekly occurrence. Dark as it is, there are jokes about both on the internet. But this is new territory. This younger generation has never grown up in a world before 9/11, or a time where the U.S. was not an active presence in conflicts in the Middle East. Teenagers of this decade have never experienced the true horrors of war — a “traditional” war, at least. 

The majority of people posting viral internet jokes do not fully understand the ramifications of a war with Iran enough to actually be fazed. There’s just the general consensus that something terrible might be ahead of us, but there is not anything feasible we can do about it. So we turn to humor.

With the internet, we can hear about breaking news almost instantaneously. The way we react to headlines has changed, no matter how old you are. There’s less time these days to process events before things can spiral into the wrong direction. For the younger generation, actual serious conversation is lost. People see a headline, make a hashtag go viral, jump on the trend, and the cycle continues. In reality, American teens are incredibly removed from the situation, considering that mandatory conscription ended in 1973 and that any war isn’t just a political move or new meme — ongoing violence greatly affects real human lives. But unjust fears quickly becomes the foundation for how Gen Z seems to “cope” with yet another bleak situation.

Poll based on a cross-section of 500 East students

Foreign policy is a complex matter that will take more than a Twitter moment to completely understand. The jokes made are mostly about the concept of a world war rather than the specific, complex relationship between the United States and Iran. The fact that our generation can distill a serious issue like a potential international conflict into a single image or funny tweet is simply a cultural sign of the times. It’s a form of communication that sums up our blissful ignorance about the situation — it’s less about World War III and more about how constant exposure to bleak situation after bleak situation leads to such “unhealthy” reactions. 

Gallows humor has long been studied by psychologists, with various studies concluding how this type of humor can often force a change of perspective. It is a coping mechanism and not a sign of insanity or complete disregard for the consequences of war and violence. After all, 43% of students at East believe that World War III will occur in their lifetime. Dark humor can create distance between us and the issue, but is only effective the further removed we are initially. It doesn’t invalidate fears, but attempts to encourage a little optimism because if a joke can be made out of it, it’s seen as less of a threat. 

Whether it’s jokes about a Christmas gift from North Korea or dying from the coronavirus, teenagers are attempting to convey their surface-level knowledge of an issue and resulting anxieties in a way that others can relate to. And the format for this day and age is tweets and TikToks. Dark as it is, this type of humor can be a gateway to starting a conversation or actually learning about the issue. There are many, myself included, who have taken initiative to research more about the relationship between the U.S. and Iran after being bombarded by #WWIII for a week. 

In the end, the endless scroll of jokes does not reflect a generational disregard for a very serious issue. A world war could possibly occur in our lifetimes, maybe not because of events this past month. Disaster humor is a very human response to a potentially hopeless situation. While the majority of teenagers do not fully understand all the implications of the conflict in Iran, we understand it enough to try and keep some semblance of normal despite what’s in store in the future. Everyone copes differently, and for today’s teens who are simultaneously more globally-aware than ever and grappling with scary issues of the future, bite-sized memes is the way to do so.

Vivian La is the Opinion Editor for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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