From Benny Hill to Internet memes: Media continues to inspire the decline of deference

The 1970s saw Benny Hill expressing the sexual revolution on television.

He used humour to lay bare the natural urges of men and women that were repressed by the ruling class and religious leaders.  In one pertinent skit, Hill plays the priest who is having a discussion with a commoner, locked in the stock at a public square.  In a typical manipulation of the double entendre, the priest beats the commoner for uttering seemingly innocent comments about his day.  For everything the commoner says, the priest hears the bawdy interpretation of the double meaning – revealing his own wicked thoughts.

People laughed with Hill because they identified with the overtly lewd humour.  The emergence of this kind of statement in the media has further brought into the open the tradition of crude rituals among the underclasses.  Before television, it was the burlesque and the vaudeville on stage.

As television became commercialized and advertisers pushed for more popular shows, sensationalism crept into the news.

Even as the ruling classes and religious authorities attempted to exert prudish codes of behaviour on the unruly masses, their hypocrisy was revealed in salacious sex scandal after sex scandal, as alluded to in this Benny Hill skit.

In the 1980s, from street culture to rap music, African Americans managed to co-opt the word “Nigger”, thereby undermining the term and giving the finger to racist oppressors.

Psy’s video mocks the conformity of commercialized popular culture, the deep narcissism of the fashion industry and the self-absorbed  entertainment business.

Fast-forward to 2013.  By this time, Internet memes like Psy’s “Gangnam Style” and Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” have gone viral.  People no longer just listen to a message, they enact it for themselves, repeating the message and also reinterpreting it.

By simultaneously evoking the Gangnam fashionista district of Seoul and displaying the fashion victim in a garish yellow suit, Psy’s video mocks the conformity of commercialized popular culture, the deep narcissism of the fashion industry and the self-absorbed  entertainment business.  His ridiculous dance pokes the celebrity-worshipping public in the eye, even as they don’t get his sarcastic and ironic video.

This silent version deconstructs the pop-video, driving home Psy’s ironic philosophy.

Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei has embraced this message and turned it against the Chinese leadership who imprisoned him for three months and continues to ‘disappear’ and torture innocent people who refuse to defer to their authority.  In his version of the famous Internet meme, he defiantly twirls a set of handcuffs.  “He says the international meme phenomenon is an expression of individualism that should be allowed in China.”  Predictably, his government has blocked access to this video in that country.

Gangnam for Freedom – Amnesty International.

Students do the “Harlem Shake” before the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters.

Most recently, you can witness the recent flood of freedom videos featuring students of the middle east.  In this video, Egyptian students do the Harlem Shake in front of the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Cairo.  That song begins with the phrase “Con las terroristas” which means “With the terrorists.”  Post 9-11, any government wanting to abuse human rights labels their targets terrorists.  In his article, Haifa Zaaiter writes in Arabic about the attempts of Tunisian Salafist rulers to condemn civil disobedience.  They attempt to derail domestic protests by encouraging youth to focus instead on the fight against Israel’s interdictions on Palestine.  “That slogan has lost its lustre because it is being aimed at youth who have grown tired of having that slogan used to suppress everything that bothers or frightens the ruling class…”, says Zaaiter.

Hopefully, the trend towards independent thought proposed in Neil Nevitte’s book “The Decline of Deference” will continue.  Today, people have the power to publish their feelings free of censorship on the Internet through social media, to exchange ideas, to participate, and to connect with strangers in strange lands.  Hopefully, this movement will continue unabated; relinquishing the power to the people in repressive states around the world.

How does media and culture influence you during the Quintillion Times?

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