What the Memes About the Assaulted United Passenger Say About Us

We talked to an expert about how Twitter jokes dehumanized David Dao.

by Manisha Krishnan
Apr 16 2017, 7:19pm

All photos via Instagram or Twitter

David Dao may not quite yet be a household name, but his face is everywhere.

Dao, 69, the doctor who was bloodied and dragged off an overbooked United Airlines flight leaving Chicago Sunday, is in the midst of taking legal action against the airline. United has been heavily criticized for its actions and subsequent public relations strategy.

The incident, caught on cell phone cameras by other passengers, shows Dao refusing to give up his seat and saying that he needed to get home to Louisville to see patients. Police then intervened and beat Dao, dragging him off the flight as he said "they'll kill me." He later returned bleeding from the mouth. On the surface, there's nothing funny about this—it's a disturbing example of police brutality and the misuse of force on a racialized person.

But images of Dao's anguished face have become prime meme fodder and are now being paired up with catchphrases like "Drag me ousside, how bow dah?"

I think most people agree that United deserves to get roasted here. But what about Dao? What does it say about us that our instinct is to make jokes at the expense of someone who has just been through a terrible (and public) situation? I reached out to Whitney Phillips, an associate professor at Mercer University who has written a book exploring the ambivalence of online culture, to ask if memes can actually do more damage than we might want to believe.

VICE: Is memeing about something tragic like the United Airlines incident in poor taste? 
Whitney Phillips: It's complicated. You have people who are participating with this meme and even when they're calling attention to this issue, obviously a terrible thing, it still ends up sort of flattening this guy into a punch line. He becomes essentially a sort of fetishized snapshot rather than a totality of a human being. People are sharing the meme and they're not really engaging with what are his feelings—does he want to have his image spread across the internet and to have it relived? You can't escape it.

So by memeing it we're dehumanizing what happened to him?
You never really know how people are sharing a meme. People can use that format to show some degree of solidarity affirming the fact that it was terrible. But even when your intentions are really good it doesn't mean they're going to remain good once its on social media. Other people can then use them to make fun of this guy, to minimize his emotional distress. It becomes a vessel for expressing someone's wittiness rather than this is traumatic embodied experience for a human being who may not be comfortable with being a meme du jour.

In a way, we saw the same thing happen with Harambe, where even the Cincinnati Zoo said the memes were preventing them from moving on. 
Harambe is really interesting. It actually was kickstarted or further amplified by the fact that the kid who fell in was black. On far right blogs people were really mad that this gorilla died to save this black boy. It was used as a way of shaming these parents look at these bad black parents who can't even watch their kid.

Wow, I didn't even know that.
Most people don't. In the Harambe case you had people who were concerned about animal rights issues, then you had people who were reacting in a racist way, essentially using this as a racist response to Black Lives Matter and then you just had the Weird Twitter camp. You don't know the trace of the story you're actually propagating—someone who was creating Weird Twitter stuff was creating images that could be adopted by a racist. You become potentially an unwitting part of something that's hateful and damaging.

Do you think there's a racial element to David Dao getting memed?
You can't not consider a racial element these days. You can be sure the kinds of memes being circulated on 4chan or certain parts of Reddit those are going to be racist and ugly. Other people might take the meme and go in an opposite direction. You can point to that case and say honestly do you think they would have done that to a white businessman? This is a way of entering into some significant conversations about race.

But even beyond that, does him being an Asian man play into how people are more inclined to meme or dehumanize him?
You can't exactly know what people are thinking but that was my worry too. Some people might be less inclined to care as much except for the extent that it's a funny punchline.

Anything else you wanted to mention?
With the United passenger, his daughter gave a press conference and that was the first time I had seen the family. It's like, we don't immediately ask questions about what people's kids think, instead we just tell the funny jokes we tell on Twitter. And those sorts of experiences especially something that's sort of violent and weird, there's that question of how would you react if this was your dad or mom?

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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David Dao