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Life

Why 30-50 Feral Hogs Went Viral After Two Mass Tragedies

It may be a stupid meme, but dumb jokes are important to our survival.
March 9, 2020, 12:00pm

This article appears in VICE Magazine's Stupid Issue, which is dedicated to the entertaining, goofy, and just plain dumb. It features stories celebrating ridiculous ideas, trends, and products; pieces arguing that unabashed stupidity can be a great part of life; and articles calling out the bad side of stupidity. Click HERE to subscribe to the print edition.

On August 3, 2019, a gunman entered a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and killed 22 people. Twelve hours later, a different gunman entered a bar in Dayton, Ohio, and killed nine people. A record number of mass shootings have taken place in the U.S. over the last three years, to the point where the discourse that follows is almost comically repetitive: A vocal majority expresses alarm, pain, and distress and calls, once again, for gun control, while a vocal minority staunchly insists guns are not the problem, and in fact, that people need them for protection. In the 24-hour period following the dual shootings, a pro-gun-rights Twitter user, Willie McNabb, took a stab at entering the discourse: “Legit question for rural Americans - How do I kill the 30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 mins while my small kids play?”

Absolute pandemonium ensued, confusion followed by skepticism followed by gleeful, devastating clownings of McNabb’s tweet. Personalities from Rob Delaney to Jonny Sun weighed in, and the jokes continued for days, reveling in the sheer absurdity of the extremely specific (and yet nonspecific) threat that faced America that absolutely had to be heard out and dealt with before the automatic weapons debate could be settled: somewhere between 30 and 50 hogs, feral ones, rushing into a yard without so much as a heads-up.

Twitter is famous for finding a good meme and running it into the ground before most people even hear of its existence, but the response to “30-50 feral hogs” was like a dam break, and the site’s users riffed like classic rock never died. The intensity of the response, and the ridiculous sound of the original tweet (feral hogs are a problem, but not best solved by handing out guns, according to experts), was impossible to separate from the desperate circumstances from which it arose: two unspeakable tragedies in rapid succession. It’s hard not to wonder if we didn’t latch onto the sheer stupidity of this one incredibly inane argument for personal rights to arms as a kind of coping mechanism for the incomprehensibly painful circumstances we found ourselves in: near-constant deaths, and no clear path to stopping them within a system that works very hard to protect the status quo.

Stupid things are compelling because they are easy to understand. Smart things are for smart people; stupid things are for everyone. While there are surely people who would, and did, encounter the 30-50 hogs salvo as an argument worthy of an answer, it was not difficult to grasp the simple tension of one man surveying the near-daily, and in this case twice-daily, destruction of human lives and saying, “Fair, but what about the hogs in my backyard?”

In his 2014 book, The Body Keeps the Score, the author and psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk wrote extensively about traumatic experiences and how they manifest in our bodies and brains. He puts forth a theory that while trauma—and specifically PTSD—can seem indistinguishable from mental illness in terms of how symptoms present, people suffering from trauma respond poorly to treatments aimed at mental illness, and in some cases don’t respond at all. Van der Kolk suggests that trauma is a distinct experience from mental illness, and requires, in many cases, a different response; his life’s pursuit has been working with trauma patients to understand their experiences and what, if anything, can help them heal and reassimilate into their lives and families.

“Our culture teaches us to focus on personal uniqueness, but at a deeper level we barely exist as individual organisms,” van der Kolk writes. “Our brains are built to help us function as members of a tribe. We are part of that tribe even when we are by ourselves, whether listening to music (that other people created), watching a basketball game on television (our own muscles tensing as the players run and jump), or preparing a spreadsheet for a sales meeting (anticipating the boss’s reactions). Most of our energy is devoted to connecting with others.”

Much of van der Kolk’s book revolves around distinguishing the symptoms and damage of traumatic experience from those of mental illness, suggesting they present similarly, but respond to distinct kinds of treatments. When speaking about trauma, he strongly emphasizes the importance of social cohesion. “If we look beyond the list of specific symptoms that entail formal psychiatric diagnoses,” he writes, “we find that almost all mental suffering involves either trouble in creating workable and satisfying relationships or difficulties in regulating arousal (as in the case of habitually becoming enraged, shut down, overexcited, or disorganized). Usually it’s a combination of both...

“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives. Numerous studies of disaster response around the globe have shown that social support is the most powerful protection against becoming overwhelmed by stress and trauma.”

Earlier in the book, van der Kolk cites multiple studies of children who were in London during the Blitz of World War II, comparing those who were sent away to live in the countryside with those who stayed in place with their families. The children who remained with their families fared better psychologically.

“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives. Numerous studies of disaster response around the globe have shown that social support is the most powerful protection against becoming overwhelmed by stress and trauma.”

Van der Kolk goes on to describe how low-level engagement with other people seems to create a positive response in trauma victims, where the biological tensions that arise from triggers—essentially, the symptoms that go along with what most people know as fight or flight: racing heart, tense muscles, shallow breath—can be soothed. Some examples he gives are playing catch with a ball, drumming out a rhythm together, or group dancing as ways of activating “social engagement” that produces a sense of connection and belonging. These are simple activities that don’t depend as much on verbal skills, complex social negotiations, or higher intellect; most people can do them. Surely almost anyone dealing with severe trauma who was told to try playing catch would say, “That’s fucking stupid.” Yet according to van der Kolk, while it’s by no means a cure, these types of activities have an incredibly strong impact for people whose conception of reality is rooted in feeling separated, constantly on defense, them against the world.

While memes have intellectual roots, most people would agree they’re kinda dumb. Riffing on a meme together, in relation to a shared experience, is not exactly intellectual fireworks. But that’s perhaps exactly why this shared “feral hogs” prompt was seized upon by so many people in the wake of tragedy: This “dumb” stuff allows people to resonate on a shared frequency in a way that is deeply reassuring, that shows we are not alone, that we are seeing the same thing, that even as we suffer we’re still able to share an understanding. Van der Kolk argues that acting together, feeling part of a whole, has an incredibly strong impact, particularly in the context of trauma, whether the trauma is shared or not. In these situations, a shared, iterative, and even rhythmic understanding may be exactly what our brains reach for.

Van der Kolk notes that in the same way social connection can soothe or help heal trauma, its opposite (social dysfunction) is what creates trauma in the first place. “We can speak of trauma when that system fails,” writes van der Kolk. “When you beg for your life, but the assailant ignores your pleas; when you are a terrified child lying in bed, hearing your mother scream as her boyfriend beats her up; when you see your buddy trapped under a piece of metal that you’re not strong enough to lift; when you want to push away the priest who is abusing you, but you’re afraid you’ll be punished.”

The rhythm of dysfunction followed by collective coping is also a strong undercurrent on TikTok, an app for recording and sharing short videos. The platform mainly revolves around users directly imitating or iterating on videos all set to the same audio clip, but memes about poverty, disadvantage, and marginalization that originated on it have escaped it and gone viral elsewhere. A personal favorite of mine involves audio of one person issuing gibberish instructions in an urgent voice, while the person receiving the “instructions” quickly spirals into a meltdown. The audio originated as a parody of an interaction between two video game players, one competent and one clumsily unprepared, but users have adapted it to relate to other scenarios: not understanding the local language, feeling misunderstood by parents, feeling unprepared for school, being asked to act like an adult while still feeling like a child.

“Recovery from trauma involves (re)connecting with our fellow human beings,” van der Kolk writes in his book. While he notes that attachment bonds (like between a parent and children) are the most reassuring and effective way of processing trauma, our online habits suggest that being gleefully dumb together online might help a little bit, too.