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The Most Depressing Aspect of the 'Non-Player Character' Meme

Anyone's opinions about politics ought to be the least important and generally least interesting thing about them.

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A meme that started on 4chan and recently spread through political social networking and meme-warring reveals the extent to which we now conflate a person's political views with their value as a human being.

The "non-player character" meme portrays one's political and ideological foes as detailless evocations of a video game's non-player characters (NPCs). These characters represent the artificialness of even the best games. They operate on loops, reacting to you, the player, but never exercising any real agency. They are the prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto and the ghosts in Pac-Man. The NPC meme we're seeing now is aimed at modern progressives, portraying them as mindless automatons spouting lefty gibberish they cannot rationally defend.

Meant, like so much modern discourse, to elicit an angry disdainful laugh at the expense of people you want to dehumanize in the eyes of your peer group, the NPC attack/gag drew a harsh—and condemnable, for those who value an open, freewheeling internet in which free expression is respected—smackdown from Twitter, whose internet purity monitors reportedly destroyed over 1,500 accounts using such images. Twitter deserves to lose respect and communications market share over that crackdown.

Saying anything further about this controversy is risky: outrage-inducing memes reside in that conveniently shifting misty land between serious political commentary and disdainful comedy, and taking them too seriously is often a sign of overreaction and even lameness. So let's just grant up front that sure, whatever, it's all really just a hilarious joke, and everyone should relax.

But if you're willing to admit maybe you don't enjoy a good larf as much as the next fellow, a serious point can be gleaned.

Whether you find NPCing your ideological foes (and, yes, progressives have tried to turn the "You are just a mindless parrot of received ideological stances" schtick around on their righty tormentors, though it's about as powerful as a grade-school bullying victim responding with, "No, you are!") simply funny or deeply true or both, the meme contributes to a not-so-minor tragedy of American civic life these days.

For people who spend so much time on social networking sites that their primary sense of other human beings is the constant expression of brief, unnuanced, and often hostile judgment or opinion on politics or politicians, it may be easy to forget that more is at play in another human being than political opining, even or especially if their opinions on politics are received, ignorant, or wrong.

Stipulating that I'm Grandpa Normie (doubly so for calling myself that, and triply so for even pretending that one can pre-emptively disarm modernity's wave of dismissive sarcasm and irony), and so just don't get the deeply wise and hoo-larious meaning behind this meme, the main rational way to interpret the NPC in video game terms is: someone without agency and without significance.

Yet any sensible American, left or right, should understand that a person's opinions and judgments about politics are going to be the least interesting and significant thing about them. Political opinions, especially coherent ones, come in a relatively narrow range. They are apt to come across to any half-educated and observant person as clear, predictable, and received. Unless a person is a particularly quirky outsider, knowing just a few of their opinions will likely allow you to guess their stances on a number of other political issues. (And if their opinions are so off-kilter or incoherent you can't place them, well who the hell cares?)

That's OK. Political opinions aren't designed for the education or entertainment of others; they are just one's reactions to the world. For most folks, even the so-called intellectual elites, political opinions are tribal or emotional, not based on deep or complicated digging into factual or ethical backgrounds. After all, nobody has time to dig into everything.

And again, who cares? What makes any human being unique or interesting or compelling lies in who they are and what they do for the well-being of others, whether through work in the economy; their status in a family or affinity group; their ability to be congenial companions or witty conversationalists or just decent and functional parts of a social landscape.

If your own spirit is so crabbed that the only pleasure you get out of life is knowing that the being facing you shares your political opinions, at least grant that other people exist in non-political dimensions: as co-workers, neighbors, fellow commuters, friends, or friends of friends.

Playing into the idea that your political meme savvy is the measure of another person's agency and value is an idea that should strike every decent American as grossly dumb and missing the point of life, civic or otherwise. That very attitude is its own version of political totalitarianism, whether applied from left to right or right to left.

For other Reason writings on the intellectual and emotional errors of overprivileging political opining, see Nick Gillespie from last week on not letting Trump dictate all of our emotions and reactions; me on why voting for Trump should not be sufficient excuse to write off friends or family either rationally or emotionally; and how a cabaret tour rightly made apocalyptic emotional reactions to the 2004 election seem absurd.