Since March, the closest I’ve come to experiencing the joy of dancing in a bar was finding out that Donald Trump got kicked off Twitter. My boyfriend, who announced the news from the kitchen of the apartment we’ve been quarantining in for going on 10 months, felt differently. He thought it was tricky territory that could set a bad precedent. But all I could do was picture the president, who had recently incited an attack on his own country’s Capitol, furiously attempting to log on to his favorite website via other people’s accounts and being rejected over and over. I had to laugh.

But I didn’t feel good about laughing. It was just more evidence of how far I am from processing reality in a “normal” way, having stewed for so long in the memes and jokes and dunks of the internet. In March, when life as I knew it shut down around me and I faced the prospect of perhaps two weeks (ha!) quarantining away from real life, I was stunned. And then I quickly saw this meme.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by f (@memetides)

The meme itself isn’t remarkable, but I will probably remember it for the rest of my life. I remember the feeling of relief that came with the laughter. I remember sending it to my sister and knowing she laughed, too. Maybe, I thought, things weren’t so scary if we were still able to laugh. 

Coping with dark and difficult subjects through humor isn’t new, and it’s very much a hallmark of Gen Z and TikTok. Which is one of the reasons the app catapulted to such popularity last year. As I scrolled through skits about talking to your own plants and the difficulties of working from home, this unprecedented, previously unfathomable struggle seemed much easier to endure. 

But I didn’t realize until the first week of 2021 how much this type of coping, and the absolute onslaught of neverending bad news that warranted it, had desensitized me. I didn’t really understand that something more than the regular daily hell of politics was happening during the attack on the Capitol until a New York Times headline alerted me that Vice President Mike Pence had been rushed into a secure location, along with every other senator and representative who was present for the counting of electoral votes. 

“Hmmm, seems bad,” I finally thought to myself. I took the event seriously enough to stop working for the day and remain glued to my Twitter feed for updates. Which is where I saw this joke:

The more we learn about what happened on January 6, the clearer it becomes how truly tragic and disturbing it was. A Capitol police officer was killed by the attackers. One of the attackers was killed by Capitol police. An officer died by suicide over the weekend. And yet, videos like these are all over TikTok.

While there are likely plenty of videos talking about how troubling this event was, they’re not the ones going viral. (Although plenty of silly ones critiquing the Capitol Police response are.) 

As I’ve watched all the horrors unfold, feeling nothing, I remember how humor is the same mask that got us here in the first place.

“You always think that evil is going to come from movie villain evil, and then you’re like — oh no, evil can just start with bad jokes and nihilistic behavior that is fueled by positive reinforcement on various platforms,” Andrew Gauthier, a former BuzzFeed producer who worked with Anthime Joseph Gionet before Gionet reinvented himself as the alt-right figure Baked Alaska and rioted in the Capitol, told Ben Smith in The New York Times

So while I laugh, I also worry. I worry that it’s easier to make jokes than figure out my part and how to help. I worry there is no way to help! But then I see this meme. And I laugh again.