Why America Needs #GreenShirtGuy and #30-50FeralHogs Right Now

Current reigning champ of Twitter, #GreenShirtGuy. (Twitter)

It's happened twice in the last few days: ridiculous trending topics on social media prompted by otherwise inescapably dark moments in the United States of America. Despite the tragedies behind #30-50FeralHogs and the anti-immigrant rhetoric on display in #GreenShirtGuy's point of genesis, these memes have provided surprising and much-needed points of levity in an otherwise exhaustingly heavy landscape—and modern though they appear, they're actually rooted in evolutionary survival methods.

On Monday we learned of #30-50FeralHogs, a phrase that emerged from gun control discussions that were taking place online, prompted by the mass shootings in Gilroy, El Paso and Dayton, as well as so many simultaneous shootings in Chicago that Mount Sinai Hospital was forced to temporarily close its doors.

It all started with a libertarian in Arkansas named William McNabb:

While The Guardian was quick to note the legitimacy of McNabb's tweet—explaining that in "rural part[s] of the American south ... large groups of feral hogs are, according to one expert ... 'actually a huge problem'"—the meme response was swift and, frankly, a welcome relief after a weekend of horrifying news.

Then Wednesday, the country was introduced to #GreenShirtGuy (a man quickly identified by comedian Patton Oswalt as a Washington, D.C. resident named Alex Kack) who somehow managed to heartily laugh his way through a tense situation during a city council meeting about sanctuary cities. Kack was quickly embraced by a nation palpably sick of in-fighting and partisanship.

Because, yes, #PlaidShirtGuy—a Billings high school student—proved similarly popular on social media last year after attending a Trump rally in Montana and letting his face do the talking.

Almost a year on, the joy #PlaidShirtGuy brought people has not been forgotten.

While #GreenShirtGuy ended up being the star of the town council clip, adoration has also been directed to the gentleman behind him holding a banjo (#BanjoGuy) and another man shouting the phrase "You are in direct violation of being a jackass!" (#RedShirtGuy)

The hyperfocus applied to almost everyone in this video other than the woman angrily shouting is a demonstration of just how desperate the country currently is for comic relief. Laughing in the face of tragedy and/or volatility may often feel unnatural to our rational brains, but using humor to cope is something hardwired into humanity.

In A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness, neurologist V. S. Ramachandran explains that laughing in circumstances that are surface-level scary originally developed as a way to let other members of the community know when not to "waste your precious resources on this situation." In 2019, laughing at one man's problem with feral hogs, or with someone who's cracking up because of an angry protester, allows us to briefly forget about the bigger, more important issues at stake, and find temporary respite in the related, but inconsequential ones.

Beyond those evolutionary roots, finding shared humor in single events also acts as a community builder. Author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, neuroscientist Robert Provine notes, "Laughter is primarily a social vocalization that binds people together. It is a hidden language that we all speak. It is not a learned group reaction but an instinctive behavior programmed by our genes."

On Sep. 13, 2001, author, comedy coach and funny person Judy Carter started a promotional tour for her book, The Comedy Bible, in New York. Her friends told her to cancel, that nobody wanted to laugh two days after 9/11—but she went anyway. Writing for Psychology Today 16 years later, Carter explained:

"In front of 200 people at a show at the Gotham Comedy Club, we had a moment of silence and then I went into my material. There was that moment that all comics know about; the silence before the joke hits the audience. That night, the gap seemed excruciatingly long. And then, people laughed. They didn't just laugh, they erupted. It was loud and deafening as acts of rebellion usually are. It was as if the audience was saying, 'Terrorists have taken away a part of our city, our community, and our sense of security, but we will be damned if they take away our sense of humor.' ... Humor is healing."

While taking the biggest issues our country currently faces and boiling them down to their most frivolous edges can feel inappropriate—tasteless, even—it's actually (as so many Twitter users have specifically noted) giving us life. It's granting us respite from social stress; and reminding us that, in moments much bigger than our individual selves, we can find community in humor, and regain some sense of control over how we filter distressing information.

"I think this should be our new collective wave of civil disobedience," Kathy Griffin tweeted about #GreenShirtGuy. "I’m serious. Giant groups of us, at every event, our LOUD, laughing voices will be heard joyously ... #GreenShirtGuy I think you’ve given us the answer we have been looking for!"

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