Meme Wars: Planting Seeds of a New Consciousness
In the last essay I discussed the concept of the “meme” – an idea or behavior which is spread from person to person within society. Using the definition of this term that proceeds most directly from Richard Dawkins’ book “The Selfish Gene”, a meme expresses a particular attitude, response, behaviour or take on daily living. A meme that is sufficiently useful or successful will be passed from one human to another. In time, memes can spread to an entire culture, and influence the behavior of millions. For example, the memes “Remember the Alamo” and “Deus le Volt” proved so powerful that they launched wars and reshaped the political and social structure of entire continents, while older and more established memes such as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” have become the bedrock of human relationships lasting over the course of centuries.
As we can see from examples such as the “Hundredth Monkey” effect or the way that crows learn new tricks to get at garbage, memes are by no means something limited to human behavior. On the contrary, they seem to prevail throughout the animal kingdom. It is even possible that some of the “mysterious” behaviours that biology has struggled to explain mechanistically – things like bird migration, the return of salmon to the streams where they were born, or the way that predator fish will tolerate certain small fish that feed on parasites, even allowing them to swim in and out of their mouth, without making a meal of the smaller fish – can be explained more successfully by addressing these as memes.
Since memes clearly exert a powerful influence over human behavior, we should spend a little bit of time examining them from the “Reverse Engineering” perspective, in order to identify exactly what they are and how they work. One thing that should be immediately clear is that memes are closely associated with Thinking, in the sense that we defined back in the earlier discussion of how the human Soul operates. When faced with a question or option that needs to be resolved, the mind sorts through the memes that if finds most readily available and tries to find one that fits – hopefully one that can assist in decision-making, or suggest some appropriate behavior.
Imagine, for example, that an acquaintance posts a message on social media challenging something that you posted, and suggesting that your ideas are silly. Your mind (= Soul) looks through its collection of memes for hints on how to react. Should we listen to “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, and post something critical or hurtful in response? Or does it make more sense to pull out the old “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything” meme? Perhaps we should also consider “better to be silent and be thought a fool . . .” and “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”
The more closely we examine how Thinking works, the more apparent it is that memes are something more than just guests at the cogitation party. They influence virtually everything that we say and do. Feeling hungry? We could “Have a Kit-kat break” or perhaps “a Coke and a smile.” We could order some fried chicken that is “Finger-licking good”. . . we could “have it your way” . . . But maybe its best not to pull out the potato chips because “Once you pop, you cant stop.” To a considerable extent, Thinking is just a way of retrieving, testing, evaluating and selecting from among all the memes you have ever encountered in your life.
But as we have already discussed, memes have a separate existence. They may interact with Thinking, but they do not respect the boundaries of individual minds. Rather, they exist in the vast ocean of Consciousness, and behave like separate living creatures that make their way about from Soul to Soul, looking for ones that are receptive to their message and inclined to help the meme propagate. As noted in my last essay, Dawkins originally developed the idea of the meme as a Consciousness-based counterpart to genes – little bits of information that can be transmitted from one Consciousness to another in order to propagate themselves. But as you examine their behavior closely it becomes apparent that memes most closely resemble viruses. They infect a host, replicate through the medium of verbal (or written) communication, and over time they grow steadily more powerful in their ability to affect behavior.
Once a host is infected, the meme burrows its way into the thought patterns so deeply that it is eventually incorporated into the living tissues of Thinking, and may even be viewed as a part of the Self. When you openly challenge a meme that is deeply embedded in someone’s Thinking, they may respond with intense anger and frustration. They have come to view that particular meme as a fundamental part of their own Self. Threaten the meme, and you threaten the person's sense of self-worth.
If we view the meme as a Consciousness-based virus, it should be apparent that the most common, widespread memes will be those with survival value – if not for their host, then at least for their own survival. Memes that are good at jumping from host to host (such as a catchy song lyric or a pithy tagline) can spread quickly. But if they fail to help the host make effective decisions, or if the behaviours they promote are self-destructive, they will eventually be rejected or replaced with other, more “productive” memes.
Incidentally, the “catchiness” (or to use biological terms, the “virility”) of graphic or musical memes was obvious centuries before Dawkins ever coined the term. Art and music have always been a powerful way to spread memes – that is to say, influence people. From FDR’s use of the song “Happy Days are Here Again” to Bill Clinton’s adoption of “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow”, politicians have turned to popular, already-entrenched memes as a way of giving life to their own pet memes (= “vote for me”). That is one reason why I often use lyrics from pop songs in my essays – if there is already a successful meme out there to express the things I want to say, I can probably infect a lot more readers by using the established meme than by making up a new one. Those who understand the power of memes have been employing art and music for as long as our history can remember. John Lennon was an example of someone who clearly recognized the power of the musical meme, and he set out deliberately to infect people of his generation. He even discussed the blueprint for his activities in the song “Mind Games.”
We’re playing those mind games together
Pushing the barriers, planting seeds
Playing like mind guerillas
Chanting the mantra “peace on earth”
We keep playing those mind games forever
Projecting our images in space and in time
Millions of mind guerillas
Putting their soul power to the karmic wheel . . .
This illustrates another characteristic of memes: there are a multitude of them already floating around, propagating and evolving to become more successful, but they can also be created artificially, and deliberately, by those who want to influence the behaviour of other humans. Religions – those institutions that have shaped behavior throughout human history – all employ a set of memes that were specifically engineered to be highly contagious. Jesus of Nazareth built up an armory of memes that he called “parables” to use in his assault on the first-century Jewish mind, and his disciples edited/tailored those memes in an effort to accelerate their spread.
Similarly, in the Muslim (particularly Sufi) tradition there is a compendium of parable-like stories involving a character called “Nasruddin”, which illustrate important principles of Islam/Islamic society. Hinduism and Buddhism also have extensive archives of legend, parable and poetry which perform the same function. In fact, one could argue that all “religious books” and most myths, legends or cultural traditions are meme compendiums, in some form or other, aimed at infecting receptive minds with norms and patterns of behavior.
The problem is that ANYONE can create a meme, and as the materialistic depredations of Madison Avenue illustrate, they are not always intended to be beneficial to their host. For every “We shall overcome” or “All men are created equal” meme, which benefits individuals and society alike, there are dozens of memes that create division and destruction, promoting everything from racial hatred to nationalist fervor to suicidal angst. Even in centuries past, these destructive memes had the power to do great damage to the entire planet (consider, for example, the memes of “Master Race”, and “Deutschland Uber Alles”). But as Dawkins himself has noted, the age of the Internet has exponentially expanded the potential for problems:
In the past, I would’ve been tempted to say that although everybody has a megaphone, most of them are too weak to reach very far. But today (in the era of the Internet), no matter how ridiculous what you’re saying is, if you can package it into a successful meme you can get something really bad to spread through the culture.”
That is where we stand, today: In a world where the catchiness and quotability of a meme often outweighs its value as a model of “reality” or a benchmark for “successful” behaviour. Not only have a great many destructive or divisive memes been invented or revived and kindled into a bonfire over the past decade or two; perhaps more importantly, the old and tested memes we relied upon in times past have become so neglected that they are gradually losing the power of persuasion.
Take something as simple as “truth” (small “t”, meaning the opposite of a lie). For as long as humans have had civilization, the meme of truthfulness has been a near-universal and central one. It makes sense from any number of purely social and biological perspectives that telling the truth to members of your group is “good” and telling lies is “bad”. Not only does it make for better communications, and thus group success in everything from the hunt to proper seeding and watering of village fields; it also helps to ensure harmonious social relationships, builds trust, and encourages each group member to act in the group's best interest.
Of course, human nature being what it is, people have always been inclined to lie on occasion, whether to avoid embarrassment, to sidestep potential conflict, to make oneself popular, or to gain some other selfish benefit. The important point is that the meme “I cannot tell a lie, father, it was me,” has always been the norm, whereas the meme “those may be your facts, but the president has ... alternative facts” was rare, and those infected by it would find themselves gradually shunned by the rest of society.
If you don’t believe that the “truth” meme is in trouble, nowadays, you must not be paying attention. Oh to be sure, politics has always attracted more than it’s quota of liars. And the decline in respect for the truth has been ongoing for decades, if not centuries. But until recently, few if any people dared to challenge the underlying meme that telling the truth is “good” and telling lies is “bad”. While some readers might prefer to think Donald Trump is the first to brazenly repeat lies after they have already been exposed as lies, in fact the behavior is nothing new (albeit the number of such people is clearly rising). What HAS changed is the response you see from the average person in the street. Not only are many inclined to shrug it off with the meme “all politicians lie,” but there are actually large segments of the population who embrace the lie EVEN WHEN THEY KNOW IT TO BE A LIE.
Yes, the truth meme is in trouble; but that has very little to do with Donald Trump. It has to do with the attitudes of every single one of us humans. People are prepared to accept liars -- and lying -- as unfortunate but unavoidable facts of life. This is not normal. Or at least, it never WAS normal in years past, and it still isn’t the norm in places with small, tightly-knit communities. But it has become increasingly prevalent in “industrialized” economies worldwide. Trump is just the most visible American example of someone who views truth as an inconvenience, but from Britain to Bangladesh, Tijuana to Tokyo, you can find powerful people who will praise the passing of the truth meme. It is an inconvenience to them. They feel increasingly bold about just ignoring it or pretending that the truth is in the eye of the teller.
And the largest portion of the blame for this situation lies with every one of us who went along with the trend. Someone (I think it was Machiavelli) once said: “The conditions of life that rulers permit their people are exactly the limit of what the people are prepared to tolerate.” As a society, we simply have not been watering and caring for the truth meme with any real diligence. When I was growing up there was still a lot of “buzz” surrounding the truth meme. It popped up in all sorts of places, from Leave it to Beaver and Gilligan’s Island to the history stories we were told in school about Washington and the cherry tree. Looking at literature over the ages, it should be apparent that pre-television media (including folklore) also stoked the truth meme.
Today’s movies, TV dramas, YouTube videos and the like seem to show far less interest in people who tell the truth. There was even a movie (Jim Carrey’s Liar Liar) which milked the comedic possibilities for how inconvenient it would be if you had to tell the truth all the time! Of course, the movie was hilarious. But part of the hilarity must have reflected the discomfort viewers felt as Carrey illustrated just how inconvenient truth has become, in our modern world
My point is NOT that we have become a cynical society (I mean . . . of COURSE we have! What did you expect? (^c,~). My point is that in our modern world, truth has dropped completely out of the discussion. Nobody even mentions it any more. See for yourself! Go google the words: “famous people who told the truth”. The first result is a list of people who fall into the category of “conspiracy theorists” (some perhaps unjustly… just sayin’); the second result is a general list of courageous people throughout history (some of whom… presumably… told the truth).
The next eight results (the next eleven, actually, but that includes the remaining eight on the first page) all deal with people who are famous LIARS! Even when you search the Internet for someone who tells the truth, all you can find is liars.
Of course, as any partially conscious person has figured out by now, the truth meme is just the tip of the iceberg. It seems that the entire world is experiencing a nervous breakdown, losing touch with all the guideposts that we used to use in conjunction with our moral compass. Nearly all the tried-and-trusted memes that held society together -- democracy, equality, civil disobedience, freedom, the "loyal opposition", international law, diplomacy, etc. etc. etc. -- all of these memes are under threat. And you can't just blame it all on Russian hackers.
I'm just profoundly frustrated by all this. So. . . . . Yeah, yeah, yeah, ignoreland.
We can blame the “other side” of a political or social divide for all the friction and unpleasantness... but as Stipe said: if they wasn't there we would have created them. Maybe, it's true, but I'm resentful all the same. Someone's got to take the blame
There is only one proven way to fight against “bad” memes. And that is to start cultivating “good” memes. It is a pretty straightforward proposition, and we have very specific instructions on how the process works. The "underlying meaning" of the parable about the sower and the seed would have been obvious even if Jesus had not clarified to Mark that the seed was “the Word of God”. Memes. Powerful ideas. “Words” which inhabit the ocean of Consciousness that shapes our world.
“Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow.
And it happened that some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds of the air came and devoured it.
Some fell on stony ground, where it did not have much earth. It sprang up but when the sun rose it was scorched, and because it had no root it withered away.
And some seed fell among thorns; and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no crop.
But other seed fell on good ground and yielded a crop that sprang up, increased and produced:
Some thirtyfold, some sixtyfold, and some a hundredfold. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”
. . . . .
There are plenty of people out there who see where our planet is headed and want to DO SOMETHING. But it seems to me that the approach most are adopting will just intensify the divisions and fault lines that have fragmented our society. Tera-gigabytes of data have been accumulated and interstellar expanses of bandwidth expended in order to debate, argue and rant about the issues that divide us, but how much effort has been invested in bridges or relationships? That is where our meme war must begin.
The simple truth that we ALL need to embrace is that the very future of human civilization depends on what humans do over the next century (assuming we can last THAT long). Doomsday predictions are SO passé nowadays. People keep making them; society keeps adjusting. But the science tells me that this time around, it isn’t just some disaster movie trope. Perhaps humanity will adjust, and manage to muddle through the 21st century. But if it does, that will only be because we figure out a way to get along and work together. If we continue squabbling within our various little tribes as the conflagration rages towards us, it will be proof that human intelligence really is an oxymoron.
We are ALL in it together, folks. And unless we can build friendships . . . well, at least polite and functional relationships with every other person on the boat, then we all deserve to go down with the ship.
If you saw it from a satellite
With its green and its blue and white
The beauty of the curve of the earth
And its oceans below
You might think it was paradise
If you didn't know . . .
You might think that it's turning
But it's turning so slow
How long can you hear someone crying
How long can you hear someone dying
Before you ask yourself why?
And how long will it be 'till we've turned
To the tasks and the skills
That we'll have to have learned
If we're going to find our place in the future
And have something to offer
Where this planet's concerned