Memes for Good or Evil – A Guest Post By Kate Paulk
The Husband and I often have the kinds of conversations that scare normal people. You know, the kind of thing that’s standard discussion fodder at Hoyt’s Huns. It worries the folks at the next table of the restaurant, though. We hit ethics, politics, religion, and enough hot buttons to make a grill, all without going anywhere near any of the standard pre-digested platforms we’re supposed to be following (if you asked the media).
Today it was about memes, specifically the ones that proliferate on Facebook and similar places, where there’s a picture, a snappy or snarky caption, and usually a subtext that you, the reader, is not supposed to question this thing. This conclusion the image demands you draw.
He’s right, of course. The things are being used as buckshot in the war for people’s minds. Scatter a crapload of them around, expecting that enough of the people who identify with the ’cause’ in question will forward without thinking about it, perpetuating the notion that if someone supports X they must also automatically support Y (And Z and the rest of the alphabet’s worth of whichever platform is involved). In short, a conformity enforcement tool.
A few words on the term ‘conformity enforcement’. This is one I picked up from Howard Bloom’s magnificent books, The Lucifer Principle (http://www.amazon.com/The-Lucifer-Principle-Scientific-Expedition/dp/0871136643), and Global Brain (http://www.amazon.com/Global-Brain-Evolution-Mass-Century/dp/0471419192). Both are very dense reading, but well worth the effort for a cross-discipline examination of the scientific underpinnings of evil, community, and group dynamics.
Bloom identifies five core elements of any groups, and sees them in everything from bacterial colonies to nations:
- Conformity enforcers – the members of the group that protect the group identity by ensuring that every member of it keeps common traits. This is probably the single most common element in any group
- Diversity generators – the members who innovate, who explore and differ from the norms. They’re generally an unwelcome minority until there’s a need for their difference to ensure the group’s survival. These are the members who allow the group to adapt to change.
- Inner-judges – the individuals and/or dynamics that decide the worth of something to the group, as an aspect of a group or as an individual within a group choosing not to do something that will have limited value to the group as a whole.
- Resource shifters – the members of the group (or the group dynamic) that rewards success and penalizes failure.
- Intergroup tournaments – the competitive mechanisms that provide each group with an external rival as well as forcing each group to continually adapt and adjust to circumstances. At the human social level they can be formal or informal, range from games to wars and include elections and – inevitably with the Internets – meme wars.
And that’s where the political meme thing comes into play. Each one of the damn things encapsulates some aspect of one of the competing political viewpoints. Just take a semi-random stroll through http://politicalmemes.com/ and see how much of a “this is so obvious. If you don’t agree you must be stupid/evil/crazy” subtext you can see (rather a lot). This is, in short, using memes for evil: to enforce conformity without any thought to the validity or benefits of differing views.
It’s using memes to suppress dissent and create the illusion that all proper group members believe this thing as a matter of course no matter what “this thing” might be, or how valid or otherwise the sentiment is.
Blaming the left for the memeification of dialog is a lie. The right (especially the establishment right who mostly want to be part of the power) does the same thing. Just – usually – not as effectively. It’s on the same general line as how one of the few things communists ever did well was the propaganda. They were – and still are – bloody good at finding a catchy phrase that shuts down thought and implies that their way is all there is. The other thing the bastards do well is shut down public discourse, forcing it underground so the only way people who aren’t in the middle of things know there’s a problem is when the leadership and party line changes overnight and they’re suddenly supposed to believe the opposite of whatever yesterday’s beliefs might have been.
The right still airs its dirty linen in public and still has open dissent so they look a lot less effective – but the power hungry bastards are trying to shut this down and force everyone to stick to the same line no matter what. And there are memes in plenty that are nudging people along that path.
My facebook list covers the entire political spectrum, with everything in the left-right range as well as the “oh hell no, I don’t want to see politics” through “politics is my lifeblood” range and quite a few other oddities as well. I see bad memes from both sides. I see hilariously miscued memes (I share these and mock). I see a few good ones (particularly the ones that are thought-provoking and a bit on the unusual side). And of course, a whole lot of cute kitty ones because who doesn’t like cute kitties? (If you don’t, kindly don’t tell me. The three cute kitties that generously permit me to share their house might get upset).
With the political memes, I’ve started trying to use them for good. To share them with a snarky (usually) comment that I hope will prompt a few people to think. To look past the obvious and see the implications behind. It won’t sway the true believers (on either side) but those who agree with part of a party line may see that there’s more out there and it’s not necessary (or desirable, but that’s another story) to follow the whole thing because you agree with part of it.
Unlike the curate’s egg, it’s possible for a political platform to be genuinely good in parts. It’s even possible for a person to agree with some things and think others are the worst idea to ever go wandering around unsupervised. I certainly do… my personal position is somewhere in that no-man’s-land where “I believe” is not necessarily a precursor to “the Government should” and where there is room for debate on the best way to do things as long as it’s real debate not just endlessly restating the same things.
What I wouldn’t give for a talking head who’d listen to all the nonsense a politician spouts then say, “Thank you. Now would you please answer the question?” That would be a meme for good.