Memes for Good or Evil – A Guest Post By Kate Paulk

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 (, and Global Brain ( 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:

  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Resource shifters – the members of the group (or the group dynamic) that rewards success and penalizes failure.
  5. 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 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.

63 responses to “Memes for Good or Evil – A Guest Post By Kate Paulk

  1. Conformity enforcement? Seems a little strong. People photoshop something they think their tribe will like and pass along. Lots of times the tribe shrugs, as in “I get your point, but it’s lamely made.” (That’s what I get from the Putin ones: I’m of the tribe that thinks an ounce of prevention – no reset button – would have kept the Crimea Ukrainian. The admin deserves some ridicule, but this really ain’t it.)

    Perhaps my tribalism makes me want to agree with you on the Lefty memes. “Ha, ha, Palin and her window – I’m so much smarter than her!” And the Halliburton idiot whistle – c’mon, explain Halliburton to me, Lefty.

    “Memes.” Makes me think of Dawkins. Without any evidence or research, he proposed them as life forms, jumping from brain to brain. Good fantasy, poor sci-fi, science for fools. (Sorry, Dawkins annoys.)

    Anyway, photoshop makes good things possible, I think. Would you call these things memes?

    I’ve retweeted a couple on Twitter – they’re popular. Wasn’t trying to enforce conformity, just distributing ammo. And it’s nice getting retweeted!

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Kate. I’ll bear it in mind on social media.

    • The Dawkins hypothesis is a little overblown, but the concept of the meme as an encapsulation of some amount of experience/knowledge/viewpoint transmitted through communication rather than genetically does explain why societies evolve a crapload faster than biological evolution can work. When a meme generation can be less than a week compared to the thirty-some years of a human generation, there’s a lot more room to change in a timeframe we can observe.

      In the non-scientific sense, the stuff that infests Facebook covers the full range. I’ve seen quite a few that had a definite subtext of “anyone that disagrees is stupid/evil”. For some strange reason I prefer kittens. And puppies.

      • I had to read Dawkins’s original stuff for the dissertation, shrugged, and thought, “yeah, and?” Useful or catchy ideas get passed along better than what doesn’t work or appears boring. The ideas and culture of the winners have a better chance of surviving than do those of the losers (under certain conditions). I’m not certain he added much besides a name.

  2. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    The “fun” part about “memes” is when somebody uses a meme differently than the listener expects.

    Case in point, when somebody talks about *not* forcing morality into law, I hear “religious people shut up” which is the way the Left uses it.

    So when somebody uses that “meme” intending it to be used against the Left as well, things can be a little tense. [Smile]

    • Oh, yes. That’s a fun way of overturning expectations. From my long-ago teacher education classes, one of the classic ways of forcing learning is to generate cognitive dissonance.

      Of course that also generates hostility…

      • So that is the basis of the “be troll then declare you were just trying to expand their horizons” tactic!

        (Biggest problem I run into is that the folks using that tactic on line are trying to “teach” people low quality, uncured fertilizer.)

    • My favorite is the parody of the Brady Campaign against gun violence that was made, with a woman crying, with a label something like “rape only lasts a moment, murder lasts a lifetime.”

      It was shared, approvingly, at several anti-gun facebook pages. (probably originally by a troll, but that is pure theory)

      • The “poster” was indeed fake but it was based on explicit statements by VPC / MDA activists and legislators. Including an especially offensive one by a Democrat Colorado state legislator.

        • I believe it, I just can’t believe folks looking at it, considering it, and posting it anyways.

          • Their adherents ain’t the sharpest knives in the drawer, nor the brightest bulbs on the Christmas tree.

            • In fact you generally need to use a flashlight to see if they are plugged in or not.

            • They may not even be the sharpest bulbs on the Christmas tree.

              On Mon, Apr 14, 2014 at 11:27 PM, According To Hoyt wrote:

              > SPQR commented: “Their adherents ain’t the sharpest knives in the > drawer, nor the brightest bulbs on the Christmas tree.” >

  3. One of the things about propaganda is that it’s actual effectiveness is, well, pumped up by propaganda. Propaganda is advertising and advertising can affect a person’s initial impression, but it has to be reflective of the actual facts, prejudices or beliefs to have a long term effect. (is there nothing like a Lark cigarette? Is Maxwell House good to the last drop? Is Duncan Hines a symbol of excellence? Will the five year plan bring us prosperity?)
    Oleg Atbashian said in his blog once that when he was a kid in the USSR the kids would watch the propaganda and cheer and the adults would look at it sneer. Reality always trumps propaganda, eventually. What propaganda is good for is to give an excuse to retreat or concede to apparently greater moral of physical force, and give a script to mouth to appear a good member of society, the type that doesn’t wind up behind wire. “Oh, everyone wants the new 5 year plan, my toilet doesn’t work because we all have to sacrifice” “Oh, everyone is turning in their guns, they cause crimes”.
    Now the memes I see, and this is probably weighted by the sort of people I can stand to talk to, are the slap you in the face and call you Nancy types: “I saw a movie where only the cops and the army had guns, it was called Schindler’s List”. I’m not so sure they are useful, but the are entertaining.
    Allergies, I’m rambling. I’m sure there was a point included in there somewhere.

    • Until reality jumps up and punches them in the nose, people have a remarkable ability to believe the meme without thinking about the implications. And for many, once they have been fed the same things over and over again, a whole lot can go on that contradicts what they believe, and they will steadfastly ignore it.

      I know far more people than I would like to believe, who have obvious personal beliefs on how the world should work, yet invariably spout Lefty solutions that obviously contradict their own internal beliefs when faced with some media story about some issue like School Shootings, or such.

      I have a smaller number of friends who do the same on the Right, but they are still there.

      • Exactly, Wayne. People partition beliefs and don’t reexamine them. There’s a reason doublethink is both possible and evil: humans *can* simultaneously believe contradictory things and will often get rather upset when someone shoves the contradiction in their face.

        • Cognitive dissonance is the defense mechanism most often used when someone tells a person that he holds contradictory beliefs. In this type of situation, the commonest way the person alleviates the dissonance is to attack the one who pointed out the contradictions. That’s why dialog with such folks rapidly turns to ad hominem attacks or blatant insults.

        • Before O-care went into effect, my wife and daughter and I went to a protest. We’d made signs and everything. I thought mine was pretty good, but the one we’d made for my wife seemed to get the most response.

          It said: My body, my choice. Hands OFF my healthcare.

          That was a very interesting day. > >

      • I don’t know how common it is, but those times folks have told me I’ve got a contradiction, it was actually a matter of semantics; what they heard wasn’t what I was saying.

        Then again, I don’t know if that’s more of an Odd thing, since I’ve also noticed that the folks most likely to say “I don’t think I explained it right….” have explained it just fine, they simply can’t accept that I still disagree with the lovely, convoluted plan. 😀

    • Humans have a remarkable ability to partition off their beliefs so that the propaganda-inspired ones aren’t actually touched by the cold hard fingers of reality – especially when they live in a society wealthy enough that it doesn’t have to hit them.

      The problem with the USSR propaganda isn’t the people in the USSR who believed it: it’s the people *here* who have never suffered what those who lived under the system endured. *They* believe. And haven’t yet hit times bad enough to teach them different.

  4. “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.”

    I must point out that they are also the most trouble, which explains why they are so unwelcome. The copybook headings are norms, which is why you would use them to practice your handwriting. And only a small minority of them are in fact useful for ensuring survival.

    The problem being that that small minority does indeed include the troublemakers. Entrepreneurs confess to having committed more petty crimes while young than the rest of the population.

    Life’s never simple.

    • I went into a public-‘ouse to get a pint o’ beer,
      The publican ‘e up an’ sez, “We serve no red-coats here.”
      The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fit to die,
      I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I:
      O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;
      But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play,
      The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
      O it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play.

      I went into a theatre as sober as could be,
      They gave a drunk civilian room, but ‘adn’t none for me;
      They sent me to the gallery or round the music-‘alls,
      But when it comes to fightin’, Lord! they’ll shove me in the stalls!
      For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, wait outside”;
      But it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide,
      The troopship’s on the tide, my boys, the troopship’s on the tide,
      O it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide.

      Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep
      Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap;
      An’ hustlin’ drunken soldiers when they’re goin’ large a bit
      Is five times better business than paradin’ in full kit.
      Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, ‘ow’s yer soul?”
      But it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll,
      The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
      O it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll.

      We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too,
      But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
      An’ if sometimes our conduck isn’t all your fancy paints,
      Why, single men in barricks don’t grow into plaster saints;
      While it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, fall be’ind”,
      But it’s “Please to walk in front, sir”, when there’s trouble in the wind,
      There’s trouble in the wind, my boys, there’s trouble in the wind,
      O it’s “Please to walk in front, sir”, when there’s trouble in the wind.

      You talk o’ better food for us, an’ schools, an’ fires, an’ all:
      We’ll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
      Don’t mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
      The Widow’s Uniform is not the soldier-man’s disgrace.
      For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
      But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot;
      An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;
      An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool — you bet that Tommy sees!

      • Indeed.

      • Wasn’t the bias being commented on from the time when enlisting was the male version of selling yourself on the street? (Can’t remember if it was current or not.)

        So, less a matter of trouble makers than the fruit of a really crazy situation.

      • Not much different today

        • I disagree, at least in the US. I don’t think I’ve been in a bar in uniform (outside the military towns) without someone offering to buy me a drink. Yes, there are a good number of douche-canoes out there, but they tend to be small, cowardly souls who are all about standing up to the military-industrial complex. Right until they’re actually in the presence of a member of the military who might take offense at their antics.

    • Oh, quite. Sometimes the troublemakers turn out to be necessary (times change or they find a way to be useful to the group). Sometimes they don’t. But they always make things difficult for the majority.

      (Is a proud troublemaker, in case anyone hadn’t figured it out yet)

    • I saw a post recently on a religious blog that spoke to that a little, and I think the general principles are broadly applicable. The thesis was that heretics can provide some flexibility, but that apostates were pure poison. The idea being that the irregularities of the heretics allowed for adaptation to new situations, and so the church should seek to preserve them for later “use” while not letting them change the direction of things on their own. In this framework, an heretic would be one who disagrees on some significant point or points of doctrine, but is still in general agreement with the majority and accepts the validity of the church’s authority. Apostates, on the other hand, have rejected the validity of the church, and will actively seek to tear her down.
      It’s an interesting perspective, especially for general use. (I know some religious folk who refuse to acknowledge any difference between the two types of variation. In religious context they may be right; I don’t want to get into that. See also the Libertarian Party.) Consider unimpeded individual liberty as a faith. An heretic might be someone who thinks that there should be limitations in certain specific cases (campaign finance restrictions, no guns in hospitals, speed limits) but who generally agrees that liberty is best and that we should work to preserve it. On the other hand, a fellow who wants me to sign over some of my rights in perpetuity so he can “keep me safe”, or who asserts that I’m not smart enough to make proper use of my liberty and should have experts to order me about? That man is an apostate from liberty (assuming he ever accepted it) and should take a long walk off a short pier with a heavy load.

  5. I think it was Snow Crash that had a way to use Sumerian language to rewire the human brain– I think of that book sometimes when I watch this type of propaganda and sound bites.

    • Any language would do it. Languages force certain patterns of thought and associated brain structures to develop.

      I rather suspect the average Australian brain is a bit different than the average American, because the Australian dialect of English evolved around keeping the guards/overseers from knowing what you were up to (glorified thieves cant, if you will) where the American dialect evolved around efficient and accurate communication.

      • I suspect you are right– I know intellectually about treachery (learned to speak in Canada, continued to learn American), but I am always surprised when it happens to me. Whereas I think an Aussie wouldn’t be surprised.

      • Jack Vance used this thesis in his Languages of Pao where, for example, the Soldiers Tongue might use the same root for “stranger” and “threat” while the Merchant Tongue derived “stranger” from the same root as “opportunity.”

        Language very much structures our thinking; just look at the differences in tenses of verbs in English and in Greek.

  6. It’s the nature of the dynamic tension of any system, that all of the elements Bloom identifies are necessary. As is the unfortunate reality that outliers will always be uncomfortable. I think it would be interesting to see how various individuals react to the different groups and how they prioritize them. Another exploration in “how we see the world.”

    But all that’s an aside. The key concern I have with memes is how they are used, deliberately or no, to short-circuit thought. The most insidious ones take a key rational argument in a larger thesis and narrow the scope such that the argument becomes unnecessarily binary. Now either side of the equation can undermine the larger thesis by pointing to a ridiculously simplified meme without recourse to thought. And that meme becomes an assumed shorthand for simplistic thinking with others.

    It corrupts communication. A process already rife with difficulty as the speaker assumes they’ve been clear and the listener assumes they’ve decoded accurately and the battle lines are drawn.

    To my mind, the ‘good’ memes are the most brazen tribal markers, those without subtlety or artifice. They’re over the top, perhaps snarky or mocking. And they’re narrow. They don’t purport the subliminal connections to larger political theories noted in the post. This allows for the sense of belonging to a larger, supportive community without the coercive indoctrination.

    Also, kitties. And puppies.

    • Two for one meme, it has a kitty 😉

    • Yes, all the elements are necessary, and yes, the outliers are always going to be uncomfortable.

      Using memes to short-circuit thought is pretty much memes for evil in my book. And the first step in stopping them is recognizing that they are narrowing a complex situation to a false dichotomy.

      Kitties. And puppies. Win.

  7. Funny. About 15 years ago, an internet friend and I were chatting. He said that he and his wife were in a fairly crowded restaurant, and he remarked, at a normal volume, :How can I kill thirty people and make it seem like an accident.
    He and his wife were discussing it, when they noticed that everyone around them had quit talking, and everyone within earshot was watching them.
    I don’t think they ever went back to that restaurant.

  8. I’m afraid that with a few notable exceptions, politicians and spokes-critters, when pinned down, begin squirming, twitching, and then emit sounds along the lines of “if you don’t like [thing] it’s because you are a stupid poppy-head.” Which makes ‘I can haz cheezburger?’ sound brilliant.

    • Oh, yes. Forcing them to emit these noises immediately makes whatever they’re trying to push through that much less credible.

  9. mikeweatherford

    Excellent post, Kate, thank you. The one thing most people leave out is that memes have to be believable, or a moderate portion of the population will either tune them out, or ignore them. “Global warming” and Obamacare are a couple of examples of memes that just aren’t believable enough to grab the average Joe or Jane. The failures of both are too numerous, too well-known, and too well-known in our culture to be effective. Call them failed memes, dead memes, or frauds — it all works out about the same.

    • Agreed, apart from one thing: they don’t have to catch everyone. Just enough of the more gullible folks. And if you marinate people in the things from childhood, they’ll enter that lovely collection of unexamined beliefs that everyone has about the way things work (and those are a right bitch to change)

  10. “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.”

    I believe this happens once per generation. The moderators at political debates never push back and say that the candidate dodged the question. Neither do most reporters in press pools because they’re afraid they’ll be taken off the list.

    • I developed a wonderful fondness for Brit Hume when, one evening, he listened to some sweet young thing spin an election strategy in such manner as to make her Advanced Dialectics instructor kvell and then deflated her completely by pointing out the fundamental invalid premise at the core of her rhetoric flight of fancy.

      Newt Gingrich also amply demonstrated this ability during the 2012 GOP presidential nomination campaign — evidence that such ability alone does not make a person presidential.