What can make smart people do dumb things in total confidence they are acting correctly? What can make people obey laws written when Roman armies marched and messengers were the closest communication system to the internet? The answer is: memes. Doesn’t that make memes perhaps the most powerful single element of human culture?
Are memes another way of saying “brainwashing“? While their are fundamental similarities in that both memes and brainwashing involve changing the way a person thinks and acts, brainwashing generally describes a specifically-imposed process focused on fostering a specific belief or behavior. Both make a person think in ways contrary to their normal tendencies, and often in ways that go against their best interests, but a meme becomes embedded in a person’s world view in a way that is less obtrusive and far more tenacious. A meme changes a person’s views (and their normal tendencies) in such a way that they believe without thinking that their behavior is in their own (or their family’s, or society’s) best interest. In this way, a meme that requires “honor killing” of a female family member for some social transgression may be more powerful than the love of family, and voting for a corrupt politician because they ascribe to a poorly defined concept like “family values” could be viewed as justified. We assume without thinking that we know what the term means, while they may see it simply as a “hot button” phrase that will secure votes. Views produced by brainwashing have been shown to have short lifespans, especially after the subject is no longer being brainwashed, probably because they do not “sink in” as do the concepts that form a meme.
Memes can have a powerful and comprehensive grip on an individual or a society. Observe how countries and religious groups have been driven by their beliefs, often beliefs based on no tangible proof or evidence, to build armies, make wars, and imprison, torture, maim, and kill huge numbers of people. Consider how the meme that says government functions as “Big Brother” and has a primary interest in subjugating its citizens has affected American political life in the early 21st century, even though this is contradicted by the fact that there are not enough people in government to do this, as well as a meme that says the government is highly inefficient and incompetent in most things – a meme usually held by these same people. Memes are clearly capable of sustaining contradictory beliefs and unreasonable and unjustifiable actions in an individual or group, and of coexisting even when the memes contradict each other.
Memes confuse and muddle the discussion and resolution of human issues. While it might seem clear that specific and relatively well-defined challenges face humanity, the discussion and mitigation of such issues is frequently blocked by people based on the memes they carry. The power of some memes and groups of complimentary memes has extended over millenia and still blocks progress and constructive means to address our issues today. That is unlikely to change soon, I’m sorry to say.
Awareness of memes is the first step towards their management. Most people are completely unaware of memes and their effects, and don’t recognize when they are making a decision based on unproven or unjustifiable information. Without the critical thinking required to evaluate and understand our decisions, and the self-examination necessary to clear our minds of knowledge that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, we are liable to be driven almost entirely by our memes, whether they make sense or not. This appears to be the state of being of most people. Once one is aware of memes, though, and can begin to separate them from other types of knowledge, one can start to behave in a more thoughtful and considered way, and can learn to avoid the mistakes and manipulation one can suffer under the umbrella of commonly accepted memes.
Think about memes, and work to identify and understand them. Memes are such a powerful force in human society, and so frequently work to hold back progress against critical issues affecting society and the world, that we need everyone possible to be aware of them and understand their impact. People generally all want to do the right thing, but they require sound knowledge to do that, and memes frequently skew or confound that knowledge, often with tradition and dogma. It is up to us to not only understand the difference, but to encourage this in our society and in our descendants. Through a better understanding of memes we can learn to make better decisions and ensure humanity and the planet a better future, as well as making our own lives better and more effective.
As always, I welcome your comments. — Tim
Other interesting reading:
Mind Control, wikipedia.org