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 If the watchword/phrase for the 1960s was “Question authority” maybe the watch phrase for 2010s & social media ought to be “Question meme.” Because every single one of us – yes, YOU too – really, really should.

I wrote the above at the beginning of September and after it came a really fascinating conversation with my high school English & Theory of Knowledge teacher, Mr Ted Kopacki. I soon realized I wanted to put the conversation up here…so that it took me until now to get to it tells you something about how quickly I move on my ideas. Anyhow, it was a really interesting exchange for me, hopefully someone out there finds it intriguing too.

(I’m always up for more education and interesting conversations, so feel free to leave any thoughts in the comments. If I did make any mistakes, please keep it civil.)

So, then the comments below my original post:

Me: Question 1. What is a meme?

Me: Hint: it’s not a pic with with clever text over it. That’s an image macro.

Kopacki: I read it and I still don’t have a clear idea of what it is.

[Mr Kopacki meant the Wikipedia article, presumably on image macros.]

Me: I’m not sure if you read the article on meme. I describe it as a cultural virus, bits of ideas that are transferred among people in the same social sphere that carry a linguistic currency on their own. For example, “mainstream media” or the idea that President Obama is a secret Muslim or (I know this goes back a few decades) the impression that Asian cars were worthless. It’s not exactly the idea in and of itself, but the context behind the idea that is spread.

Me: It’s a structure that lets ideas get used like a linguistic mechanism, but the meaning is only mutually understood when we have the same social insights. IE kids today who are used to the Honda Prius and other very fine cars might not know that in 1970s and 80s Hondas were considered lemons or just low value vehicles. In fact “Honda” was often invoked as a joke for something that was low class…

Kopacki:  I read the one you posted “Image Macro.” Then there was a link to “internet meme,” which gave no examples. Your definition, probably accurate, is very, very broad. Religious notions could be memes?

Kopacki: By what you just said, memes are nothing more than how language is used, period. People have meanings for words, conditioned by the social groups they are in.

Me: The concept of meme is pretty broad with applications in psychology, sociology, religion and beyond. Right now I’m referring to the explicit phrases people use, most typically via social media. And I’m bringing it up because overwhelmingly people *don’t* stop to take a good look at them.

Me: I differentiate from specifically linguistic structures because for once I don’t mean idioms or proverbs.

Me: Memes that drive me nuts: A narrative is a falsehood (ie true or factual accounts are not narratives). Any “us vs them” that doesn’t carefully consider how the “us” contributes to the “vs.” Only a person whose virtue and integrity are wholly and completely beyond reproach may ever offer criticism. Etc.

These aren’t easily boiled down to catchphrases and slogans, but catchphrases and slogans come out of these memes.

Kopacki: Sorry not to respond earlier, Flor, but I was out. I have been aware of the term “meme” for a while now, without really knowing what it referred to. I have to say that I STILL am not clear on the concept, even after reading the Wikipedia article on “meme,” and some other things as well. So far it seems to me a term invented by Richard Dawkins (?), that has no usefulness, as far as I can tell thus far.

Me: Do you mean the term “meme” has no usefulness? I can’t really talk about a concept and its attendant schema which has already spread through our society due to slogans and images if I don’t have a word for the phenomenon. (Also, most people I’m likely to talk to have some grasp of the word, even if their definition is somewhat erroneous. It would do a lot of damage to any possible conversation to remove the word.)

Me: As far as I can tell Dawkins coined the term not just for identifying culturally-relevant concepts, but specifically invoking their transmission as a facet of a meme’s existence.

Me: An Internet meme, often making use of an image, by
itself is an image macro. But when the macro spreads and is modified, the image appropriated for a different meaning but invoking the original, the second stage simulacrum transmits the meme. It’s not the same idea being spread, it has evolved. I find it useful to call the system that tracks the original with its simulacra a “meme.”

For example “Keep Calm and Carry On” was once British war propaganda, that supposedly never saw the light of day in its time.

Me: More recently that slogan was rediscovered and you may have seen posts that play with the theme, adapting it “Keep Calm and Carry a Towel” “Keep Calm and Drink Tea” etc. And some folks have changed it completely, for example the image below It’s easy to see the original graphic so the reference is easy to catch – and without the reference the text would likely make very little sense. The entire phenomenon is typically referred to as meme.

Me: Internet memes are rather blatant (and simple) so it’s easiest to point them out. It’s a lot harder to isolate and talk about, for example, making the sign of the cross before eating. People take that action for a huge variety of reasons, some to show gratitude for the food, some as a charm against poisoning, some because it’s just an ingrained habit, some simply to let it be known to other people that they’re the sort of person who makes the sign of the cross before eating. It may invoke religiosity but it can also invoke certain practices that may allude to cultural background, family or even education.

(Totally tangential I’ve been trying like crazy to think up cultural memes that aren’t religious or politically contentious, but it turns out it’s hard to find any that can be handled without surrounding social codes. For example, etiquette is a kind of meme but so strongly linked to behavioral codes it’s difficult to extricate one example.)

Kopacki:  I think I understand the concept of internet memes, usually, if not always, associated with some image that spreads throughout the culture and becomes very well known and recognized as such. It’s a visual invention sometimes with words. Or perhaps it’s a take-off on a previous image, such as the British one you cited above. But I would wonder what it adds to the conversation to call the sign of the cross before meals a meme? If any behavior could be called a meme, it might be the gesture of some athletes kneeling down on one knee bowing their heads and pointing heavenward, made famous by Tim Tebow. Furthermore, to call some PHRASE or EXPRESSION a meme instead of just a cliche or epithet or sobriquet or tag line or such, is beyond my understanding. Why do it? What does it add to the conversation? BTW in the late 1990’s, the buzzword for an image that acquires such cultural currency was “icon.”

Me: To me it seems like a convenient term to associate all the actions and cliches and visual references as following the same pattern of cultural currency and evolution. Making the sign before a meal, taking a knee before a game, even flashing the peace sign are all memes – they aren’t merely about the person sending a message to one recipient, but performing a greater cultural expression, even if it’s to satirize the original.

If we’re speaking in sociological or anthropological terms it helps have a term that puts all such motions or phrases or references in the same light. So regardless of the great variety of artistic expression when it comes to the Cross of Golgotha, we always recognize the reference. That makes it meme. In a completely different cultural place, always having your socks matching is meme – even when socks blatantly don’t match, the mismatch brings to mind the meme of matching socks. Or when looking at foreign cultures seeing things like sweeping rooftops and dragon coils at the corners. The tradition of bowing or of grasping (right) hands or forearms. These are memes.

Me: Meme, then, is a superset of traditions and habits, aphorisms, idioms, etiquette and concepts. It’s become a term in general use quite without my doing anything about it, so if I want address the structure of a concept getting passed around and modified as it is passed I have to use it.

Given where I started with my original post, Dr Leary wasn’t advising people to question specifically their college professors, nor did he say question the word of priests and pastors, nor did he want a direct challenge to the leadership of government officials – he wanted people to directly question the authority those figures assumed as a feature of their office. I’d like it if we took the same approach to investigating and questioning the assumptions we run on that have their manifestation in our little daily, interpersonal rituals. The actions we perform, our word choices, the image macros (or icons) that we choose to share, etc. They come from somewhere. The structure of that _coming from_ is meme. We should be aware of it.

Kopacki: As a person still inquiring into the meaning and significance of this word, may I ask you to permit me to play devil’s advocate a bit? You say, “Meme, then, is a superset of traditions … etc.” In other words, it’s virtually everything and anything people do ritualistically, anything they say or create that has any social currency. If it’s virtually everything and means everything in general, then it’s virtually nothing in particular. Everything that has social currency is meme. I fail to find that useful. It’s just too amorphous. “We should examine our memes” means we should examine our pronouncements, our rituals, our prejudices, our behaviors our culturally received ideas, just about everything. Fine. Now what? I can do that without calling it meme. I know you have to deal with that word and its implications professionally. But I still fail to see the point, except adding another layer of bullshit to the process. I need to be convinced as to the merits of using this term so all-encompassingly, or at all. I can see how images and some ritual behaviors develop into so-called memes, like the ones propagated on the internet. But a superset of just about everything? I don’t know. What am I missing here?

Kopacki: To use your previous example of “mainstream media” or we could use “black lives matter.” What is the difference between “Let’s examine the assumptions underlying the PHRASE, TERM, or EXPRESSION “mainstream media” or “black lives matter,” and “Let’s examine the assumptions underlying the MEME “mainstream media” or “black lives matter”? How does calling either of these a meme help make the discussion any better?

Me: The phrase “devil’s advocate” invokes a reaction in me somewhat like hearing nails scrape down a chalkboard. All too frequently the person advocating for the devil is either intentionally trying to annoy me or simply determined to get in the last word regardless of having no further valuable points to make. That’s what I have to say on playing devil’s advocate.

*However* pointing out what might be a contradiction or a gap in reasoning has some value to it. Bringing it up doesn’t need to be couched as playing at anything, but very simply continuing the conversation. I value your insights, Mr Kopacki, so I’ll consider the point you make versus what I might be failing to say.

It might be worth looking at what a meme is not. Meme is not exactly “everything” we do. The things that we do that are not due to memes are actions that, for example, come from autonomic systems (eg breathing) and biology that might predate culture (eg walking upright). It makes sense to me that an evolutionary biologist like Dawkins needs to be able to distinguish between factors that create the presentation of a human – factors, for example, that came from external demands such as acquiring enough food to survive for another day, perceptions of sights, sounds and smells and possibly the rise of pattern recognition, versus such factors that come from cultural transmission such as regard for humans outside of the tribe, functional concepts like a house and abstractions like leadership or justice.

Being able to determine whether we see a shade of blue due to the length of photoreceptors in the retina or due to cultural perception seems like it would be valuable. Discerning what we need to do because our biology demands it versus what we need to do because our society demands it seems valuable to me. Furthermore, investigating what feels like native thought and how much of it is informed by our society.

I could have written at the top “Question idioms, common terms, rituals, and any other concepts with contemporary cultural resonance” but then it wouldn’t have been quite so pithy, and I would have mangled Leary’s meme.

Me: Phrases like “mainstream media” need to be investigated as memes precisely because the phrase means different things to different people. When someone says it the schema behind the choice of words is very important. Do they mean cable news channels? Do they only mean CNN and not Al Jazeera? Do they include NPR or the New York Times? What about the Huffington Post?

I fold phrases into memes when there seems to be more to the concept than what the words alone invoke. Someone on Fox News complaining about the mainstream media seems to be complaining about a particular outlook journalists embrace in the pursuit of their profession. In other words, one model of journalism versus another. However, someone on Reddit or Twitter (typically a person without very much clout) may mean any media which confers validation on a point of view by the very act of broadcasting or publishing it. In other words, new media versus old. Then again, someone on Vice News might be referring to media concerned with “news” held within a dated status quo to the point of failing to report on matters relevant to anyone who might challenge the status quo. In other words, a generational divide and a preference for a particular area of concern.

Questioning the meme here would mean I would have to know what *I* mean by the term “mainstream media” and make no assumptions that anyone I speak with will instantly know what I mean. The superset, I think, is us vs them. But which us and which them isn’t necessarily clear. Therefore I ask that people make a good faith effort to clarify it at least for themselves.

“Black lives matter” is very interesting to me because of the “all lives matter” response. It feels like the response is another iteration of the meme, but in fact it isn’t. It’s a simulacra that plays on the phrase but resets the concern invoked. “Black lives matter” is a phrase that calls for justice, while “all lives matter” is a phrase that calls for equality.

The contemporary term for resetting the concern of a particular movement is “gaslighting.” Responding to an idiomatic phrase like “black lives matter” with “all lives matter” basically tells the person who used the “black lives” phrase that they are being selective with their concerns and should employ more equality in their thinking. It pushes a person off the ground they were staking when making a point in the interest of justice. 

Whether we look at the “black lives matter” argument as justice versus equality or as a comment on the feeling that black lives have not been mattering as much as they should versus an attempt at gaslighting that feeling, the black lives matter meme is one that comes up every time we react to evidence of dismissive or even oppressive treatment of black people in the U.S. (or react to the citation of same, for those on the “all lives matter” side). Knowing which we mean by the phrase “black lives matter’ clarifies which meme we’re working with. The meme of justice? The meme of oppression? The meme of gaslighting?

Me:  In the end if you feel you can get by without using a word, that’s fine. No one is requiring it of you. But I feel like I have to invoke it to tackle the subjects I have in mind.

Kopacki:  I hope you don’t think that I have been trying to one-up you, Flor, or debate with you. Actually, what I have been doing is using you as a sounding board. I have been aware of the word “meme” for a while without having any clear idea what it means to people who use it, casually and academically. Of course, what I like to do when I want to know is to inquire. I will look it up. And I did, but I still did not have much of a picture yet. When presented with meanings from Wikipedia, from you, from a U-Tube video, I went into question mode. The questions or provisos that I put to you are those that I put to myself. But I’d rather bounce them off someone else and conduct a dialogue. After all this process, I know a lot more about how “meme” is used and what people consider it to mean. So I thank you for the conversation. I still have some questions in my mind and some gaps. But that’s ok. I have made an opening into the word, and I have a little more confidence about using it if I choose to.

Me: Oh no – I don’t think it’s any kind of real argument. I believe you want to understand the subject. And I want to make sure I’m not being sloppy in my reasoning. I just have an instant reaction to the phrase devil’s advocate. I explained to another friend that it’s a tricky thing in this instance because for once it’s being used correctly in a conversation!

And that’s it for the exchange!  I love conversations like that!