Thursday, September 13, 2018

Debate by Meme

There was a time, not so long ago, when we read widely, thought deeply, and debated serious issues with each other. Unfortunately, that time is past. Nowadays, instead of mustering facts upon which we can all agree and using them to determine the best course of action to resolve issues, we trade memes.

I first read about the concept of a meme in 1995 in Howard Bloom's wonderful book The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History*. The meme of which Bloom writes is not the meme we understand today, and indeed the word has two distinct meanings. In the original context, a meme is "an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation." The present-day definition with which most of us are familiar is a bit different - "a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc., that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by Internet users."

In its original meaning, a meme represents a major idea or concept that spreads among populations - a religion like Catholicism or Islam or a political belief like Communism, for instance. Such a meme spreads by taking root in the minds of a target audience and changing their beliefs or behavior.

The memes swirling around the Internet today are vastly different. They attempt to use a humorous or sarcastic image to promote a bumper-sticker of an idea that appeals to those unable or unwilling to invest the time in carefully examining the issue in detail. Here's an example of a recent meme that showed up in my Facebook feed:

This is actually a double meme. The original one, on the top, was an attempt to push back against the tendency on the part of many politicians to insist on a leading role for Christian beliefs as a basis for the government. The second one, on the bottom, modifies the first to push back against a simplistic version of progressive ideas and a bastardized definition of socialism.

Reading through the comments posted to the original posting of the meme was more interesting and enlightening than the meme itself. For one thing, it showed that many commenters did not understand the difference between the Declaration of Independence (which spoke of inalienable rights endowed to man by a Creator**) and the Constitution (which makes no mention of religion other than to guarantee its free exercise*** and to proscribe the use of any religious test for public office). For another, it revealed the shallowness of understanding that comes with relying on simplistic memes rather than study and reasoned debate to advance ideas.

Memes can be funny. They cannot substitute for thought and for debate based on facts.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow, when we name the Right-Cheek Ass Clown for September. Be here.


* I cannot urge you strongly enough to read this book.

** Not a specifically Christian god.

*** Again, the First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." It does not limit such exercise to any specific religious belief, as much as many sincere believers would have you believe.

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