Meme Mischief

Such 'thought-blockers' can be surprisingly hard to resist


Pop Culture

Make way for the memes! How many have you seen today? In an election season, they’re more plentiful than autumn leaves. Just what are they and where are they from? Are they friend or foe?

Broadly considered, a meme is an idea or behavior that is widely imitated; it spreads through one group after another. It’s often symbolic. Memes readily nest, and often infest, the internet.

The biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term meme. He presents the meme as transmitting “a unit of cultural transmission” by way of imitation. Note the biology and culture connection. “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body,” wrote Dawkins, “so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain.” As bodies transmit a virus, so people transmit memes. Not very creative, right?

But before Dawkins’s memetic theory, there was Plato’s theory of mimesis! Compare the case of the humble chair and the inspired poet.

First comes the form of the chair; then comes the carver’s idea of it. Last comes the object on which we sit. The form remains. Over time different carvers differently incorporate it. Chairs come and go. There’s artistry when the carver’s soul transmits the eternal form.

Turn now to the case of the poet. How different it is, if only because poets are not so humble as chairs. Poets, moreover, rely on rhetoric rather than truth telling. So it is that poetic fancy comes to displace truth seeking. Philosophers beware!

What lesson might we draw from Plato’s contrasting cases? The enduring lesson, I think, is that we need to think long and hard about how both our concepts and their embodiments come about. We need to ask ourselves how we are to evaluate them.

It’s a lesson we can and should apply to memes, especially today’s omnipresent internet memes. I suggest that applying this lesson will highlight three worrying tendencies.

The first is that memes tend to be “thought-blockers.” Neither a MAGA hat (plus slogan) meme nor a raised fist (plus slogan) meme are conversation starters. But they’re great conversation stoppers. And both encourage meme warfare.

The second is that memes can be surprisingly hard to resist. They are digitalized eye and brain candy. Or political popcorn. “Why am I even looking at this?” Good question, as we stare at one and yet another. Leave the clickbait for fish.

A third is that we ourselves encourage meme manufacturing when…they support our own views. My friends in the American Solidarity Party actually have some pretty decent memes. Still, I promote position papers, not memes. So, what about Catholic memes? Again, there are some clever ones. But a few, a very few suffice.

I’m not an anti-meme abolitionist. Nor do I reject an occasional Lady Godiva chocolate. Golly, I once stopped at Starbucks. And there’s a place for tattoos. But consider these concessions, taken together, to amount to the faintest of praise.

In any case, a society that lives by its memes will get plenty sick from them, whimpering all the while.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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