Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Power of Memes

Many Americans and others around the world are trying to make sense of the killing of six people and wounding of twelve people in Arizona yesterday. We continue to think about and pray for all the victims and their families, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords. The tie to this blog, of course, is the fact that her support for passage of the recent health care reform legislation may be related to recent events. I have been thinking about why health care reform is such a sensitive issue and has such power to shape political and social divides in our nation.

A meme is an idea that seems to have a will to proliferate itself and to survive. We do not often think of ideas as having a will. But it can be insightful to consider them that way. Successful religions can be thought of as systems of memes that have evolved over time and that are especially good at reproduction and defense. For example, "go forth and multiply" is a meme and an important part of a meme system because a person's children are likely to carry the same memes as the parents.

Political ideologies are also meme systems. The virtue of gun ownership, for example, has apparently become a political meme important enough to be a criterion for the selection of president of the Republican National Committee. To the encouragement of the audience the candidates for the position recently either lamented their having an inadequate few guns or boasted of the number and fire-power of their personal collections of guns. The "gun ownership" meme is apparently thriving in at least one sector of American political ideology.

I am reaching here to try to understand why health care reform is such a hot-button issue in America today. Obviously, it is important because we realize the importance of medical care in our lives and we fear for the loss of access to costly resources. But, there is more to it than that. I believe that health care debates are intense in a democratic society because they involve the clashing of powerful meme systems.

This is like chemistry. I remember from childhood experiments that the mixing of the content of two containers can have very dramatic results. Memes and systms of memes have powerful survival instincts and when threatened defend themselves at all costs. I don't know exactly what the "powers and principalities" phrase in the Bible refers to, but memes, while hosted in "flesh and blood" are more than flesh or blood. It is the idea that you can kill a person but you cannot kill an idea. Responsible people who would become our leaders need to be very careful in the use of words and images. It is not just because there are some mentally unstable people out there. It is because memes can be like dangerous biological viruses. Substantial numbers of people cannot deal with complex reasoning and take what may be intended figuratively as literal.

The Internet is the ultimate meme machine. It puts democracy on steroids, for better or for worse. The "market place of ideas" argument is that in a free-for-all among all kinds of ideas the reasonable, rational ones will win. Not necessarily. The memes and meme systems most carefully designed for replication and survival will win. From the perspective of a meme, we are only hosts. Meme systems are complex and adaptive and exist in a common ecology of thought-space. I am concerned by what is happening in the thought-spaces of humanity and I see evidences of "bad chemistry" in many events including the shootings in Arizona yesterday. Public policies are shaped by competions among ideas and the formulation of public policies exert pressures upon highly defensive meme systems. Our leaders (and all of us) need to be careful in our use of words and images.

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