In Good Faith – Memes Never Were Objective

I have a kinda love-hate relationship with memes and often find myself writing either about them or at least using the term “meme” and the idea of “memetics”. Most recently here in “Don’t mention the memes“.

As I say, although Dawkins is credited with coining the term to represent an “object”, mimesis has been around forever, and others like Dennett have done most to establish how memetic processes work, and how they are central to “mental” evolution.

My relationship with memes is summed-up in this tweet (retweeted by Elizabeth Oldfield) and my response:

Obviously the seeming objectification implicit in coining the term is the red-rag to anyone wanting to emphasise the non-objective – even transcendent – human aspects of life and the nature of culture. Me too, let’s be clear.

(1) tiny brain: lol memes

(2) normal brain: that’s not what “meme” means

(3) giant brain: the spread of the internet’s definition of “meme” is itself a good example of meme theory

(4) galaxy brain: lol the only useful idea Dawkins ever had was corrupted into a term for vapid derivative jokes

By any definition of truth, that’s all true. So, assuming I’m not stupid, why use a vapid term?

One reason is because, like it or not, (4) simply further confirms the truth of (3). Memetics is so “true” it is not even immune from it itself and, being a game, there is an inevitable end-game. Memetics is true on its own level and any number of meta-levels.

(1) to (2) is the start of the basic language game. Whether as disingenuous straw-men or as flattery by accidental imitation, all words that achieve circulation take on a life beyond any subtle (defined) intent of the originator. That’s not even fake-news. The word that achieves most meaninglessness is likely to be the most significant word in the lexicon on several levels. The more significant, the more it becomes a battleground of competing ideas … if we let it.

By “defending” the term meme – reinforcing the importance of memetics – the classic “critical debate” style of argument practically demands others attack or undermine my defence. Reinforcing the critical debate – logical attack and defence – meme. But that’s a meme that destroys knowledge in the wild, even if it refines knowledge in a controlled discourse. Beyond that environment what is needed is proper dialogue that seeks to evolve understanding. Unfortunately “critical thinking” is winning that game, because we refuse to recognise the degeneracy of that meme.

Secondly, the main aim of my agenda is not to defend meme from accusations of “too objective” or “too inhuman”. Quite the opposite. Not only am I saying memes are largely subjective (See 2), I’m using the fact to say that all other seeming objects – genes say – have an enormous subjective element, definitions which hold only in a human controlled environment. Sadly the winning meme here is scientism – that reductive objective determinsism can never be too greedy.

Even if we coined a new term for more definitive use of ideas involved in memetics in a knowledge context – simply “idea” or “mimidea” say – that term would follow a similar (1) to (4) trajectory.

I really do not care whether the term meme be accepted as valid for its intended meaning. What I really care about is that what evolves to be accepted as a valid and meaningful understanding of what it takes to be valid and meaningful …. is a memetic process. Accepting that meta-reality, we can better design rules for public discourse. One thing’s for sure, that unfettered free-for-all, the fetish of totally transparent freedom of expression, without mutual good-faith in the progress of human knowledge, leads inexorably to meaninglessness. Recent history tells us that good faith is a pretty fragile meme.


[Post Notes: refine / distill and “starve upon the residue”.]

Also published on Medium.

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