(This essay appears in my book, Practicing Zen without a License, but I decided it needed exposure here.
A meme is an idea, but an idea with a difference.
We normally think of ideas as creations of individual minds. Some modern thinkers have engaged in a viewpoint shift (ok, paradigm shift, if you insist on the word) in order to see if there are productive results. They see ideas as independently-existing entities, and our minds as the cultures in which these ideas grow. They call such ideas memes, by which they mean to imply a genetic quality to the propagation of ideas. That is, there are ideas which can reproduce. These ideas have built-in structures to ensure their survival and propagation, much like viruses or other invading organisms.
It is not necessary to demonstrate whether or not memes “actually” exist. It is sufficiently informative to assume their existence, and see whether this method of analysis yields good results.
It develops that the meme approach is very fruitful. Nothing about it tells us whether a given meme is beneficial or harmful, but once you begin to look at an idea in this fashion, you remove all its emotional coloration, and you begin to be able to see the functional structure of the idea.
Any idea may be viewed as a meme.
How do you stop a bad meme? This question occurred to me while I was imagining myself the ruler of the world. My ministers came to me and described the intolerable situation with a certain bloody religious sect. This sect had instituted cruel punishments for trivial things, including widespread capital punishment. This sect felt itself persecuted, though the leaders of the sect were among the richest people on the earth, and though their internal politics swayed all the world. This religious sect fostered a murderous fervor on behalf its believers and directed against all those who did not believe. Clearly this sect was a cancerous meme.
(Note: the foregoing was written before 9/11, and is intended to describe what I perceive as a universal human condition, not any one group.)
As ruler of the world, you understand, I had responsibility not primarily to individuals, but primarily to the health and well-being of the species, and only secondarily to individuals and groups of individuals. It is plausible to imagine but not possible to demonstrate that the greatest possible health for the species entails the greatest possible health for each contributing member in most conditions. (Questions of absolute survival may overrule this attitude in moments of crisis, as when the mountaineer sawed off his own arm.)
As ruler of the world I imagined saying, Kill all the males who will not renounce. I was not being Old Testament, I was minimizing the damage. This particular meme was much more virulent in males because it appeared at first to reward their systems preferentially. I thought I could let the women live, and those males who would renounce. That way I would not be obliterating a race. I would be like the surgeon removing no more of the organ than I had to in order to be reasonably sure of having gotten all the cancer.
But we all know that if I had really been ruler of the world, I would have said no such thing, I could have said no such thing.
Why? Because I’m a nice guy.
No, seriously folks, because we can’t be sure it works that way. We can’t prove that the health of the species entails the health of its individuals, but we can’t disprove it either. It might actually work that way.
And since it might, we can’t take any chances.
We can’t find a moral justification for genocide, even partial genocide such as I in my benevolence would have imposed.
You got that?
We can’t find a moral justification for genocide.
Which is to say war.
There isn’t one.
The only conceivable moral justification for imposing harm on individuals is to foster the well-being of the species, or of something greater than the species but which includes the species, such as the many-branched and highly-contradictory Will of God. Most meme-gone-cancerous beliefs however include just such a moral justification. It would have been ironic. As ruler of the world, I would have been engaging in the same behavior as the religion I sought to stamp out. The meme would have conquered me.
That’s a hell of a strategy for survival–to make death and propagation identical. Burst the cell wall of the bad-meme belief in order to kill it and you spray genetic copies all over the place.
It’s a good thing there are no rulers of the world. For our species, that would be like having a one-celled brain.
So how do you stop a bad-meme belief (a BMB if you will)?
Friends and neighbors, you laugh it out of court. You just refuse to take it seriously. And why not? Nobody says you have to take it seriously. Do you take nuclear physics seriously? Ok, I saw the hand over there in the third row, but the rest of you, you see what I mean. Nuclear physics can turn you to vapor in a millisecond, but you don’t take it seriously. So who says you have to take a BMB seriously? Oh it can make you roast in hell forever. Oh really?
You let the professors of the bad meme prattle on, but you don’t listen long. You excuse yourself politely because you have some interesting things to think about. You invite them to the parties, but you know they won’t feel easy, they’ll be self-conscious and defensive and mean if they get drunk.
In other words, you don’t shut them out, quarantine them. They do that to themselves. They have special products only the faithful can use, special observances that “prove” their faith, usually by means of spectacular oddity or uselessness or actual difficulty. Why else would somebody do this?
You may feel pity and you may try to help, but in essence you’re letting the disease run its course, knowing that in the long run it weakens those who have it and that eventually the species will develop resistance and throw it off.
You can do all this because you’ve got a resistance to the bad meme. A natural resistance. Perhaps we are beginning to develop workable inoculations as well. Education appears to help, at least when it contains some information on how to think for yourself. Cleansing the individual in a bath of love has shown some good results. Encouraging the physical well-being of the individual, ditto. None of these methods are sufficient in themselves, and the difficulty of application has so far interfered with treatment for a good many people.
We all know that as a matter of practical fact, we do, each of us, all the time, make decisions that balance the well-being of the species against the well-being of the individual. Each of us as rulers of the world.
We continue to save lives with antibiotics even though we know that we are breeding stronger disease organisms and, by failing to let natural selection take its course, weakening the resistance of our gene pool to those diseases.
We continue to take dangerous people out of circulation by means of prison or execution. It isn’t a very good solution, and our methods of evaluating danger are all screwed up, but we haven’t figured out anything better yet.
And so on.
Fine, as a matter of practical fact. What else can we do? But not fine as a religion, gussied up with orthodoxies and threats. That’s like letting the knife decide what to cut. BMBs exist, and we need to quell them.
I suppose there’s one other question we ought to deal with.
How do you tell a bad-meme-belief? Aren’t all beliefs equally valid in the scheme of things? Oh come on, folks.
Use your brains.
Addendum: On further reflection, I would say that all BMBs contain hooks–structures that attempt to damage the host if that person attempts to remove the bad idea. Usually the hook is in the form of a prohibition–you cannot question the the idea itself, usually on pain of being sentenced to hell, frequently on pain of being ostracized by other holders, and not infrequently on pain of mental trouble, since the idea has invaded your self-esteem and restructured it as cancer cells organize a blood delivery system within your body.
The simple rule, then: All bad memes have hooks.