The word meme (meem) has only been around since 1976, first discussed in a book by Richard Dawkins entitled, The Selfish Gene. He took the Greek root of mimeme and shortened it to meme, to be more suggestive of gene and how genes seem to transmit information. It hasn’t been until the last few years that meme has broken out of more esoteric scientific circles and into the mainstream. The word, in effect, is doing what it means by becoming viral …
A meme is an idea that is also a replicator. Think of it as a word or symbol that causes people to think a certain way, believe a certain thing, or take a specific action. A catchy jingle or slogan is a meme. You hear it, you play it in your head, and then you “infect” other minds by sharing it. Viral advertising slogans are memes, because they get passed around within a culture, and in many ways define culture.
Awareness of memes is a valuable self-development tool, because so much of a society’s culture is transmitted by memes. How a person is “supposed” to act is a meme. Family traditions are memes; political and religious beliefs are usually expressed as memes, or meme complexes, so they can be more easily passed from person to person, group to group, generation to generation.
I like to think of memes as attractive packages of information that hook your attention, and then cause you to adopt that entire package of information as your own without any critical analysis. This is why memes are so important in politics, religions, or social movements—a motto or slogan is attached over a packet of complex information, making it extremely easy to be absorbed and repeated, even if the person transmitting the meme doesn’t really believe or accept all of it.
This is how rumors or superstitions get started and build into “facts” or “truths,” even though the initial packet of information behind the meme contains faulty information or outright lies. How many of us have actually avoided cracks in the sidewalk because of the meme, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” I can remember as a young boy suddenly realizing how ridiculous this was, but not after avoiding sidewalk cracks for many weeks.
Because memes are basically packages of unexamined information that we adopt as truth, they lend themselves splendidly to be stored unconsciously, and can quickly become the modus operandi behind thinking about our behaviors, opinions and beliefs about ourselves and others.
Here is where values come in. To me, a true personal value is an ideal we cherish that explains who we are, what we do, and where we’re going. True values are never unexamined. They are borne out of life lessons—things we have come to believe are true; not things that society, our parents, or our friends say is true (these are most often memes).
So I’m making a distinction between values and memes in that values are critically analyzed conclusions about how we should best lead our lives based on life experience. The meme is an unexamined, unconsciously adopted belief. Where we get into trouble is mistaking memes for values. And, in fact, the discovery of lies within memes often leads to the critical analysis needed to form values.
For example, the meme, “Father knows best.” Taken at face value, this meme contains all those feelings and beliefs about parental respect and childhood adoration. To question this meme has emotional consequences, but as any teenager can attest, it falls apart in the face of life experiences. The child who has adopted this meme now must face the truth of it, and in so doing, must develop a way of being with the information that Father doesn’t necessarily know best.
Apostasies are all about memes breaking apart—when whole religious belief systems tumble down as the result of life experience. Religion is famous for memes because so much of religious training is based on absolutes—a prime territory for memes. As life experience disproves the lies within memes, critical thinking can return and a more nuanced view of the world emerges.
Such biggies as, “All sinners go to hell,” can break down into hundreds of parts, revealing deeper levels of truth through questioning the basic assumption of the meme. What is a sinner? What is hell? What is sin exactly, and why does that necessarily lead to hell? As the meme breaks down, it no longer has the power to alter behaviors or be transmitted. With critical thinking restored, true values can be determined and immunity to similar memes established.
Another area rife with memes is in politics where memes are used to replace words. Remember the meme, “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” eventually became, “The reason we’re going to fight a war on terrorism.” Now all “weapons of mass destruction” involves terrorist activities. This is different from thirty years ago, when the same phrase referred to national defense weaponry.
Whole political belief systems can be hijacked using memes. Nowadays if you are conservative in your beliefs about social issues and economics, you are a Republican. If you are liberal in your views you are a Democrat. This is a far cry from fifty years ago when there were conservatives and liberals in both political parties. This hijacking of definitions is used to create polarization, stacking “good” and “evil” memes on top of other buzz words and phrases, such as, “intolerant Republicans,” and “irresponsible Democrats,” leading to such conclusions as, “only Republicans are good for business,” and “only Democrats are humanitarian.” Such absolute statements—as in religion—make memes attractive and viral in the culture.
Using an awareness of memes can help lead to personal transformation by spotting where in your self-definitions are there identifications with memes. Such phrases as “it was good for my dad, it’s good for me,” if taken literally (and memes usually are), really makes no sense. Your dad was a separate person from you, had a completely different experience from you, and has a completely different set of values and decisions about his life than you. By deconstructing memes in your own thinking, you can find out what programming is preventing you from getting to where you want to go with yourself.
Most importantly, if you spot a meme, the meme no longer has power. They only have power when they are unexamined. Once deleted, they can be replaced by thoughtfully considered values from which smart and heartfelt decisions can be made.
How to Spot a Meme
Interestingly, spotting a meme can be as easy as asking yourself what your values are:
- What do I value about myself?
- What do I value about my job?
- What do I value about my life?
- What should be the most important things in life?
- What inspires me?
- What is important to me?
- What motivates me to get better?
All these questions will not only reveal memes, but will help reveal existing values and help form new ones.