Meme and my shadow
Why does whether something’s true or not matter so little to people, that they’ll put so much else above it?
There’s a meme that has particular currency right now. It’s not terribly important what it is. I’m sure as hell not going to try to refute it, because trying would be an exercise in futility; genuine memes are as vast and unstoppable as the tide. It’s actually something very trivial: a clip and/or a transcript of what purports to be a real episode of a British children’s television programme that’s an exercise in lewd double entendres.
About a month ago a friend sent me a link to a web-page that’s one of the meme’s main carriers. She was slightly cautious, though — and bless her for that. A paraphrase of what she wrote to me was: ‘Have you seen this? Is it true?’ I wrote back and explained that, well, a small part is true, but in a crucial sense it isn’t. Flash forward to yesterday, and a well-trafficked blog which passed on the very same meme whole, with no such scepticism. A quick web-search revealed that it’s already spread across a huge swathe of blogdom, mostly intact, but without the tiniest drop of critical thinking.
I’m not heading towards any great insight here, because I have none, and I have none because I don’t know that there’s anything to say beyond that meme propagation is just such a fundamental part of who we are as people — as psychologically fundamental as genes are biologically fundamental — and yet there’s not much that makes me feel less kinship with others, because I don’t grok the urge to blindly propagate. Just don’t get it. Truth has scarcely ever mattered as a reason to propagate, and often its absence helps: rumour, superstition, pseudo-science. Yeah, I’ll say religion too — or perhaps theism, which isn’t quite the same thing — and not ask permission for that.
And yet truth does matter, but in a glibly superficial way. In the case of the kids’ TV programme meme, truth is central, because, funny as the text might be out of context, the very heart of the meme is the claim that the programme is/was real, and was broadcast to millions. It confers a jaw-droppingness, a subversiveness, a letting-in-on-the-joke. Otherwise it’s just a string of childish jokes with no substance. Perhaps the letting-in-on-the-joke is the key here. By propagating such things we share secrets, and by doing so make connection with others. We want the power of making them laugh, too, and of having handed down knowledge as if from a great height.
All that matters for that to happen is that the recipient also treat the meme as if it were true. Why should they not, since doing so endows them in turn with the power to let others in on the joke? And so it goes, this pyramid scheme of inclusion, with each of them the pharaoh of their own sub-pyramid. In fact, perhaps it’s best not to look too deeply into the truth of the thing, should it turn out to be nothing but dust, and the power be lost.
Perhaps truth is so rarely a part of powerful memes because it’s so rarely what we want to believe. The genuinely scientific mind, which strives for truth (rather than ‘Truth’) above all, and risks finding what’s disquieting, discomforting, unsatisfying, is a heroic thing indeed. Of course, the truly scientific mind is the one which has no such comforts to be taken away. We’re all some way short of that, however, but some far more than others.
The small fact which draws the sting of the meme in question here is that the lewd programme wasn’t written to be broadcast, nor was it ever broadcast. It was made by the TV company as an entry for an industry contest to find the funniest outtakes of the year, not to screw with the kids’ heads.
But, shhhhh, that’s not nearly so interesting, so let’s not go there.