Our human desires and emotions are oftentimes the “hooks” that memes use to attach to us. Once a meme has colonized us, it can profoundly guide our actions in the world. Therefore, we need to develop discernment to parse the beneficial memes from the malicious ones. Although “toxic mimic” memes might offer fleeting, short-lived “fixes,” a more viable and enduring satisfaction is available in choosing to turn toward life-affirming patterns.
As we’ve discussed over the last several pieces, people are universally compelled by the hope of happiness—but their strategies for meeting this need may vary in efficacy (something we will expand on in this piece). Trance states, which emerge at the intersection of meme and life power, can feed the seeming size and salience of memes and can cause us to act on behalf of memes even in automatic, unconscious ways.
Memetic Epidemic: The Viral Relationship Of Memes To Humans
Let’s talk about how memes infiltrate the human organism. Memes colonize human mind-bodies to effect their own survival and replication in ways that parallel the behavior of biological viruses. Throughout this text, the similarities between the functioning of memes and of viruses are alluded to in epidemiological terms: infection, immunity, etc.1For additional reading, check out Wikipedia’s page on Memes.
For one thing, simply being exposed to information is oftentimes sufficient to persuade us. Due to human cognitive biases, we are especially vulnerable to believe memes that affirm what we are already “know.” Memes need humans to be receptive to them in order to thrive. When I am exposed to a meme, it has a greater or lesser chance of being incorporated by my cognitive framework depending on all the other memes I’ve already derived or incorporated through the process of living my life—and how much loyalty I feel to those memes.2Regarding the construction of assumptions and notions from stimuli, a helpful concept to reference here is the “ladder of inference,” unpacked in this short video.
Memes are created and evolve in accord with humans’ developmental needs, which can involve any level on humans’ hierarchy of needs. Memes are transmitted, replicated, and are born and die off in accord with their host human populations. Humans are the hosts—memes “ride” the substrate of our consciousnesses for their existences.
The viral operation of memes and their propensity to colonize minds is not an intrinsically bad thing. Humans need memes or else we couldn’t survive. It would be reasonable to view memes as having the agency to infiltrate and colonize human minds—such that the mind is less an agent and more a passive respondent to the activities of memes in its environment. In this framing, memes dominate humanity, and we are mere receptacles or pawns in their own war for survival.
But memes are not naturally parasitic—in a balanced picture, they are symbiotic. Our reliance on memes parallels their reliance on us for their existence. The problem is humans’ weak mental condition combined with the relentless, infectious conduct of certain maladapted memes.
Our Propensity For Addiction
Humans’ receptivity to memes is connected to our unmet needs. When we meet a meme that seems to satisfy a yearning within us, we are more inclined to adopt it. On an emotional level, we all long to feel affirmed by members of our social context. Many of our cognitive biases, interestingly, tend to be related to our need for stability and social affirmation in the world. Further, when our natural human desires or anxieties are provoked (which memes do really well), we may become emotionally hooked to certain narratives.
This is the reality of our common human condition, howsoever regrettable. Such limitations of perception are a lamentable flaw at the foundation of human evolution. But there are ways in which people today are in an especially weakened state, making us dangerously prone to infection by malicious memes.
What makes certain falsehoods so compelling? To what extent does our inborn desire to believe self-affirming stories impair our ability to assess fact from fiction? Consider how our mental and physical situation has been shaped by capitalist forces over generations. Although many of us have the full spectrum of our material needs met by this system, we are continuously emotionally unfulfilled. This is actually an acknowledged side effect of immersive advertising: making us feel like we will never be enough, just in who and what we are.
Without the feedback loop of real-world consequences (which Americans’ material comforts and social isolation tend to insulate us from), there is little ascertainable difference in direct experience, for many Americans, to believing in and following lies as compared to truth. We’ve broken our direct feedback loops with the ecosystems and communities that keep us accountable. Weak and isolated, desperate for any emotional fix for our deep malaise, we are vulnerable to becoming victimized by our own mental shortcomings.3If you doubt our vulnerability to manipulation by emotional hacking, >check out this in-depth article by some of the original architects of Google and Facebook—”the most profitable companies in the world”—which are deeply involved in manipulating our attention in insidiously addictive ways to serve the ends of advertisers. As entitled consumerists, we will get our emotional fixes—even if from unsavory sources who are motivated to keep us addicted.
Becoming Addicted To Unhealthy Memes
People are highly susceptible to manipulation; our minds have not kept evolutionary pace with the far-ranging powers and technologies of modern society, upon which most modern humans are utterly materially dependent. This combination of the population’s profound dependence on centralized systems and the technological capacity for controlling the society’s mental condition and behavioral habits is precisely why Orwell’s points in his bombshell book, 1984, were so devastating, so grave. What is especially dangerous about our appetite for social stories to provide us with emotional gratification is that we are prone to accept toxic mimic myths that seem to temporarily meet our needs, even if, in the long run, they leave us hung out to dry.
Gregory Mantsios in “Media Magic: Making Class Invisible” explains that since the 1960s, corporate news outlets have been increasingly inclined to deliver news within framings designed to protect the wealthiest classes by encouraging both fear and aversion of poor people, and a sense of middle-class identifications in its viewers. This trend is a result of the influence of advertisers and corporations on networks. Now, there is a class of Americans who have bought corporate outlets’ deceptions and biased framings for such a long time as to vehemently defend them as real. This, conflated with not having any time to go deep on an issue (a result of increasing economic and cultural pressures in a constantly-connected world), plus the insanely rapid proliferation of (false and true) information, creates a desperate situation.
People’s “appetite” for narratives that affirm what they already believe creates a market for fake and biased news. It seems twisted that people’s fear of complexity—which would lead them to distrust and dismiss a career politician like Hillary Clinton, or the word of 98% of climate scientists, etc.—is the same faith they invest in the complexly-false (entangled), lying justifications of fake news sites. That is to say: they want news, they want somebody to explain things to them with the confidence of an authority…they just seek convenient news—news that reinforces their beliefs, news that nourishes their appetite for emotional gratification.
No dyed-in-the-wool capitalist can stay away from an unserved market for long. As in drug addiction, there is always the pusher, who profits by selling the quick fixes and by hooking his clients on the drug. The market created by people’s cravings for media narratives that serve to reduce their cognitive dissonance, combined with the permanent desire of the powerful class to disseminate social narratives that are favorable to them maintaining their power, has fed the growth of corporate control over news media and of “consumer news,” in which news consumption is centered on the audience’s salient identities and not on the integrity or authenticity of the information presented. Today, dangerously, news consumption has become much like any other consumer product by which we craft our preferred realities to reflect our personalities (rather than honing our personalities on the sharp edge of events occurring in reality).
Social media platforms and other corporate interests literally feed off of our attention, and there is no sign that the profiteers will stop supplying whatever “fixes” the market craves. Capitalism, being so driven by its internal logic to exploit market demand to utter exhaustion, creates social precedent for profound destruction. The sorry situation is that the rule of the day is to extract and make off with whatever you can get from one another—ours is increasingly an “anti-social society,” in the words of Rajani Kanth. And our population is thus materially, psychically, socially, and systematically laid to waste: depleted, exhausted, dumped full of empty fast cheap distractions and emotionally-piquing call-and-responses, while our spirits, identities, emotions, and minds are fragmented into a flinching, throbbing pulp.
This results in a degenerative culture, where humans cannot exercise any manner of meaningful influence on the memes, and instead the dominant memes seem to easily control our movements, as though we were puppets. This is not unlike the working of some viruses, like rabies, which hotwire the organism and force it to perform bizarre activities that do not support its own survival—but do support the spreading of the virus to other hosts.
Until Trump’s election occurred, I genuinely did not believe that Americans could be so stupid. I mean, Trump’s personality, with over 70 years of supporting evidence, is unambiguously one of a greedy, anti-social, megalomaniac con artist. His propagandist, domineering media tactics and cutthroat cunning was openly targeted at manipulating working class white voters. “Don’t most people know how not to be conned?” I thought. Trump was so clearly not a leader, but the toxic mimic of a leader: a bully.
What I discovered is that some people will accept a costly, even devastating, illusion over a challenging truth. While I would find such a bargain absurd (to me, the truth is always worth it, any day any way), to some, it may have seemed like the only viable option. Their desires to be “saved” by an archetype of the diseased-and-decaying American Dream (Daddy Boss Supreme Grand Commander Trump of the Kingdom of Capitalistania: a Dreamland of Perpetual Conquest) is stronger than their willingness to take a long, painful look at how their emotions and psyches have been relentlessly manipulated by corporate-political interests for generations. As I will expand on in the subsequent piece, some Americans would rather double-down on their nostalgic, comforting illusions than divest and take a different path—even under extreme duress. (If memes are alive, akin to viruses, perhaps this would explain their host-people’s behaviors in this circumstance: putting up a fight-to-the-death for survival, going “all in” with nothing to lose.)
Denial In Addiction Vs. Truth In Reconciliation
Denial, or abnegation, has been observed and analyzed since Freud as an “immature” psychological defense mechanism (immature “because it conflicts with the ability to learn from and cope with reality”). Anyone who has experienced the behavior of an addict in denial knows that it frequently involves one flimsy excuse and meager apology, after another flimsy excuse, after another, all piled on top of one another until you are obviously looking at a bullshit mountain. Yet the addict clings to the mountain desperately, apparently insensate to the stink and unwilling to see or take responsibility for the pattern underlying their continuous problems.
This is just like us with our white supremacy problem and its results; or failure to take responsibility for intensifying climate change; or the continued theft, rape and destruction by which the rich have accumulated political and economic power. Delusionally, we keep trying to justify that which is obviously unfounded, because we are, evidently, so fragile in our sense of self that we would rather believe that we are right than change. If there is indeed “two routes” to persuasion, we need to develop the ability to take the central route, and not the peripheral route, urgently, and as often as possible.
At the outset of these essays, I talk about the essential importance of being willing to change your mind (and indeed, being mindful of the changefulness and conditionality of one’s mindset) as key to self-realization. To align with a genuine eternal force like change, one would need to “make friends” with the change native to every moment’s manifestations, and begin examining what indications there are when something wants to change. At a collective level, if we could harness the eternally renewable power generated by change itself, we could possibly arrange ourselves into more diversifying, yet harmonizing forms.
Denial might protect you temporarily, but it can portend a horrible slide into a lack of complexity (i.e., the dissolution of connections and systems with nothing to replace them). Remember that life is negentropic—it tends to align energy into higher orders. A loss of complexity represents the opposite, or entropy; it indicates organizational decline. This can be witnessed occurring in societies, in ecosystems, in bodies; it is commonly referred to as dying.
If Toxic Memes Could Kill Us
Death is sometimes the price paid for the attachment and commitment we feel to our addictions. But as any recovering addict can tell you, there is always another choice: the choice to turn towards life, to turn towards a higher purpose. If you are harboring a toxic mimic meme, its presence might be indicated by how much effort you have to pour into negating alternative evidence and building complex justifications for your endemic belief system.4See “Occam’s Razor” Ask yourself: Is defending your memes causing you to feel depleted and sick? Or does engaging with your memes revitalize and awaken you?
To illustrate how a culture or society could manifestly decline into a reduced state of complexity: it’s a very undiscerning, “low resolution” (i.e., lack of integrity and detail) steamroller of an act for President Trump to just ban any person from a handful of majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States. It’s very blatant and unsophisticated for Trump to brand all news that reports honestly on his unpopular behavior as “fake news.” Trump would like to label any news that criticizes him “fake news,” but really, it may not be the slant but the openness he despises—he detests that the American people can discuss his actions openly and find them wanting. Aggressive acts intended to “oust” conflicting narratives effectively represent attempts to shut down complexity—to eliminate nuance, to silence differences, to exact total control over a singular, favorable narrative. Perhaps Trump’s supporters crave their cognitive dissonance to be reduced—but to attempt the relief of tension through policies which actually limit the freedoms and suppress the movements and speech of other physical human beings is a dangerous social slide toward fascism and autocracy.
The lower and lower-resolution you get, there will come a point when genocide becomes acceptable. Genocide is only possible when people’s personal, cultural, and intellectual qualities are entirely eliminated from one’s viewpoint, when people’s bodies are perceived only as shallowly as their skin color or creed in determining whether they live or die. It takes a degenerative social situation to discard entirely the nuances that make people human: their life stories, their cultural capital, their ethnic and genetic roots, their inner capacities (talents, skills, knowledge, etc.), their social bonds, their struggles, their human potentials. When you kill someone, you simply cannot ever know whether that person’s mind contained some untold brilliant technology with which they could have rebuilt the world, if presented the opportunity. When being embodied as “white” or as “brown” or simply as “belonging to a particular group” is grounds for extermination, then the aim of integrating the best of what humankind could bring forth is lost.
Genocide benefits nothing, and those who hallucinate that maybe it sometimes does, hallucinate that they will assuredly emerge victorious. The only need genocide might be said to accomplish is reducing environmental demands and population strain—an implicit, if unconscious, fixation behind supremacists’ anxieties. However, the lower resolution such purges go, the more lasting and damaging the legacy.
It may seem strange that I use genocide to illustrate an extreme “low resolution” outcome of a society. However, humankind is manifestly facing annihilation at the hands of toxic mimic memes. The dominant memes seduce us with images of prosperity but deliver us irreversible destruction of our natural capital and planetary wellbeing. If we continue pouring energy into these currently dominant memes, we will run ourselves into the ground, killing us and the memes. However, we can recover the power to mitigate our broad receptivity to memes and to select which memes we cultivate; if humans could actuate the rapid spread of life-affirming memes, we might end up in a future that both we AND memes can survive.
The Unknown Beyond One’s Habitual Patterns
They say the definition of crazy is doing the same thing and expecting different results. Why do we not have the society or the democracy we’d like to believe we do? What persists as the barriers to a fair and just society, even after many generations of struggle? What if the problem is not this one particular president or another, but the institutionalized political game, as a whole? To the extent that it limits and does not serve us, and other structures would better serve life-affirming purposes, should we not find ways to intervene?
Let us take the risk of imagining for a moment that our consistent economic and social disenfranchisement is not accidental. That it is in the government’s self-interest to ensure our continued reliance on its structures, no matter how excessively bureaucratic. That it is in the capitalholder elite’s interest to ensure our continued reliance on its systems, furthermore. Different tools, different ways of enforcing their order (police use-and-threat of force, bank debt, wage suppression, tax cuts to the rich, etc.), but the effect is to keep us meek, starved, obedient… and, worst of all, too stupid and wrongly informed to assess, analyze and overcome our situations. Some of us—typically those better off by this social order than others—tend to keep making excuses for it. But the same symptoms persist, with devastating effect. Can we continue to excuse it away? Or might we say the persistence of these problems are direct outcomes of the system’s design? Even if you don’t want to entertain this hypothesis, dear reader-scientist, ask yourself: do you think that it is plausible? Do you think it is worthy of being investigated?
Can the privileged admit their addiction to these systems, and repent? Like an alcoholic’s elaborate legacy of lies and excuses finally crumbling down atop him, do we dare imagine that the system, by design, must result in these outcomes? We spend so much energy explaining and forgiving the outcomes. After 40 years, 240 years…10,000 years of some of the same old shit…Occam’s Razor would suggest that the consistency of these outcomes betray actual power dynamics. I’m not claiming that there is a conscious conspiracy behind this pattern—that is to say, some gang of evildoers murmuring sinister plots behind closed doors—because that would be psychologically cheap (adaptive bias) and is a less likely cause than the organic effects of emergence and lock-in. What I am suggesting is nevertheless a conspiracy—a conspiring of those who lucked into power to retain and enhance their power, which means from a basic, factual standpoint, disempowering everyone else.
There’s no boogeyman going to jump out and attack you—or a government agent—just for thinking these thoughts. This is not 1984—yet. We’re sold a narrative that says we need to fear and abhor any alternative thinking—that to critique capitalism is equivalent to deviant anarchism or godforsaken communism. That’s because if we allowed for the proliferation of direct dialogue and discursive thinking among individual members of a community, we might have years ago realized that our economy and our state could function at a much higher level of integrity—and could work better for us.
Turning Towards Life: Recovery And Integration
To empathize with this common human condition is the first step on a pathway to developing human resilience to conquest by toxic memes. Again, people aren’t the problem—few of us are trying to make the world a worse place. We must compassionately accept and work with our limitations—such as our cognitive biases. We should approach this by borrowing from addiction recovery processes and programs.
First, let us empathize with the core cause of our vulnerability to seduction by malicious memes. There are various cognitive biases that come into play here. In many ways, our yearning to affirm what we already think we know about the world tends to override our search for truth. We may even feel personally affronted when our earlier-held notions about something are proven wrong.5Check out this fabulous poster of 24 cognitive biases that can impair our receptivity to real information. https://www.yourbias.is/ This is a natural aspect of the human condition, and it makes sense: complex truths can cost considerable cognitive effort to accept.
Given memes’ efficient ability to infect humans, we must be diligent in developing our memetic immune system defenses to ensure that only healthy, life-supporting memes are the ones that ultimately take root. This involves developing a more participatory role in consciously curating the memes we harbor: fertilizing and cultivating the desired patterns, and uprooting the unfit weeds. If humans were to strengthen their mental conditioning and mindfully participate in the shaping of memes (like memes shape us), we could build towards a more beautiful world by giving and spreading only the memes best adapted to our goals. A little participatory evolution, then. In this way, we can entrain memes to serve our human purposes like one trains a climbing vine in a garden. Instead of passively allowing the proliferation of the memetic equivalent of nuclear weapons, couldn’t we harness our innate love for life into enthusiastically proliferating memes that enhance the conditions for life on Earth?
Although we viscerally grapple with social pressures to “not deviate” from the established norms, it is manifestly appropriate to deviate from a burning building. In recovery from addiction, a commonly-cited turning point in a person’s trajectory is “hitting rock bottom.” There’s a point when an individual becomes desperate enough for a change—almost any change would have to be better than this. Thus let us imagine that what is beyond our current realm—what is more creative, more life-affirming—might be worth taking a risk on. It takes a leap of faith to mount the path to recovery, but it can pay off in rewards much more enduring than the path of addiction. That means there is hope for transmuting natural human yearnings into feedback loops that are much healthier.
To the extent humans are giving into their addictions and not practicing restraint and discernment, memes seem to be riding roughshod over us. How could we develop immunity or resistance to toxic memes? If malicious memes are actively seeking ways to invade our heads, how can we “inoculate” ourselves against infection by false views?
Resilient people are comfortable entertaining ideas that differ from their existing frameworks. They mindfully look for ways to meld new information with old. It is challenging to tolerate different perspectives on reality while maintaining awareness of them all as partially “true” at once, but admittedly our minds thrive on solving complex challenges. There is an enduring, deeply satisfying reward when one dives into and honors the difficulty, the complexity.
Resilience means being courageous enough to apply one’s mind, developing the sensitivity to process direct knowledge of what is real, and the discernment to perceive and negotiate the distorting effects of certain memes. Such people have the increasingly-rare capacity to see through veils of bullshit. This is a powerful skill in navigating a so-called “post-truth” world. So: move towards that wholesome discomfort, a discomfort which promises to give way to blissful new levels of realization.I seek truth: I want full signal and minimal distortion in all of my encounters in life. But, as a side effect of these patterns we are talking about, in American culture and society, I am instead constantly being bombarded with what somebody else thinks they want me to see. Consciously, or unconsciously, this unfortunate habit persists in all types of relationships—even the relationship to oneself. These little layered lies, the “who-I-want-you-to-think-I-am” ruse (Ram Dass called it “the mind net”) is what makes our interactions so fraught—especially in the context of a competitive social order like capitalism (in which anti-social memes thrive.)
I want to suggest that you look and think of the social order—and especially the mainstream media—from the perspective of: whose interests are being served by the way this is presented? Who could stand to benefit from me believing that (fill-in-the-blank) is true? Who could stand to benefit from the agenda presented by this media? Behind any great addiction, you will find a profiteer.
Deliberately develop discernment, whereby you practice identifying who has your genuine best interests at heart, and who doesn’t. Journalists and others who are genuinely concerned with keeping the public informed about the truth present a more reliable source (insofar as motives align with actions), whereas fake news rabblerousers are transparently looking to make a quick profit off of you (as an unsavvy consumer) and/or disrupt the social order for their broader greed-mongering ends. Especially in regard to climate science: generally, those who present exhaustively-examined facts are likely concerned with your best interests—why else would they have invested all that arduous, critical work? Whereas those who attempt to mislead you by appealing to cheap psychological reactions—aren’t. In fact, they might be attempting to subjugate you. (On a personal relational level: those who are willing to receive critique and question their own perspectives are trustworthy; those who voraciously assert the inviolable authenticity of their truth, alone—are not. This, interestingly, aligns with principles of productive dialogue.)
By contrast to the profoundly destructive outcomes plausible on a planetary scale (if our toxic oppressive memes remain in charge), a more “high resolution” (or synthesizing/negentropic) approach would involve individuals harvesting the splendid bright consciousnesses of the world’s diverse beings, and then holding those multiplicitous truths intact while tolerating the lively tensions generated. A high resolution approach enables complex decisions to be made that reinforce quality for all. If we were to stay with the complexity, and look for overarching patterns… we might find challenging, but ultimately more blissful and satisfying answers.
Recovery constitutes a new direction for life. It requires embracing the healing, or life-affirming, principle in everything one does. This is the harder path, but it is the path that leads toward survival and achievement. To develop social-scale immunity to virulent memes, we need to invest in providing high-quality/diversely-sourced education and skill-building practices to our populace. We need to build a culture of mutual support that encourages the best from one another. Before participatory construction of a new building (or society), there must be a participatory designing through dialogue. We need people who are trained and equipped to engage with our difficulties. We need to develop discernment about the memetic company we keep, we need to strengthen our impulse controls, and we need to immerse in wholesome forms of health and wellness if we seek a more resilient people and society.Ask yourself: what is it, after all, that I really know? How do I know I know something? How do I know whether something is really true… or just convenient to me to believe?
Are you participating—like, really thickly even—in some narratives that seek to exploit you for your social, intellectual or material capital? Could you experiment mentally or actually with alternatives or opposites to what you believe—and just observing what happens? What do you discover in that process?
In your own life journey, you have probably undergone some “philosophical molting,” whereby you discarded earlier belief systems for better-suited ones. What do you recall about that process of letting go of one belief system, for another? What did you take away from that “molting” experience?
What are some ways you could improve health and wellness in your life, so as to be less prone to seduction by toxic options? Relationally, socially, mentally, spiritually, biologically (nutrition, sleep, exercise, etc.)— consider each dimension, for better health means becoming more whole, and a sound, complete organism is optimally resilient.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||For additional reading, check out Wikipedia’s page on Memes.|
|2.||↑||Regarding the construction of assumptions and notions from stimuli, a helpful concept to reference here is the “ladder of inference,” unpacked in this short video.|
|3.||↑||If you doubt our vulnerability to manipulation by emotional hacking, >check out this in-depth article by some of the original architects of Google and Facebook—”the most profitable companies in the world”—which are deeply involved in manipulating our attention in insidiously addictive ways to serve the ends of advertisers.|
|4.||↑||See “Occam’s Razor”|
|5.||↑||Check out this fabulous poster of 24 cognitive biases that can impair our receptivity to real information. https://www.yourbias.is/|