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April 9, 2017

No space for debate


April 9, 2017

The word ‘meme’ or ‘memetic’ – from the Greek mimetes, which means to imitate – was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene (1976). The meme, analogous to the gene, was conceived as a ‘unit of culture’, an idea or a belief capable of taking root in the mind of a host and being transmitted from mind to mind – not unlike how a gene transfers DNA and, in effect, life.

As a result, what appears to be one person influencing another to adopt a belief may be an idea being transmitted from one mind and taking root and growing into another. The meme has, more recently, been defined by Susan Blackmore, a psychologist, as “anything that is copied from person to person, whether habits, songs, skills, stories or any other kind of information”. The most informal use of the term describes memes as “viruses of the mind”.

A lot has happened since 1976 on the meme front. Richard Brodie’s Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme and Aaron Lynch’s Thought Contagion gave memetics its modern incarnation in the 1990s. An e-journal, titled ‘Journal of memetics’ was published between 1997 and 2005. It was discontinued after 2005, citing the fact that nothing had happened as a reason for ceasing publication. In 2010, Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster film, Inception, once again brought the subject of memetics to the fore. Modern incarnations of memes are captioned photos meant to be funny and often lampoon human behaviour.

But back in 1990, when the internet was in its nascence and only a few people had access to it – at least compared to its users today – Mike Godwin, an American attorney and author, noticed something of concern across the forums and discussion boards he used to frequent. He noticed that the labelling of fellow posters and internet users as ‘Hitler-like’ or ‘Nazi-like’ had become quite frequent. Even in seemingly trivial situations, discussions came to an abrupt halt when a user accused another of being a Nazi or correlating whatever he or she had said or posted to something Hitler or the Nazis would have said or done. This meme had spread far and wide, even at that time when the internet was still a luxury that was accessible to a select few.

Whenever the issue of censorship was raised, someone would eventually draw comparisons to the Nazi book burnings. However, in time, the Nazi comparison or the ‘Nazi meme’, was being cited in seemingly unrelated discussions. People were beginning to compare any seemingly repressive government policy to those of the Nazis.

Godwin felt the nonchalant and ubiquitous use of the ‘Nazi meme’ trivialised Nazi atrocities, such as the Holocaust or the Nazis’ general pathology. He, therefore, came up with a ‘counter meme’ to make people realise how they were acting as vectors to a silly and offensive meme. He also wanted to detract people from using the Nazi comparisons. He came up with Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies or simply the Godwin’s Law: as an online discussion goes longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

He seeded the Godwin’s Law in any newsgroup or topic where he saw a Nazi or Hitler reference. To his surprise, soon other people were citing it and the counter meme was reproducing on its own. The counter meme also mutated and produced several corollaries. In the end, Godwin’s experiment was a success. The incidence of the Nazi comparison meme declined considerably in discussion groups and forums where they had previously become a pesky occurrence.

The Nazi meme has obviously not completely disappeared and perseveres to this day – mostly because of the internet’s wide and far-reaching power. This meme, therefore, has continued to evolve, in some form or the other, as was predicted by Dawkins and others.

His experiment certainly provided food for thought. It definitely forced one to think about whether all of us have a responsibility to tackle vicious ‘memes’ doing the rounds on our social media.

The space for healthy debate in our society is constantly shrinking. Intolerance and the inability to agree to disagree during discussions and debates are symptomatic of a bigger problem. It seems that there must always be a winner in such discussions and one or the other’s opinion must be discredited to gain the upper hand in any debate. Sticking to the internet, where social media platforms have infinitely expanded the space for debate and discussion, it seems that too many malicious memes are being circulated.

Not unlike the Nazi meme – after which any debate, no matter how serious the topic, fell flat – there are several memes that serve a similar function. Most of these are usually confined to the political space, where tensions run high among opposing camps. The ‘traitor’ meme is an example which bestows this unwanted honour upon those whose views are contrary to the state narrative. For how can one disagree with the narrative and be faithful to the country? The argument is simple.

Another more serious example is the ‘blasphemer’ meme that has recently gained notoriety. This meme is used to discredit those critical of state policy. This meme has often been used to settle personal scores or vendettas and often has nothing to do with the issue itself. Ironically, I quote here a saying that is often attributed to Hitler and is a variation of his big lie technique: ‘‘If you tell a big enough lie, and tell it often enough, people will eventually come to believe it.’’ One thing that must be noted is that memetics is unconcerned about the truth of the ideas. Practitioners of memetics are instead only concerned with the success of their ideas being spread. It is then obvious how the potential for abuse exists.

The bigger problem with using such memes in Pakistan is that these are issues the general populace is passionate about. Lives have been threatened and people have been forced to quit social media altogether or – in some cases – flee the country. Thus these memes are used to silence dissenting voices.

There has never been a greater need to counter these malicious memes than there is now. As the space for healthy debate shrinks, we let the intolerant win. As Godwin stated, the time has come for us to become memetic engineers: crafting good memes to drive out the bad ones.

The writer tweets @bandaydaputtar

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