Memes and mantras

The biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme,” kind of in passing and while making a different point, and defined it as the social equivalent of a gene — the smallest, irreducible unit of cultural information and transfer. The good doctor, now in his late seventies, has lived to see his cool little thought grow to define how the modern person with no real interest in evolutionary biology understands the transmission of ideas, values, beliefs, cat pictures, and of personality itself.

Combine Dawkins’ model of the viral spread of information and Chuck Norris jokes with the social constructivist view that challenges our most cherished notions of unique personal identity and you may start to see yourself as a meat stick coated in honey (or high-viscosity corn syrup, or even some kind of half-digital silicon-based surfactant) upon which the memetic wind blows trillions of tiny thought spores, which then sort themselves by valence and affinity into colonies and larger symbiotic macro-systems that we provisionally agree to call “you,” or “me” for as long as the animate, organizing energy of our discrete bodies holds.

These are not necessarily happy times for Romantics and poets like me, and you.


Let’s touch base with Dawkins’ original insight for a moment. The meme is neutral. To complain that a meme or memetic transmission is received opinion, herd behavior, a lack of independent thought and originality, and general sheeple-tude is kind of missing the point that all knowledge and thought, in this view, are socially transmitted. I am sorry that you are not a maverick, illuminated genius, but mostly I am sorry that I am not a maverick, illuminated genius.

Like virtually every person I know, I have been spending a lot of time reflecting on and talking with intimates about police brutality, institutional racism and my complicity in it, the Black Lives Matter movement, and how I can put my best intentions into action without speaking from a position of assumed authority. The last part is why I have said nothing about this from my pastoral pulpit here at Village Voices until now. As this bizarre daily essay illustrates perfectly well on its own, the hypocrisy is baked right into the act.

This is not the time to worry too much about original expression, the well-turned phrase, the fresh take, the personal spin, or even such vaunted, pre-digital notions as independent thought. Hell, my life and values are based on those very things, unlimited leeway for my voice and for yours. But this is the time for me, as a white person in America, to adopt a few mantras written by people with understanding far more profound and lucid than mine, and to repeat them, as written, until they are deeply, actionably true for me.

Let me be a honey-coated meat stick for these entirely unoriginal thoughts: I do not understand the experience of people of color in America. Racism is systemic, and I am a beneficiary of that system. I want that to change, but I recognize the monumental difficulty of changing it. I need to do more to promote justice. I need to do it without expectation of recognition or absolution, and I need to be saying and doing these things six months, twelve months, 24 months, etc., from now.