“Meme” is a word I don’t like anymore. Though we have Richard Dawkins to thank/blame, I associate it more immediately with when I was first reading Marvin Minsky’s Society of Mind, and Daniel Dennett, which is to say when my potential still meant something and “threshold” had not yet been displaced with the emphatic finger tap of “tipping point”. “Tipping point” sounds fussy, sharp and prim, and feels terrible to say, ‘plus’ adds nothing in place of the soft elegance I’m now regularly deprived. It does not reward my efforts. (Unlike “vagina mosaic” which feels simply luscious by compare. Don’t over-enunciate and the little kiss of ‘mosaic’ makes it; the less stress, the better.) And beans to it sounding more precise. This was not the kind of irrelevance I expected to be swallowed up by, in due time. I was expecting something I could covet and admire from somewhere off to the side. Oh, but even my friends maintain I’m a pessimist.
When the past was slight and couldn’t lift what I miss,
was I focused, or just more narrow-sighted?
Fortunately it carries much of what I don’t miss away with it, too. But before: nothing came and went. People could be so very bored. Aptness and prescience had more of a shelf-life, and “meme” was as common as “K-line” remains. One friend’s mom told me “plate tectonics” functioned as an inadvertent pick-up line the decade prior… and if I still feel distaste at the comparison, at the once wild times flown with that faint tone of both “me, too” and “a thing or two” imposed upon me in the flush of youth, it took all the same: our mere familiarity, as women, with a concept was somehow outstanding. You can imagine what that does to one’s… expectations. So. While I don’t lament the latter-day absence of that, I do miss the word calling to mind something significantly less inherently trivial than something we cannot avoid. Memes, in their modern proliferation, have become, if not our primary form of cultural currency online, a dominant one, and for some they are all the promise of our t-shirts and bumper stickers fulfilled, combined. Yes, because no one thinks they’re changing the world with a t-shirt — that would be absurd. But for those who take it seriously, and for my purposes, you can only exempt those who aren’t guilty, the exceptions, the counterexamples, if they also aren’t politically active.
Because “They also serve, who only stand and wait“, and disfranchisement is cousin to conformity. (If they vote and they aren’t vectors, see below. Almost no one is immune.)
This thing that at first seemed to have such potential has increasingly gone from lolz to HHOS, to ZING!, and not particularly funny at all: distressing glimpses into our increasingly personal struggles, hopes and moral outrage. An extra creepy thing lurking in the unseen depths is that companies make considerable money off the profiles of us that they amass, from our “likes” and the content we circulate, or search for — even those hot piles of purely passing interest we might reject in our curation of our online selves. Click. Click. These profiles, that we have no editorial say about or even any real awareness of, are sold. A lot. To creditors, insurers, advertisers, crooks. It’s largely unregulated, except to protect the privacy of corporate “trade secrets,” “proprietary methods,” and intellectual prop. The term for what results when these profiles are fed into the proprietary algorithms that are used to decide the stuff of our insurance risk and credit-worthiness is weblining. As in the online version of red-lining. It’s no longer just the stuff of higher prices for those of us browsing with apple products; it can influence our employment prospects, our very livelihood. You should look into it, contact your representatives and demand better individual/consumer protections and disclosures. Please. Get involved if you aren’t.
So. I’d really like to go back to treating “the meme” like candy corn (kind of neat looking on occasion, and completely innocuous as long as you leave it alone), except I’m no good at overlooking implications or hugely conspicuous past-times. Not at all. Poor impulse control, intrusive thoughts, situation-specific survival skills I learned as a child? Too late now. I think I’m supposed to believe so much ineffectual collective indulgence is because we’re instead content reassuring ourselves from the comfort of home, for, at best, the sake of like-minded people, and leave it at that? Preaching to the converted. Spinning our wheels. Failing to pick our battles, feeding trolls, barking up a wrong tree. These tidy dismissals are like tromp l’oeil, and underneath, a shared surface, a larger structure: that so many of us feel overwhelmed, alarmed and incapable, while also being led to over-extend ourselves, daily, at work and at home. We are not encouraged to reflect, and our lives are increasingly structured to prevent it. Which is to say I think our commercial culture is one that encourages estrangement, marginalisation, anger or indifference, impulse, and dependency as alternatives to complacency; none of which can sustain the human spirit or society.
I have caught myself wasting countless hours flitting from topic to topic, distracted, anesthetised and scattered, browsing, riveted, while telling myself I don’t really have enough time, energy, or money to do more — to organise my effort or retrain my attention. To surmount a problem or make any ‘real’ difference. At least I can learn about x. For hours. Over days. Consistently. And I’m not generalising from my experience, I joined a chorus. I am in great company. Persistent anxiety, stress, fatigue, distraction and frustration certainly don’t lend us to the reflection and analysis necessary for the slow, subtle, consistent changes that would help most; it’s “divide and conquer” scaled to the individual. And if it doesn’t hurt that it’s easier, it doesn’t help that it’s increasingly defeatist. In the case of our politics, our online efforts are perfectly subverted. Nullified. Commodified, in fact, actually. I don’t mean memes exclusively, but also the articles we swap and our personal writing. And how, while we complain about centralised power, we fail to note the most lucrative resource to the most profitable and increasingly politically powerful industry is a thing we give away for free.
As an aside, I recently caught myself saying how much I hate cliche, and that (except in the hands of Nabokov) it spoils everything it’s meant to facilitate, that we’d rather force our experiences into these ready-made yet often inadequate phrases to avoid awkwardness and awkward pauses… at the expense of signal to noise; so much that is more personal, honest, and remarkable. Thinking about that since, I’ve realised it doesn’t account for what we use because it is what most readily presents itself, what’s available to us, and because we’re too anxious, distracted, insecure or frazzled to conjure other ways of expressing what we want to say. From the broken tools that function well enough, to the pat explanations that grease our “low-effort thinking”, to all we invest in consumptive minutia. I have blogged about beer. Beer. Piss on beer. I should be able to take a good drink for granted but in our culture we’re prompted to strongly identify who we are quite literally with our tastes. And share our opinions with others. Food. Drink. Our beliefs. Where we go. Who we’re with. How we look when we’re alone. In our bathrooms, often enough. And other memes. Semper vanitas!
Cries for help. In a culture as heavily medicated, materialist, outspoken, and revivalist as ours, I’m open to other interpretations. Holistic ones, or systems analysis. Anything that considers social dynamics rather than those that torch the effigy of individual accountability as if we’re all gods among men and equal in the eyes of the law. There’s immense social pressure underneath a wealth of inconsequential distraction, and I regard it as a root problem.
Also it might not be the only one. But for now. We’ll stick to the example of current events.
We look to the news for the sake of understanding, of being informed, yet sometimes rather than that, we’re supplied a cultural narrative which discourages and overwhelms; that leaves us angry, afraid, or feeling helpless. This can be overt (Ted Cruz, who I’m also using as a lyrical placeholder), or subtle (the Clintons). Sometimes we’re given explanations that keep us from thinking anymore about an issue, to contend instead with judgements; or some short-sighted summary that provides a premature assurance. Or perhaps we’re riled up, about something incidental, while a larger issue escapes notice? Are we taught to recognise ad hominen (auto-suggest will allow “Eminem”), straw men, scapegoats, obfuscation, and conjecture, or just accuse others of them? Do we look up to those who reduce a topic to small, easily recalled phrases that make sense without our having to research, or contextualise? Allowing us to forego further thought. Are we relieved? Do we prioritise security and blame? Blame, without change, and blame for why there is no change, despite increasingly intractable positions. Repeat. Or do we already know better?
The flip-side: I have heard of our cultural lack of critical thought for decades now; it’s become trite. It seems it’s meant more as a conceit than a thing one intends to change, and I’m struggling with that sort of …inadvertent hypocrisy as I write. Because in saying such, we’re immediately removed from those we include in our observations and what we concern ourselves with, or it belies a certain jadedness. That makes me uncomfortable when I find a shared native capacity that is fundamental to all of us, regardless of background and education, wherever I look for it. Like our irrepressible but easily addled sense of curiosity. But, for instance, having my teachers apply the gold star of “critical thought” struck some kind of need for approval or sense of superiority. Some thirsty, unlit thing. The original conceit. But conceit isn’t enough to quiet the question why those who’re in a position to address the thing often instead describe and dismiss it with a wave of their hands.
We’ve long complained about how the media has been bought and industrialised, and the agencies that bank on the aforementioned methods of delivery, while our commentary speaks to those most sympathetic to the cause. It reinforces, it explains, and it ends there. Maybe we pass around articles on “cognitive bias”, but we still surround ourselves with familiar ears. The influences of which we complain have only become more powerfully concentrated and streamlined, while we’ve refined our understanding. Resulting in a difference between these few more recent paragraphs I’d like to see resolved. I wish I were better able to do so, myself.
When you differentiate, you stand between I and I?
Put more neatly: there’s more than a gulf between our two mainstream political audiences, and within these, we speak the same language about as well as we do the Queen’s English. The complaint is often enough about ideology, that the other side has decided to ignore facts. Excusing our failure to appeal to common ground, or understand that the problem is one of communication, management, and learning to distinguish the quality of info. Information lit. Some people might be lazy, misinformed, or indifferent, but abandoning them to those who make use of their shortcomings en mass has not exactly been effective, has it? And this is not our collective ass being bitten.
We already know that when we habitually talk to or of people as if they’re stupid, and keep them poorly informed, that it leads to self-fulfillment and a reliable audience. Divisiveness, projection and righteous indignation. That it is something those of us who look to an authority we identify with need to consider from the perspective we’re least likely to. That it’s got nothing to do with the golden rule. I know why I cannot stand listening to Trump, Limbaugh, Beck or O’Reilly, that it isn’t just the quality of the info but their delivery. Likewise: when we speak over the heads of those we consider uninformed, and whether we recognise it or not. If we reject them entirely as hopelessly conditioned, or unimportant, and rely on those who “know better”? The effect is the same. It isn’t always patent condescension. I’ve been guilty of the well-intentioned kind that still leaves us rendering unto Caesar en route to Hell and Rome.
“Behind every argument is someone’s ignorance.” -Justice Louis D. Brandeis
I’ve come to mistrust those who implicitly view their opponents as inferiors, or who justify appeals to a “lowest common denominator”. With respect to our leaders, surely we don’t want one who talks to us like dim and frightened children, idiots or invalids. Yet people are eager to go along with those who treat anyone they don’t agree with that way. I wish I could bring myself to ask “Do we want someone who believes we are all, each and everyone, fairly intelligent, capable and worthy?” But I know better. And I know that among the better knowing, we’re supposed to be content with that and occupy ourselves with better things. It’s a lot to overlook. It took a long time for me to situate my contempt for snark within this, too, but they are of a piece.
Which brings me to this:
It’s a …sympathetic example. Subtle. Much more glaring ones exist. But it’s highly problematic in what it disregards. As someone who doesn’t hunt and isn’t a 2nd Amendment wonk: I strongly disagree because it obfuscates a more pervasive problem this country is struggling with beneath an alarmist secondary position. Her statement, taken from her Ohio rally, is a fine encapsulation of an element of her rhetorical style I find particularly regrettable. I can’t help but question her choosing to speak about one of our country’s more obvious and enduring problems with such reserve — purely within the context of another. Yes, let’s just bypass systemic racism. In the time I’ve spent drafting this, over a week, and as I yet struggle with the constant reminders of others’ more immediate needs with every pass of the Chinooks overhead, Jeb Bush has contributed “stuff happens” to his family’s fine oratory tradition, Ben Carson made our jaws do something other than yawn with what he said, and Larry Wilmore critiqued the rhetorical shiftiness that usually surrounds public debate on shootings, guns and gun control. People have lost their homes, their means, their jobs, and I’m picking up the loose threads of why I wish Wilmore had gone further. But it relates, too.
Our city, Columbia, has been indifferent. Our infrastructure has long needed an overhaul while we’ve courted Amazon and other businesses, giving companies tax breaks while palming off penny sales taxes upon the working poor and blaming them for their disadvantages. Our roads have been a longstanding joke, apparent as soon as you cross a state line, but our incoming college classes have grown each semester for years. I welcome the mix of new influences, but construction has grown up around their housing needs, traffic increased with out-of-state acceptance rates, and existing problems were left to worsen. And I haven’t yet broached the racism! The flooding has affected rich and poor alike, residents and non-residents, people of every color and persuasion. Seeing the outpouring of concern and care for one another makes me hopeful that maybe the usual excuses will no longer be made, that we won’t go back to our uncharitable blame and business as usual as things get “back to normal.” When it’s time to change policy. I am deliberately avoiding the memes surrounding the ironic hypocrisy of SC’s representatives’ records on voting for Federal aid. I want to believe.
This feeds, directly and indirectly, back into my comments about the quality of our leadership and the ways in which information is presented and exchanged, and ultimately back to my concern about how we each interact and what we tell ourselves. The “Do Something” meme, a comment, outside of its original context, that is agreeable at face value but that misconstrues a larger issue, is not exactly helpful. A toothless statement about a terrible social injustice isn’t decisive or strong, and one that overlooks the ongoing efforts of regular people while playing to our common hope for change is actually really bad. Why? Because it suggests we need this person, without acknowledging a conspicuous problem — or its existing casualties — and ignores the efforts made in an attempt to address it. “It” doesn’t even merit mentioning in Hillary’s statement. Pretty shifty.
When I first saw it, my immediate response was to ask about “gun violence” by armed police against unarmed people. I was asked why I felt that it was excluded from Hillary’s position. There was civil discussion of racism, and whether “gun violence” includes when an armed policeman shoots an unarmed black person. I questioned Clinton’s phrase “they were just doing their job.” (As a way of including guns, the bible and economic concerns in one fell swoop.) If she believes racism is a problem she intends to change, calling it “gun violence” is not the same. Racism is not a subset of gun violence, though guns enable a certain expression of it, sure. But the use of “they” seems safe, and I think she carefully avoids rather than addresses a cause. Again, a dodgy rhetorical approach. Then someone mentioned something that I would not have anticipated, “The only way Hillary can make a notable difference is to be elected. With that in mind, I understand her reserve.” This idea, so similar to the “last chance” or “our last hope” or “making America great again” I hear from others regarding their leaders of choice, isn’t indicative of a healthy state of public discourse. And thinking about that led to this sprawling mass of consideration you’ve patiently been following. Thank you and I’m sorry it’s not more succinct.
Before the flooding, before the communities came together, I wrote “The use of ‘they’ isn’t strong, it’s safe. I live in a red state, and one where people say one thing with the understanding ‘we’ don’t discuss how things really are, because so doing brands us as an outsider, a have not, the other side, ‘they’. Playing it safe hasn’t led to much change here, but being outspoken and organised does.”
That the meme has been shared, in a spirit of rallying progress, shows how quickly we lose sight of yesterday’s headlines. People weren’t murdered because “they went to bible study.” At a historically black church. By a white supremacist. Clinton’s statement is too general. Her use of “finally” makes it seem like she’s taking a strong, decisive stand, but it gives short shrift to people who have been protesting, who’ve already said “we’ve” had enough, and especially those who’ve been beaten and gassed for saying “we’ve got to do something about this.”
I’m waiting to be the one accused of conflation, or treachery, but I see her as part of the vanguard selling our efforts short, a diffusing representative of the status quo who’ll re-route our efforts, when people, the victims of racism and those who disagree with it, are already making a difference without her being elected. Good intentions. Yeah. Great.
Respect vs. Reservation, Registration and Repression
I’m fortunate to know good folk who are willing to let me question things they feel quite strongly about, openly, and I’m thankful for their patience and understanding. It’s long been my belief that where one has the strength of conviction, the topic can survive questioning. But we can’t take for granted our friends’ generosity and fortitude, and it is their tolerance and endurance that I would like to think our leaders aren’t far removed from. Hillary doesn’t inspire confidence here, though, with her clear preference for rallies and moderated town halls over mixing with crowds. She’s not alone. I was urged, at a #StandwithPP demonstration, to see Fiorina recently, and would have liked to ask her about her strident castigation of Planned Parenthood, when PP does far more demonstrable good than the two unsubstantiated and unsourced videos she’s based her position on could possibly reveal. (97% vs 3% of services. 97% are not abortions; 3% are, but include non-surgical ones. Nonsurgical means an induced miscarriage that occurs at home, where it is impossible to harvest organs, which would be too small to be of any use anyway. Ergo perhaps 1 or 2% of abortions supposedly result in atrocities that PP commits in order to profit… $60-$100? At which point I want to run down the road with Ocham’s razor over and over again.)
Which is to say Fiorina, in attacking a public service provider and coloring others’ views, does more real, immediate damage, placing already born people at risk, than the good her moral outrage potentially defends, and I’d like to know why she is comfortable dispensing with so many living people’s needs. For me to do this, I was told I needed to look “professional” to be called upon and that we had to preregister online. I have online access and often get mistaken for press, but I had little hope of my question being duly addressed in the context of the riff-raff filtering pre-reqs. (And when I struggle with depression, impulse becomes more reliable than the best made plans, regardless. It’s not just my thoughts that are disorganised.) This is all very guarded and staged compared to seeing someone like Sanders, who is completely at ease among the …rabble. Do you want leadership who is removed from you?
I’m fortunate to have friends who believe things I do not, and do things I would not, and who don’t agree with my life choices. We are not a tightly-knit, insular group of reinforced values. We don’t look a like. And yet we like each other. I learn so much from them, even about myself.
Bernie Sanders is urging everyone he meets to talk about what they see and have had to tolerate, and to be involved. He may not win, but I thank him for that. I’ve been to hear him, and he never separates himself from all of us — the people. He’s easy to approach, and comfortable in a crowd of regular folk. He has also devoted over half his life to attacking social injustice, politically, directly, head on — not with reserve. Originally I really thought the meme might be an excellent means of persuasion, as most people don’t devote much time to anything. 15 seconds. So a compelling image and succinct pitch seemed like a perfect adaptation. The 1-2 punch. But is doesn’t rise to occasion. Except as a bludgeon.
Because, finally, much of the tone, online, isn’t one of mutual respect, and I have found that remarkably counter-productive. Argument, for me, is both a means of discovering more about others and a re-consideration of my own experiences, which is to say I find it very helpful and valuable, and view any culture that discourages it as sick and with suspicion. I don’t always preserve the respect I value. I’m not perfect, I lose my patience, and I also sometimes fail to recall that while I fully expect to be questioned, others aren’t as comfortable as I am doing that. I have tired of hearing people I respect, people who are well educated and compassionate, write off a subset of the other side as hopeless, unreachable, backwards; just as I’m tired of hearing that side’s adamant proclamations without regard for the historical record. Republicans say “immigration“; Democrats say “gun control”. This isn’t just euphemism. If our armchair activism estranges more often than it communicates, while our online interactions keep us at home (or preoccupied with updates when we’re in others’ company), when we’re given opportunities for self-expression BUT with no regard for our audience or ear for listening, and encouraged in our opinions BUT not to exchange views, or research them, we, collectively, have a problem. And one that cannot be explained away by externalising our terrors.
Perhaps it’s a confluence of interests: media interests, academic interests, Big Data, medicine, entertainment, commodification, personal dis-enfranchisement, and no one’s at the wheel. Isn’t it great those self-driving cars are just around the corner? But it’s not our natural state, and even the complacent are remarkably uncomfortable.
It’s important to look to people who don’t bristle at being questioned, and to be generous, ourselves.
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