Lions and Tigers and Memes, Oh, My!

I’ve just been reading about “memes,” in a Times article. I had to laugh.

Here’s part of the letter to the Times:

   I am a Gen X-er who generally speaks proper English and am a “digital native.” (Hey, kids: We built these tools that you claim as your own.) When I respond to a text or email with “O.K.,” I mean just that: O.K. As in: I hear you, I understand, I agree, I will do that. If I reply with “K,” I’m just being more informal.

   However, I have been informed by my Millennial and Gen Z co-workers that the new thing I’m supposed to type is “kk.” To write “O.K.” or “K,” they tell me, is to be passive-aggressive or imply that I would like the recipient to drop dead. To which I am tempted to respond, “Believe me, if I want you to drop dead … you’ll know.”

 Two Letters of Generational Separation, Caity Weaver,
 The New York Times, app.nytimes.com, 24 Nov. 2019

   All right – or should I say, “kk” – the writer encountered an “obstacle,” a challenge to his(?)  – the text sort of sounds like it, but, he is just a guess – to their self-entitlement. “I invented the digital age – so Ha!” quotes they. (Hmmm – “quote they?”) And wasn’t there ARPNET before s/he was even born? Yet, s/he does speak “proper” English.

   Meanwhile the columnist’s response that follows is coherent and somewhat measured. However, it does dive into a discourse on generation and gender, and gender positioning and boundary defining… Well, she “agendizes” her response. (“Agendizes” isn’t a word, but I couldn’t help a little youthful “verbing.”) So, is “Ok” even a meme? I mean really? (ambiguity intended)

   So here’s Wiki’s take on memes:

 Meme

   From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

   A meme (/miːm/ MEEM) is an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture—often with the aim of conveying a particular phenomenon, theme, or meaning represented by the meme. [sort of an icon without portfolio (ed)]  A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.

   Proponents theorize that memes are a viral phenomenon that may evolve by natural selection in a manner analogous to that of biological evolution. Memes do this through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance, each of which influences a meme’s reproductive success. Memes spread through the behavior that they generate in their hosts. Memes that propagate less prolifically may become extinct, while others may survive, spread, and (for better or for worse) mutate. Memes that replicate most effectively enjoy more success, and some may replicate effectively even when they prove to be detrimental to the welfare of their hosts.

from which I’ve taken out note numbering, etc.

    Perhaps it is a new life form. I suspect this definition was submitted by someone who has thought much about memes and has articulated much of that thought here. When I create an image out of her or his words, it’s something like a children’s cartoon wherein a character speaks words which stream out of its mouth and another character busily gathers those words and bunches them into a ball that itself becomes the thing the words represented – let’s say a running dog. Big dog, little dog, friendly or vicious? The ambiguity of text has always allowed for variation of interpretation. That’s why clear writing has long demanded precision. Memes are all interpretation with no intent intended – anti-precision.

   I’m getting closer to the “obstacle.” The letter writer is chasing her/his tail about the “proper” use of something that does its job poorly and is generally void of intention. Precision is demanding, and it exposes the complexity and inadequacy of language to ever express the vagaries and nuance, and especially the unique nature of a thought. Just like writing a ten volume history of the world leaves out an unimaginable amount, just speaking a sentence leaves volumes unsaid. A similar problem then exists for the receiver – the listener. When we hear or read something, we have to make meaning out of it. Vibrating air molecules and printer’s ink cannot hold meaning. We have to unravel the meaning from the crude symbols of language. In doing that we call on previous experiences with the words – singly and in combination – and with all the other clues, such as intonation, pauses, facial expression and gestures in face to face communications, for which ALL CAPS, italics, underlining and color are poor and capricious substitutes. I’ve tried to be precise here, but you, and god, only know what you’ve just read.

   Well, have you figured out the obstacle yet? OK. Oh, I’m supposed to use the Gen-Z accommodation “kk” here — or I could just be more precise. Here then is the obstacle: The hyper-fluidity of contemporary language has moved speakers and listeners, and writers and readers increasingly away from precise use of a rich and powerful language toward a polymorphic set of trendy phrases. As a mode of language use, memes hang somewhere between colloquial language, which will stay fairly persistent, and slang and jargon, which are more ephemeral in the case of slang and more exclusive in the case of jargon. As much as memes are generational, they fit both of these; they will pass with the next generation and they are tied to the media channels of the day, e.g. social media.

   What does this mean then! Well, it has to do with power for one thing. As I said, language, and I believe English rather exquisitely, is powerful. Its enduring impact alone attests to that. Think of the phrases from Shakespeare embedded in our common surroundings – “To be or not to be,” – specifically a suicidal thought, often extrapolated to any monumental decision. Think of President Reagan’s words 50 years gone – “Tear down this wall,” specially referring to the Berlin Wall in 1997, now applicable to any impediment to unity and harmony. Yet where does the power in these words lie? It isn’t in the words; it’s in how we read them. It’s what happens in the reader’s mind when hearing or reading these words. The power like the meaning is in the impact. Reagan directed his word toward Gorbachev and the East Germans, and they were meant to “feel” the power. At the same time, people in the West were meant to feel that power as theirs, creating the power Reagan was channeling. With memes, there is a very different power dynamic occurring.

   When people feel disempowered they may try to create, rearrange, circumvent or destroy externals they consider to be oppressing them. Sometimes it’s fighting back and sometimes it’s just lashing out, but it’s a complex natural response that allows us to survive and mature. Powerlessness oppresses many “categories” (really hard to find a baggage free word here, sorry) – race, religion, ethnicity…but universally childhood.

   Children are almost universally oppressed, that is, denied power. (An aside: premature empowerment of children has many interesting long term effects, the discussion of which far exceeds this essay. I’ll stick to how this impacts language.) One way to wrest power into one’s own words, or at least into the words used by peers is the creation of new words or word sets for ideas commonly held among peers. This is slang – gen code. Most of it passes out of practice as the young age. It’s cool that some sticks around, but the more far-out bits die ungraceful deaths. Slang is exclusive of older generations, thus it retains power among those who created it. Jargon works similarly, but with expert group rather than age – geek speak, jock talk, theologian esotericisms. Expert groups probably don’t feel disempowered; quite the contrary. They want to wall their power in, however. Both groups wish to be exclusive, and that exclusivity can be used as a lever to shift power.

   Memes have moved generational linguistic strategies along a different route, however. No better example may exist than “OK, Boomer.” this meme says pretty much what that strategy is: a demand that the older speaker affirm the younger listener’s existing, if limited, interpretation of the world. Other, non-affirming statements are noise or attacks. Such demands are simply immature. Who do you know who is immersed in their own reality, and accuses speakers of irrelevance or hostility if they disagree with this individual? What if we take someone else’s pet phrase and assign it a different, contrary meaning? Can we then accuse the speaker of intending the new meaning when using the phrase? Gotcha!

   There is a troubling counter positioning that underlies the generational meme war, and by the way, at least the last three generations have been in this boat. I can’t speak to the Boomers’ involvement, being a member of that generation, but the Anti-war Movement would seem to sit in there as well. In all of these generational power grabs, there have been two disturbing takeaways. First, because they focus on what seems accessible to influence, such as language, they fail to access the underlying levers of power to make actual cultural change that will persist. It is therefore not surprising that – and this is the second thing, not much change happens. “OK” to “kk” will not shift any power, in any form, to Gen-Z people. It will not raise their esteem in the eyes of their elders, who already hold more power. Memetic shifts will not gain them much more respect; rather they may only gain grudging obligation. Worse, as a species, we won’t get much better – but probably not much worse either – at raising our children to understand that, like so much in life, real power is acquired not by wresting memetic minutia from others, but by sharing understanding of what matters. Maturing can be a process of integrating our needs and wants into the general flow of resources and rewards through cooperative effort and universal returns. “Kk” will bring us no closer to bringing our children or us to this understanding. Meanwhile we struggle in contention and seek primacy, and thus squander the power we have on such diminished rewards.

   Empowerment can be weighed not by how others’ action makes us feel, but by how our own actions make us feel. And if we weigh power as one might weigh wealth, as an external to be accumulated, we are doomed to disappointment. We are trying to strip other’s power to increase our own, but their loss will not make us feel better about ourselves, only, in a twisted way, “better” than the person whose power we’ve stripped. We can’t make our lives better by making other people’s lives worse. That’s dominance, and it fits the reasoning of a maladjusted 9 year old. A mature person gets it that doing good feels good; all boats rising – an enduring meme. Another enduring meme: “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” (In case you’ve forgotten, the rest of that is, “It’s all small stuff.”) For purely self-empowering reasons, I want you all to feel empowered, to do good work and make this a better world for all living things. If you do, my power will have increased too, and I’ll feel better about myself.

   So thanks to George Lucas, my final meme: “May the Force be with you.”

About Jay C Ritterson
If I say nothing, it might be that I have nothing to say.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: