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.”

Front Phrases

It isn’t what we say; it’s how we say it. Because language is symbolic, it lends itself to labels and sound bites, bits that represent so much more. Because language is metaphoric, it lends itself to misleading eloquence, phrasing that conjures appealing imagery. Appearance trumps significance almost every time. Most important about what we say is that it sounds good. We must therefore question everything we see and hear. We have iconized words to represent complex and widely varied philosophies or policies. We ride these banner words for reasons only loosely related to those words. We parade verbal icons before movements whose function and purpose are cynically disconnected from the originating reality, and sometimes fairly antithetical to the operation and even existence of institutions to which the words were initially connected, words subsequently employed to leverage change for obscure and sometimes Machiavellian ends.

What do these iconic phrases mean? Here begins the examination of one such verbal icon, Education Reform. A search of book titles related to “education reform” at Barnes and Noble online reveals 32,640 titles. We can only guess what range of thought this encompasses. Even if the ideas enfolded in the pages of these books are repeated on average a thousand times, it chokes thought to accept that the phrase, which drives billions of dollars and millions of votes, can probably be safely construed only to mean ‘changing something that will affect school age children.’ Of course, it can be pretty certain that it will fuel a great deal of media-fanned political heat. In the end, what is likely to get changed is the flow of money, which generally moves away from schools and often into profit margins and dividends.

Look at the words according to Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary (electronic).

Education:

noun :

1 a : the action or process of educating or of being educated; also : a stage of such a process b : the knowledge and development resulting from an educational process <a person of little education>
2 : the field of study that deals mainly with methods of teaching and learning in schools

Reform:

noun :

1 : amendment of what is defective, vicious, corrupt, or depraved
2 : a removal or correction of an abuse, a wrong, or errors

Let us assume that “the field of study that deals mainly with methods of teaching and learning in schools,” and “a removal or correction of an abuse, a wrong, or errors,” are pretty good indicators of what is suggested by the Education Reform advocates. At least something about what happens to school aged children is impacted by “methods of teaching.” It is certainly impacted by methods of learning too, but the field of educational psychology seldom enters the Education Reform discourse. The simplified findings of brain research are sometimes forced into that discourse. Unfortunately, modern brain research is more about what happens in the brain when one learns, but not so much about how one learns.

Memorizing Cassius’ appeal to Brutus probably looks the same as memorizing the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence in terms of brain activity. So how do we memorize better? Should we even be memorizing? Is that “learning,” and if not, what is? And what do we memorize? Our definition of education doesn’t touch on the processes or content we teach and learn. We can fault Merriam-Webster for the shortcoming in its definition of education, but how can we change the rules mid-game? That’s the definition we had going on. And that’s the danger of defining; defining attempts to fix the temporal into the perpetual. The practical reality of teaching and learning is something more and different from “the field of study that deals mainly with methods of teaching and learning in schools.”

If teaching and learning has to do with building society, and it probably does, then social policy probably should specify some of what we are taught. If part of our society, however, wishes to have its members learn, say, music, should society at large have the right, because it has the power, to deprive it of that area of learning? Well, we can’t manage the issue of rights and power here. In practice, our working definition of education deals with methods of learning, how we learn, and public policy doesn’t actually try to legislate that. At the same time, our definition doesn’t deal with what we learn or why, while public policy does put considerable energy into what we learn and in an off-handed way, why we learn it. The latter is not often stated, as it happens, but since the testing that matters is a measure of economic potential, we may extrapolate an economic motive in the prescribed content of education. Not a necessarily bad thing, though a bit flat given the depths of which societies and cultures are capable.

How we learn, returning to our line of argument, likely is affected by “methods of teaching.” At first glance, this seems like the place to effect change to reform this broken world; it looks “manageable,” and in need of repair. If the advocates of Education Reform are to be believed, they may provide the best evidence that past practices in teaching were indeed flawed.  These advocates were either well educated and are deceiving us, or they were poorly educated and shouldn’t be making education policy decisions. One questions whether the policy makers themselves know the answer to that one.

In reality, teaching and learning are complex interpersonal activities, much as parenting and (he improvises) childing. They are reciprocal processes, highly individualized and adaptive, deeply steeped in personal, sometimes sectarian morality, and served with a degree of social propriety and responsibility. Where do we draw the lines around these domains? The beliefs of which institution, family, religion, heritage, state, define those lines? How do we make the right things happen and keep the wrong things from happening when we can’t always agree on what those things are? Still, without having any clear idea what we are referring to, we will leave “methods of teaching” in our Education Reform policy, and move on to the “removal or correction of an abuse, a wrong, or errors,” because the reform part of our policy may resolve this methods conundrum.

Assuredly, if there is something abusive, wrong or in error about the methods of teaching they should be corrected or simply removed. To say there may be something abusive, wrong or in error about the methods of learning challenges reason, and further justifies leaving the learning aspect out of this discussion. We can agree that we want to avoid anything that is “abusive, wrong or in error.” Fair enough, as long as we can agree on that which is constructive, right and correct. Ah. That points to the soft-spoken or unspoken but hard sought goals of the Education Reform movement. Does constructive mean building a sound, secure society or a productive, profitable work force? Does right mean, among other things of course, all for one or everyone for himself.[*] And does correct mean there is only one right answer? We would have good cause to distrust anyone who even attempted to answer these questions. If they are still being asked after millennia of contemplation, one ought to consider the possibility that their irresolvability is their answer. The conundrum not only persists, it seems to loom over this Education Reform policy.

A year ago, I visited the Cathedral in Ely, East Cambridgeshire, England. I was of course impressed by the age, the history, the grandeur, but I was most impressed by what the Reformation had accomplished at Ely, and across England. Under the reign of the deeply religious, nine year old King Edward VI and his Lord Protector, Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset,

The 1547 Injunctions against images were a more tightly drawn version of those of 1538 but they were more fiercely enforced, at first informally, and then by instruction. All images in churches were to be dismantled; stained glass, shrines, and statues were defaced or destroyed; roods and often their lofts and screens were cut down; bells were taken down; vestments were prohibited and either burned or sold; church plate was to be melted down or sold.

(taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_Reformation, 06 Aug 12)

Standing, as I did, among the destruction of nearly an acre of Norman stained glass, scores of friezes of angels’ faces, dozens of religious statues and more, some over 500 years old at the time, and the destruction of the original Saxon remains including the seventh century tomb of the founding nun, Etheldreda, was a profoundly numbing experience. This was a compounded crime against heritage. Local lords and their knights paid the Crown for the privilege of wreaking this destruction.

I became acutely sensitive to the potential for loss of roots, the loss of heritage and the consequential loss of identity inherent in reform. Were the Tudor Protestants about reforming what was an abuse, a wrong, or errors in the Roman Catholic Church in England? No. We know it was about diverting the wealth and power of the Church to the Crown. I make no defense of the Church, but ask who paid the price over time. It turns out that all across England, Victorian wealth replaced much of the lost glass and statuary and even rebuilt many churches, and I’m glad they did. But where did that wealth come from? That which made Great Britain great, the factory workers of the great industrial revolution and the exploited lands and people of the British Empire paid for the sins of fathers not their own. Reform appears to be the great change that never changes.

So, where does that leave us, and how is it that we hear this term and others similarly devised so often? They are front phrases of modern policy. Front phrases are façades raised to make actions and even words appear “pretty.” They are spins on the truth, euphemisms of reality, dust thrown into credulous eyes. Not only do front phrases mean whatever the speakers or writers want them to mean, they give vice the visage of virtue, and pledge solidarity with disparate purveyors of fraud. You see, it isn’t what we say; it’s how we say it.

Assume nothing. Question everything. Look for evidence. All arguments are logical, but not all logics are reasonable. Humans are capable of reasoning. They are also capable of obfuscating, and lying with the appearance of reasonableness. Education Reform sounds like a good thing, but what does it mean? And above what army does it rise as a standard?

Now should we try “Restore American Values?”



[*] I am aware of the gender exclusion here. It is intentional.

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