Memes are contagious, and spread from mind to mind almost like viruses. Some memes, like "Look both ways before you cross the street", are evidently beneficial to the minds they inhabit. Some are probably neutral, like Jimmie Walker's "Dy-no-mite!" or the chorus of "Who Let the Dogs Out". But many memes, while possibly beneficial to individuals, seem positively harmful to understanding the world and to society as a whole. They get repeated because minds have some sort of affinity for them, when even a small amount of reflection will show they are false.
I have in mind memes such as
- "The Constitution protects freedom of religion, not freedom from religion."
- "Guns don't kill people, people kill people."
- "If it saves even one life, it's worth it."
- "God loves you."
These are usually uttered with complete self-satisfaction, as if the fatuous speaker believes himself endowed with some extraordinary sagacity the rest of us lack.
If, say, you're on a plane and your seatmate utters one of these, you can deduce with almost complete certainty that the person saying it is a zombie, one whose mind has been taken over by a meme that is doing its utmost to spread itself. Don't waste time arguing with such a person, because it is hopeless. Just exchange seats with someone a few aisles away.
Idiotic memes are nothing new. Gustave Flaubert wrote a Dictionnaire des idées reçus as an appendix to his novel Bouvard et Pécuchet in which he presented hundreds of what I might call "conversational response memes": if someone mentions X in a conversation, you should immediately say Y. Does someone mention architects? You should immediately say "Architects? They're all stupid, they're always designing houses and forgetting to put in the staircases!"
One characteristic that seems to help memes succeed is rhyme. Everybody knows "A stitch in time saves nine", even if they can't explain what it means. "An apple a day keeps the doctor away" spawned an hilarious take-off by the cartoonist Bernard Kliban -- the caption is "An apple every eight hours keeps three doctors away". I don't know why human minds have affinity for rhymes (Mark Turner could probably tell me), but a rhyme has the power to make a bad meme more attractive. For example:
- "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve."
- "Jesus is the reason for the season."
What are the world's worst memes? I've mentioned a few already, but here's one: "Evolution is only a theory." In just five words, the speaker demonstrates they (i) don't know what a theory means in scientific parlance; (ii) don't understand that evolution has roughly the same status in science as the germ theory of disease, or the heliocentric theory of astronomy; (iii) don't know a single piece of the multiple, independent lines of evidence amassed in support of evolution. So much revealed in such a short saying!
I now open up the floor to your suggestions. What are the world's worst memes? Go ahead, give me the really bad ones -- the ones that are so bad, so breathtakingly fatuous, that just to utter one is to be classified as an idiot.
I'd be particularly interested in dumb memes that rhyme.