Friday, January 06, 2006

The World's Worst Memes

Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. Roughly speaking, a meme is a small unit of culture, like the four thematic notes "da-da-da-daaa" of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Dawkins noted that memes are analogous to genes, and Susan Blackmore expanded upon this observation in her 1999 book The Meme Machine.

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.


Anonymous said...

It seems to me that the antievolution literature is replete with bad memes. On, the term "persistent creationist myth" expressed the observation that certain counterfactual statements or grossly misinformed questions simply would not go away, like the "if humans evolved from apes, why are there still apes?" question, heard on the lips of media personality Larry King in his interview of Barbara Forrest in August, 2005. Even "Answers in Genesis" thinks that repetition of this and a list of other PCMs does damage to creationist credibility, but the net effect of AiG's efforts in this regard seem to be negligible.

It would be heartening to hear of an antievolution advocate giving up a particular ba meme when presented with evidence of its falsity. But experience shows that this outcome is all the more to be appreciated because of its rarity, as seen in Jim Lippard's essay on "Lucy's Knee Joint" ( ).

I'll beg the indulgence of the non-theists reading these comments for this next example, which I will take up from a Christian perspective. That example is the "What would Jesus do?" meme, which seems to me to be little short of blasphemous, an invitation to angelism or worse. Christians might do well to contemplate "What would a disciple of Jesus do, like maybe Peter or Thomas?" to encapsulate a more appropriate ethic, but setting oneself up as Christ in contemplation of moral decision-making often obviates the principles of humility and charity that Jesus espoused and encourages the worst sort of intolerant excesses, traceable to the story of Jesus and the temple moneychangers. As Christians, we should hold that there are a great many ways in which Jesus could act that are wholly inappropriate to anyone else. Acting on anger thought to be righteous is a whole class of behavior that needs to be regarded with deep suspicion, not something to be glibly entered into under the influence of a meme that permits or encourages messianic delusions. And I would submit that the behavior that the WWJD meme has elicited demonstrates that it truly is a bad meme.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Einzige said...

"From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."

IMHO, that one tops the list.

Anonymous said...

"The blame game" is a pretty bad one. So is "Culture of life", but it doesn't rhyme.

Anonymous said...

"Life isn't fair." I think that's the one meme that really grates on my nerves.

First of all, it is often used to excuse or justify bad behavior. Secondly, it is pessimistic. Finally, it is flat out false: life is unwaveringly, mindlessly fair.

When people complain about life being unfair, they are usually upset because life is too fair, e.g. bad things happening to good people, as if the laws of physics should check a naughty/nice list before deciding who gets struck by lightning or wins the lottery.

Anonymous said...

"An exception that proves the rule."

Based on a misunderstanding of the word "proves" which originally meant "tests." But people write as though an exception to a rule makes the rule more valid or reliable.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Here are some comments from a friend who is a radiation oncologist:

Bhuaa--interesting reading.
The first bad meme that rhymes that I can think of is--if the glove don't fit, you must acquit. (from the OJ trial). Also, the question "How are you" which is supposed to really indicate an interest in someone's health, never really calls for an honest response. Even when I feel lousy, I say I'm feeling fine because I don't think anyone wants to hear my complaints.

Anonymous said...

"I have nothing to hide".

[why privacy is unnecessary]

Jeffrey Shallit said...

From a sociologist colleague:

"Takes one to know one."

Anonymous said...

"You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs" gets under my skin. What is "a few"? 100? 2392, at last count (see:
this CNN site for the current tally)?

When someone says this to me, I just throw up my hands and eat a Pop-Tart, which requires no natural substances and so nothing really breaks.

Anonymous said...

Further to "I have nothing to hide" -- I believe the original is the Beria/Giebbels version "Those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear"; and its logical negative is, of course, "Those who are afraid have something to hide": a truly frightening thought!

Anonymous said...

The meme that irrates me: "unborn baby" or "unborn child." The implied idea is that an "unborn baby" is the same as a born baby, but becuase of its special status of being unborn has more rights. When I encounter anti-abortionist who remind all that it is not a fetus but an "unborn baby", I ask "what is the difference between an "unborn baby" and a "non-born baby?"

Anonymous said...

How about the wonderful NRA bumper sticker, "Vote freedom first!" Nothing like remembering the Second while forgetting all the rest of 'em.

And, we can't forget, "We have to fight them over there, so we don't have to fight them over here."

Seems like alliteration and euphony is as strong of force as rhyme.

Anonymous said...

My all-time worst meme is one that AFAIK doesn't have a pithy rhyme, but it's fundamental to several religions. This is the idea that "the material world isn't really important, because what counts is the Afterlife".

From this root you get such spawn as:

"it doesn't matter what we do to the planet, because Jezus will take 'Us' (tm) away when he comes back" (leaving the heathen to deal with all consequences)

"If you die in God's cause, you get a free ticket to heaven" (no matter what else you've done)

"It's OK to kill people if you can force them to accept The Real God (tm) first, by any means whatsoever." (a.k.a., conversion by the sword, or by torture)

"It doesn't matter what crimes you've committed if you've been forgiven by God" (courtesy of his earthly reps, of course)

"God doesn't like 'those people', so he doesn't care what We (tm) do to them" (Q.v. Matthew Shepard et many al)

Anonymous said...

Some memes are not expressed as catchphrases, but as habits of argument. Two of my least favorite are:

"These are the same people who ..." (used to impute hypocrisy to a target group, without reference to any actual individual saying, doing or believing the supposedly contradictory statements, actions or beliefs)

"If [proposition to be refuted] is true, then why [goofy false assertion]?"

Many hack pundits have been guilty of one or both of these, but the worst offender I'm aware of is Cal Thomas, who flogged these two tired old nags around the track until the ASPCA was compelled to put a stop to it.

Lippard said...

The idea that certain areas of inquiry or intervention in the natural world should be off limits because "we don't have the right to play God." Most people who use such an argument are *not* Christian Scientists, and so are inconsistent in their application of the idea.

Anonymous said...

Hey -- I just found an example of my bad meme #2, and from one of your links, no less! It varies slightly from my template, but illustrates the bad habit of argument perfectly.

From Tom Bethell's atrocious op-ed piece, linked to from your earlier post, we have the following:

"Still, this doesn't explain why design-based theories have gained so much traction in recent years."

Notice how framing a false assertion with a preceding "why" allows the writer to slip it in under the radar. Statements beginning with "why" are treated as if they were premises, allowing wanton abuse of the facts to go unpunished. This may be a good test for hackery -- just look for the "why" and test what comes after it.

cat butler said...

One I particularly hate:
"If you're not a liberal at 20 you have no heart. If you're still a liberal at 30 you have no head."
Perhaps the most annoying one though:
"9-11 changed everything."

Anonymous said...

"If, say, you're on a plane and your seatmate utters one of these....Don't waste time arguing with such a person, because it is hopeless. Just exchange seats with someone a few aisles away"

Hmm I disagree with that. First of all, I think intelligent people often still use snappy simplifying phrases to express their (potentially nuanced) ideas. When I present my point of view, I usually try to start out presenting a quick, simplified version (a snappy version if I can think of one, but I'm usually not smooth enough to). I wait to see where the other person disagrees before expanding on that part -- that saves everyone time because it would take me 10 minutes to explain upfront all the nuances of almost any controversial stance.

Second, even if the person is the sort who accepted the meme without sufficient analysis, society could still benefit from a conversation between you two. Even though you will likely learn less about the other point of view than if you were talking to someone smarter, it's probably still good for society to have more dialogue between opposing sides. Not to say you have a duty to discuss, but just that if you were going to anyway, don't stop discussing just because your opponent says something you think is stupid. -- bshanks

Monado said...

I once saw, "Accordians don't play 'Lady of Spain'—people play 'Lady of Spain'."

Anonymous said...

Here are a few of the most virulent, yet empty, memes I could think of off the top of my head:

"America: love it or leave it."
"God works in mysterious ways."
"It's all according to God's plan."
"It's a child, not a choice."
"Keep your laws off of my body."

(hey, I don't like vacuous meme's even if they do coincide with my beliefs."

Anonymous said...

Of course I'll probably think of my best ones after this thread has gone stale, but off the top of my head comes:

"Let it roll off your back, Jack."

Used to justify all kinds of abusive behavior, it puts the burden on the target to be impervious to the insult rather than on the perpetrator to improve the ways s/he deals with people. Because of this, it encourages people to stay in unequal situations rather than seek to improve their lot, suggesting that true bravery comes from taking it and not from sticking up for oneself. The irony is that although it uses a male name to make a rhyme, being a woman, I've always heard it said among women, suggesting that we had power equal to that of the particular men we were dealing with in the situation when we didn't.

Anonymous said...

How about "Terrorists hate our freedom"?

Anonymous said...

Oh, yes, and "why do they have to call it 'marriage'?" about same-sex marriage.

[would you prefer "fred"?]

Anonymous said...

one horrible meme that many otherwise rational people will faithfully support is that "you only use ~10% percent of your brain" and that the remainder is home to dormant psychic powers or the otherwise potentially supernatural.

Anonymous said...

A meme I find annoying is the use of the word "meme" when a more standard and more specific word, like "cliche", "catchphrase", "trend", "fashion", or "rumor", would do. That, and hypocritical, self-referential comments.

Anonymous said...

"Nobody's got a crystal ball." The utterer doesn't want to take the responsibility of having foresight, and doesn't want you to show her/him up by having more than s/he does.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Hi, Ken. I don't think your suggested replacement does it. "Trend" doesn't refer to a little unit, the way meme does. Neither does "fashion" or "rumor" capture the notion. "Cliche" and "catchphrase" are closer, but meme is more general, as it can refer to a snippet of music as well as a phrase.

I don't know what your "hypocritical self-referential comments" refers to. Could you be more specific?

Anonymous said...

"The exception that proves the rule" is my favorite and one of the most common examples of this.

"Proves" until 150 years ago or so (date approximate, don't care to search for it) meant "tests," as in the "Aberdeen Proving Grounds."

"The exception that tests the rule," the original meaning of the phrase, makes perfect sense. However, the meaning shifted, while the phrase remained the same, rendering it nonsensical.

The phrase now means almost exactly the opposite of what it did, originally, yet people still parrot it as some truism.


Anonymous said...

Can't think of many proofs of the speaker's inanity that can compete with "Great minds think alike." It always makes me change airplane seats :)

Anonymous said...

Either of "loose lips sink ships" and "hindsight is 20/20" might make me want to change seats (although I would be more likely to just politely terminate the conversation).

Anonymous said...

How about honourable mentions for bad memes that never really caught on? "There is no such thing as society", and so on.

Zeno said...

God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.

That's one of my favorite goofball memes. If someone would be so kind as to use it in my presence, I would sweetly say, "Of course God created Steve. Who else do you think did it?"

Anonymous said...

When arguing against paranoia, I hate the following response:

Me: "Being hit by a comet has a one in a bazillion odds"

Them: "Yeah, but what if you're that one!"