Don’t Shout “Meme!” in a Crowded Theatre

It’s official. Memes are incendiary. Scholar Susan Blackmore recently had the unusual experience of a mass walk-out from a lecture on memes. She was in Oxford, that ancient city, seat of learning, where she’d expected open inquiry and free debate to be norms. But in this case, things proved otherwise. What happened?

Tea Time

Let’s go back a bit. A few years ago we were having a spot of tea at Sue’s home in Bristol and discussing her work in memetics and ours in levels of existence theory while we were compiling NEQ. Voicing some frustration at the way the term ‘meme’ had been exploited, she asked: “Why the bloody hell can’t those people tell the difference between a meme and whatever you call those things you people are looking into?” [Gravesian levels of psychological existence, coping systems, biopsychosocial systems, developmental stages, etc.]

We thought, why can’t they, indeed? We’ve been trying to make the distinction clear for years; some of our students get it immediately and others don’t, especially those who have been programmed to think a Spiral Dynamics system is a meme. It is much easier for most people to track down memes and adopt, reject, or ignore them than to step back and ask what it means to conceptualize a meme. It is difficult to move from symptoms to causes. What does it take to move from liking to think about a thing to trying to understand how and why we’re thinking about it? Sue was trying to address how memes think about us in her lecture, but some in her audience were wrapped up in defending the things they need to think about.

Some Background

The interplay of “memes” with Gravesian systems was introduced in the 1996 Spiral Dynamics book. The shortcut symbol for ‘Gravesian level of psychological existence’ was vMeme. The superscript v stands for ‘value system,’ an earlier term for the levels as meme attractors and structures for values. At the time, the study of memetics appeared to be taking off and adding a new dimension to the study of communication. But the field lacked an adequate explanation for what makes a meme sticky – why a thought/idea packet is attracted or repelled by a particular human mind, or in a group mindscape – and how memeplexes organize in conceptual space – like the forms religions and political systems can morph into.

The Graves theory lays out general themes for existence and describes an emerging trajectory of mindscapes that evolve as expressions of them. It maps conceptual space. What it can’t detail is all the specific expressions of the systems and the form particular memes surrounding them can assume. So memes are like grape seeds looking for fertile ground; Graves levels are mind-fields waiting to be planted. Each mindscape represents a terroir that is well suited for some memes to take hold and thrive, inhospitable to others. Many factors play into the ultimate taste of the psychosocial grapes that result.

Why do some memes latch onto one mind but not another? What causes management messages to connect with stakeholders or not? Why do some marketing slogans and logos connect so well, while others are quickly forgotten? Why do political ideas shaped one way reach a target audience and urge action, while the same ideas packaged otherwise fail to resonate? Why would one pose for a fatkini selfie while that horrifies someone else? Memeticists (and advertisers and musicians and political strategists and parents of teenagers) recognize when a meme becomes contagious and spreads, and when it doesn’t. But why? One of the intentions for the book was to provide a theory of memetic attraction and to offer some practical reasons why memes align well and hang on or else fade away, as well as how they might be shaped: in other words, a meme engine.

As we said, up until this point, the Gravesian levels of psychological existence had usually been tagged as “value systems.” The problem was that the term leads to confusion of values (content, beliefs, attitudes, opinions, behaviors – memes) with the processes of conceptualizing those ideas and assigning value to them (the job of vMemes). So Graves’s work is not a values theory; it’s a valuing theory. It’s about how a person comes to value something, not a list of the things they value. A working solution for the book was to leave the term memes as content (thought/idea/belief packages) and call the meme attractors and consolidators as “value system meme” engines, vMeme for short.

This is a source of great confusion for a majority of those exposed to the Gravesian approach because meme and vMeme are so often merged – conflated as though the two different ideas are one and the same – a simplification which dilutes both. Maybe it’s because they sound alike. We try to unravel the distinction during SDL1, and have participants pre-read Sue Blackmore’s Scientific American article and bring a few samples of memes to class with them. We discuss memes and illustrate them; we review the students’ examples and explore others. And then we make the fundamental point: Gravesian psychosocial developmental systems are NOT memes. While they might play a role in attracting memes and even in stimulating their creation, levels of existence are not, in and of themselves, memes. They are ways of thinking about memes, of valuing them, of shaping and expressing them.

Still, despite the readings, explanations, and discussions, 80-90% of our classes have difficulty differentiating memes and vMemes. It’s not a big deal – unless you are a memeticist, a marketer trying to understand how messages go viral, a communicator trying to align a message with an audience, a teacher trying to get a point across to diverse thinkers, or are approaching a problem space needing an accurate analysis of the Levels of Existence in play to structure an intervention. In cases like those, it matters. Conflating memes and vMemes – a content/container conflation as we like to call it – is the most common flaw in 95% of the analyses claiming to be SD-based. People tend to find a symptom and – Eureka! – proclaim it to be a cause. They take a behavior to be a system by seeing an obvious what and pretending it is a deeper why, taking a specific and turning it into a generality. But a glass is not the water in it; a basket is not the flowers it holds; a car is not the driver or the people in it.

So recognizing both the substance of the memes and the ways those memes are being thought about (conceptualized) is central to a well constructed spiral analysis. This relationship between “the things I think about” and “how I think about those things” is lost on the majority of our participants who find it difficult to recognize memes (with the exception of the Italian groups who consistently buck the trend), then to sort how they’re being conceptualized and could be thought about in many ways, instead.

Back to Oxford

Sue Blackmore’s Oxford adventure illustrates why the relationship between memes and meme attractors (vMemes) is at the core of Spiral Dynamics analysis. Sue chose some familiar themes and memes, including religious ones and evolution, which overlaps religion in many minds. What she found was that commenting on ego-involving memes – memes that people hold close to their self-concept and identity – can bring out Gravesian systems in sharp relief.

People don’t necessarily see memes in the same ways; in fact, it’s likely they will not. And that is precisely the sort of thing that part of the SD book tried to address: the intersection between memes and Gravesian levels of psychological existence, and the importance of understanding how people think about the things they think about. Sue Blackmore took a read of things her audience might like to think about and prepared illustrations around them. She made a prediction of things an assembly of 17 & 18 year-olds from 45 countries could relate to, and mistakenly assuming academic openness and open mindedness. It seems she misread the situation and didn’t factor in how those minds might think about a highly ego-involving topic like their religion and how very central that topic might be to the lives of many in her audience. The ‘selfie’ meme, illustrated with ‘fatkini’ pictures (plus-size women in bikinis proudly sharing selfies), can also be provocative and startling to some with a “modesty” norm or specific memes defining beauty, fashion and body image standards.

Her talk and examples triggered an emotional backlash based on how some conceptualized her topics and likely amplified by their perception of her own non-believer views. By touching highly ego-involving and interconnected topics like body image, propriety, religion and evolution, Sue activated a virtual-“This I Believe” test. Since memeplexes, like religion, burrow deep into the psyche, they reflect a lot about psychological organization. How tightly and needily or freely ego-involving memes are held is a great marker of levels of existence.

Two Approaches: “I-am-my-memes” and “I-hold-some-memes”

To clarify, let’s look at two approaches to attracting memes: a) the “I-am-my-memes” approach and b) the “I-hold-some-memes” approach. In the former, memes are held at the core of being. There is high ego involvement with them – they are part of the essence of the person’s self-concept. They matter deeply. Therefore, the more tightly bound, and the more identified a person is with those symbols, the more likely they are to react to a perceived insult or “attack”, even if none is intended.

In the “I-hold-some-memes” approach, the person might be engaged with memes – interested in them – but they are separated from core identity. They are things to think about, not who the person is. The more open the personality, the more freely held. These memes are more like clothing that can be changed when favourite fashions fade while new items become available. That doesn’t mean indecision or waffling, only more freedom to adjust the attachments. Memes are less about who the person is and more about what they like and are attracted to. Therefore, the person is much more likely to self-examine, meme-examine, investigate potential memetic controls, become amused by their hold, swap and change memes rather than rigidly adhering to them, or fight to defend.

Sue’s Walkout

Accepting the idea of “memes”, for some, opens a new and unsettling way of thinking. The idea itself can be threatening. Why? If one accepts that memes come and go, or that they control us, then things like identity and faith become far too fleeting and transitory. Absolute faith and a life aimed at ultimate reward get shaken. One’s purpose in life can be suddenly derailed. It is much safer to hold onto an identity one knows in a predictable life with friends and family and knowable beliefs and values rather than leap into the presuppositions that come with accepting the precepts underlying the memetic point of view.

From the outside, it looks like Sue ran into 100 of the “I-am-my-meme” sort, with evidence of some closedness shown in the classic signs of voluntary withdrawal and non-verbal stress leakage. For some it was the threat of talking evolution; for others an anti-atheist mission because of her associations with Richard Dawkins and others (atheists tend to be the minority group most Americans have a prejudice against – more than Muslims, homosexuals and immigrants[i]); and for others defense of belief sets because of what they deemed disrespectful and blasphemous examples. Literal meme handling can result in the mind closing to contrary input because doubt might loosen critical anchors. To defend the meme and keep the anchors in place, the challenger is vilified, discredited, demonized or undermined. Blasphemy and heresy, whatever the content set. In this case, it was based in religion.

Closedness can be dangerous. Since the line between the symbol and the thing it symbolizes blurs, people taking this “I-am-my-meme” approach, when feeling discomfort, will at best walk out. More extreme versions fight and die for their theological memeplexes in the same way soldiers will fight and die for their flags, a meme representing a political memeplex. They purge non-believers because non-believers are non-persons. Just as young people make good soldiers because they don’t yet feel mortal but do have zealous certainty, many in Sue’s audience were prepared to act, within social limits. Push a little harder and those limits fall away. These are risky times due to ever hardening “I-am-my-memes” thinking.

Because Sue put her foot on a worldview that relies on polarity of good vs. evil, she found herself the embodiment of a danger in a dangerous world. She issued a challenge to apply rationality to sacred truths around which lives were being organized through faith and obedience, and she then proceeded to blaspheme by doing what she does so well – asking questions and seeing the answers as works in progress, not doctrine, and challenging beliefs. To minds relying on dogma as an organizing principle, nothing is more threatening or offensive than scientific skepticism that injects doubt and edits the truths. She trod on the feet of the resurgent D-Q closedness of our era and saw some of the consequences object by walking away.

It’s not just D-Q, though. If one’s identity is built around being a free, self-directed, and autonomous being – more the E-R – then aspects of memetics can be similarly confronting because the notion of memes controlling the mind, of us being hosts for their reproduction and propagation, of the human being as a carrier for these mind-viruses becomes threatening to the more autonomy-craving E-R mind. This is where participants who struggle to rationalize and then get stuck also find themselves resisting the notion of memetics, the “no-meme-controls-me” set. Believing in memes here would be tantamount to self-imprisonment.

Sue’s surprise came from being confronted with the gap between the culture of inquiry and academic curiosity she expected and the ego-identity many members of her audience had with their memes. Memes were her topic, but vMemes led to a walkout. She discovered why teenagers can become such good and obedient soldiers for a cause, especially with the promise of reward to come. For some, entertaining the idea of memes and taking on memetics as a potential reality was too destabilizing, too threatening. Better to leave than seethe. As an out-of-the-closet atheist, she was not a rightful higher authority for the religious believers, academic credentials aside. Thus, the I-am-my-memes group was unlikely to accept what she had to offer if they picked up the slightest hint of lack of deference to cherished beliefs, symbols and ideals, let alone trivializing or making light of ideas they held sacred.

Thus we stand by the idea that memetics can benefit from studies of how memes are conceptualized in a Gravesian biopsychosocial systems sense. They will add explanatory power. How someone is able to think about things is at least as relevant as cataloging the things that person likes to think about. Memes and vMemes inform about each other. Most important, be very carefully about the memes you bring to a crowded theatre.

[i] Penny Edgell, Joseph Gerteis and Douglas Hartmann. “Atheists as “Other”: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society”. American Sociological Review, Vol. 71, No. 2 (Apr., 2006), pp. 211-234