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Memes and Culture

Last night my husband and I were watching television, a news program that was reporting how some memes, those cute or annoying (depending on your point of view) little moving images that people send on their phones, can be racist. If you haven't been paying attention, pretty much everything can be called racist in current Western culture. "Cultural appropriation" (wearing a Native American costume for Purim or Halloween, for instance) is racist, accepting people to do a job on the basis of their qualifications rather than their skin color is racist, and supporting any right-of-center political party is racist, even if you are from a minority group. Having no black or Asian hockey players in the NHL is racist. It can get pretty confusing. Memes are racist, unless you are from the group being cutely caricatured in the meme. (We do not have room here to get into the issue of cute cat memes; a degree course in this area is being offered at several universities.) A black person can send a meme of a black person saying something in street slang, or dancing, and that is cute, but it is racist if a white person sends it. Not judging here, just reporting on what the TV guy was reporting. But I digress. As we watched this, my TV-watching companion said, "What is 'meme' short for?" And thus the topic of this meandering blog post was born.

My phone at the ready, I immediately Googled, "What is 'meme' short for?" (Easily diverted, I paused this particular search to ask, "When did 'Google' first become a verb?" It dates back to about 1998 in popular usage, and was first listed in Merriam-Webster's dictionary in 2006). Back to memes.

The word 'meme' sounds like an acronym to me. Most Embarrassing Moments Enshrined? Miniscule Events Magnified Eternally? Mankind Enters Meaningless Era? Or maybe, as my honored viewing companion suggested, 'meme' is a shortened version of another word. Consulting an actual dictionary, the heavy, book kind that one can leaf through deliciously, I made the surprising discovery that there are virtually no words that start with the letters m-e-m-e. (Admittedly, I consulted the 1990 Miriam-Webster, the one on my shelf, given to me as a present by my mother. Thanks, Mom.) In fact, the only word in my 1990 dictionary that begins m-e-m-e is 'memento.' Now this does make a kind of sense. The modern, visual meme is an animated snapshot that can stick in the mind of the receiver. And in fact, though 'meme' is not a shortened form of 'memento,' the two words share a root. They are both about memory.

A meme is, according to the current Encyclopedia Britannica, "A unit of cultural information spread by imitation." A meme can be an idea, belief, saying, or pattern of behavior. The word 'meme' was not coined in the internet era to name the animated pictures that are circulated on our phones. It was coined and introduced in his book The Selfish Gene in 1976 by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. The term meme is a shortening of mimeme, which comes from the Ancient Greek mīmēma, meaning 'imitated thing.' Dawkins saw the meme as analogous to a gene, a "unit of culture" that is "hosted" in the minds of individuals and passed on from person to person; memes are idea replicators, neither true nor untrue.

Dawkins' work spawned a new field of cultural study, "memetics," a word that is found in dictionaries newer than mine. Dating from the mid-1980s, memetics is the study of memes. According to a 1999 article in the Los Angeles Times, "Memetics sees ideas as a kind of virus, sometimes propagating in spite of truth and logic. Its maxim is, beliefs that survive aren't necessarily true, rules that survive aren't necessarily fair, and rituals that survive aren't necessarily necessary. Things that survive do so because they are good at surviving." But they do not necessarily survive intact. Because humans do not always copy memes perfectly, and because they may refine, combine or modify them, memes can change over time. Dawkins likened the process by which memes survive and change through the evolution of culture to the natural selection of genes in biological evolution.

"What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a ‘spark of life.’ It is information, words, instructions,” Richard Dawkins declared in 1986. That seems a little extreme (a believer in the soul, I'm fairly sure that the spark of life precedes and lives beyond information, words and instructions); nevertheless, Dawkins' intent is clear. As human beings we live in groups, sharing words, information, behaviors, beliefs, pictures and wordless understandings; ways of living. Historically, folklore, schoolyard rhymes and games, and artistic symbols, to name but a few, are memes. Used by artists for at least 1,000 years, skulls and hourglasses are memes that remind us of our mortality. These memes are called memento mori, which means, “remember that you must die."

Memes, both those expressed in words and those expressed in pictures, contain cultural codes that encapsulate and transmit meanings, not always at the conscious level. Memes Encapsulate Metaphoric Entities. Memories Enter My Ego. Must Every Meme Enslave?

Till next time, my friends. May Every Moment Enrich.

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