That ideas spread is not a new insight. But it was given new impetus in 1976 by Richard Dawkins’ book ‘The Selfish Gene’. In this, he coined the word ‘meme’ which he defined as "an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture". He saw it as analogous to a gene and so subject to the same evolutionary pressures as them. In particular, he said that they were subject to natural selection based on their fitness to survive. Now, as we know, fitness to survive in organisms is not a quality which is easy to recognise in advance. There are so many variables that we normally take the easy path and simply recognise that such fitness must have existed in those organisms which have in fact survived.
And so it is with memes. Who would have thought that gin would becomes so popular again? Gin was known as “mother’s ruin” in the 18th and 19th centuries, the preferred drink at golf clubs and amongst the upper middle classes in the 20th century and increasingly out of fashion in the 21st century. But since 2010 it has had a resurgence with the production of a swathe of craft gins popular with hipsters. Apparently the effect is a result of the influence of one part Downton Abbey and one part James Bond - shaken not stirred. And who would have imagined that vinyl discs and valve amplifiers would make a come-back? They are technically inferior in all respects to CD’s and modern transistor amplifiers yet have acquired a reputation amongst many aficionados as having an ‘authentic’ sound which, despite all measurements (and basic physics) to the contrary, are regarded as somehow superior by those who choose to believe in them. Yes, it’s a sort of religion. They are redolent of an earlier, analogue time when you could see and understand how things worked far more easily, even if they didn’t work very well. And that seems to be comforting to a certain section of the community, particularly those with more money than sense, because they are very expensive.
So then, the survival of a meme does not depend upon its rationality. After all, we humans are the ones who make or break them. And we are not totally rational. But neither is it the case that a meme which succeeds in Coleshill will grow and prosper in other parts of the world, such as Coventry or Birmingham. Memes can be very localised. All they need is a suitable habitat, however small, to survive in. In this, they are just like various animals and plants which used to be found exclusively on remote Pacific islands. The Dodo was one of these, living an untroubled life on Mauritius, until its habitat was invaded by humans and the fauna (particularly the rats) which they brought with them. Humans down the millennia have formed groups. associations and even nations, which have enabled them to follow ways of life different from the rest of the world. Villages and towns have their different customs. As nation states developed, we have seen different countries associated with different religions and very different ways of living.
Nowadays, though, we seem to have gone one step further. We are able to create relatively isolated ‘habitats’ for groups of people without their having actually to live in one place. To achieve this we have technology. There are television channels and radio stations devoted to particular points of view and, of course, the internet, all of which enable groups of like-minded people to live in a bubble in which they find the comfort of conformity. If we were talking needle-point or even horse-racing, then not much harm would come to the wider community as a result. But when it comes to extreme political views then that is rather different.
Professor Trump, the great philosopher, has decided that all points of view are equivalent and supports free speech for all as a consequence. This includes racists and anti-racists alike, marchers echoing the views of the Nazis and those opposing them. We find that ‘White lives Matter’ in the same way as ‘Black Lives Matter’. Of course ‘All Lives Matter’ would be a good rallying call for a nation where everyone mattered as much as everybody-else, but I don’t think that the white demonstrators would be very happy if their lives mattered only as much as those of their black colleagues. The reality is that black lives matter far less than those of their white counterparts, hence the rapid spread of this particular meme following the unjustified shootings of various black people in the USA. But the white version has spread in the racist community as one might expect. From what I have seen, their cheer-leaders, Fox News and Breitbart are unable or unwilling to see what is going on and instead encourage division in American society. Why? What do they get out of it? We can reasonably surmise that the people in charge hold 'altright' views, but they also make a lot of money out of their followers with their subscriptions and the advertising on their web sites. So then, the meme will be encouraged to survive whilst this continues. They have given what might otherwise have had to grow on stony ground a specially protected and well-nourished habitat.
But that is not the only encouragement to racial violence. There is the matter of comments on the internet – twitter, Instagram etc. Around the world, these provide fertile ground for people of extreme views. But extreme views are not new. They have always been expressed. Indeed I have a book of very inflammatory religious pamphlets written by the Reverend Thomas Edwards and printed in 1641, just before the Civil War. It is called Reasons Against the Independent Government of Particular Congregations. He was Presbyterian and it is a polemic against other forms of Protestantism. It contains a major attack against religious tolerance and “pretended Liberty of Conscience” and was addressed to Parliament. A few years later in 1647, he found himself on the losing side of an attempt to take over Parliament. He and his co-conspirators had in fact succeeded in their attempt for about a week until Oliver Cromwell’s army stepped in, at which point he ran off to and shortly afterwards died of fever in Holland. Whatever we may think of his views and actions, though, at least he published under his own name, which is mainly not the case with people on the internet. I do wonder if people would be quite so keen to say the things they do if they knew they could be identified and prosecuted for what they say. The Director of Public Prosecutions has in fact just announced a tightening-up of policy with regard to hate speech on the internet. It is now to be treated just like hate speech used in the street. I’m surprised it’s taken so long. I would like to think that we are at least trying to do something to discourage the continued survival of memes damaging to our society. We don’t want to see the Trumpian meme take root here.