THE BLOG
01/13/2015 05:50 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2015

How to Defeat the Meme of Fear

stuant63/Flickr

Events like the tragic massacre of journalists and cartoonists in Paris leave us heartbroken, angry and in need of perspective. We start with proper and immediate actions... to comfort the afflicted and capture the perpetrators -- but also to stake out a virtuous right stance.

The killers felt righteous, lashing at those they viewed were insulting their most precious symbols. Among most westerners, the response is equally fierce, to defend our own values. Indeed, if we err, let it be in defense of free speech. If we plumb no deeper, then sure -- "Je suis Charlie."

But is that all? Must we deny all complexity? Let me bring up two matters that could offend or make you nervous.

You don't have to praise bad taste to protect it

Freedom of speech must be almost absolute -- even for crass parody -- but must we call every in-your-face parodist a "hero"? Before you answer, compare Charlie Hebdo's hook-nosed Arab caricatures to similar portrayals of Jews, before World War II. Sure, context and intent differ! Charlie Hebdo's editors repeatedly declared fealty to liberal values. More to the point, their intolerance was ecumenically aimed toward intolerance itself... an irony that we'll explore further, below.

Still, these guys weren't Thomas Paine or Emile Zola. Nor Montaigne or Rousseau. "There is a wide spectrum between clever satire and puerile mockery," comments Sherry Pont-Ville. Effective satire is challenging, and often misses, even dipping into potty-mouth drivel. We must provide satirists all the latitude in the world, so that pearls can rise out of poo. "But that doesn't require we put all potty humor on a pedestal."

Context: France is having a tough time incorporating minorities, in a process that reverses (ironically) the flows of 19th century colonialism. One can understand a reflex that says "if you come here, welcome, but adapt to our ways." On the other hand, you don't have to be a jerk about it. Referring to Charlie Hebdo, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius once asked, "Is it really sensible or intelligent to pour oil on the fire?"

"As we've seen over and over recently, it is mockery, far more than rhetorical or logical criticism, that... drives its wounded victims to paroxysms of revenge." writes Doug Saunders in The Globe. Though Saunders correctly concludes, "But something has happened in the online age to make mockery, once again, into a potent instrument. The only reasonable response is to deploy it as often, and as mercilessly, as possible."

And sure, that means we truly do have to fall back on "Je suis Charlie."



Plumbing deeper

Through nearly all cultures and generations, an atrocity like this one meant applying shared blame to whatever group engendered the malefactors -- their categories of race, gender, caste, religion or class. Reversion to category has always been a human reflex.

Today, that reflex clashes with the rebel enlightenment's emphasis on individual responsibility: that your membership in a group or caste is only pertinent or culpable if you knowingly joined that group, as an adult, aware of its harmful agenda. Barring that, we deem it wrong to blame whole, sweeping classes, especially those into which one was involuntarily born.

It's fine to hate Al Qaeda and ISIS -- murderous cults freely chosen by their adult members -- but not Islam as a whole, with a billion believers who (a) had no choice in their childhood upbringing and who (b) want no part of a fanatical sub-sect's evil path.

Alas, not everyone can parse this distinction. All extremes of our political "spectrum" remain mired in zero sum -- us-versus-them -- thinking, riled by a constant drumbeat of fear. On this occasion, yes, most of the (non-Murdochian) media has kept faith with our revolutionary values, by eschewing the group blame reflex, emphasizing that our problem is with fanaticism, not Islam.

And yet... that very aspect of avoiding group blame makes this a battlefront in a new kind of war. Meme War.

Attack of the conquering ideas

There appears to be some real validity to Richard Dawkins's concept of "memes." Human minds all-too often serve as hosts for packets of information -- concepts -- that take root and start copying themselves, much as viruses do, when they infect living cells.

It might be an "ear-worm" melody that you cannot shake till you've passed it on to others. Or a catchy joke you just have to tell. Or that cool, what-if idea from a sci fi novel...

...or else a belief system that your parents inflicted on you, long ago, with deliberately relentless repetition, as if coughing the mental germ all over you, from the time you were in a crib. All these packets of information seem to propagate with the same propulsive intensity of any living system seeking to reproduce itself. Only these packets spread by getting human hosts to want to share them.

I'm not doing the meme concept justice in this small space. But at this point I always pause and offer an ironic realization: that David Brin just "coughed" on you the infectious idea, or meme... of "memes!" If you find the concept interesting enough to ponder, then it lives in its new host. If you hurry to tell others, then it has the trait of reproduction. And if you angrily refuse to let Brin impose such a trip on you...

...then you display another powerful meme at work -- a reflex of individualist pride that you suckled from a thousand Hollywood films and almost every novel or story you read, or song that you heard. The most common messages in all those media? Themes of individualism, eccentricity and the belief that "I invented suspicion of authority!"

Oh, and this one too. "No one tells ME what to think!"

Indeed, a proud streak of Suspicion of Authority (SoA) fizzes through both liberal and conservative Americans. Liberals fear Big Brother arising from conniving oligarchs and faceless corporations. Conservatives see him coming from snooty academics and faceless government bureaucrats. But the reflex to fear Orwellian tyranny is shared across the spectrum. (Stop! You're both right!)

Other memes -- like tolerance, diversity, and appreciation of eccentricity -- swarm out of the first five minutes of almost every flick you ever saw. These notions help to gird us for a fight, the strangest in the history of our strange species.

The revolution of positive sum

How few members of our Great Experiment -- not just in North America and Europe, but another billion or two, around the world -- have any inkling just how rebellious and revolutionary this memic system is? By all accounts, very few of our ancestors made suspicion of authority, tolerance, diversity, and appreciation of eccentricity top priorities. Sure, a few sages preached such things. But stretching back to the caves, paranoia, exclusion, conformity and group stereotyping were as natural as breathing air. Indeed, those older ways have real strength, even in today's advanced nations.

Hence this article's second great irony -- that a memic system defending and appreciating diversity can only remain strong if it recognizes how rare such attitudes have been, across the horror that was human history.

"But..." I hear some of you protest. "But you're bad-mouthing all those other cultures, claiming we're better than they were! That's... intolerant!"

Not really. Consider those courageous women and men who lit candles across centuries of darkness, urging tolerance, diversity, and all that. Who laid foundations and planted seeds. When each modern generation spreads the inclusion-horizon wider, it proves us faithful to those founders, respectful of their dream. Unlike corrupt, feudal regimes, who wasted talent, with assumptions about race or gender or class, we are gradually learning about unleashed individual creativity.

We may even be halfway there.

And so we get to the third irony

According to this new approach, we only assign group blame to voluntary categories. If the Charlie Hebdo killers deliberately joined -- and were helped by -- Al Qaeda or ISIS, then those groups merit co-punishment. We are at war with them. But not with Islam... a point that our leaders and (most) media repeat.

There is another layer, though -- regarding those memes we spoke of. Because tolerance and intolerance are immiscible.

Our Great Experiment is an existential threat. Not to surface doctrines like Islam or Christianity, but to habits of thinking -- especially our ancestors' harsh machismo -- that will perish if a Star Trek world arrives. Or if every girl on Planet Earth grows up to be an educated, confident and independent woman.

Moreover (in our final irony) this existential threat goes both ways. Fear is our greatest enemy, because only a confident people use science to re-evaluate old ways and keep moving forward. Positive sum thinking cannot long survive with zero-sum cults hammering from all sides.

In such a meme war over fundamentals, just one side can win.

Again, this is not about Islam or Christianity or Judaism or even capitalism versus communitarianism, but their angriest and most vehement branches. If our enlightenment "wins," there will be Islam in the future and everything else. But the fuming tenor of zero-sum machismo will be gone. Those who today preach hatred will live, but not their hate.

Moreover, they know this. And because hatred is addictive, like a drug, that is the wellspring of their fury.