Friday, November 19, 2004

Fight the Meme!

I told John last night that I'd written about memes, and had mentioned his slogan "Fight the meme."

He said, "It should be everybody's slogan. There should be 'Fight the meme' T-shirts and bumper stickers."

"So you want 'Fight the meme' to be a meme," I said.

 "You caught that, did you?"

John wants you to fight the meme. Snarky, John.

Okay, here's the bit. The success of a meme - a viral idea spreading across the culture - depends not on its value as an idea, but on its ability to propagate. Raw exposure, humor, blind faith, uncritical thinking, the confirmation of existing beliefs, and such emotions as sympathy, anger, satisfaction or fear can all contribute to the spread of a meme. If you believe that John Kerry is a baby-killer who will take away your gun, your Bible or the weapons Our Brave Troops need to survive, then you're going to want to spread these memes by forwarding emails that support these beliefs. If you think the fourth joke down in an email of ten jokes is really funny, you may pass the whole thing on to friends. If you want the good luck / blessing or fear the bad luck / curse mentioned in a chain letter, you'll probably do what the letter says.

But you shouldn't.  There are a lot of junk ideas out there, memes full of lies or distortions (or just wastes of time) that circulate anyway, simply because people don't stop to question them before passing them on.

Here are the answers to some of the questions some people don't ask:

 1. No, neither Bill Gates, the nonexistent son of Walt Disney nor anyone else will pay you cash or prizes for forwarding this email.

2. No, neither AOL nor your bank needs you to verify your credit card number by clicking on this link.

3. Yes, evolution is a theory. So is gravity. In science, the word "theory" does not imply the degree of uncertainty often associated with it in common usage.

4. No, your Quizilla results will not provide any deep insights into your character.

5. Yes, this journal should be recommended to all your friends. ;)

Not all memes are online, of course, and not all memes are harmful.
There are good memes too. The concept of blogging is itself a meme. It can be a time-waster, and it can spread bad ideas, but it also provides information and entertainment, and brings people into contact who would never have "met" otherwise.

But other memes can be a real pain. I had a heck of a time not arguing publicly with my Economics instructor Wednesday night. Somewhere along the line she was taught to avoid the verb "to be" at all costs, and that all words that end in "-ly" should be omitted from academic papers. Now she's spreading these dubious memes to her classes. She presented this sample sentence for recasting (working from memory here):

If a consumer / buyer is having a hard time obtaining a product or service, the producer / seller is put in a position where he or she is able to have a monopoly on that product or service.

Okay, yeah, it's a bad sentence. But in trying to shorten it and get rid of the word is, the class ended up with

In obtaining a scarce product or service, the producer / seller develops an effective monopoly.

I pointed out that this revised sentence had a dangling participle. (It's also misleading.) So help me, the instructor said, "Dangling participles aren't as bad as everybody says they are."

This is when I started quietly (but literally) growling at this rampant ignorance.

Another student asked whether the word "that" was allowed. Somewhere along the line, this student had gotten the impression that the word should always be omitted from a sentence. The instructor made noncommital noises on this subject, but leaned in favor of the idea.

This same instructor crossed out two adverbs in my paper in the name of making it more "concise," and marked me down half a point for using them. (I may have used the verb "to be" in the paper, too -- horrors!) What she utterly failed to notice was that the two adverbs were integral to the point of my thesis paragraph, and that the whole thesis makes no sense without them. Grumble, grumble.

If I fight this meme, this bad information on academic writing that this woman seeks to spread, I'll endanger my A. If I don't, I'll have to trust my classmates to overcome the bad meme on their own. Frankly I don't trust them to do any such thing, but I'm not a confrontational person. I think I'm going to try to sorta kinda keep quiet, and only fight for good English in the most mild and tactful ways I can manage. Wish me luck.



ryanagi said...

The end sounds like a worthwhile meme to combat. Maybe you could enlist the help of an ally. Find a person of authority (say, an English professor) to back you up.

plittle said...

I'm sorry, you said it was an Economics class? Perhaps someone could suggest to her that she grade the papers based on the Economics information contained in them, and let those who desire lessons in english composition get them in an english class. Too much to ask? Pshaw!

cneinhorn said...

I had no idea what a meme was until I read this.....very interesting!