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Memes: A Virus in the Culture

A form of media that has often gone unnoticed and has revealed itself as inherently powerful in the age of social media is the meme. You know them as catchy images overlaid with teasing or impactful phrases that show up in your feed and forwarded by your friends, auntie, or the guy from work that, for the life of you, can’t understand why you accepted the friend request. Memes are bigger than social media gems designed for your likes and shares.

Memes are the primary means by which ideas and concepts are passed along in culture to create a cohesion of perspective within a society. Memes are playful and innocent minor artifacts of modern connected culture that get a punchline or point across in seconds and can go viral in a flash. However, memes have been with us far longer than the birth of the internet. Memes can be found in catchphrases such as; the once overly familiar Budweiser slogan of “What’s upppppp!” or the tagline that even my grandmother couldn’t help passing along; “Where’s the beef?”. Memes in advertising have been the backbone of popular culture for more than 100 years.

Memes are deeply embedded in cultural ideals and perspectives. The reinforcement of the values of liberal and conservative binary party systems within the ranks of each of their members is a much more extreme example. Memes profoundly reinforced how each of those parties feels about themselves and the opposing party; Liberals like big government and conservatives want small government. Even more nefarious memes such as liberals are pedophiles and conservatives are warmongers.

Memes don’t have to be valid to be accurate. They are not an expression of social truth but only of perpetuated social paradigms that become reinforced through feedback loops as they are passed along from individual members of a culture. One of the most substantial paradigm clashes in our current society is race. For people within communities of color, race is seen to keep oppression in place and elevate those who do not look like them. For those in the white community, race is a simple fact of our biological lives and plays a minor role in succeeding. These are both gross generalizations and rife with falsehood, as most memes are, but are still natural perspectives in our society.

The collective impact of these small but powerful media elements is easily observed. When they are fun and playful, even our elders can be seen jumping into the game of memes as they repeat them and pass them along. It is when they are harmful that the impact can leave us reeling. In this modern age, social media accounts are a means for memes to be mindlessly forward by those same elders, friends, or colleagues who are quickly and mindlessly motivated to agree on a charged topic in these set times. Without researching the truth, an idea is passed along until it catches fire in the consciousness of many. In our participation in this social game, truth becomes the apathetic complacency rather than the rigorous pursuit it deserves.

How do we uncover a truth in a world that is built on popular iconography? We must be willing to pursue it regardless of its outcomes on our worldviews. Rather than looking for information to support our entrenched perspectives, we must seek out the societal behavior patterns that have shaped those paradigms until we can deem them worthy of remaining in place. We do this by reading and studying and reading some more. Youtube videos and Facebook posts will only seal us into silos of false belief systems. Reddit threads and Twitter feeds can provide insight into individual and group-think, but they can not provide us with the anchoring elements of truth: We must read books. Certainly, modern biographies and narratives can assist us in this quest, but the writings of the dead are the backbone to understanding the truth of our human existence.

We must read the writing of those from past generations and those from our ancient past. We must seek diverse ideas and writers from many cultural backgrounds and long-lost civilizations. Spiritual texts, mediations, and treaties on the ideals of humankind are the best foundational material we can start with. These provide a central system of concepts to build from and discern with. The remarkable aspect of all ancient texts is that they have incredibly common themes found in them. You will see them for yourself when brought together through your study and insight. Indeed, someone else can tell you what they are, but you can never truly know them until you read them.

We build on this foundation by reading the stories and sagas of those before us. Who were they? What were their struggles? What were their hopes, and what was their despair? Seek out the writings and stories of our ancestors and then seek out the stories of someone else’s ancestors, especially if these cultures came into contact with one another. How did they regard each other? What beliefs drove them to their decisions, and why did they choose the paths they did. Were they forced down a road of destiny, or did they force others down that road?

The reality is, regardless of your ethnic or racial identity or background, despite your place in society or your means of success or failure in it, if you have not taken the time to study in this manner, you are working from an inherently false worldview. If all your ideals and values come from modern media sources or cultural iconography, you are swimming in a shallow pool of paradigms. There is no depth, and there is no flow. The channels of knowledge are filled with the excrement of self-centeredness, while the outflows are clogged with a sludge of bad information.

Modern religious institutions have created fear for seeking knowledge. They have equipped their members with weaponized apologetics rather than means for discerning truth. It is not that the facts found in their gospels are necessarily false. Still, without the enrichment and discernment that comes from a wealth of knowledge on many diverse religious and spiritual subjects, their followers become walled into a paradigm of fear for what is outside their dogma. The most incredible meme machine of the ages is organized religion. Modern Western Christianity and Fundamentalist Islam are two opposing powers of control for large groups of the human populations that have successfully franchised ignorance in the name of salvation.

Unfortunately, our education system and cultural ideals do not promote this indoctrination. That is not the fault of these systems but the models that form them. A method is never broken; it simply serves those it empowers. If you’re not empowered by the system in which you swim, then you are not the one it serves. To know this, you must look beyond the illusion of empowerment that you believe you possess. If it is simply a mechanism of self-aggrandizing and self-gratification, then there is no true empowerment to be found. True empowerment builds empowerment in others. It uplifts the collective human being that encompasses us all. It’s found in knowledge and service to the whole. Not in newsfeeds and memes that reinforce your feeble worldview.

How can you tell if your worldview is feeble? Simple. How easy is it to harm it or threaten it? How fragile is your sense of self that you recoil to protect or lash out when it is challenged? A worldview that is cobbled together by a 24-hour news cycle and an endless dredge of entertainment content are asleep at the wheel. It is the consciousness of a drone rather than an awakened human being. It is easy to find ourselves there, but our responsibility is absolutely to free ourselves from it.

The world feels inexorably large and infinitely scary when we are looking into the void from the perspective of fear and scarcity. Despite the promise of connecting humanity through sharing knowledge, the current iteration of the internet is dividing us through the propagation of anxiety, suspicion, and cowardice: Someone is out there wanting to take something away from you. In early versions of online conspiracy, it was a government or a shadow organization bent on the domination of humanity. Now, it’s your neighbor, friend, aunt, or co-worker. It’s time to awaken from this nightmare. It’s time to put down the device and pick up a book. It’s up to you.

Plowline Podcast Episode: https://bit.ly/Ep21MemesAVirusInTheCulture

Jeremy Tunnell & Gerry Ebalaroza-Tunnell are authors, presenters and consultants with Co3 Consutling. Jeremy writes and presents on dismantling whiteness, personal and organizational resilience and our reality in the Unified Field. Gerry leads teams and organizations in equity and inclusion work as the Director of Equity for the Mukilteo School District. She is the principle consultant for Co3 Consulting and author of the upcoming book Evolution of Aloha. Together, they host The Plowline Podcast.

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