Memes, Godwin’s Law and the shrinking space for healthy debate

The word ‘meme’ or ‘memetic’, from the Greek ‘mimetes’ which means ‘something imitated’, was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene (1976). The meme, analogous to the gene, was conceived as a ‘unit of culture’, that is an idea or a belief capable of taking root in the mind of a host and being transmitted from mind to mind, not unlike a gene transfers DNA and in effect, life.

Thus, what appears to be one person influencing another to adopt a certain belief may be an idea being transmitted from one mind and taking root and growing in another. The meme has more recently been defined by Susan Blackmore, a psychologist, as ‘anything that is copied from person to person, whether habits, songs, skills, stories or any other kind of information’. The most informal use of the term describes memes as ‘viruses of the mind’.

A lot has happened since 1976 on the meme front. Richard Brodie’s Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme and Aaron Lynch’s Thought Contagion gave memetics its modern incarnation in the 90s. An e-journal called the Journal of Memetics was published till 1997 to 2005, after which it ceased publication citing “we waited to return… but nothing has happened” as a reason for ceasing publication. In 2010, Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster film, Inception, again brought the subject of memetics to the fore. Modern incarnations of memes are captioned photos meant to be funny, often lampooning human behaviour.

But back in 1990, when the internet was in its nascence and only a few people had access to it, at least compared to today, Mike Godwin, an American attorney and author noticed something that concerned him across the forums and discussion boards he used to frequent. He noticed that the labeling of fellow posters and internet users as ‘Hitler-like’ or ‘Nazi-like’ had become very frequent. Even in seemingly trivial discussions, the argument came to an abrupt halt when one of the posters accused another of being a Nazi or correlating whatever that poster had said or posted to ‘That’s something Hitler (or the Nazis) would say (or do)’. This ‘meme’, as he put it, had spread far and wide.

In certain debates, the Nazi comparison understandably popped up. Pro-lifers claim that abortionists are engaging in mass murders which are worse than those perpetrated at Nazi death camps. Whenever the issue of censorship was raised, someone would eventually draw comparisons to Nazi book burning. However, in time the Nazi comparison, or the ‘Nazi meme’, was being cited in seemingly unrelated discussions. People were beginning to compare anything and everything to the Nazis or Hitler.

Godwin felt such nonchalant and ubiquitous use of the ‘Nazi meme’ trivialised Nazi atrocities like the holocaust or the Nazis’ general pathology. He therefore came up with a ‘counter meme’ to make people realise how they were acting as vectors to a very silly and offensive meme. He also wanted to detract people from using the Nazi comparisons. He came up with ‘Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies’ or simply ‘Godwin’s Law’:”As an online discussion goes longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”

He seeded Godwin’s Law in any newsgroup or topic where he saw a Nazi or Hitler reference. To his surprise, soon other people were citing it and the counter-meme was reproducing on its own! The counter meme mutated and produced several corollaries, and in the end, Godwin’s little experiment was a success. The incidence of the Nazi comparison-meme declined considerably in discussion groups and forums where they had previously become a pesky occurrence.

The Nazi meme has obviously not completely disappeared and perseveres to this day mostly because of the internet’s wide and far reach. This meme, therefore, has continued to evolve, in some form or the other, as was predicted by Dawkins and others.

Godwin’s experiment certainly gives us food for thought. It definitely forces one to think whether we all have a responsibility to tackle vicious ‘memes’ doing the rounds on our social media or not.

The space for healthy debate in our society is constantly shrinking. Although intolerance and the inability to ‘agree to disagree’ during discussions and debates are symptomatic of a bigger problem, it seems debates and discussions held over social media tend to quickly spiral out of control. Sticking to the internet, where social media platforms have infinitely expanded the space for debate and discussion, it seems too many malicious memes are being circulated.

Not unlike the Nazi meme, upon whose introduction any debate, no matter how serious the topic is, fell flat, there are several memes that serve a similar function. Most of these are usually confined to the political space, where tensions run high between opposing camps. The ‘traitor’ meme is but one example, which bestows this unwanted honour upon those whose views are contrary to the state ‘narrative’. The current debate over the legitimacy of military courts serves as an example. Those voicing concerns over the need and working of these courts are quickly labeled as ‘terror sympathisers’, or worse, traitors. These ‘memes’ are spread quickly and these people are subject to a barrage of verbal abuse.

Another more serious example is the ‘blasphemer’ meme that has gained notoriety more recently. This meme was recently used to discredit the social media activists who were sharply critical of the establishment and its policies. Quite often the ‘blasphemy’ card or meme has often been played to settle personal scores or vendettas and often has nothing to do with the issue itself, nor with the truth, and is used only to muzzle dissent or silence ‘subversive elements’.

One thing that must be noted is that memetics is unconcerned about the truth of the ideas; they are concerned only with the success of their being spread. It is then obvious how the potential for abuse exists. Lives have been threatened, people have been forced to quit social media altogether or even, in some cases, flee the country. No doubt those who create these malicious memes purposefully do this to silence dissenting voices. However, sometimes these memes pop up in seemingly innocuous discussions, causing them to come to a premature act.

It is then our responsibility to develop counter memes to drive these malicious and inflammatory memes out by forcing people to put into perspective their use of these memes and what it entails. There has never been a greater need to counter these malicious memes than there is now, and if we are to reclaim our space and right to carry out healthy debate and discussion, no matter what topic we choose, we cannot let intolerance win. As Godwin stated, the time has come for us to become memetic engineers: crafting good memes to drive out the bad ones.

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