Meme rhymes with gene. Like a gene is to biology so is a meme to psychology. Memes are thought patterns embedded in our collective unconscious. However, unlike biology they are not fixed in our DNA but rather taught, socially prescribed in media and peer reinforced. They can differ from culture to culture. Memes can be and are, passed on from one generation to the next. They can be loosely based on a sliver of truth but are more typically sweeping generalizations or gross exaggerations of reality. For a simple example of both a subject and how it’s reinforced— insert a lawyer joke here.
Memes can be chunked down into specific stereotypes of, for example; women, teens, persons of varying ethnicity. The meme is fog in which thrive bigger picture conditioning we know as sexism, ageism and racism. A locked in way of seeing others that creates an us vs them separation.
This first part will explore a personal example of meme’s grip.
I had a strange thing happen to me on a “red-eye” overnight plane trip back from Calgary recently. I got a meme grip in my head. It’s kind of like thrombosis in your leg muscle from sitting too long but it effects the mind, particularly the unconscious.
As people settled into their seats, four men were sitting around me in the middle of the plane by the exit windows. From my travels, I recognized that they were speaking Arabic. They frequently looked over the head rests and chatted.
Early in the morning just an hour before we landed in Toronto for 5:30am I went to the rear of the plane to stretch and brush my teeth using the mini tube of toothpaste I had earlier snuck past the hyper-vigilant security staff and their fancy xray machine.
One of the Arabic speaking fellows came to the back and stood beside me, presumably waiting for a free washroom. He bent down and loosened the laces on his shoes and as he stood up he fixed his attention on what looked like a fat cell phone in his hand. I could see the screen and it seemed to be counting down rapidly by hundredths.
I like to think I am a very tolerant person so I am embarrassed to share that my mind started to piece together several disparate bits of news stories. I recalled the news story of the box of 100’s of cell phones captured as potential detonator devices from would be terrorists. That lead to recounting the incident of the man who attempting to board a plane at London’s Heathrow airport with explosives in his shoe. The more I imagined, the more the tighter the meme’s grip. I was starting to feel very uncomfortable.
My thoughts locked into a social meme that has been reinforced and embedded by western media for at least the last 5 years, since 9/11. It’s a thought pattern that fuels mistrust, feeds suspicion and separation and fixates on a fear of humanity from a certain cultural background.
So there I was, an expert in stress and communication, allowing my internal dialogue to feed the slivers of truth and engorge a meme into a worse case scenario. I could feel the stress hormone, cortisol, course through my veins tensing my body for the primal fight or flight response.
I had a couple of choices. Let myself get really upset and report suspicious activity to a stewardess or an air marshall or calm down and bridge the divide.
I started a conversation. I said to him, “No phone reception?” He replied in broken English, “No phone . . . GPS, Fun.” I asked him what he was doing in Calgary and he got across the message that he was visiting a cousin. He was with four friends, all construction buddies from Windsor, Ontario. He said work in Windsor was okay but they hoped for better work and better pay out West. With every word I felt less suspicious, less distant. It turns out he was just a guy looking for a better life and a raise in pay.
This story is a reminder about worry and the negative thinking that fuels it. Maybe it’s a reminder that sometime it takes a bit of courage to reach across that which separates us. How many times have we kept a distance from someone we disagree with and instead of speaking to understand we speak to judge and keep a distance. Maybe we let lunch room gossip memes get a grip and we form a false impression or judgment of another.
Memes of fear take away a little piece of everyone’s humanity. Our invitation is to see people as human beings who put their pants on one leg at a time just like us. There is hope. Up until the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in 1989 there was another meme underpinning the cold war and nuclear arms race. Same as today, about who to trust and not to trust. Fortunately some people had the courage to rethink the old memes. I remember a line from a popular song from that era, “I hope the Russians love their children too.” Thankfully that meme prevailed.