Saturday, November 06, 2004

The Masters of Meme Manipulation

Unsurprisingly, there is a movement afoot to block Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter from becoming chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and this movement is being spearheaded by the new power brokers in American politics. This from the New York Times:

...the Republican officials said that continuing resistance to his taking the chairmanship of the committee that examines judicial nominees was being fanned by conservative talk radio hosts and groups outraged over his comments.

I don't listen to Right-Wing Radio if I can help it. I don't care to, I don't want to, and I'd rather not let my ears be assaulted by the hate-filled diatribes of the right-wing radio personalities. But a lot of people do.

I don't listen as a habit, but I have heard enough to have some understanding of how they work. These "conservative talk-show hosts"* appeal to the lowest and basest parts of the human consciousness: fear, prejudice, hatred, xenophobia, paranoia, greed. And they package what they say neatly into easily-digestible sound bites, no processing required.

They are masters of meme manipulation. I don't have the expertise to explain to you clearly what a meme is, but here's the Wikipedia entry on memes, and it's worth a read. Here are the first two sentences:

A meme (rhymes with "dream", but comes from memetic and memory) is a unit of information that replicates from brains or retention systems, such as books, to other brains or retention systems. In more specific terms, a meme is a self-propagating unit of cultural evolution, analogous to the gene (the unit of genetics).

Memes are simple and powerful. Once a person accepts a meme, they tend to pass it along to others. Meme replication actually follows a viral model, in that each person who takes in a new meme is capable of passing it on to many others.

There's no value statement being made about memes here. They can be true or false, it doesn't really matter as long as they spread. They are the basis for the transmission of urban legends, many of which, while false, become accepted as truth by society at large. (Which is why most gas pumps these days are graced with stickers sternly warning you DO NOT USE CELL PHONE WHILE PUMPING GAS. Cell phones can't make gas pumps explode, but enough people believe they can for it to have become an accepted truth that they do.)

People who listen to "conservative talk-show hosts" tend to be inclined to believe anything they hear from them, so any memes spouted on these shows have a direct path into the true believer's brain. They will then embrace these statements ("John Kerry loves to windsurf", "there were only 3 tons of explosives missing from Al-Qaqaa"), make them their own, and repeat them as often as possible - and since many of the people they repeat them to were likely to have listened to the same show, they will find their beliefs reinforced by the agreement of others. In a short time, the meme has gone from a statement made by some guy on the radio to being accepted common knowledge among a significant portion of the population.

The secret is the simplicity. Democrats and other "liberals" tend to apply critical thinking to statements they hear, rather than accepting them instantly as the Gospel truth. They understand that the world is a complex place, that there are layers of causality behind any event, and that you can rarely sum things up in a phrase that will fit on a T-shirt. Not so the fans of "conservative talk-show hosts"**, who see the world as a much simpler place, where any opinion can be encapsulated in a few short words. And they yearn for those few short words that they can accept as the truth.

In an earlier post I suggested that what we needed to do as part of the national healing process was to instill critical thinking skills in more people so that they would be less inclined to blindly accept the statements that are fed to them through the Right-Wing communications network. But perhaps at the same time, we Liberals need to embrace the power of the meme as a means of communicating simple ideas very quickly. We shouldn't sink to their level - we should stick to the truth, for example - but the meme may be the only tool for winning back the hearts and minds of the people who spend their mornings taking their marching orders from a voice on the radio.

*I disagree with this phrase in every way. These guys aren't "conservative", any more than George Bush is a Conservative. Hell, I call myself a Liberal, and I've got more conservative values than they do. The things that they broadcast can hardly be called "talk shows" - the venomous spewing that they do sure as hell ain't "talk". And the term "host" implies a certain level of politeness and courtesy which is completely alien to these people.

**I am in no way implying that everybody who voted for Bush falls into this category. But this does represent a significant block of the people who did, without whom Bush would have probably not have been elected by the slim margin that he was.

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