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The violent protests that have ensued in response to the recent death of a black man, George Floyd, at the hand of the Minneapolis police, and the resulting social pressure regarding how we are all supposed to react and agree with each other, have got me thinking about ideas.
In this essay, I want to attempt a solution to the following two problems.
I believe both problems have the same solution, but before I can state my main thesis, I must briefly mention memes. A meme is an idea that manages to spread from person to person (Dawkins 2016, chapter 11). Many ideas are memes, such as catchy songs, funny jokes, good scientific theories, and so on. Memes, Dawkins argues, replicate and, like all replicators, are subject to variation and selection: they evolve. For example, one person tells another a joke, who then tells it to someone else. Maybe he changes part of it a little bit, either creatively or by mistake, without even realizing it. If that makes the joke slightly funnier, it will spread even more. Memes can differ in how they spread and how they affect their holders’ behavior to spread, as I will elaborate below. (There is a lot to memes, but here I can only scratch the surface. Suffice it to say that a meme that is good at spreading will instruct its holder to enact behaviors which, once observed by others, help it get itself copied by those others and enacted further. Memes that spread are not necessarily good or useful or true ideas. They spread primarily because, well, they are good at spreading — for whatever reason.)
Perhaps one of the best examples of the dangers and irrationalities caused by meme proxies is the meme of being a social-justice warrior, so I will spend some time criticizing it. (It is more of a group of associated memes, a so-called meme-complex (Dawkins 2016, chapter 11) (or simply memeplex), but I will refer to it as a single meme for simplicity.) Social-justice warriors are those who exploit good causes to advertise their alleged virtues and gain social status. (They will, of course, deny this, but whether they are aware of this motivation is not at issue here.) Their good causes are usually reactionary, i.e., they define themselves in opposition to something: a social-justice warrior opposes racism, environmental destruction, poverty, etc.
Being a social-justice warrior belongs to a class of memes whose main replication strategy, I conjecture, is the following: when one criticizes such a meme, one may seem to condone the thing in opposition to which it defines itself. That is my main thesis. When that definition is or at least seems good, memes that rest on it — the proxies — are harder to criticize, as are other associated memes. Proxies can then mutate more freely and are not subject to the selection pressures to which they would normally be subject. As a result, they can evolve into strange forms almost unchecked — forms that criticism would normally eliminate fairly quickly.
This theory of meme proxies solves both problems above. The peaceful idea of opposing racism is hard to criticize (for good reason). Ideas associating with it are also hard to criticize (sometimes for reasons not as good) — they “inherit” the level of criticizability. These associated ideas can now mutate relatively unchecked and, sometimes, even turn into the opposite of the core idea without losing their association. That is why the protests against police brutality are themselves brutal, and it is the logic by which the meaning of a memeplex can evolve into its opposite.
That social-justice warriors oppose racism, is, in and of itself, good. But the content of their ideology does not stop there — they smuggle in many other ideas. For example, many social-justice warriors today believe that white people suck simply for being white, which is an immoral (and false) idea. Additional ideas, even ones that are as blatantly false as this last one, manage to spread because they are tied to the good cause of opposing racism. How on Earth an opposition to racism could associate with ideas that have morphed into ones racist against white people is not clear unless we explain the reason through the almost unchecked mutation of those associated ideas. Self-contradiction is usually a disqualifying attribute of a theory, but not in this case. These ideas are harder to criticize because they are bundled up in such a way. They and the original idea — the good cause of opposing racism — have become a “package deal.”
To illustrate this phenomenon, consider the following example. Just earlier today, I saw a post by a company called gymshark on Instagram (2020). (For context: they share posts about gym workouts and other gym-related stuff.) The post featured a white-on-black image saying “Fuck standing on the sideline.” The caption said:
Strength has no identity, only unity. We’re working closely with our team, our athletes, and our entire community to unite against injustice and make a genuine difference, not just a statement.
In our world of sports, strength and conditioning, we’re used to seeing black athletes as icons, heroes and teammates. We should not be used to seeing injustice against black friends, family and strangers.
We thank our friends in the industry — from Nike to Adidas to Lululemon — for their outspoken commitment to the cause. Because silence is not impartiality. It’s ignorance. And tomorrow is not soon enough. We must push for change today.
Though the post doesn’t make any explicit mention of it, given the timing, it is clearly a response to the event in Minneapolis. I dislike when companies use social-justice themes to raise product awareness because it’s difficult to tell whether this rests on a genuine concern for the cause and because I distrust good intentions for reasons I will elaborate below. As a more practical and immediate concern: I don’t follow accounts like gymshark because they are pro social justice — I follow them because I like going to the gym. (The inversion of this is true as well: I still enjoy watching, say, Kevin Spacey’s movies, even if the allegations against him are true. I have enjoyed those movies because Spacey is a good actor, not because he hasn’t committed any particular misdeed.)
I decided to unfollow gymshark. If I had done so quietly, they would have never known and there would have been no opportunity for them to improve, so I decided to share my thoughts, even though I was under no obligation to do so. I commented (2020):
I follow you for gym-related posts, not for social-justice-warrior posts. Unfollow.
My comment received several replies in a short amount of time. All of them were negative. Consider the following subset:
117% you won’t be missed
look at you telling on yourself
hey buddy, your racism is showing
These are only three out of nine. Most other comments either said roughly the same as the first one above or contained mutual encouragement. I am not relaying these comments because I feel bad or because I am surprised — I don’t and I’m not, I knew to expect such a response — but only to give an example of the kind of meme we are dealing with here. Take a look at comments two and three in particular. What the second one merely implies the third states explicitly: they allege the reason for unfollowing gymshark was racist.
Why did these people think that? My comment didn’t contain a pro-racist stance (nor an anti-racist one, for that matter). It simply stated a reason for unfollowing this account, and that reason did not mention race. So how come they alleged racism? They did so by extension: the ideas social-justice warriors spread act as proxies of ideas opposing racism. They are treated as a kind of “fall-through.” Criticism is delegated and applied to the underlying ideas, and then judged accordingly — even when the criticism was meant to apply only to the proxy. That’s why these commenters thought criticizing ideas around social justice means advocating racism, even though I hadn’t said anything about race one way or the other.
In some cases, these proxies can even have an anticipatory character: you must not talk about something without preemptively condemning an aspect of it. It is for this reason I suspect some readers will not get past this essay’s first paragraph without bemoaning how I didn’t condemn what happened in Minneapolis — but this essay is not about my opinion on Floyd’s death. It is for this same anticipatory reason that gymshark wrote: “[…] silence is not impartiality. It’s ignorance,” meaning if you don’t make a pronouncement they agree with, they consider you ignorant. And it is the reason why, bafflingly, millions of people, one after the other, have started to post nothing but a black picture on social media, allegedly in an attempt to silence their usual online activity and to give room for posts relating to the cause, oh the perfect little goody-two-shoes they aspire to be, completely oblivious to the social con they are committing collectively.
Of course, in reality, posting this meme achieves nothing but signaling one’s commitment and feeling better about oneself. People see the meme, and, because it’s tied to a good cause, and because of statements like gymshark’s, feel the pressure to share it, lest they look like racists. A social-justice warrior, aiming to gain social status, will comply, as did those responding to my comment: they were not responding to me, they were signaling to each other, putting on a sanctimonious show, hoping to display their commitment to the cause and gain likes. (Worse yet, social-justice warriors comply reliably and, therefore, predictably, which makes their movement susceptible to exploitation by the political enemies of the West who try to destroy our free society from within by strategically placing destructive memes they know social-justice warriors will spread.) A better name for “social-justice warrior” is “social-approval seeker.”
Several other instances of proxies that spread with the help of their underlying ideas come to mind. In the late 1920s and the early 1930s in Germany, for example, both national socialism and communism were on the rise and competed for popularity. (These memeplexes competed quite literally in the evolutionary sense.) I am no expert on the history of either idea, but I would imagine that adherents to either one did not adhere to it because they wanted to be evil, but because they believed it was right and did good. Therefore, I imagine national socialism managed to spread because it associated with the good intention of restoring pride in a beaten Germany after World War I, and communism managed to spread because it associated with the good intention of helping the poor. And so, I conjecture those who openly criticized the Nazis were accused of having wanted to lose the war or wanting Germany to remain beaten, and those who openly criticized communism were accused of endorsing poverty. (In this particular historical example, these two ideas, despite being similar in their violent execution, also defined themselves in opposition to one another, so that those opposing the Nazis were accused of being communists, and vice versa. Not only can you criticize one without advocating the other, your ability to criticize both relies on that fact.) Many of those who, still undecided at the time, considered opposing the Nazis must have asked themselves, “but do I want Germany to remain beaten?”, and, as they answered “no” to themselves, wrongly concluded, “all right, I guess that means I am in favor of national socialism,” when they could have realized there was a third way: reviving Germany peacefully, i.e., without Nazis. Proxy memes spread particularly well when they present false dichotomies, which prevent one from thinking of other ways to solve a problem.
The allegedly anti-fascist organization Antifa has gained popularity by exploiting such a false dichotomy and presenting itself as one side of it. This exploitation has afforded Antifa the same old defense. Here is a version of it by New York City councilman (!) Justin Brannan (2018):
Dudebro, if you are anti antifa that means you are pro-fascist.
It doesn’t mean that. The “anti-anti” doesn’t turn into “pro” in this case because Antifa does not stand only for the single idea of opposing fascism. Several meme proxies surround it (hating the police, hating capitalism, etc). You can absolutely oppose these proxies without supporting fascism. You don’t have to take the package deal. Alas, many today, like impressionable German voters in the thirties, ask themselves, “do I support fascism?”, and, answering “no” to themselves, wrongly conclude, “all right, I guess that means I am in favor of Antifa,” proudly pronouncing their decision, lest they look like fascists.
Another instance of the phenomenon of meme proxies is the idea behind the good intention of helping poor people. This idea helps smuggle in the mistaken assumption that wealth inequality is bad. Sympathy for the poor and the condemning of wealth inequality have become so intertwined in many people’s minds they think criticism of one always means criticism of the other. But that is not the case. You can see poverty as a horrible thing without opposing wealth inequality. (In fact, wealth inequality is the very means by which poverty can be alleviated, for, alleviating poverty requires people to become richer, at which they succeed at different speeds, if at all.) However, a mind that considers ideas about wealth inequality as a proxy for ideas about poverty cannot dissociate the two.
(There are more instances of such ideas, such as this timely one, given the current COVID-19 pandemic: you can oppose forcing people to wear masks without advocating they get sick and without opposing the idea they should wear masks.)
Because the ideas around being a social-justice warrior immunize themselves from criticism in the way I have described, I believe they are what Deutsch calls static memes (2012, chapter 15). These are memes that, rather than spreading for being helpful, spread through the inhibition of criticism. I think the memes I describe above are a specific type of static meme.
Social-justice warriors suffer from the particular affliction of identifying with one’s ideas. We all do this to some degree, but a healthy mind can dissociate from the ideas it contains, at least temporarily, to take a step back and investigate them critically. Social-justice warriors, on the other hand, rather than thinking critically, are largely concerned with doing “the right thing” (or rather, advertising doing so) and thereby only entrench any mistakes they may have already made without being able to correct them. For example, the idea that white people suck for being white is itself racist, but the allegedly anti-racist social-justice warriors have created new ideas to protect that mistaken idea (mistaken by their standards, even). Not only that, but they identify personally with the (sometimes only seemingly, sometimes genuinely) good cause they have taken up, so they see any criticism of their ideas (i.e., impersonal criticism) as a personal attack. Such ideas manage to serve as proxies not just for other ideas, but for the entire holder. To many, this identification with their ideas is so entrenched that criticism can be somewhat traumatic (which is perhaps partly why rather ridiculous memes such as “trigger warnings” have managed to spread).
This defensive attitude in the face of criticism that results from identifying with one’s ideas can create such strong dissonance in a mind that it may instruct its body to physically attack those sharing criticism. This is another answer to the first problem above. Violence may also result from trying to do “the right thing,” as the great philosopher Karl Popper explained (see below). If Popper were alive today, he would no doubt recognize what has been happening these past few days as the consequence of static memes hiding behind good causes, as many American cities are ravaged by looting and violence in the name of the good cause of opposing racism.
Memes that are proxies of good intentions can go undetected for a long time because they evade criticism. To evade criticism is to evade the selective mechanisms of meme evolution, so mutations happen almost unchecked. Since mutations are not targeted, they are usually not for the better — they deteriorate the meme’s structure and content. Normally, criticism would detect and weed out such poorer memes. But now, this does not happen. Soon, what started as a benign, genuinely good intention, can turn into a monstrous memeplex demanding a violent revolution.
Social-justice warriors love to talk about systemic issues. “The system is broken,” they say, “so to hell with it. Let’s burn it all down.” That is what we have been seeing these past few days as government buildings and businesses are being set on fire by an angry mob. Rather than improving things piece by piece, in a stable fashion, this mob wants a revolution. Only such a revolution, they argue, can create a system that is just and free of the shortcomings of our irreparably “racist, misogynist, and patriarchal society.”
“I am convinced that revolutionary methods can only make things worse — that they will increase unnecessary suffering; that they will lead to more and more violence; and that they must destroy freedom.” Karl Popper (2002, 462). Photo credit: AP Photo/Alex Brandon, as posted by Collinson (2020).
Popper identified the destructive nature of revolutions in his criticism of the doctrine of Marxism (which doctrine, unbelievably, despite the well-known death toll of millions, still inspires social-justice warriors today). He wrote (2002, 462):
I shall not here discuss the problem of the humanitarian aims of Marxism. I find that there is a very great deal in these aims which I can accept. The hope of reducing misery and violence, and of increasing freedom, is one, I believe, which inspired Marx and many of his followers; it is a hope which inspires most of us.
Popper is careful to distinguish between the aims of Marxism — the good intentions of Marxism, as it were — and the methods by which Marxists want to achieve these aims. In other words, Popper did not fall prey to the trickery of the proxy. He continues:
But I am convinced that these aims cannot be realized by revolutionary methods. On the contrary, I am convinced that revolutionary methods can only make things worse — that they will increase unnecessary suffering; that they will lead to more and more violence; and that they must destroy freedom.
This becomes clear when we realize that a revolution always destroys the institutional and traditional framework of society.
— e.g. burning down government buildings and businesses, or “push[ing] for change today,” not tomorrow, as gymshark said —
It must thereby endanger the very set of values for the realization of which it has been undertaken.
If doing good, let alone causing a revolution, is not the answer, that creates a third, new problem for us: what should we do? The answer: piecemeal error correction and problem-solving. As Taleb (2017) suggests: stop virtue signaling and start a business. It’s so safe and easy to signal a virtue with which everyone around you already agrees. “The best virtue requires courage,” Taleb writes — “accordingly it needs to be unpopular.” I agree. And I should add another suggestion: instead of following causes, follow your interests. A mind preoccupied with causes is a mind devoid of purpose. It is a mind floating lazily in a sea of virtues, surviving only by drifting wherever the tide washes it. A mind driven by interests and self-generated purpose, on the other hand, is like a strong swimmer who will swim against the tide when that is what it takes to follow his interests.
Purpose and interests are determined by the problems you want to solve. Create or identify your interests and then, optionally, identify shared interests — they indicate what Deutsch has called “shared problems.” (2019) Following one’s interests is compatible with Taleb’s advice to start a business because, once you have found shared interests, you can start a business that sells solutions to those with whom you share problems, thereby happening to make the world a little bit better, one day at a time. No grand solutions, no utopian dreams: piecemeal, realistic problem-solving. And you get to live by your interests, not by what some meme proxy says you should do. Value and improvements are created by businesses through trade, not by political agendas, and least of all by social-justice warriors.
Understanding how certain memes spread can be done through a meta-analysis of types of memes without referring to their specific contents. (That applies to racist memes as well, so social-justice warriors should take an interest in meme theory.) In other words, the question “why does person x hold idea y?” can be answered roughly by answering the question “why is idea y good at spreading?”. Memes are also criticizable based on their replication strategy alone whenever we have good explanations of how and why their replication strategy leads to violence or other negatives. I suspect those who are unwilling to entertain meta-analyses of memes will have a hard time correcting errors in their thinking. And I conjecture those who consider looting stores and burning down buildings a warranted response to the aforementioned death do not perform such meta-analyses.
You can criticize social-justice warriors without supporting racism. You can criticize communism without espousing poverty. You can oppose feminism without hating women. You can oppose violent protests without condoning police brutality. Etc. People need to realize this and identify meme proxies. Do black lives matter? Should we oppose fascists? Should we fight poverty? To all of these questions, we may be tempted to reply, “obviously, yes.” I agree we should reply, “yes.” But we should not reply “obviously,” for the “truth is hard to come by” (Popper 2002, 502), and the opposite idea — that it is self-evident — has led to much suffering and violence. Beware of meme proxies associating with a good idea to gain traction, initially just surrounding the true core of it, then growing around it until they suffocate that core and it disappears almost entirely. In some cases, it does, and may even be inverted. We see this inversion in how the supposed anti-racists have become racist against white people, and in how those trying to help the poor push them further into poverty by opposing wealth inequality.
A remaining problem this essay does not solve is how to successfully persuade someone infected with proxies to adopt an idea which opposes those proxies. I have a hunch this can be done by convincing him of a seemingly unrelated idea. It must seem unrelated so that it can pass the proxy guards. If he later discovers the idea is in conflict with the proxies he harbors, he can then resolve the conflict in favor of the new idea, thereby discarding the proxies. For now, this is just a rough conjecture. In a time of increased political division and violence, it would be good to know how to do this.
In any case — because bad ideas like to hide in the shade of good intentions, I have developed a knee-jerk suspicion toward anyone doing things “for good” or “for the right reasons,” especially when advertised. I suggest you do the same.
PS: By the way, how many of those who, only weeks ago, wanted to force businesses to close and people to stay home in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are now among those huddling up to protest, thereby further spreading the virus? And how many pressured us to stay home, only to drop that demand immediately in favor of encouraging everyone to go protest? Both things are about forcing people to do what’s “right,” so I expect a significant overlap between advocates of either one. Would they explain this contradiction by saying the evil of racism is greater than the evil of the virus, and, therefore, forceful efforts designed to address the former must, when in conflict, override those designed to address the latter?
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Brannan, Justin. 2019. Twitter post, July 13, 2018, 10:39 a.m. https://twitter.com/JustinBrannan/status/1017825776195047429. Archived June 3, 2020. http://archive.is/u84By.
Collinson, 2020. “Pandemic, meet protest.” *CNN. *Last modified June 1, 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/01/world/meanwhile-in-america-june-1-intl/index.html. Archived June 4, 2020. http://archive.is/KcObo.
Dawkins, Richard. 2016. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Apple Books.
Deutsch, David. 2012. The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World. New York: Penguin Press.
Deutsch, David. 2019. Twitter post, December 28, 2019, 1:43 p.m. https://twitter.com/DavidDeutschOxf/status/1211039968069591041. Archived June 4, 2020. http://archive.is/EcnNf.
Hackethal, Dennis. 2020. Comment on Instagram post, May 30, 2020. https://www.instagram.com/p/CA00wcCjMA5/c/17888757637543341/. Archived June 4, 2020. http://archive.is/xDGEJ.
Popper, Karl. 2002. Conjectures and Refutations. Abingdon: Routledge.
Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. 2017. “The Merchandising of Virtue.” Medium, May 27, 2017. https://medium.com/incerto/the-merchandising-of-virtue-b548762658f0. Archived June 11, 2017. http://archive.is/wVazK.
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