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Friday Anti-meme #2: Shorter Sabotta

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 18 years ago, in 2005, on the World Wide Web.

Shorter Sabotta: Here’s two ways of thinking about what you are doing when you have a discussion with somebody else, and want to convince her or him of something.

  1. I am trying to give you some reasons, which may not have occurred to you, to believe something that you don’t yet believe.

  2. I am doing memetic engineering, through meme-splicing and memetic synthesis, with the intent of altering the behavior of others.

Which way would you rather think about what you’re doing when you talk with other people? Which way would you rather other people thought about what they are doing when they talk with you?

Further reading

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  1. xplat

    That would be a good point … except that people have never needed the language of memetics to either conceive of or undertake an act of crass manipulation upon another person.

    Only a terribly vulgar conception of memetics would deny that there’s an important distinction between memes that propagate between minds primarily because they embody true or useful ideas that those minds recognize and ones that propagate for … other reasons.

    What memetics can hopefully help people to do is to present true, useful ideas in such ways that they will propagate better because rational AND nonrational factors will work in harmony. This, too, could always be done, but memetics gives us hope of making some quantitative sense of the matter of how ‘persuasive’ a particular presentation of a good argument is likely to be … or of coming up with ways to defend ourselves against the spread of self-starting or maliciously introduced attractive fallacies.

    (Admittedly, the defenses we already have, the classic tools and disciplines of critical thinking, aren’t as widely deployed as one would hope, and would likely be adequate at least against the larger threats of today if they were. But the failure of such beneficial practices to spread is itself a serious failing of the traditional approaches to education and to making persuasive arguments. It would be hard to argue that a truly well-informed person would choose not to practice critical thinking …)

    My main point is, the memetic viewpoint is not something that’s meant to replace the view that we have minds, any more than the genetic viewpoint was meant to replace the view that we have bodies. Anybody who would use the idea of memes as an excuse to treat people as mere automata is likely somebody who’d already be doing it in the cases at issue–either a manipulative sociopath or somebody who plays one at work–and is truly using it as an excuse rather than a reason.

  2. John T. Kennedy

    I’m not even clear on what 2 means, or that it means anything at all.

  3. Rad Geek


    Well, I think Sabotta’s take was that it means, roughly, Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble. Which I think is probably about right.


    Of course lots of people manipulate, exploit, mislead, or deceive other people, with or without the jargon of memetics. I’m not claiming that meme-talk is a necessary condition for treating other people badly or viewing them as things to be manipulated; what I’m saying is that it does encourage it, at the level of its methodological assumptions.

    I have to confess that I’m not acute enough to be able to tell the difference between crude and sophisticated memetics on this point. Judging from the comments in Dawkins, Blackmore, Principia Cybernetica, et al., it does seem to me that referring to ideas, slogans, habits, recipes, theories, songs, etc. as memes — which are then compared to Dawkins’ selfish genes, to infections, to parasites or other symbiotes, etc. — really does elide the difference between bits of information that are replicate to a new host (that is, are accepted by you and me) for good reasons, for bad reasons, or for trivial or neutral or mixed reasons. Indeed, it seems rather like this is deliberate; that setting those distinctions off to one side is supposed to be the substantive conceptual advance by which a science of memetics is supposed to help us unify our observations of the spread of ideas, games, rhymes, songs, dances, habits, styles, phrases, etc. in the way that the concept of hereditary fitness helped unify our observations of the tremendous variety of biological life. It’s precisely by ignoring the fact that so-called memes are held by human beings with a faculty of reason and a free will, who either accept them, or reject them, or modify them, that we’re supposed to be able to make some kind of intellectual progress, and specifically supposed to be able to better understand how to get people to believe things that they did not heretofore believe, or to act in ways that they have not heretofore acted, by manipulating the memes we want to replicate so that they are more fit to infect a new host.

    I have substantive philosophical complaints against the jargon of memetics, which I regard to be anti-conceptual, and the attempt to use it as an explanatory framework, which I regard as producing explanations that are usually either vacuous or false. I’ve discussed those points at some length elsewhere. But at the level of ethics, the further point that I want to make here is that, when it comes to using of memetic mummeries as a source of advice for how to talk with other people in a persuasive way (memetic engineering), the conceptual misdirection involved in meme-talk actively encourages you to treat other people as mere things to be manipulated, rather than fellow creatures to engage with. How you talk about these things does matter, and if teachers of rhetoric are already inclined to encourage manipulativeness and bad faith (cf. the Gorgias or the Protagoras), then self-described memetic engineers surpass them by having built an entire discipline around the idea that what matters is not right reason but fitness (meaning popularity) and that the way to approach your interlocutor is not as a fellow creature to talk with, but as a new host to infect. Memetics, even if it were empirically successful, would tell us nothing about which methods of persuasion are elevating and which debasing; which are respectful and which dehumanizing; which are insightful and which cheap; which are honest and which deceptive; and which are rational, which are irrational, and which are simply independent of rational criticism. A so-called engineering discipline that aims to give advice on how to attain popularity for an idea, without providing any guidance as to any of these distinctions of the means, is bound to provide a wealth of ready-made excuses for manipulating, misleading, pandering, concentrating on style above substance, concentrating on popularity above accuracy, concentrating on cheap shots over substantive criticism, and either engaging with people’s worse natures, or simply manipulating them rather than engaging with them at all. To avoid that danger, you do need to make some distinctions between different ways of approaching your interlocutors, of the sort I mentioned above; and you also need to show some care for both the truth of your claims and also the cogency of the reasons you give for them. But to do that just is to do something outside of the conceptual framework that memetics offers you. It is to stop acting like a memetic engineer, and start practicing rhetoric, or logic, or dialectics.

    Maybe it’s true that misleading people and pandering to them and manipulating them tends to work better, in terms of practical effect, than engaging with them using logic and dialectical method. Maybe it doesn’t. But if it does, then it’s a damn shame; fortunately, it’s also something that we can change. Critical thought is something that can be taught, and wisdom is something that can be cultivated; if they are skills that we haven’t got, then the sooner we get them, the better. And somebody has got to start the teaching, by example.

    So let’s begin.

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