Re: Words and memes

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Sat Feb 23 2002 - 08:21:51 GMT

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    From: Keith Henson <>
    Subject: Re: Words and memes
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    At 09:12 PM 22/02/02 -0800, Ted wrote:

    >From: Francesca S. Alcorn
    > > Keith said:
    > > >
    > > > "A more seductive example of a social movement set off by a
    > > >lethal meme comes from South Africa. In the 1850s, a meme (originally
    > > >derived from a dream) led to a great sacrifice by the Xhoas people
    > > >during which they killed their cattle, burned their grain, and
    > > >refrained from planting in the belief that doing so would cause their
    > > >ancestors to come back from the dead and expel the whites. At least
    > > >20,000 and perhaps as many as 60,000 starved when the predicted
    > > >millennia of plenty failed to arrive. Known as the Cattle Killing, it
    > > >was not a unique response for a primitive society being displaced by a
    > > >more technically advanced one. The "Ghost Dancers" phenomenon
    > > >among American Indians was a similar response.
    > > >
    > > >Since I did the research for that article a 1989 book came out, J.
    > > >B. Peires, "The Central Beliefs of the Xhosa Cattle-killing." Some
    > > >of it is on the net here.
    > > >
    > >
    > >
    > > >
    > > >Definitely worth reading!
    > > >
    > >
    > >
    > > How tragic. It reminds me of something I read a few years ago that
    > > said that people who blamed themselves for their misfortunes
    > > recovered more quickly from traumatic events because it allowed them
    > > to preserve a sense that they had some control over what happened.
    > > At least they had the illusion that they had some control over their
    > > demise.
    >In the case of the Xhosa there was no illusion. They were entirely in
    >control of their demise.
    >What the cattle killings demonstrate is that mass suicide is primarily a
    >phenomenon of culture, not cult. Of course, cults can also commit
    >collective suicide, but it's just an act of idiocy, as the only threat to
    >their freedom is themselves. As authentic group-level expressions of human
    >consciousness, cultures commit suicide when they face the propspect of
    >enslavement. To be human is to be free. Better to die.

    Ah, Ted, did you *read* the URL? Cult or culture, it was clearly a
    situation where a mutated meme got lose and did a fair job of wiping out
    the population. The chapter at the URL gives the background for why the
    meme spread so well in conditions as conducive to its growth as the
    conditions in the 20s and 30s of this century were for the growth of Nazism.

    If someone would like to feed the .pdf files to an OCR program it might
    make this discussion clearer. This is, of course, one of the prime
    examples of deadly memes in a culture different enough from ours to avoid
    some of the difficulties of knowing too much about the culture.


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