From: Wade Allsopp (email@example.com)
Date: Fri 10 Feb 2006 - 13:14:56 GMT
To my mind the Danish cartoon's provide a very interesting situation in
which to consider both the strengths and weaknesses of adopting a memes eye
view to explain cultural phenomena. Undoubtedly the most dramatic element
of the story has been how explosive the spread of knowledge of the issue has
been and also the extent to which passions have been aroused by what in the
great scheme of things are just drawings.
As far as I understand exposure to the cartoon meme came in two major
stages. Firstly on the initial publication of the cartoons in Denmark in
September which was surrounded by plenty of media attention so that almost
everyone in Denmark would have known about it within a couple of days, then
after the visits of the Danish fundamentalists to promote the idea, the
cartoons suddenly swept Europe and the Middle East within 3-4 days and then
a couple of days later became a global story.
Personally I find the underlying issues surrounding the cartoons of more
interest, because it is those issues that have made it such a passionate
story, very different from some major item of celebrity gossip spreading
round the world for example. I think its very much open to debate what
aextra insights a "memetic" perspective would add to a more political or
For what its worth, my thoughts are as follows:
For me the cartoon phenomena is fundamentally about an inherent conflict at
the heart of the meme complexes which make up a monotheistic religion such
as Islam, Christianity or Judaism - or the desert religions as I think they
might intriguingly be classified.
If you believe in one Omnipotent, eternal God as a matter of
incontrovertible faith rather than a speculative theory, then it is likely
that the idea that people should not be allowed to criticise, question or
mock this belief will attach itself to this belief. I think that this can be
seen partly as a logical extension of the initial beliefs, partly as a
result of evolutionary pressure acting on this set of memes. ie where the
"no mocking and questioning" meme did not get attached to the "Omnipotent God" theme the "Omnipotent God" meme was less able to survive and less easily transmitted. The problem with a "no questioning and mocking" meme is that though it promotes stability (it is inherently a conservative force), it doesn't cope well with a changing environment - for pretty obvious reasons - it stifles innovation and new thinking. The consequence of inhibiting innovation and new thinking is economic and technical stagnation. It's important to remember that Christianity faced these difficulties perhaps to an even greater extent than Islam over the last 500 years. Let's not forget all the heretics burnt at the stake or the Galileo's that were persecuted or that Darwin delayed publishing the Origin of Species for so long, partly due to religious sensibilities.
What Christianity eventually "found" is that inhibiting the "no mocking and
questioning" meme and instilling a "freedom of speech" meme had a massive
payoff in terms of economic and technical/military advance. This economic
and military strength derived from embracing the "freedom of speech" meme
had a massive positive effect for the Christianity as it (1) allowed
conquest of new territories, wiping out or converting indigenous
populations etc (2) increased Christianity's kudos by associating it with
economic success (3) allowed it to modify itself according to the economic,
technical and social changes reducing the tension between it and other
aspects of the modern world. On the negative side (from the perspective of
the success of the Christianity meme) inhibiting "mocking and questioning"
and strengthening "freedom of speech" weakened transmission of the meme and
its defence against "scientific rationalism" thus leading to rapid decline
at least in Northern Europe. (Why the meme has continued to be so strong
in the US is a very interesting question that memetics might seek to
Islam on the other hand has been living in a situation of stasis for at
least the last 500 years. It has only had to come face to face with
modernity over the last 30 years or so as the (1) the media exposed
Islamic countries to developments in the West (2) the oil price increases
starting in 1973 allowed Arabs to import huge amounts of Western technology
(3) economic migration led many millions of Muslims to come and live in Europe.
If we look at the cartoons situation itself, what I see is a situation where
Islam has adapted fairly successfully to the startlingly new environment it
faces in Europe. Over the last 30 years the population of Muslims in Europe
has increased from something like 5m to 20m, through immigration and the
encouragement of high birth rates. For much of this period it has acted
"defensively" by for example reducing the integration with the native population, dressing differently, different food taboos, maintenance of languages. As its numbers and political power have increased the confidence of some of its more radical supporters have increased and they have sought to protect Islam from the dangers posed by the "freedom of speech " meme by terrorist intimidation. The essence of terrorism is to get tiny amounts of violence to be blown up out of all proportion and thus have a massively magnified effect on behaviour. Thus you knife one high profile film maker leaving a note threatening all those who defame Islam in the corpse, (compared to the hundreds who are routinely stabbed to death over drink and domestic quarrels every Saturday night) and you ensure that every TV channel and newspaper in Europe has to think very carefully before filming or doing anything that might be construed as anti Islamic.
The publication of the cartoons was essentially a response by the "Freedom
of Speech" meme in realisation of the fact that the increased political
power of Muslims combined with this terrorist intimidation was imposing an
important limitation on "Freedom of Speech" in Europe. The reaction of the
"Islam" meme was for a small number of radicals firstly to threaten terrorist retribution at the publishers of the meme, and then when this didn't have the desired effect to mobilize large numbers of Muslims in the Middle East where unlike their counterparts in Europe many poor Muslims have to date received relatively little payoff from the benefits of "Freedom of Speech" .
The net result is that the "no mocking and questioning" meme associated with
"Islam" has probably one this particular battle. If a few cartoons are going to lead to a dozen deaths, death threats against the jounalists, editors and media owners, burning of Embassies and trade embargoes, then its pretty obvious that the self censorship that has been im posed on us so far will be massively strengthened. Don't expect an islamic version of "Father Ted" any time soon.
Whether it has served to strengthen or weaken the "Islam" meme in the medium
term is much more difficult to judge.
This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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