Re: Cartoon meme

From: Wade Allsopp (
Date: Fri 10 Feb 2006 - 13:14:56 GMT

  • Next message: Scott Chase: "Re: Cartoon meme"

    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 historical analysis.

    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 address.)

    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.


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