Marsden, Wood: Rape, Memes, and Normative Bias

Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog (
Tue, 10 Jun 1997 18:48:14 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Tue, 10 Jun 1997 18:48:14 -0500
From: (Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog)
Subject: Marsden, Wood: Rape, Memes, and Normative Bias

>This is a reply to Tim Perper's call for a moral stance to be taken in
>memetics that has
>"Eventually, one must take an ethical position about what sorts of
>memes -- of ideas, values, traditions, call them what you will -- *should*
>be promulgated."
>There is certainly no *must* about taking such a position, and as a social
>scientist who is committed to value-freedom in my work I certainly shall
>not be deciding what is "decent" for everybody. Blaise Pascale once said
>that what is true on one side of the Pyranees is false on the other. Once
>you realise that there are no absolute values, and that values are
>relative, you become more modest in wanting to impose your morality on
>other people. For me, the goal of memetics should be to recount as
>faithfully as possible with our unique set of analytical tools what is, not
>what should be. As far as rape is concerned, as a memetician I have no
>moral position to take, but as an individual engaged in society I find the
>infliction of pain and suffering on others abhorrent, and so am against it
>and will argue against it. But as a social scientist, who has too often
>seen the effects of unintended consequences, I am committed to a calculus
>of modesty, partly because because any alternative would take any claim for
>objectivity away from memetics, but mostly because I respect my fellow
>humans enough to let them make their own minds up (infected or not) about
>what is right and wrong. I counter your demand with a plea : Memetics must
>be value free.

Maybe it's memetic overload on my part, but I've got to say it -- fish
feathers, Paul. And pious fish feathers to boot. The claim that science
-- *any* science -- is value-neutral has been exploded by a wide variety of
post-modernist criticisms: as someone said in this mass of memails,
psychoanalysis, marxism, deconstructionism, reader theory in lit crit, to
say nothing of queer theory.

Actually, I did not call for memetics to take a moral stance; I said what
you quoted -- sooner or later each of us must take such a stance. For an
individual, a "memetics" unshaped by an ethical vision is not *possible*
because even the moral relativism of Pascal is an ethical vision. It
happens to be more tolerant of variation than other moralities, but,
precisely because of that, it *is* a moral vision.

I could argue that it is memetically *impossible* for a value-neutral
science to exist. The memes for morality extend their purview and
influence even to subjects and topics where we would deny them entrance.
But let me skip the pyrotechnics of such an argument and try instead to
deal with the real issues.

A very powerful argument favoring the conscious -- yes, the "C" word! --
adoption of a moral position is that if you don't, then others surely will.
If you are genuinely neutral, then it will make no difference who those
others are, or what use they make of memetics, social psychology, applied
anthropology, genetics, or nuclear physics. In moral neutralism, bombs are
as good as bread, because no moral balance exists to weigh them. And, de
facto, that comes down on the side of bombs, because the moral neutralist
cannot stand AGAINST anything, not even the wholesale destruction of
people, and can say nothing when the bombs start to explode.

Moral relativists often argue that my position -- which sees making moral
choices as intrinsic to being human -- condemns us all to a uniform vision
of right and wrong. Again, fish feathers. Just because *I* take a moral
stance on some issue does not mean the world follows.

You see, I *do* sense two poles on a continuum concerning morality and
ethics in these discussions. One pole prefers to avoid the issue, either
because people drawn that way are more interested in technicalities or
because they actually have their own moral agenda that they'd prefer to
keep quiet about or because of other reasons. The other pole sees moral
and ethical issues as truly fundamental, as much part of being human as
being conscious or being able to speak language. In a sense, it's a
continuum of moral disengagement to engagement.

What is significant, I think, is that *every* science and intellectual
endeavor has had to confront the deconstructionist critique. We're fond of
saying that middle ages was a time of moral thought, but I'd suggest that
the second half of the 20th century wins *that* race hands-down. Virtually
every debate on the face of the planet centers on moral issues in ways
unprecedented, I think as a result of atomic weapons, ICBMs, religious
especially fundamentalist fervor, industrial pollution, and the rise of the
woman's movement internationally.

So memetics should escape? To what end? That it afford one the fake
ivory-tower belief that one can be a scientist, pure and simple, without
concern for the effects of what one is doing?

Part of my concern focuses on the free will/determinism issue being
discussed elsewhere. As I understand the history, the concept of "free
will" as a moral category originally came (as so much does) from the middle
ages. The idea was -- correct me, someone, if I'm wrong here -- that God
endowed human beings with free will so we could *freely* choose between
good and evil. Once again, I will set aside the theological issues of why
anybody might think God would do such a thing, because I want to stress
that the free will debate centers on morality. To the extent that memetics
deals with the free will/determinism issue (and I think it does, very
directly) it therefore deals with the capacity of the human agent to make
*moral* decisions one way or the other.

To say that the "memes* made me do it is, as Robin Wood pointed out, a sort
of Nuremburg trial defense from the Nazis. Thus, McVeigh -- the character
who seems to have planted the Oklahoma City truck bomb -- *could* claim
that he is innocent, because "the memes" seized control of his mind. And
now we reach the central point.

Is such a plea memetically legitimate? Be very careful -- for if you say
"Yes," your argument is equivalent to a kind of insanity plea of not guilty
for *any* and *all* actions. Is that what the memes do? Render human
beings "not guilty" by virtue of memetic possession?

That claim -- even if made in straight-faced value-neutral language -- is
NOT value neutral at all. It is the equivalent of saying the demons and
devils made me do it. It is an *excuse.*

I will try to repeat this as often as I need to in order to get the point
across. One of the central tenets of memetics, at least of a certain kind,
exculpates all human action. By shifting causation, it shifts *blame*.

A court of law must find someone either guilty or not guilty, at least in
the North American legal tradition. Those legal and juridical memes are
ensconced quite firmly in place. Memetics MUST deal with those issues, not
because I want to interfere with your freedom to study what you want, but
because we live in a society of laws and legal judgements. If you like,
you can think of it as one set of memes sitting in judgement of other
memes, or you can think of it as people taking responsibility for their own
actions in front of a jury of their peers. I don't care which metaphor you
use. Either way, memetics cannot escape dealing with ethics.

I hope it is clear that I am not accusing you of being unethical or
indifferent as a person to ethical issues. Instead, I am saying that the
claim that a science, even memetics, can be value-neutral is a

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