Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

The Meme Police

SerendipUpdate's picture

Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
Second Web Paper
On Serendip

The Meme Police

Rachel Clark

The Columbia Encyclopedia defines censorship as the "official prohibition or restriction of any type of expression believed to threaten the political, social, or moral order". It is necessarily broad definition. 'Any type of expression' in fact, covers just about everything from clothing to print to movements and even to simply being. George Bernard Shaw described assassination as an "extreme form of censorship". It is now omnipresent in society and has been as long as society has existed. If one were to consider the course of an idea (and it is essentially ideas that are being censored) as its natural evolution, censorship takes this evolutionary course and disrupts and changes it, often until it is no longer the same substance as before.

Why do states (in truth any group of people) feel the need to censor? Moreover, can it be done effectively in the first place? It is human nature to prevent propagation and evolution of stories or is it human nature gone awry? What is our attachment to the status quo and what does privilege have to with this attachment? How do those without privilege subvert the systems of censorship in either information (media, literature, etc.) or other cultural memes?

Although it is not a popular notion, censorship in the eastern liberal democracies is alive and well. As American children, we learn the evils of McCarthyism and the Red Scare and similar instances as simply shadows of past evils- long banished to history. While we learn the facts of the period, the truth/ compelling force behind these periods of extreme censorship is never examined closely enough. The truth is that in out pseudo-western politically correct haze, the fear and prejudice that underlies all attempts at censorship is present in all of us- and we do not like it. The privilege of the censors (essentially those with power) is that they have the luxury of not thinking about censorship at all. Once the deed is done, the story smothered, the act is forgotten until a violation occurs or something else offends the sensibilities of those in power. The censored ones though, do not forget. They feel the loss of a story, or not the exact loss of a story itself, but of others' access to their story. This access is all-important because a story is not unlike a parasitic alien from a bad sci-fi thriller: it needs new hosts, new minds to 'infect' which will consider it and then in turn perpetuate it by sharing it with other minds. The attempt of censorship is to 'kill' the story. I do not believe that a story can in fact be killed, but for all practical purpose, it lies dormant for untold years. I believe that once a story enters a person, they are changed by it and therefore change their world because of/ in response to that story. Every action one does is a direct result of her stories, whether or not she may want them. Even if they were forcible imposed on her, she is nevertheless a product of them. BUT censorship at its most effective impedes the spread of information and stories.

In addition, it should be noted the "official" stories and "unofficial" stories and their respective paths and rates of evolution can vary greatly. In her book Censorship, Sue Curry Hanson highlight difference; she discusses the ways in which whose who are not officially permitted to tell their story manage not only to survive but also to disperse their stories, what Jansen terms "recipes for survival". "These recipes may season the gaps in the official version with piety, laughter, skepticism, or contempt...folk recipes, wisdom, and lore is inherently subversive. They suggest that the official version is not the only version. They encourage the powerless to think for themselves."

If one were to treat biological evolution and the evolution of stories or "memes" in the same manner, she would encounter the same (problem/issue) with both processes. The problem is this: neither of these professes follow the strictly natural course of evolution any longer. Theories abound regarding the pattern which natural evolution takes, but irrespective of the theory to which one subscribes, the relatively recent problem of interference occurs. In a "state of nature", to borrow from Locke, nothing would exert definitive control over the pattern of nature save the powerful force which controls/ dictates all. (i.e. Supreme Being, universal algorithm, etc.) Natural disasters decimated populations and each being had its own natural predator (to greater or lesser degrees) but this did not upset the supreme outcome. Not until very recently in human history has the species attempted to sway the outcome in a meaningful way. Breeding of animals is one example while over-hunting and habitat destruction are others. Each process undermines the natural course of evolution. Just as show doges are bred, so are ideas. Censorship is effectively the breeding of stories and cultural memes to form the pedigree desired by the "breeder" or those in power. Naturally (or unnaturally as the case may be) the resulting cultural norms, stories, and ideas are not those indigenous to that society. Just as the fluke pit bull with the less-than-belligerent disposition is prevented from breeding thus ending his gene line, those elements of society and culture that have been deemed undesirable are prevented from being heard and thus spread.

The subject of censorship is expansive and therefore cannot be dealt with definitively in this space. It is, however, a subject that should be considered by everyone more in-depth. While the mechanisms within our society and indeed our world seek to silence the stories of which do not do them glory, one must strive to resist the "breeding" of ideas. Our stories are far from being absurd and worthless show poodles. They must not be weakened because of a lack of expression and audience or from a lack of original inspiration. In the face of a potentially shrinking 'gene pool' of ideas, even the fresh consideration of the devices of censorship is a subversive act which will be, in the end, the possible salvation of everyone's stories.

Comments made prior to 2007
I thought this was a brilliant bit of thought,analysis and analogy. It seems to me, that the concept of "self" is much like a change of clothes, the question is, what is my (fundamental) nature, what is your nature, what is human nature and can it even be described with words??- those most inefficient little puffs of air or key strokes!! This writing is nothing but a crude representation of what I think or feel. Memes- oh memes, I wish I had the right memes and genes! The people in power, how do they do it? Are they that smart? How silly- no they don't! They're nothing but a product of circumstance and a bit a free will sprinkled here and there. Cliche number 1: "It's all bout survival", how drab. How horrific! Take care all ... Steve, 27 February 2006