As we enter Advent and our TV sets are filled with advertising for Christmas, the figure of Santa Claus looms large. The red clothes, white beard, round and cheery figure appears on everyone’s idealised Christmas list of symbols for the ‘festive season’. In lands sweltering in the heat of summer and places too dry to have it ever rain, still less snow, the global man of Christmas plays a central part in conveying the season’s messages. Yet his form, stature and style were devised relatively recently by a advertising artist working for Coca-cola. This now universal figure was created in the 1930s to sell more Coca-cola and has since become deeply embedded in our culture. He has shed his commercial associations and has been remade as a child-friendly gift-giver in every shopping centre or department store across the Western world. Santa Claus (or Father Christmas as we knew him in the UK) has become a very effective ‘meme’ for Christmas.
Two weeks ago, I explored the way in which the way we frame our stories – what we focus on, what’s included and what’s cut out – changes their value base, making them more or less useful in supporting progressive community change. And last week we looked at the structure of myth, how it becomes important in community organising and how you need to ‘construct’ your personal myth to sustain yourself in the role. This week I want to explore the meaning of ‘memes’ for organisers – both as a tool to analyse the power around you and a route to creating your own memes.
Memes are everywhere
So to explain. In 1976 in his book The Selfish Gene, the biologist Richard Dawkins outlined his theory that competing genes were the primary engines of evolution. Elsewhere in the book, he coined a conceptual term that has come to profoundly impact culture in the Internet age: ‘the meme’. Shortening the Greek word mimeme, which means ‘imitated thing’, Dawkins explained that the meme was a unit of human cultural evolution equivalent to the gene. But instead of transmitting genetic material, as a gene does, the meme communicates cultural phenomena: ideas, melodies, catchphrases, fashion or technologies. Memes are often small particles of culture but that get ‘copied with adaptation’, just like genes. They are clever, memorable, easily communicated and above all absurdly contagious! The meme of Santa Claus as a fat, jolly man with white beard and red and white loose clothes is a great example of a meme ‘in the wild’.
But how do we use memes in our work? If you’ve heard about memes before, it’s probably in the context of social media where people create short videos, record catchy songs or construct amazing photos that then get shared, liked, tweeted or plused thousands and sometimes millions of times across the global online community. Often these are just about cats at play or people doing crazy things (see for example QuickMemes) but some – such as infographics – have been carefully constructed to catch the imagination of many people and have a dynamic that makes many want to show their friends or their feed.
The power of controlling memes
But memes also work at another less obvious level. Watch the advertising for Christmas spending and you will see repeated elements that work as cultural units related to a particular view of the ‘festive season’. Some that come to mind are glitter, Christmas trees, open fires, snow and large family meals. The media have constructed from a set of Christmas memes a whole set of assumptions about the way Christmas should be celebrated and hence it’s meaning for you as a consumer. And of course such memes are not just reflected in advertising but also in programming, in shop fronts, Christmas cards and even our own homes. Whatever your attitude to the season, its clear that there is a controlling set of memes about Christmas that shape what our expectations and assumptions are about that time of year.
In similar ways, we live with many controlling myths that show themselves in our experience of public life (think the centrality of elections as a way to representation), of our life as a consumer (for example, shopping as a leisure activity) and our perception of our nation (for example, the British always supporting the underdog). I am observing here the nature of the controlling myths that have developed around us, not questioning – or confirming – their truth. Memes often carry whole narratives behind them that in turn are related to certain emotions or responses. For example, John Major in 1993 evoked an idyllic village scene by using a sequence of memes saying, “fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs…” By painting a picture these memes, he drew his audience into a particular emotional place.
Challenging the accepted narratives
In public life, memes and the stories they support play a critical role in sustaining a particular view of the world. Often such a view is based not on clear and uncontroversial evidence but on assumption, guesswork and straightforward prejudice. I have personally become very tired of the use by the current government of the phrase “hard-working families.” It is a deliberate attempt to divide those who are regarded by this administration as deserving poor from the supposed undeserving. It places a categorical distinction between those who fit the particular model of working family life (that supported by the speaker, no doubt) and those who do not.
For an organizer, an awareness of such controlling myths allows us to be wary of them. We are often called on to help the community’s leaders to frame their concerns, to draw a clear distinction between their position and that of their opponents and to promote their case in the face of attitudes and values that undermine their position. In these circumstances, helping your people to see the way in which their concerns are shaped, the nature of the memes and narratives used by others and how they can develop their own memes and stories can only make for a stronger appreciation of the way we are manipulated by the powerful. Creating new memes can be a creative route to powerful images and telling analogies capable of changing the way we – and others – see the issues. It’s a key way to open people’s eyes to the complex ways in which we are controlled – and kept powerless!
Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning (2009) Re:Imagining Change: an Introduction to story-based strategy smartMeme Available both as a print edition and a pdf – highly recommended
Greenmemes at http://greenmemesteam.tumblr.com/ ‘make memes to fuel and inspire the environmental justice movement’. They have just published an excellent Guide to Online Organizing Available as a pdf
The danger of the Single Story – a TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie Find it here