Sunday, 5 May 2013

Understanding legitamacy and Cultural levers via memtics.

As the Archdruid has stated many times, the key obstacle to adaption in the face of Overshoot is not the technical issues, but the cultural, political and in short psychological issues that block adaption. For various reasons, the understanding of these issues is incomplete, the Archdruid mentions one of them here. Another is the inevitable simplification pundits and various radicals use to make their cause look better, whenever you here someone say something like "all (something, often government x) is illegitimate/irrational/ what have you" or something along the lines of "this is the cause of (something, say suffering)" even when that something is caused by multiple things. A common one is "all authority is illegitimate" or "Governments shouldn't regulate markets", or the same statement with the value sign flipped "Governments should regulate everything". This absolutism and simplistic thinking has not helped and is part of the reason many radicals and/or activists can often completely misunderstand governments and politics, see this View from Brittany for examples.

The effects of these cultural issues are quite apparent now. The collapse of perceived governmental legitimacy in America is precisely a cultural phenomena (though by technical definitions, such as those for insurgency/counterinsurgency theories/practitioners, its legitimacy is still strong), so is the stranglehold of current economic theory and the financial sector. In this post Damien talks about the fate of the bank of Saint George and its lessons. to quote "Our situation is, mutatis mutandis, similar to the ancien rĂ©gime kings. Even though we are theoretically in position to severely restrict or control the activities of the banking industry, or of any other sector of the economy, we are, in fact prevented to do so by a corset of self-imposed rules."  Those self-imposed rules are cultural phenomena, they only exist because everyone has decided they do. Ask yourself this, why do pay taxes? submit to your government? Use money? or any other behaviour which only makes sense because their is a cultural backing to them. The idea of money is incredible fluid, it can be paper or plastic notes, giant carved stones, shell necklaces, or in parts of Africa they use phone credit as money. This is not to say that these rules can be ignored with impunity (most would result in jail time), its just that they aren't as hard as say the laws of physics.

To tackle this problem it's probably best to use several angles. The Archdruid has recently started from a religious angle here  and I'm going to use a different one, that of memetics. To be specific, I'll be using a guide from the SCP (Secure, Contain, Protect) Foundation, a fictional internet horror site, called Understanding Memetics for a basic understanding of memes. Memes are basically cultural information, however profound or base that information is, so catchphrases, single rituals, behaviours etc. When you have a lot of them in a coherent whole, you can call the result a memplex. Religions are memplexs, so is any system of knowledge, large behavioral sets or organizational cultures (including tribal or otherwise). Now as the guide mentions, memetics as a theory isn't taken very seriously, but here we can use them as a convenient vehicle for understanding certain cultural phenomena. Like legitimacy or how most power centers work.

So memes are bits of information that make you act, feel or react in certain ways. People are perfectly willing to trade strips of colourful paper or plastic for goods and services, accepting orders from an authority, feel certain emotions when hearing music or only willing to consider certain actions in the face of a crisis. Memplexs are complexes of information that encompass a huge range of emotions, actions and people. How they interact with a given person or society depends on a great many factors, their upbringing, existing memes, personality and such. The interaction also depends on how the meme is contextualized. I'll use an example from a previous post.

'For example, the author of this article (an Australian) was once giving a presentation to an Australian university class [post grad marketing]. To explain the difficulty in building a patriotic image for a brand in Australia, he draped an Australian flag over his shoulders and struck a pose as if looking at the sunset in an American aftershave commercial. Noting that the class looked unimpressed, he took the flag off his shoulders and enthusiastically polished his arse with it. The class started laughing. He then asked if anyone was offended. A chorus of nos went up. A lone voice said that, although he wasn't offended, he was disappointed. The lecturer, who had previously worked for the defence forces, gave the presentation a distinction. It the same thing had been done in America, expulsion from the university would have been a distinct possibility.' The difference between the reaction of Australians and Americans to someone using their flag in that way has to do with the memes that exist in the respective cultures. It's also a product of the differing contexts the national flag occupies in their respective memplexs. In the Australian one it has little attachment while in the American one it has a sacred place.

These contexts change over time and in reaction to events. This can be a slow process, as this View from Brittany mentions, it can take centuries for a shift to happen. it took 380 years after Jesus was born for Christianity to be the sole official religion of Rome, a similar time frame for the Reformation and the ideology of Progress to come to become dominant. On the other hand, there are contexts that can change far more quickly than that, the lose of legitimacy for governments can happen within decades, sometimes sooner. Mind you this is because the changes are smaller, government in general doesn't become illegitimate, only a specific government, a far smaller change than the hegemonic ones that take centuries. This sort of change in the political sphere is outlined in this Archdruid report. You can even see it now in in America and parts of Europe, the context is being changed by events as they unfold and from that change the legitimacy of the current governments is slipping away. The appeal of Neo-Nazism in Greece is one offshoot of this change, the conspiracy theories that the recent Boston bombing was staged by the US government is another. It should be stressed that these changes are not simply the switching of value signs, but actual changes to the information processing or information content of those places. Remember, nothing destroys a political platform like ridicule.

The simpler and less connected to other memes a meme is, the easier it is to change its effects. While the advice given in the guide, "Imagine the fearsome entity is wearing a bright pink nightgown. Draw a mustache on the haunted painting. Pee on the stone altar. Wear the terrible sculpture like a hat.", isn't specifically useful in our current situation, the general thrust is correct. If the information is presented in a different way, the effect changes.Doesn't matter if it's a perception of the real world or part of a fictional one, the effects the same.

So remember; Wear it like a Haaaaat!!

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