Meme Wars: Living in Your Own Private Idaho

“The memes that drive our perception are no longer similar enough for us to even have a calm, cordial discussion about up and down, or black and white.”

Written by SmokingMan

For most of the past two decades, if not longer, the United States – and indeed, much of the world – has been paralyzed by internal political, social and conceptual contradictions that border on schizophrenia. Competition, antagonism and a dualistic mindset have been taken to extremes, with every issue and every event portrayed in stark black-and-white tones, as a winner-takes-all battle between opposites in which middle ground is barely even seen as an option, much less sought out or cultivated. Politics has been particularly polar, with the meme of red states and blue states, liberals or conservatives, Republicans or Democrats; every issue and every campaign reduced in meaning to the rhetorical simile of a horse race or a boxing match. Metaphors about a “cultural divide,” a “clash of civilizations” or even “class warfare” feed the divisive mindset, and make it more difficult for those seeking common ground or mutual understanding. Yet for all the efforts of media and the two-party political infrastructure to encourage this polarization, these divisions were not manufactured – they are very real, deep-seated and deeply ingrained in the collective consciousness. The red and blue divide used on political maps is not merely symbolic; the truth is, people are inhabiting truly separate realities.

The year 2010 may be regarded, by historians a few decades hence, as the date of a great and long- needed convergence. There are signs that the sharply delineated realities that have divided people for so long may be weakening, blurring, and gradually merging into a more holistic one. To be sure, this is still a very fragile meme. The forces of convergence are still extremely weak, while habits of distrust, dissension and dualism pose serious barriers to cooperation between (for example) the Occupy Wall Street activists and more conservative Ron Paul supporters. But there are some signs of hope. If that hope is to be transformed into actual progress, though, it will be essential for everyone – regardless of what part of the political and philosophical spectrum they inhabit – to understand the reasons why this perceptual divide exists in the first place.

We still need to cover some background issues before we can start examining the details of US (and world) cultural history, as well as how we found ourselves in the current mess. But hopefully the issues presented in this essay will begin to indicate where the discussion is headed, and what issues I hope to address, in time. In my last essay, I spent some time disscussing the concept of memes, and their ability to infect minds with a certain idea, perception or inclination. Memes are the filter through which we perceive the world around us, and for that reason, if two very distinct and antithetical memes take root within a given group of individuals, they are bound to generate conflict. Before we go any further, though, we need to look at a few more scientific studies of perception to illustrate the fact that memes are capable of not only shaping our attitudes, but actually altering the way that we perceive reality.

Research on animals has given scientists some remarkable insights into the way that we perceive the world, and the way that perceptual models dictate our “reality.” For example, in one study kittens were raised from the age of a few days old in environments where everything was vertical. The walls of their enclosure were covered with vertical lines, all obstacles they were presented with were vertical, and when they were fed, handled or rewarded, the observers took care to move their hands, feeding bottles and so on in a vertical direction. At the age of three months, a horizontal wire was placed in the cage, running from one side to the other, between the cats and their food. Though it was placed at a height that would allow the cat to easily jump over, or crawl under it, the cats seemed completely baffled by the obstacle. Not only did they exhaust themselves trying to go around the obstacle, but they behaved as if they were entirely unable to see it. For the kittens, “horizontal” was a concept that they not only failed to understand; they could not even perceive it!

That insight is remarkable in itself, but when the scientists investigating perception began to conduct similar tests on humans, things REALLY began to get weird.

In one study, subjects were fitted with goggles that reversed the visual image that they saw. The entire world appeared “upside down.” Naturally, this made it very hard for them to get around, to pick things up, and to perform manual tasks that required sight. But after a while they started to adjust to the new images they were seeing. Somewhere around the third or fourth day, the subject reported a remarkable change in perspective. Though they were still wearing their goggles, they suddenly discovered that they were “seeing” the world properly again. The image on their retinas was upside-down, but the perception in their minds had reverted to “rightside-up.” Not only could they make their way through a room without bumping into things, but they even could catch a thrown ball, or ride a bicycle. Their world was back to “normal,” and they were able to perceive the proper directions once more.

This was naturally very intriguing to the researchers. But what really blew their minds – and those of the subjects – was what happened after the experiment concluded, and they took the goggles off. Although they could now see the world “normally” again, the perceptual models they had created inside their heads were now reversed, and for a day or two, everything APPEARED TO BE UPSIDE DOWN! In short, the experiment demonstrated that what we see, hear and feel with our senses is by no means “reality”. It is nothing more than a perceptual map of sensory stimuli which we have created inside our heads, to help us DEAL with reality. Everything that we think we see “out there,” in the “real world” is actually inside our heads, Not only it is quite possible that it differs from what another person thinks they see, but if we fail to recognise the impact of our own memes on perception, we may fail to communicate effectively, even with those who are by nature sympathetic to our ideas.

Take something as simple as colour. The human eye is capable of distinguishing differences in color and brightness based on three types of chromatic receptor. These receptors are activated by light of differing wavelengths, and they appear to be the basis for our perception of three “primary” colours – red, blue and yellow. The gradations of light in between these wavelenghs can also be distinguished with a high degree of precision, such that a person with relatively good eyesight is able to identify a difference in tone between some 2-3 million colors (some estimates range as high as 10 million). However, our actual “perception” is based not on the wavelengths, but on the words we apply to what we perceive. Some cultures have as few as one or two “color” words, apart from black and white (light and dark), which appear to be universal among sighted individuals. The most common word for a color is “red”, followed by “blue” and “yellow”, then violet or green, and orange usually is the last of the “rainbow colors” to be added to language. This is a very reliable progression, as careful philology research demonstrates. Languages do not develop a word for “yellow” unless they already have “red” and “blue”. And though the order becomes less predictable after the primary colours, words for “green” or “orange” never occur unless all three of the primary colours already exist in the language.

The English language is rich in words for color, and as a result, we often take the “existence” of these words for granted. But this would be a serious mistake. While everyone has the same acuity of colour vision, regardless of their language, they do not really “perceive” the differences, except when presented as a direct comparison. For example, the Thai language generally describes colours based on nouns (eg: “daffodil coloured” or “clear sky coloured”). But there are only two specific colours that can be applied to a person’s hair. Either you have black hair or red hair. There are no other options. Of course if presented with examples of people whose hair is ten shades of colour, they can distinguish them as easily as you or I. But when asked “what colour is that person’s hair”, the only two concepts they can offer are “black” or “red”

Similarly, the Japanese language uses nouns for many of its colours. Most shades of brown are described as either “cha-iro” (tea coloured) sabi-iro (rust coloured) or “nezumi iro (mouse coloured). It has very old and established words for red, blue, yellow and violet, but “midori” (green) and the rather obvious “orenji” (orange) are recent acquisitions. Consequently, many things that English speakers describe as “green” are referred to in Japanese as “blue” (ao), such as an “ao-shingo” (blue “signal”, on a traffic light), or “ao yasai” (blue vegetables). Some readers may think this is simply a semantic difference, but in fact, the language does indeed shape your perceptions. After 20 years in Japan, I find that I now describe many aquamarine-coloured things as “blue”, even in English, whereas I would have described them as “green” when I was younger. Conversely, my wife has begun to use the word “green” (even when speaking Japanese) in contexts that she would formerly have used the word “blue.” On pondering this matter, recently, I realised that what was happening was that she and I had come to a consensus on the dividing line between green and blue, which allows the two of us to have accurate communications. But – and this is the really important point – in doing so, both of us have adopted concepts that could potentially confuse our fellow native speakers.

In other words, we have created concepts and “colour memes” that facilitate agreement between the two of us. Since we both live and work together, spending all but approximately 3 or 4 days a month together, it is important to have shared memes, lest there be miscommunication and disharmony. But in creating these memes, we have actually abandoned the “reality” of our respective cultures. Some people might even wonder if I have a visual impairment, when I say “do you see that blue car over there” – and the only car to be seen is quite obviously dark green, not blue.

The examples used in this essay were chosen deliberately for their simplicity. You might be wondering what this talk of colour perception and upside-down goggles could possibly have to do with the clash between the Occupy Wall Street protests and the forces of governmental control, or the disparities between the 99% of people on this planet who feel disenfranchised and manipulated, and the 1% who own and control the place. But these points are critical if we hope to mend the huge tear that has developed in our cultural fabric. Unless our society can rediscover at least some degree of cohesion – of mutual understanding and “wholeness” – then the 99% will remain forever divided, as pawns played against one another in a grand chess game, for the amusement of the Owners. And that is the topic that I hope to discuss next.

Perhaps I am overly optimistic in seeing signs of convergence, but I do think that the recent Occupy protests have struck a chord of harmony with people across the political spectrum. For the first time, people on both left and right are starting to speak the same language. The “Occupy” meme is resonating with a broad spectrum of individuals, who finally see that the real source of their problems is not “libruls, hippies, dykes and fairies”, or “redneck christianazis and Nascar fascists.” On the contrary, both of these groups are starting to see that they have been manipulated by the wealthy and well-connected Owners, who waste no effort to ensure that the 99% forever remain divided by dissension and distrust.

The perceptual divide that exists in our world today is so vast that it can be difficult to even deal with in a rational manner. Everyone reading this essay has surely had at least a few experiences in which they found themselves glaring at a family member, neighbor or coworker with a mixture of confusion, anger and disbelief, trying to understand why they kept insisting that green was blue, or that up and down were the opposite of what you perceived them to be. The memes that drive our perception are no longer similar enough for us to even have a calm, cordial discussion about up and down, or black and white. Each of us, it seems, is living in their own Private Idaho, and we need to take a few steps back, find out where these perceptual divides came from, and figure out how to speak a common language once again.

Unless we can develop a holistic consciousness – one that will allow both liberals and conservatives, Christians, Muslims and Atheists, whites, blacks, browns and blues to communicate and cooperate, how can we even hope to resolve the enormous challenges that we will face in the next century. Finding common ground – learning to speak the same language – looking at the big picture – working together for mutual benefits – until we start developing these skills, it is pointless to talk about changing the system or overthrowing it. Before any changes can be made, there wont be any system left to change, or any people left to change it.

We are all living in our own Private Idahoes. If we dont find a way get out of that state, that state we are in, then we will remain blind to the awful surprise that’s waiting for us at the bottom of the bottomless blue blue pool.

I know you feel these are the worst of times.
I do believe it’s true.
When people lock their doors, and hide inside.
Rumour has it it’s the end of Paradise.
But I know,
If the world if the world just passed us by,
Baby I know
I wouldn’t have to cry

The headlines read “These Are The Worst Of Times”,
I do believe it’s true.
I feel so helpless like a boat against the tide.
I wish the summer winds could bring back paradise.
But I know
If the world turned upside down
Baby I know
You’d always be around my door.

I dont feel safe in this world no more
I dont wanna die in no nuclear war
I wanna sail away to a distant shore
And live like an apeman