We all know how microorganisms manage to survive –they find ways to propagate and find mediums through which they can spread. Over the last few hundred years we have witnessed how viruses seemingly outsmart any attempt to eradicate them. Of course there is no central intelligence that makes these decisions but it is simply extreme evolution of a kind that allows these creatures to survive.
What is interesting is that anthropologists and sociologists have observed very similar patterns on a social interaction level. Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” to describe this phenomenon. He called it “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme.”
So how does work? It means that when there is a habit, belief or lifestyle, the social interactions of people can keep that meme alive. Most often these memes are short-lived and relatively harmless. Certain phrases, a choice of words, or remember when certain cultures started having a rising intonation at the end of their sentences? Another interesting example is how many women have recently started using lower registers in their voice when they talk. That trend eventually metastasized into what we call “voice fry,” where the use of the lower register gets so extreme that it makes the popping sound of something that is frying.
Why do women do it? Nobody seems to know. It just started spontaneously and became a popular way of communicating. Or did it? If we follow the example of the virus and we say that there seems to be similar behavior with cultural memes, then it must follow that something triggered this style of talking. We would be right in suspecting this and several psychologists have now claimed that they believe vocal fry has come from a female desire to be taken as seriously as her male counterparts. And because we often associate a deep booming voice with someone that speaks with authority, people are more inclined to listen (without realizing it). This effect also seems to work for women with lower voices. Other women noticed this and followed suit and this is how the cultural meme is propagated.
While this is a relatively harmless example, it is unfortunately also true that negative memes propagate through society. And so I witnessed it first-hand recently when a social media group of old school friends acted in a way that illustrated the way with which destructive memes propagate. We are now living all over the world but we found a way on social media to reconnect after thirty years. Of course most old school friends remained in South Africa and perhaps had a different experience than those of us who were exposed to a world where multiple opinions on a matter are allowed to exist. A person made a statement in the group (not his first), that women must be subservient to men. The statement was rooted in his beliefs. Most in the group went along with it or kept quiet. Some of us didn’t. We objected, things got argumentative and eventually I saw the tragedy of people mistreating other people that had been their friends for thirty years. I saw the majority turn into quiet conformists, and I even saw self-declared feminists quietly slink back into the shadows. What on earth could allow this to happen? What forces were at play here?
To understand this situation you must know where I come from. You see, I am an Afrikaner –that group of white colonialists that took over South Africa and oppressed other races for hundreds of years. Like any other group, there are general cultural themes and memes that propagate. Racism is for instance still one demon that this group is wrestling with. I used to be an admin of a group on Facebook, called Afrikaners Against Racism. Sometimes it was sheer agony to see how some people get completely caught up in the echo chamber of what they grew up with. They might consider that there is an outside to that chamber but many of them never investigate further.
Consequently, they operate from within the realm of that echo chamber and make decisions according to the morals in that frame of reference. Observations are tainted with it and tragically minds – some of them brilliant minds – are closed to the possibility of another reality. Along with the issue of race, what also characterizes the Afrikaner’s psyche is intolerance for questioning the one in command. In other words, a perception that authority is absolute and should not be questioned.
The same goes for the treatment of women that stems from a culture steeped in profoundly conservative Calvinist theology. That is really the root cause for many manifestations of behavior that has been and is frequently observed in the group. A belief firmly rooted in the so-called Divine Command theory that states that anything that is demanded of the adherents of the faith must be considered moral because their god commands it of them. Even something that might seem evil from a human perspective, like the stoning of a human, is good because it has been commanded.
This belief and the resulting cultural trends then also declare that the man is the head of the household and his wife should be submissive to him. There is another word for this: patriarchy – the structuring of society around the central theme of the power of men. It goes beyond culture and permeates the fabric of society and has a dramatic effect on people’s behavior. It is the unspoken force in the workplace, where women have had to fight for the right to work and then for the right to be seen as an equal to men.
That fight is far from won. Women might be allowed to vote and they are mostly not subjected to the more brazen sexual harassment like the boss slapping their behind when they walk past. But in most countries women are still struggling to get paid the same as men. There are also the thousands of little ways that men hold onto power, even if it is just the tone of talking down or the nod across the room or sexual innuendos that live in the safe language of euphemism. It is there when women run for office or act assertively in a meeting that the general reaction is, “Is it that time of the month?” or “I did not know she is such a bitch.” Of course you will only hear that if you happen to listen to the whispered conversations after the meeting or see what is typed in private chat rooms.
This is not news, so why am I talking about it? Because I want to point out that hegemony – the dominant control of others begins at home. Or more specifically, in those social circles where friends of the same culture meet and talk about the good old days, which most women know were not so good. And here in the most innocent of social interactions lives the meme of hegemony, of patriarchy.
The ether or the medium that transmit cultural memes like this is the force of the pressure to conform. Conform to “the way things are,” conform to “these people will never change, just ignore them,” conform to, “don’t start drama.” So, in this atmosphere, regardless of the opinions of the people in the social situation, an individual can deposit the meme of hegemony on this environment of social pressure to conform, and it transmits and infects without a glitch.
It transmits and propagates because firstly most people have a desire to belong and have a fear of rejection. Most people will allow things to be said that they don’t believe in, as long as conforming keeps them safely in the tribe… Secondly, most people, regardless of their convictions, conform because they would rather quietly disagree than face confrontation. And apart from the fear of rejection it is the fear of confrontation that prevents people from standing up for themselves.
But how can the meme of hegemony propagate if everybody quietly disagrees with the one transmitting the meme? That brings the third factor into play. Many people, in spite of what they say, don’t have deep convictions. Their opinion can be swayed, not by lucid debating and presenting facts but simply by being exposed to those with strong and often emotionally charged opinions. This is something that we witness every day at some religious gatherings, as well as in politics. Some people are simply a canvas in need of somebody else painting their view of life on it. I have seen it countless times when I suspected someone was just an impression of someone else’s mold. You start to ask questions and the conviction that might even have been passionately yelled in your direction comes apart like cotton candy in the mouth of a child.
Apart from fear of rejection or of confrontation, and the fact that many people are very impressionable, there is one more mechanism at play and that is connected to the evolutionary survival instinct of humans. In certain settings where people have to choose between the survival of the group, which is their tribe, and doing something they consider to be immoral – they will surprisingly choose the clan over their own convictions. The Milgram experiment is a great example of where the existence of this mechanism was confirmed. Consensus among professionals is that there is a kind of emotional switch that can force people to conform even if they know it is wrong.
This is our struggle: the war against hegemony- this is what South Africans especially are still facing every day as they become aware how little the hearts of certain Afrikaners have really changed, how little remorse there really is for 300 years of oppression and how the same old hegemony of Apartheid in all its ugly manifestations is still seated in its original place – in people’s hearts.
The only way we will ever be able to stop the transmission of this meme is to be willing to face those uncomfortable situations and speak up. The more controlling the situation, the more important it is that we resist. This will be the biggest test for some people as the fear of rejection and confrontation will feel like it is chaining them to the ground. They will see impressionable people around them being swept along in the emotion of the speaker and when they speak up they will see the survival instinct of the tribe kick in. But in spite of all of that they will be surprised how much power one person with conviction has to resist hegemony and start changing society for the better.