Long-time and/or regular readers of this notebook (should there be any) will know that one of my preoccupations has been the slothful induction of system decision-makers and thought-shapers – politicians, intelligence officers, senior police and the loudest, most prominent voices in the commentariat – with regard to the problem of islamic terrorism and islamic militancy.
My main concern, having observed this behaviour, and the strangeness of mature adults in positions of significant responsibility so willingly beclowning themselves by talking the most patently absurd and intellectually insulting rubbish, is why they would do this? What force is so strong that it can cause them so often, and so repeatedly, to demean themselves so publicly, and to insult the intelligence of the public to whom they are talking?
A simple answer is fear of losing their jobs if they put aside the bullshit and spoke honestly with the public – the public servants would be sacked by displeased politicians, the politicians would be sacked by a displeased electorate, and the commentators would be sacked by angry newspaper proprietors responding to displeasure among their readership. The assumption being that there is in our society:
- a strong constituency or group in our society which believes that islam has nothing to do with the terrorism and militancy that our societies are experiencing, and that any such link is not to be discussed under any circumstances; or
- a strong constituency or group in our society which understands and acknowledges that islam has everything to do with the terrorism and militancy that our societies are experiencing, but also believes for one reason or another that this association is not to be discussed under any circumstances;
- a collection of these groups, who differ in their thoughts about the relationship between islam and terrorism, but whose interests coincide on the policy of suppressing any association of islam with terrorism and militancy.
I certainly think there are powerful groups – powerful enough to shape the public discourse and public policy, anyway – who wish to suppress any mention of ‘islamic terrorism’. But that simply brings us back to the question – why?
In case you might think I’m Robinson Crusoe on this topic, I’m pleased to inform you that I’m not the only one wondering about this. There is at least one other person – Douglas Murray – who is also thinking about it. His hypothesis is that the purposeful silence on the link between islam and terrorism can be attributed to fear, and/or to an effort to be ‘nice’, and/or the tendency to self-flagellation which exists in the West at present.
Murray’s explanations are all reasonable, arguable and defensible. However, I don’t think they are sufficient for our purposes. For example, were fear to be a motivator to silence, then we might have expected people in Britain in 1940 to have been nice about Hitler, for fear that he would drop (more) bombs on them. In fact, the exact opposite happened. Given that we are now at the point where islamist militants are not only exploding bombs in public places, but brazenly machine-gunning civilians in the streets before making clean getaways, we appear to be at an equivalent point in the development of the conflict – regardless of whether or not our elites choose to acknowledge this reality.
So it was with interest that I came across this short essay / film / slide presentation about the Cathedral and its associated memeplex. For those not familiar with or confused by these terms, I’ll quote an explanation directly from the presentation, and I’ll quote at length, because its presentation of ideas is so superbly succinct and clear that I doubt I’d be able to improve on it – essayists and writers of all kinds, take note of the style:
The Cathedral is a self-organizing ideological alliance of the elite (abstract thinkers). This alliance is made up of academia, media, government and business (corporate interests). It is an engine of abstract, universalist consensus building and distribution.
Humans are social animals and we organize together into groups for competitive advantage. Larger groups out-compete smaller groups (generally).Humans (and other primates) generally organize along genetic lines. This poses a problem: As the group size grows, genetic distance increases… so how do we scale the group and maintain group cohesion at the same time?
In highly intelligent primates (humans), you can use a memeplex. A memeplex is a set of ideas, abstractions. This set of ideas should create a universal identity. Christianity is such a universalist memeplex. Christians refer to themselves (ourselves) as ‘Brothers in Christ‘. There is neither Greek, nor Jew. The dogma of Christianity enforces the idea that the members should ignore racial and ethnic differences, and remain united in their religious ideals. The Communist ideology maintains similar ideals of ignoring racial and ethnic differences. Communism maintains that all differences are merely socially constructed and must be deconstructed. Global capitalism takes a similar non-racial, non-ethnic view of the people within the nation-states. They view them merely as customers within markets, or as human resource widgets within the system of production. This is the meaning behind terms such as the ‘Proposition Nation‘. A Proposition Nation is a group of people who are united in their acceptance in a set of ideals or a creed, ignoring racial or ethnic differences.
Throughout the West, the dogma is equalitarian. All men are created equal. The dogma is Love, and that which goes against the dogma is Hate. To deny the dogma is a heresy. Those who benefit from the group cohesion created by the memeplex will defend it, simply because it is in their intuited genetic self-interest.
Heresies are disruptions of the ideological consensus. Because the consensus creates group cohesion, which confers competitive advantage, the system will attempt to reject the disruption. This is the point where we see the Hegelian dialectic, as a compromise or integration is attempted. At root, there is a cost-benefit analysis. If the cost of the disruption outweighs the benefit, it will be rejected. But if the benefit outweighs the cost, it will be integrated into the system.
So we have the idea of a memeplex – a set of ideas and beliefs shared by a group of people – a dogma, or fundamental and incontrovertible philosophy, associated with that memeplex, and the idea of heresy as anything which challenges or contradicts the dogma and the memeplex.
On reading this, I instantly – and happily – made a connection to the concept of a mind-set – the set of beliefs and assumptions that an individual carries around with her, and through which she makes sense of the world around her. Mind-sets have a strong tendency to self-reinforce when faced with information which contradicts the assumptions and beliefs that they contain – the information is either disregarded, or ignored completely, or rationalised away, or twisted and interpreted so as to align with, and therefore reinforce, the pre-existing mind-set. Mind-sets are thus strongly resistant to change, and the greater a person’s investment in a particular belief or assumption, the stronger will be that person’s resistance to giving up that belief or assumption.
The most famous example of the self-reinforcing tendency of the mind-set, in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence, is I think that of the ‘Marian Keech’ group, whose behaviour in the face of disconfirmatory evidence was studied in real time by a group of three psychologists. Of course, examples need not be so dramatic: the fact not only that economists continue to make predictions, but also that corporations employ them to continue making predictions, and people pay them to make these predictions, in the face of overwhelming evidence that these predictions are almost always incorrect, and not just marginally but significantly so, is I think an example of a self-reinforcing mind-set, and an inability to learn from reality.
A memeplex, from the definition given above, appears to be something like a social mind-set – a mind-set operating at a group level. It thus displays all of the tendencies that we would expect of a mind-set – a set of beliefs and assumptions, which cohere into a ‘worldview’ or dogma, an interpretation of the world – including human actions – through those assumptions and beliefs, and a tendency to reinforce themselves using real-world data, incorporating information consistent with themselves and rejecting, twisting or outright ignoring information that might challenge the mind-set’s building blocks.
Can we use the idea of the memeplex to explain the ubiquitous slothful induction regarding islamic terrorism, and the open hostility and panic on the part of The Cathedral whenever any person or group seeks to broach the subject?
Imagine that, as the excerpt from Butch Leghorn’s presentation suggests, the memeplex currently ruling in western societies is one of equality of all. Implications arising from this include:
- that all are welcome in our society, since we do not discriminate against one another; and
- given that muslims are in our society, and members of our society do not discriminate against one another, then muslims do not discriminate against us.
Note that I haven’t introduced any evidence supporting either claim, especially the belief regarding muslims not discriminating. It is simply taken for granted, because it is a belief which is necessary if the memeplex is to be coherent.
How then does the memeplex respond to the reality that muslims are machine-gunning, knifing, running-over with cars and bombing civilian populations in western and non-western societies, and are doing so after having aligned themselves with pious muslim groups and while crying out ‘god is greatest!’ ?
On current evidence, the response from the Cathedral is ‘this has nothing to do with islam’. Again, no evidence is provided for this contention – it is simply spouted as a universal truth that all should accept. The rider accompanying this pronouncement is ‘islam is a religion of peace’ – again, with no supporting evidence (note as well, that it is only islam for which this claim is made; you don’t hear people claiming ad nauseam that Buddhism is a religion of peace, because Buddhism is actually a religion of peace and there is no doubt anywhere about that fact, and thus no need to state the obvious).
Facts provided from reality – islamic-inspired muslims committing terrorist acts against people they see as infidels – are re-interpreted to fit the memeplex (‘this has nothing to do with islam’). Inconvenient facts – these people actually are muslims, and they are inspired to massacre by islam, are simply ignored and/or covered up. And the ‘religion of peace’ mantra is repeated (‘chanted’, in Leghorn’s phrasing) in order to re-inforce and soothe the mindsets of group-members and help remove doubts.
So, I would suggest that we have a memeplex, and denial of islamic terrorism and militancy is fundamental to the ongoing internal coherence of that memeplex. And the more that reality – in the form of islamic terrorist attacks – contradicts that memeplex and its dogma, the more we will hear about how such terrorism has nothing to do with islam, and how islam is a religion of peace. More Waleed Aly and other muslims (including, especially, smiling, articulate, scarf-clad, clitoris-free muslimas) on free-to-air programming and in the Fairfax press, making baseless claims against which no-one will offer a contradiction or challenge. More ‘Harmony Days’. More politicians visiting mosques, and federal police officers attending Eid-el-Fitr gatherings. All to reinforce the belief that none of this effort is needed because nothing is happening.
What I don’t know is: who belongs to the Group of the Deluded (who believe that islam actually does have nothing to do with islamic terrorism), and who belongs to the Group of the Cynical (who understand and acknowledge the islamic roots of terrorism and militancy, but for reasons of perpetuating the current memeplex choose to hide this understanding and lie to the population about it).
For example: at the beginning of the clip I linked to above of Douglas Murray expounding his hypothesis, we hear US President Obama tell us ‘ISIL is not islamic’. The man is clearly wrong – one of the sure things in the world that you can bet your house on is that the Islamic State is indeed islamic. But is Obama sincere in his delusion, or is he knowingly lying to you?
I cannot answer that question definitively. I can, however, form a probabilistic judgment. And if this is anything to go by, the man is no stranger to lying in order to maintain a fraudulent memeplex, indicating that he may be lying to you and I about islam having nothing to do with islamic terrorism.
So, that is, for me anyway, a great step forward in understanding what is going on. What next? How do we change a memeplex?
We have an advantage here that doesn’t exist with the individual mind-set. Only one person gets a vote with a mind-set, and given that the mind-set controls the mind that makes the vote, and that mind-set is strongly self-reinforcing and defensive, it’s difficult to make a reasoned, evidence-based argument in favour of change that would convince that mind-set.
However, a memeplex operates at a society-wide level. Also, it is usually imposed by a ruling elite (The Cathedral, which can be found in any society across time and space) in order to justify its own existence and discourage/dissuade/remove opposition. At any time, a person who concludes that the memeplex, or parts of it, are just garbage can ‘check out’ of a memeplex: they can physically leave a society – as happens with people who flee inhospitable regimes – or, should they be physically prevented from fleeing, they can just ‘check out’ mentally, as happened in communist countries, where, one day, it happened that enough people had ‘checked out’ that the system came to a grinding halt and had to be replaced.
So, we have a system where people can and do stop supporting the memeplex which makes it all run. And, despite the best efforts of memeplex supporters to define opposition to the memeplex as ‘hate speech’ and have it outlawed, we still do have a great degree of freedom of speech, of thought and of assembly. Therefore it is possible to make arguments against the memeplex, and have those arguments heard by the population.
In other words – we do not have to convince the memeplex to change or adjust, as we might have to convince a person to change/adjust their mind-set. We need only cause a withdrawal of support for the current memeplex, and substitute another in its place.
As you can imagine, this terrifies The Cathedral. It terrifies them so much that they spasm in panic. The most glaring example of this was when the Australian Liberty Alliance ran large, colour advertisements for themselves in the Saturday newspapers earlier this year. That weekend, the Prime Minister instructed the head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation to phone a number of back-bench government members and ask them to refrain from making public comments about islam. This is absolutely extraordinary in Australia, and I think a first in the history of our commonwealth. And it speaks to the panic caused simply by one group of people meeting, organising and choosing in effect to say, publicly, ‘the meme about islam being a religion of peace and having nothing to do with terrorism is both wrong and dangerous for our democracy’.
As more terrorist attacks occur, the further will the memeplex move from reality, and the more people will ‘check out’ from it, weakening its hold on society. Soon enough, those cynical politicians will grasp which way the wind is blowing, and will change their tune. We will have a new memeplex, and it will be less forgiving of islam and islamic terrorism.
That is, anyway, what I hope. Because, as with the British approach to nazism and fascism eighty years ago, either our society changes its memeplex, or it will cease to exist.