The Memetic Commons

You’ve probably seen people arguing about the definitions of various words.  One that I find particularly annoying is people insisting on tortured definitions of “bisexual”, in response to batshit claims of transphobia that are for some reason seldom leveled against monosexuals as a class.

You’ve perhaps also seen people arguing about appropriate connotations and contexts for concepts: for instance, anyone complaining about “sexy nurse” outfits on the grounds that it sexualizes a real profession that involves more intravenous fluids and turning people for bedsores than sexual healing.

You may have seen people arguing over whether skirts as a category should be coded feminine (so that a dude who likes single-aperture garments but didn’t want to be seen that way would need to specifically disclaim his genderfeels, or go for a cargo kilt with unnecessary grommets, or avoid the entire enterprise if he doesn’t think he can tilt the balance) or not (depriving other people, who do want to be seen as feminine, of one way to make that clear from the word “go”).

These are all arguments about what people ought to think when they hear words or see other signals – sometimes within specific contexts (“at queer gatherings, don’t assume pronouns based on presentation”), but sometimes without implying any limitation of scope at all.  People want everyone to consistently react to the concept of “nurse” without “sexy nurse” popping up in their head, or consistently react to “bisexual” like it can only and has only ever meant “attracted to the same and other genders” without naïve or older or broader or clumsier definitions coming to mind.

“That which occurs to an unfiltered audience when they hear certain words or observe certain signals” is not the sort of thing where you can have yours and I can have mine and we can both agree to leave each other alone about it.  The extent to which “skirts are neutral” gains ground is the extent to which “I signal my womanhood with skirts” loses ground.  So of course you get fights between people who want to be men and wear skirts without getting asked if they’re gay/genderfuck/on their way to a drag show/trans ladies/doing it as a kink thing/blind, and people who want to be feminine and wear skirts and have this understood without having to clarify “why yes, the six layers of lace and floral print do, in fact, mean that I am a girl, I wore it in large part because I hoped it would let us skip this conversation”.  “Pants are neutral” has already won its battle, at least in mainstream Western culture.  Did any gentlemen expressly mourn the loss of this marker?  I don’t know; but it was a loss, even if it wasn’t a large one for reasons idiosyncratic to the specific case.

I am outlining this problem in the hopes that people will start noticing when they are doing it.  I don’t expect to completely take the wind out of their sails, because the territory being fought over actually matters to the participants; but maybe, just maybe, if I spell it out, it will become clear that you might want to develop more rhetoric than repeating your thesis six times in various formatting combinations on Tumblr.  Acknowledge that people who oppose your suggested division of the memetic commons aren’t doing it because they have not yet seen it asserted in underlined italics with a table-flipping emoticon.

The costs of redrawing the borders of public memetic space are not purely that somebody’s space is shrinking and then they have a harder time purchasing sexy nurse outfits for their personal amusement.  There are also costs to the bystanders in whose minds the transition takes place: they have to restructure some of their associations, or work around them, to comply with whoever is yelling at them in bold all-caps.  There are costs to the people who don’t make those changes – mental effort to resist the pressure; having to explicitly reason through their interpretation of the disputed concept in any context already successfully colonized.  Obviously having the arguments in the first place is an opportunity cost, although I imagine some people have fun constructing their volleys.  These indicate that there should be a bias for keeping whatever the current memetic commons layout is, just to save the trouble of moving the fences – of course you can argue that the transition is worth the costs thereof (especially if you’re aiming at standardization, disambiguation, or other aims that make the entire commons more navigable), but this is a threshold you must specifically overcome; you can’t just declare that it would be better if this fence had been six feet to the left all along and therefore everyone had better pick up a post and shuffle.

Signs to watch for:

– strong temptations to argue definitions
– cautions against “making assumptions” or stereotyping
– by contrast, arguments of the form “okay, maybe X doesn’t always mean Y, but let’s face it, usually it does”
– exhortations to distinguish fantasy and reality, especially when there is no reason to believe anyone actually mistakes the one for the other in a practical situation
– attempts to stamp out vocabulary from polite, politically correct, or general usage, especially without offering a satisfactory replacement, especially accompanied by the implication or statement that the referred concept “shouldn’t exist at all”
– appeals to what “most people” will think if they perceive a signal
– controversial opinions framed as moderate or reasonable, or common opinions dismissed as fringe or extreme
– any argument for or against reclaiming a slur, or about whether some term is in fact a slur at all

(These things do not always indicate memetic commons fights, definitely don’t always indicate conscious attempts at same, and do not mean that you should stop what you’re doing – nor aggressively point it out to the perpetrator with tildes between every letter.  They’re just possibly useful symptoms.)

When a fight is about the memetic commons, it is a fight about what the decor should look like in lots of people’s brains.  It is about, perhaps not the mechanism of censorship, but the effect of it.  The combatants are struggling for a genuinely scarce resource with substantial (if not necessarily equal) implications for all sides.  It is improper to conduct this sort of engagement by attempted fiat or weaponized social shame, even if you think it’s really, really obvious that you are right.

7 thoughts on “The Memetic Commons”

  1. Thank you; this is a really clear explanation of something I’ve been struggling to articulate for a while. An especially irritating form of this for me is “Yes, the dictionary defines it that way, but the dictionary writers were sexist/racist/transphobic/etc,” which even if true doesn’t really provide any support for changing the meaning.

    I’m not sure I agree with your conclusion, though. How do you determine the “rules of engagement” for fights over the memetic commons? To take an example that’s near and dear to me as a trans woman: There is considerable conflict over whether the category “woman” includes people like me. The tide seems to be shifting in my favor, but only part of this change is for the “right” reason (that defining gender by self-identification has a benefit to trans people which significantly outweighs the cost of redefinition). In fact even as attitudes change I think a lot of people don’t realize that there’s a redefinition going on at all. Instead they learn “trans women are trans” as a fact, perhaps supported by some nebulous biological research they’ve never looked into, or they accept it as a tautology.

    I have trouble seeing this as a bad thing, though; it’s done a lot to make me safer and more accepted in ways that I’m not sure rational argument could. On a personal basis I try to recognize memetic commons fights, and I encourage others to do the same, but the fact is that most people conceptualize these arguments as being about which definition is “right”, and don’t subscribe to a model in which the rightness of a definition can depend on our moral evaluation of its effects. How should I try to win over those people, then? They’re not even in the same discursive universe as me. The nature of the memetic commons makes it hard to just write them off, too: Convincing a few people to accept a new definition is of limited use while the rest of the population continues to use an old one. I’ll continue to make what I consider to be the rational argument to anyone who’ll listen, but I worry that people insisting “No, my definition is right and yours is wrong,” is simply how battles over memetic commons are won.

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  2. “People want everyone to […] react to “bisexual” like it can only and has only ever meant “attracted to the same and other genders”
    What other meanings can/did it have then? I’ve seriously never heard of any other.

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    1. “Attracted to men and women”, “having a two-cluster attraction model”. (“The same and other” becomes especially awkward if, say, a nonbinary who isn’t into other nonbinaries is attracted to men and women both, although I haven’t met any of those that I can think of off the top of my head.)

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      1. Oh… for me, ‘attracted to the same and other genders’ meant the same as ‘attracted to men and women’, until just now (I was reading the first as ‘attracted to the same and [the] other gender’). And the latter is what I’ve always assumed ‘bisexual’ to mean. Until last year or so, I didn’t even know more genders than two actually existed.

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  3. I think that in an ideal world there should be many cultures, each with its own “memetic commons” plus it should be really easy to move from one culture to another so that any person can find what is best for zir. There should also probably be “culturally neutral memetic commons” for contexts that don’t naturally belong to any specific culture, and these should be designed to be as neutral as possible (e.g. wearing a skirt doesn’t mean anything unless the culture of the person is known). Note that the situation I’m describing is nothing like the cultural plurality we have today which is mostly ethnical and thus completely arbitrary / historical and with very low mobility.

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