Essays Politics

Memes, Models, and Making Sense of Everything

There’s a line in an old Simpsons episode where Homer says “Facts? Pshhh. You can use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true.” Obviously it’s a joke, but it nonetheless touches on a notion that most people are aware of: facts can be twisted and recontextualized to fit a worldview, that facts alone may not really tell you anything, and that knowing the facts doesn’t matter.  This makes it easy for a person to throw out the idea of making sense of politics altogether; after all, we have families to take care of, hobbies to indulge in, and problems to deal with. The purpose of this article is to help the reader be better able to make sense of the world, and be less intimidated by the endless stream of information out there.

Then again if you’re reading this, chances are you’re interested in political news already, in which case this article can give you the tools to help talk to others in a constructive manner or convince others to get involved.

One of the primary ways we get our news is through social media, and one of the most prolific ways to spread information over social media is through memes. While they’re mostly known as images with captions (or images OF captions), the term “meme” is rooted in evolutionary biology rather than pop-culture, and can be defined as a concept that is easily spread throughout a system. A gene that is easily passed down tends to proliferate, and the same goes with ideas. Inside jokes are an example of memetic information: you interact with your social circle on a daily basis and are constantly in a state of exchanging information with them. Most of this information – conversations, jokes, updates, even emotional reinforcement of silent companionship—is more or less inconsequential and will be filed away, never to be recalled. But every once and a while someone in your group makes an exceptionally clever joke, or an exceptionally dumb mistake, and it sticks in the minds of everyone else. It is repeated again and again, sometimes even told to members outside the circle.

Why am I talking about memes in an article about making sense of the world? Because memetic ideas are a big part of how we make sense of the world. Memetic ideas have been central to human culture and civilization since, well, since forever. They are an intellectual shorthand which provides information without context, and herein lies the problem: in the absence of proper context to couch facts, people create their own.

Usually this context takes the form of a narrative. In a more formal sense, it takes the form of a model. A model, in this sense, is a broad illustration of how something works. You have a model in your head describing the quickest way to get to work, and this model likely provides some flexibility: if I leave home at x time it is better to take route a, while if I leave home at y time it is better to take route b. You can even seamlessly switch from the “model” of your route to work to a “narrative” of your route to work—I’m leaving the house five minutes late, so when I arrive at the stoplight on Pickens Street I’d better take a right and avoid the school traffic. Once I reach Maxcy Avenue I know to turn left and get back to Main.

The gap between individual facts—memes—and the narratives which couch them—models—is one of the biggest roadblocks to getting people to make sense of the world around them. We’re going to explore this gap in two examples below, and see just how easy it can be to navigate even if it is also easy to make mistakes. Let’s look at a stick figure as our first example.

Bathroom SignIt’s the model of a human being: it has two legs, two arms, a torso, and a head. It is incredibly easy for us to identify this image as the broad model of the human form. Mentally, we can quickly navigate between this image and the image of a specific person. We intuitively understand what the image means because we deal with people every day, and this intuitive understanding allows us to use the symbol to effectively convey information. A stick figure inside a crossed circle, for example, means “Do Not Enter” and imparts a message we can all understand.

Now try and imagine what a stick figure must look like to, say, an artificial intelligence who has never seen a human being before. Put the stick figure side by side with a photograph of an actual human being and the artificial intelligence would be baffled if told these two represented the same thing. The photograph shows every last detail: a person’s hair, clothes, smile, eyes, etc, which aren’t shown on the stick-figure at all. Perhaps the person in the photograph is hunched over so there is no gap between their torso and their arms, whereas the stick figure has arms quite separate from the torso (and of equal width). Show the AI a picture of just someone’s hair, or someone’s fingertips, or someone’s smile, and they couldn’t tell you that those were all represented in the shorthand known as a stick figure. To complicate matters further, consider someone who has had a limb amputated. The one thing a stick figure is supposed to effectively capture—the overall shape of the human body—doesn’t even apply to someone with one arm or no legs.

You may be (hopefully!) familiar enough with what people look like to seamlessly navigate the intricacies of a shorthand image from the real thing, but chances are you aren’t as familiar with economics, law, security, international relations, history, or social issues. A lot of information on more complex matters like these is nonetheless conveyed in the same shorthand manner. We use narratives and models to communicate—there isn’t any other option because we’re people with stuff to do. But for people not familiar with a particular issue this causes confusion because there will always be details that don’t fit the model, and there will always be exceptions.

We often build our conceptions of the world from a few dozen data points, ignoring vast swathes of relevant data. Building a world narrative from anecdotal experience is like getting our AI to try and draw a stick figure after seeing a small subset of people: if you only see people who are very overweight, or people with long hair, or people with blue eyes, you might be tempted to think this represents a majority of the whole and incorporate this into the model you’re creating, unfortunately making it more detailed but less accurate. Complicating this further is that the AI is only copying what it sees, without understanding what differences in weight, race, hair color, or gender actually mean.

People do the same thing when they engage in politics. We engage in abbreviations of ideas, sometimes placed in the context of a narrative that may or may not be true. Let’s look at the case of the Pulse Nightclub shooting as an example—a violent and tragic event which happened in the summer of 2016 and was at the time the worst mass shooting in US history. Forty-nine innocent people were killed that night. Fifty-three more were injured. I’d wager that most would agree the event represents a problem in the United States as opposed to a one-off incident, but which model (if any) best explains it? If we can determine the model, the systematic and underlying problem which leads to events like this, then we can better prevent such tragedies from happening in the future.

What I can’t do here is tell you what model best explains the Pulse Nightclub shooting. What I can do is tell you one version of the wrong model, and how individual data points are memetically spread and form a narrative that points us to incorrect solutions.

Many people turned to a model of Islamist terrorism to explain the shooting. The perpetrator was, after all, a Muslim man who cited his religion as the reason for shooting up a nightclub which was a hotspot for Orlando’s LGBT community. There isn’t any denying that in this specific instance one of the underlying causes was a radicalized religious terrorist. But does framing the issue as one of religious extremism allow us to meaningfully solve the problem? Here we are facing an issue of moving from the specific to the general.

To be sure there were a handful of other Islamic terror attacks in 2016 in the United States. But besides the attack on the nightclub, only one of the other attacks involved firearms (most were stabbings or attempted stabbings), and none of them resulted in any deaths besides, in a few cases, the death of the perpetrator. So even compared to the attacks by Islamist extremists, the Pulse Nightclub shooting was an outlier, an odd data point.

Nonetheless that was the narrative— the model— which was seized upon by prominent politicians and pundits as a way of framing a solution. The issue was stated as Muslims immigrating to the United States and then causing violence. The solution of a Muslim ban was proposed, and soon enough the words “Orlando,” or “Pulse Nightclub” became rallying cries for the Muslim ban. But even going back in time to institute such a ban would not have stopped the attacker, who was born in New York. If you want to avoid another Pulse Nightclub shooting, preventing Muslims from coming into the country would have done nothing. There is also good reason to believe that targeting Muslims puts them at risk for becoming victims since more people are buying into the model that they are a threat.  

So how do we pick a model that best explains this tragedy? There are several, none of which are mutually exclusive and none of which I will discuss in detail. Online radicalization is one model—not only does it result in extremists like the Orlando gunman but it is an excellent explanatory model for a wider number of domestic terrorists to include violent right-wing extremists, which are more numerous in the US, as well as more generic school shootings. Gun violence is another such model: it is a constant problem to the point that mass shootings are weekly occurrences in the US. Solutions geared toward this model would, of course, anger the very vocal gun-rights lobby and thus for political reasons seem unpalatable. Lack of access to health care, particularly for mental illnesses, is another such model. Both offer solutions that would address both the underlying causes of the Pulse Nightclub shooting as the perpetrator had a history of domestic violence (often cited by gun control activists as something which should disqualify Americans from purchasing guns) and displayed indicators of mental illness.   

Instituting gun control measures would have been a better fit than a Muslim ban for preventing things like the nightclub shooting, which brings us to a different dynamic in politics: the question of whether or not gun control would be effective is different than the question of whether or not we should institute gun control. It is entirely possible for one to recognize that a proposed measure would solve a problem but simultaneously object to that proposal on other grounds— banning cars would stop all DUIs but most people would simultaneously tell you driving drunk is not bad enough that we should ban cars (or, God forbid, alcohol).  I want to point out that I’m not advocating for gun control here, in fact I’m keeping my personal thoughts on the matter out of this article so people don’t think I’m trying to push an agenda other than to help Americans better conceptualize information and wrestle with the data.

The problem really comes in when people are faced with an effective solution they don’t like so they use that as a reason to re-frame the problem. It is highly objectionable to anti-gun control activists to frame the Pulse Shooting as a gun control issue, so rather than offer no solution it becomes more politically savvy to shift the blame and reframe the issue by explaining it with a different model.

What I want people to take away from this article is that there is a truth worth pursuing. Politics can be a frustrating slog, but there are answers and some of those answers solve our problems better than others. When people throw up their hands and remove themselves from political engagement, other interests (usually monied interests) will move in to set the narrative. Such is the price of keeping our Republic.

Opinions expressed in this essay are those of the author alone. They do not represent the opinions of the Department of Defense or any organization with which the author is affiliated.

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