Last time, we talked about the idea of the public as a “child” – vis a vis propaganda. And it is clear that this is a very attractive argument – especially for those who feel victimized and powerless, clued to their TV set, struggling with cognitive dissonance as the corporate media spouts “disinformation” and simple lies.
But what exactly is a child? Do you really know?
Let's see. Are babies “children”. Yes.! Cute!
Are teenagers children? Yes! Can’t have sex with them, for one thing. Although they can go to war and kill people.
And everything in-between? Yes! Although they do handle computers better than you and download a lot of porn.
How is that babies at the breast are the same as a six foot tall 75 kilogram teenager, who reads Proust and could beat the shit out of you? How can they be the same as kids who talk the talk and walk the walk and shop at the Gap? Oh come on, you say -- you know what we mean! Anyway, it's just a word.
That’s the point. The idea of the “child” is …well… just an idea -- one of many memes that we take for granted today . It is also one that did not appear in their present form until after the Industrial Revolution -- and has huge legal and social ramifications.
Before the 18th Century people (of course) used the words "child” and “children” – but the meanings and associations were different . As the French historian Phillipe Aries points out children --excluding infants were just little people. They wore adult clothes, scaled down. adult things (scaled down) as soon as they walked. What we call “teenagers” were young adults. There was no such thing as statutory rape -- not as we know it today. Imagine Shakespeare having to rewrite Romeo and Juliet, with Romeo sent to some Renaissance Reform school for diddling the barely pubescent Juliet. Now that would have been a crappy ending.
Today, if you are a liberal , children are wonderfully innocent, cuddly and cute. You love them, along with puppies or kittens. You get cute kiddy clothes and kids toys for the younger kids -- and you don't have them working 18 hour days in a coal mine or a brothel.
If you are a conservative, children are primal, if not feral and dangerous - so, you have a duty to teach them and socialize them-- which, for authoritarians, means to discipline them-- nowadays, to handcuff them and tase them. You regard children as Not-People-Yet --simple animals that must be trained and taught the Bible. Definitely no brothel-work, however – although minimum wage slavery at McDonalds or Walmarts has been substituted for the mines.
Before the Victorian period at least, children were not more innocent or dangerous than older people; they were considered responsible under law -- and neither protected – nor restricted as they are today.
All that changed in the 19th Century , which put an end to child labor and mandated universal education both useful in the “progress” of the industrial state. Keep in mind that the first legal protections for children in the labor market where enacted in Victorian England under laws designed to protect animals!
Industrialism brought with it not only a new concept of “child” – but other new ideas -- notably the “public”….you, me, Bill Gates and the homeless man without shoes. Us, the People –one big, solid mass of solidarity, pledging allegiance to the flag and Exxon.
It also brought the “democracy” meme. Which to the Greeks literally meant“power to the people”, with “the people” excluding women and slaves. In our “democracy” everyone is equal, except for those can’t vote –that is, those without driver’s licenses, which makes registration difficult in some states, , or the rather huge numbers of people who have been sent to prison for smoking pot, or old people who have trouble getting around, or people who are doing three jobs and can’t get time off, or the large numbers of people of color accidentally purged from the voting lists..
And then there are “corporations” . Another meme. Corporations are also ‘people”--which makes them part of the “public”. We know they are just like us because they have Facebook pages. Wonderful! I can be Best Buds with Microsoft. .
All these memes are implicitly tied to evolving social narratives, such as One Nation Under God, in which God is played by Sylvester Stallone, with a scowl and an automatic weapon and a few tats, mowing down swarthy Un-American bad guys.
The bird in the photo is actually a scavenger that mostly lives on dead fish and is bullied by flocks of sparrows, but don’t let that distract you. Our modern day concepts of the child, democracy, the public and so on – have, as I have indicated, existed in some form before. But as the world changed, the meanings of the words did, too. Dawkins will tell you that memes are like genes and handed down from generation to generation and that like genes, they mutate and spark a kind of evolution – in this case, social evolution.
Let’s recap high school – or what you should have learned in high school – assuming you didn’t grow up in Kansas or Missouri, where the World was created in 6 days by a hairy and apparently Homeless Old Guy. Genes evolve through random mutation.And useful genes persist if they confer a survival benefit as the environment changes – contributing to biological evolution. (Remember that --test next week.)
And just as genes determine the character of an organism and its capabilities, memes determine the character and capability of a culture, where we think of “culture” as the sum total of the various narratives that define a given social group, from your family to a corporation to a nation. Memes mutate, --a few persist over time.
In the case of societies and cultures, environmental challenge comes about through major events such as plagues and famines – and of course intercourse (yes, double meaning intended) with other cultures, and conflicts, too -- war. The evolution of memes generates new technologies – new social capabilities. The opposable thumb helps us survive –that’s genetic. But fire and the wheel represent memes. As does spectator sports. And, um, jeans.
Stone age men lived in small groups, without demim.
Then came today’s mass societies – and the Gap and the Superbowl
What’s the difference? Denim, yest. But mostly size. Which matters. Mass societies involve new capabilities, new tools – bombs and footballs for example and functions such as texting. All these things represent social evolution, or in the case of (say) online dating, some would say, social devolution.
But we must
keep in mind the respects in which “memes” and “genes” are not the same.
Genes refer to real things – you can see them under the microscope.
You cannot see a meme. For one thing, the idea of a ‘meme” is well, a meme! And “childhood”, “democracy” , “the public” and so on are not in the same category as the your frontal lobes or bipedalism.
Ultimately while social evolution is remarkably plastic -- it always limited by biology. Biology mediates everything. And the medium is the message. No matter how much our societies may have evolved,no matter how advanced our technologies – we are still Stone Age Men. A nuclear missile is just a very, very, very upgraded spear in flight.
The architecture of the human brain defines everything . We have to keep this mind -- it is so easy to get lost in abstraction and find ourselves down that “slippery slide” away from fundamentals.
Which brings us back to propaganda and PR. To understand these things and how they work, we must first understand how the human mind works; then how we function as social animals. Then the memes and narratives that we respond to in regard to specific issues. Obama’s strategy in the last election ?
The Oil Industry’s various PR campaigns?
These things are like software – they depend on the hardware that biological evolution has supplied us with .
For more on that, tune into my next post.