The Meme Collection
What is a meme? It’s a tiny cultural idea. Like a gene, it can spread and it can evolve. Richard Dawkins originally coined the term in his book, The Selfish Gene. Learn more about the concept of memes here and here.
Memes are quite obvious in today’s culture, because technology lets us see the fast-pased replication and mutation of memes. In the political blogosphere and mainstream media in particular, memes are our business. There are ideas out there that we want to spread and there are ideas we want to resist.
This page focuses on the latter. In particular, this meme collection represents quotable fallacies. These are common lines that we hear people use to resist social justice and maintain privilege. Many of them are easily debunkable, but despite this, many continue to thrive in political commentary. By collecting them here, my goal is to make it easier to identify and repudiate these memes when they appear or reappear in new forms. Think of it as a catalog for bad arguments on social issues.
I will regularly refer to these memes throughout my posts, so I hope this will be an educational resource. If you hear people say things out there that you think belong listed as a meme here, definitely feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This page is always a work in progress!
Table of Contents
Anti-Social Justice Memes
These are memes that appear often in relation to all sorts of social identities, be it race, gender, sexual orientation, or whatever. They are almost always said by (or on behalf of) a person with a certain form of social privilege in regards to a person who does not have that privilege. Usually what is said says much more about the person saying it than who it is that person is targeting.
The “Wait” Meme – “It’s not the right time for this policy/protection.”
This one has been around for a while. It’s basic pandering. A politician might say, “I support your rights, but it’s not the right time.” I personally think it’s terribly insulting. It just means that certain rights are a lesser priority than something else. The 2009 Obama version is “he has a lot on his desk.” There’s no excuse for employing this meme. The meme itself is an excuse with no substantiation. It’s just procrastination at the expense of an entire population of people’s freedoms. (Example: Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.)
The “Reverse Discrimination” Meme – “That policy/decision makes it harder for me because of my privileged identity, so it’s the same kind of discrimination it’s trying to address.”
Usually this meme is referring to a policy or a court decision. The speaker does not understand the ideas of privilege and equity. Usually when a policy is designed to support a specific population, it is to compensate for disadvantages that population has in society. There is merit to the notion that we shouldn’t need such policies, but our capitalism and our history have created disparities that will not unravel for many generations. Until then, we need to do our best to create equity in our society so that all people have the same opportunity to thrive. (Example: Opposition to Affirmative Action.)
The “Special Rights” Meme/The “Colorblind” Meme – “That policy/decision gives special rights to one group that I don’t have.” OR “I believe in rights for all people; I don’t need to pay special attention to any particular groups.”
This is just a repackaging of Reverse Discrimination. Most often, such “special” rights are actually fixing inequities that previously existed. The speaker says this to protect hir power and privilege over others; there would be no other reason to say it. People who subscribe to this meme have trouble understanding and appreciating equity that doesn’t directly benefit them. (Example: “Gays and lesbians don’t have the right to redefine marriage for the rest of us.“)
Some will repackage this idea with a positive spin, suggesting that they support everybody, so they don’t need to support any specific groups. People with this approach are ignorant of the privilege they have, assuming if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for everybody else. It can stem from ignorance, but it can also be used as a malicious propaganda tool. (Example: Focus on the Family opposes all bullying, but doesn’t want gays or lesbians ever mentioned in a school classroom.)
The “Traditional” Meme – “This is the way things have been so it’s the way things should be.”
Much like the Special Rights meme, this too is about preserving power and privilege over others. More often than not, what the speaker really means is this is the way things are. And in either case, so what? Humanity learns and grows. There is not much precedent to legitimize this as any kind of good argument. If the speaker does not include substantial argument for why the suggested change is worse than the present (and supposed past), then the argument is meaningless. (Example: “Traditional Marriage.”)
The “Essentialist” (“Natural”) Meme – “This is just the way things are.”
This meme goes a step farther than the Traditional meme. Where the Traditional meme recognized a change could happen and was opposed, the Essentialist makes an outright claim that no change is possible. You often hear people trying to claim that what they believe is “what is natural.” Usually it is supported by some sort of biological or religious assumption. In matters of social justice though, almost everything is socially constructed, so use of this meme demonstrates a complete ignorance (and perhaps even opposition) to a true sociological understanding of the world. (Example: “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.”)
The “Children” Meme – Any idea that children will be at risk or exposed to “inappropriate” material.
Like so many of the memes on this page, these ideas related to children prey on fear, gullibility, and vulnerability. These ideas use children to resist social justice. They usually have no factual basis; they are just headless monsters that terrorize parents and potential parents. Variations include, “I don’t want my child exposed to…,” “Children aren’t ready…,” “Our children are at risk…,” etc.
Surprisingly (to some), children who aren’t exposed to social justice principles early on develop biases before they even enter elementary school. “Indoctrinating” children to understanding and appreciating all forms of diversity isn’t something I have any problems with. (Example: “They’ll teach our children about gay marriage!“)
The “Friend” Meme/The “Expert” Meme – “Neither my ideas nor I am prejudiced/bigoted because I have friends/family/coworkers that belong to that minority group.” OR “My ideas are prejudice-free because a prominent member of that minority group agrees with me.”
Often, when accused of privilege or of having ideas that reinforce privilege, people will defend themselves by saying they have some close relationships with people of a certain group. A variation might be identifying an expert of some kind from the minority in question who agrees with their point of view. Somehow, these claims are supposed to suggest that they are well-informed and supportive about issues relating to that minority and/or that their mere connection to those people refutes the accusation of bigotry.
Essentially, this meme treats individuals as “representative authorities.”
The effect is usually the opposite, as their use of the Friend meme demonstrates that they have no other substantiation for their refutation. Another effect is that by using their connections as “exceptional examples,” they are defeating their own point by demonstrating that “exceptions” are still necessary (i.e. the “rule” of privilege hasn’t changed). Similarly, use of the Expert claim is supposed to act as a red herring, but in fact draws attention to the underlying prejudice. Overall, the Friend meme is a cheap attempt to hide behind artificial personal feelings instead of admitting to any validity to the accusation of prejudice. (Example: Stephen Colbert’s Black Friend.)
Godwin’s Law – Any reference or comparison to Hitler or Nazis.
Though “Godwin’s Law” originally described usenet discussions, it now seems applicable to all kinds of internet discussions, blog comment lists, and I would argue even political commentary (Bill O’Reilley) and beyond (Expelled). The general principle is that as a debate gets longer or more heated, there is a greater probability of a comparison being (inappropriately) made to the actions of Hitler and Nazi Germany.
The rule of thumb is that whoever makes such a comparison automatically concedes the argument by doing so (also known as Reductio ad Hitlerum). This rule will be enforced throughout ZackFord Blogs. If you make a random Hitler reference, be prepared to be laughed at!
These are memes designed to defend religion and protect the privilege that faith, belief, or certain viewpoints have in our society. For the most part, they are mostly simplified reductions of the arguments Richard Dawkins makes in The God Delusion. I first identified them (in greater detail) in a blog post on May 17, 2009, and that post generated more hits and incoming links than anything I had ever posted. It is the inspiration for this whole collection.
The “Truth” Meme – “It’s true because I believe it.”
This is the idea that one person’s truth only need to be true to that person. Merely the fact that the person believes something makes it fact. This might sound endearing, but it is the opposite of rationality. It provides no common ground for reasonable discussion.
The “Respect” Meme – “These are my beliefs, so you need to respect them.”
Building off the Truth meme, this is the idea that we need to respect each person’s chosen beliefs. In reality, a person’s belief has no more intellectual merit than any other piece of knowledge and should be just as open to debate and discussion. Note the difference between respecting the beliefs and respecting the right to belief. The two are not the same, and this meme refers to the beliefs—the ideas—themselves.
The “Victim” Meme – “If my beliefs are not being respected, I’m the victim.”
This meme is similar to the privileged Reverse Discrimination meme discussed above. The Victim meme is all about privilege. When someone feels their beliefs are being challenged, they will cry these crocodile tears because they do not feel they should have to substantiate their beliefs. Unfortunately, it’s not terribly difficult to realize that one person’s beliefs are worth no more than another person’s opinion/rights/whatever is on the line. Beliefs are just ideas, and they need to be rationally supported just like any other argument.
The “Scapegoat” Meme – “I’m not that kind of Christian/etc. so don’t look at me.”
A variation on the Victim meme, this is when people assume the role of victim for being associated with others of the same faith. The speaker tries to disassociate from the targeted group (ex. fundamentalist Christians) without repudiating that group and without relinquishing respect for hir own beliefs. As with the Victim meme, the intention is to shift the focus away from the group that was directly oppressed (ex. the gay community) to try to claim some sort of indirect oppression. In doing so, ze avoids taking any sort of responsibility and enables the privilege and its abuse to persist. (This blog post sheds some light on how dangerous this is.)
The “Selfish Atheist” Meme – “Atheists are ego-worshippers/self-centered/selfish/etc.”
If I subscribed to the Victim meme, I might use it here, but it wouldn’t help, since my non-believing worldview does not have the same privilege as those who have beliefs. Nonetheless, this idea has absolutely no merit. It makes the poor assumption that everyone has to worship someone. It also makes the poor assumption that religions dictate morals. Neither is true. Quite contrary, those who are so adamant that their faith is right are the ones acting self-centered. Treating all ideas with the same skepticism and committing to none over others is about as open-minded as one can get.
The “Stalemate” Meme – “We can’t prove there is a God. You can’t prove there isn’t. So neither of us is right or wrong!”
Science demands proof before it makes conclusions. Without strict proof, it relies on probability. For a believer to assert ze is right just because there is no proof against hir claim is absurd. (See Russell’s teapot and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.) As an atheist, I freely admit I can’t prove whether there is or is not a God; that’s why I’m an atheist. To simply believe without proof is no argument at all, and certainly does not represent equal intellectual merit. For a more detailed discussion of this meme, see this post.
The “Just Because” Meme – “Well, since we can never know, it’s better to believe, just in case.”
This meme refers to Pascal’s Wager. More than anything, it is motivated by irrational fear of the afterlife (I can’t prove there is a Hell, but it sure sounds scary) and a reinforcement of privilege in society (Even if I can’t defend my beliefs, I know expressing them will make it easier for me to get along with others). The fear is baseless, considering it is founded in ideology and not in fact, just like all the above memes.
The Just Because meme is about stubbornness and clinging to belief. It is often the end of a conversation, because it is usually heard when the believer no longer has any counterarguments to offer. It completes the cycle of privilege as a path of least resistance by demonstrating that it is still easier in our society to say you have beliefs than to openly question or renounce them.
Anti-Queer (Heterosexist, Cisgenderist) Memes
These are memes used to condemn people who are not heterosexual (gays, lesbians, bisexuals, etc.) and/or not cisgender (people who are trans, queer, etc.). They also enshrine the privilege that maintains inequality related to sexual orientation and gender identity. Note that many of the arguments used to debate issues like marriage equality are already on the above lists (see “Traditional,” “Essentialist,” “Special Rights,” “Children,” and “Victim.”) This section highlights more specific myths that hold back the progress of equality.
The “One Man & One Woman” Meme – “Marriage is a special union between one man and one woman.”/”Children deserve to be raised by a father and mother.”
Let’s be blunt: this is all about gender stereotypes. It relies on the assumption that men and women should have different personalities and interests and that only a proper blend of masculinity and femininity is appropriate. This is nonsense, and has actually a lot to do with reinforcing men’s dominance over women (patriarchy). The truth is that none of the manifestations of this meme play out.
Not only does the Bible have plenty of examples of sanctioned polygamy, but let’s also remember that until the past century, marriage was special ownership of one woman by one man, and they had to be the same race too! In addition, studies have shown that children raised by same-sex couples do just as well as children raised by opposite-sex couples, if not better. While this meme appeals to people’s biased sense of “normal,” it just does not hold up.
The “Sinner” Meme – “Love the sinner; hate the sin.”
Not only does this meme allow ignorant people to feel like they are compassionate even though they are still adding to the problem, it also helps maintain a completely inaccurate understanding of sexual orientation. Studies have shown quite consistently that attempting to deny one’s own sexual orientation is psychologically and emotionally traumatic. Continuing to preach that LGB people should not act on their identities maintains helps them maintain a sense of shame and self-hate by inhibiting them from living their lives happily and a sense of inner peace. The “Sinner” meme is a destructive idea that plagues our nation; what some see as a “good enough” attitude isn’t good at all.
The “Bathroom” Meme – “Gender identity protections will allow predatory men to ‘invade’ women’s restrooms.”
There has never been a case of a man “pretending to be female” to “invade” a woman’s restroom. This meme, like so many, uses patriarchy and gender norms to monger fear. It’s disturbingly easy for people to picture a man trying to spy on or violate women or children in some way. Unfortunately, that sounds more like something out of an Adam Sandler movie. This is just a headless monster. It’s not like there are security guards protecting restrooms from invasion as it is.