Memetic Tribes and Culture War 2.0
“My friends, this election is about more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe, and what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in this country, a cultural war as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.” — Pat Buchanan, Address to the Republican National Convention, August 17, 1992
Coming To Terms
Until the last few years, it made sense to talk in terms of a red tribe and a blue tribe when describing political affiliation. The red tribe was right-wing, populist, nationalist, religious, concerned by terrorism, and valued sexual purity. The blue tribe was left-wing, globalist, internationalist, secular, concerned by global warming, and valued sexual freedom. They had fundamental disagreements about what America (or the West) was, what it needed to become, and how to get there. They even had a culture war. This dichotomy, however, no longer provides a sufficient map of the political territory we find ourselves in.
Enter memetic tribes. We define memetic tribes as a group of agents with a memeplex that directly or indirectly seeks to impose its distinct map of reality, along with its moral imperatives, upon other minds. These tribes are the active players in the new culture war. They possess a multiplicity of competing claims, interests, goals, and organizations. While the red and blue tribes were certainly far from monolithic, in the current decade any claim to unity is laughable. An establishment leftist who squabbles with the right must contend with mockery from the dirtbag left. Meanwhile, the dirtbag left endures critiques from Social Justice Activists (SJA), who in turn are criticized by the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW). The trench warfare of the old culture war has become an all-out brawl.
Some have used the notion of “digital tribes,” which we might call “pacifist memetic tribes,” to understand the penchant of individuals to sort themselves into online groups that share interest and beliefs. But historians will see the era of digital tribes for what it was: A brief blip before somebody said, “Wait, guys, aren’t we forgetting something? We could be fighting other tribes right now!” Digital tribes could not sate a fundamental need for bloodshed. The Internet, ostensibly an opportunity for greater understanding, communication, and collaboration, has instead become the central theater of the new culture war. In the last decade a boundless field for the diffusion of kitten pictures, image macros, and insular forums transformed into a battleground for propaganda, doxxing, partisan podcasts, and public shaming campaigns. While digital tribes still exist, such as the speedrunners or the harmless furries, we have entered the age of memetic tribes.
Though many conflicts can still be usefully analyzed in terms of disagreement between the right and the left, the conflicts within the red and blue tribe are just as inflammatory, and will prove to be equally as consequential for the future of America and the West. The Establishment Right vs Trumpists. Gender-critical feminists vs SJAs. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) vs the Establishment Left. Some commentators have observed that the left is devouring its own. But this is only a selection from a broader phenomenon. All across the political spectrum, people are cloistering into tribes and defining themselves against the tribes that are most similar to them. Are you a grey wolf? Then establishment liberals probably bother you the most. Are you Alt-Right? Then the Alt-Lite’s attempts to split the movement surely gall you.
The new memetic tribes share, to varying degrees, a few characteristics. Most are unscrupulously optimistic: They see social problems as soluble through large-scale adjustment. They see themselves as spokespeople for larger groups, whether that be “regular people” or “the marginalized.” At the same time, they see their existence, or their prime value, as under threat. They do battle both online and off. And crucially, their memetic warfare is just as much about firing up members and creating converts out of non-combatants as it is about winning particular battles.
From the perspective of the tribal memeplex, the ideal host exists in a state of permanent agitation and interprets all phenomena through the memeplex’s filter. In short: A paranoid ideologue. Memeplexes that have not agitated their hosts into reproducing them will lose out to those that do. There is only so much room inside your head, and ideology expands to fill available space.
The memetic tribes all share a goal: To win the culture war — or at least, to not lose it. To paraphrase Buchanan’s definitive statement on the culture war, the new war is the brawl between memetic tribes for the soul of America and the West. We define a culture war as a memetic war to determine what the social facts are at the core of a given society, or alternatively, to determine society’s boundaries of the sacred and the profane. Political arguments have become indistinguishable from moral arguments, and one cannot challenge political positions without implicitly possessing suspect morals. This makes politics an exhausting and unproductive game to play, and it makes the culture war intractable. A further barrier to ending the culture war is its tendency to spread to previously apolitical interests, from football, to coffee, to rideshares.
The Six Crises
Memetic tribes are multitudinous, fractious, unscrupulously optimistic, and divide the world into allies and enemies. They are locked in a Darwinian zero-sum war for the narrative of the noosphere, the sphere of human thought. What conditions gave rise to the contentious environment of memetic tribes?
We argue that six phenomena are involved in their genesis: secularization, fragmentation, atomization, globalization, stimulation, and weaponization. These ingredients respectively engender six crises: the meaning crisis, the reality crisis, the belonging crisis, the proximity crisis, the sobriety crisis, and the warfare crisis. We will examine each ingredient and crisis in turn.
Secularization and The Meaning Crisis. “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?” In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche published his famous epitaph, gesturing at the triumph of scientific rationalism over divine revelation. As Nietzsche recognized, this triumph is a Pyrrhic victory — the meaning system of Christianity cannot easily be replaced by evidence-based reasoning alone, a rationality devoid of narrative and role.
Religion provides meaning. Not only does it provide an understanding of how the world is for the believer, it also informs how the believer ought to exist in the world. Without God, the axiomatic foundation of the West’s historically dominant memeplex, religious oughts are in need of a new justification. According to Nietzsche, without a replacement, a slow slippage to nihilism is unavoidable. And the secularization of our institutions accelerates the collective transition into nihilism.
Secularization theories predict an untethering of religious authority from society would bring about a widespread embrace of a rational and scientific worldview. In the book A Secular Age, Charles Taylor rejects this “subtraction theory” and claims that our modern age is instead becoming one of pluralism, where multiple viewpoints compete with Christianity for control over the social narrative. This society-wide secularization has given rise to the meaning crisis, which we define as a meaning famine where numerous contenders are competing to satiate our meaning hunger.
Nietzsche foresaw the freedom and danger that came with this situation. “We have gone further and destroyed the land behind us. Now little ship, look out! Beside you is an ocean…” We argue that the noosphere has become this ocean, a vast reservoir of chaos and potential as people attempt to make sense of the world after the death of God. Memetic tribes are one solution, a raft to navigate the open seas. Their totalizing worldviews and the roles they provide are an attempt to satiate the meaning hunger in the meaning-famished.
Fragmentation and The Reality Crisis. Scott Adams, Dilbert cartoonist and political commentator, often uses the analogy of two movie screens to explain how the Culture War is processed. Conservative media such as Fox News have a rosy Trumpist perspective, while media such as CNN and MSNBC adopt a virulent anti-Trumpist perspective. Viewers of these networks experience the same reality but watch incompossible interpretations of that reality. Adams’s analogy can be expanded beyond the dichotomous right/left narratives embodied by legacy media. We not only have two movies available to us, we have a Netflix-level variety of viewable material.
Philosopher Jean-François Lyotard described this as “the postmodern condition” in 1979. The postmodern condition is not necessarily one of relativism but one of fragmentation. Lyotard defined postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives,” which are narratives that totalize all knowledge and experience, such as religion, the Enlightenment, and communism. These grand narratives, once broken down, give way to what he calls little narratives.
These little narratives do not necessarily espouse relativism directly, but are localized by their contexts, are ostensibly independent from one another, and have different means of sensemaking. This fragmented array of narratives has caused a reality crisis, for without some semblance of a consensus reality, constructive cooperation becomes extremely difficult. This results in what Lyotard calls a differend, a situation where conflicting parties cannot even agree on the rules for dispute resolution. Moreover, there is lack of agreement on what the conflict even is. Collective understanding problems of what reality is amplify collective action problems of what reality should be.
Thanks to the internet, we are now fully in the postmodern condition, or as we call it, the reality crisis. Whereas previously traditional media provided a consensus reality, the decentralization of information-sharing technology allows individuals to document events, create narratives, and challenge perceptions in real-time, without heed for journalistic ethics. This revolution has not led to greater consensus, one based on a reality we can all see more of and agree upon. Instead, information-dissemination has been put in service of people’s tribalism. Anybody can join a memetic tribe and will be supplied with reams of anecdotes to support that tribe’s positions. Grassroots and underground media production keep the tribes up to date on opinions, with wildly different perceptions of the same event. Memetic armadas are being crafted in neighboring ports. Fake news has only just begun.
Atomization and The Belonging Crisis. Atomization is the reduction of a thing to its elementary particles. It is the state of separateness. Social atomization, or social alienation, is the process by which individuals come to experience themselves primarily as separated individuals who are not part of a greater whole. The freedom that comes from this is accompanied by feelings of isolation, alienation, and depression. In an atomizing society the roles and responsibilities that were the province of kith and kin are increasingly commoditized into transactions with strangers.
In White Collar: The American Middle Classes, C. Wright Mills argued that advanced capitalism has engendered a society dominated by a “marketing mentality.” This is a mentality that encourages Frankfurtian bullshit, uses friendliness as a tool, and is ready to sell and service the other. This incentivizes individuals to treat one another as instruments. In Buberian terms, they engage in I-It relating. By doing so the individual transforms himself into an instrument, ready to be used by the other.
When the marketing mentality reigns supreme it indicates that a Gemeinschaft, a society of subjective binding, has been replaced by a Gesellschaft, a society of contractual binding. This leaves us in a new normal of alienation from self and other. As Hannah Arendt says, we are in a collective state of “homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth.” This social domicide and de-rooting makes us long for a place to call home and a group of people to call our own.
This is the belonging crisis. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, belongingness is the third innate need required for our psychological health and development. Without it we are bowling alone, longing for a team to play on. To mitigate loneliness, anxiety, and other adverse conditions that lack of belonging brings, people are primed to fly into the arms of others. All they need is an offer of togetherness, and a few convincing memes.
Globalization and The Proximity Crisis. In 2012, Mark Zuckerberg opened his letter to investors stating that “Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission — to make the world more open and connected.” In 2017 he introduced Facebook’s new mission statement: “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” It is clear that Zuckerberg has not read Marshall McLuhan. If he had, it might have softened the utopianism of this mission statement.
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In 1962 McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man was released. In it McLuhan introduced the term “the global village” to describe the globalization of the mind, a process set in motion by electronic media’s power to interconnect minds worldwide, ending in the compression of the globe into a village. McLuhan, a man ahead of his time, was no Pollyanna. He foresaw that the new media would have a retribalizing effect on man. “The global village”, he wrote, “absolutely ensures maximal disagreement on all points.”
Why is this? Philosopher Byung-Chul Han has an elegant answer: Distance, or lack thereof. In his book In The Swarm: Digital Prospects, Han states that “distance is what makes respectare [respect] different from spectare [spectacle]. A society without respect, without the pathos of distance, paves the way for the society of scandal.” The internet pornifies our private lives, including our political views, leaving nothing to the imagination. When everything is laid bare, respect vanishes, for our proximity exposes all of our ugliness. This manifests in what psychologists call dissimilarity cascades (the more we know about someone, the less we like them) and environmental spoiling (proximity with those we don’t like spoils the environment as a whole).
Mutually exclusive memeplexes, or “mutex” memeplexes, have no distance from one another thanks to the global village. This is the proximity crisis. Good fences make good neighbors, and the power of media has flattened all social fences. McLuhan eventually favored a global theatre analogy, instead of the global village, to indicate that we are all becoming actors in a repertory of theatrical performances. Thanks to their mutual exclusivity, these performances are becoming increasingly warlike and less theatrical by the day. Twitter, a platform that lends itself to sharing propositional memes, has become a central battleground of the new culture war. It is where mutex memeplexes cannot escape from each other. It is where distance evaporates.
Stimulation and The Sobriety Crisis. Is the image of a beetle hopelessly attempting to have sex with an empty beer bottle the perfect metaphor for the state of humanity? In 2011 Darryl Gwynne and David Rentz won the Ig Nobel Prize for their research on the male jewel beetle’s proclivity to attempt copulation with littered Australian beer stubbies. They found that these discarded bottles greatly attracted the male jewel beetle because their size, coloring, and dimpled design were similar to the male jewel beetle’s female counterpart. In fact, according to Darryl Gwynne, the male beetle found the beer bottle so attractive that they ignored the females and their “attempts to copulate with stubby beer bottles continue until they are killed by the hot desert sun or by foraging ants.”
This phenomenon is known as an evolutionary trap: adaptive instincts turn maladaptive due to exposure to supernormal stimuli, magnified and more attractive versions of evolved stimulus. Nikolaas Tinbergen, the ethologist who coined the term supernormal stimuli, demonstrated that he could trick birds, fish, and insects into evolutionary traps using exaggerated dummy objects designed to trigger their instincts. In Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose, psychologist Deirdre Barrett points out that humans are just as fallible to these superstimuli. Whether it be junk food, laugh tracks, pornography, or likes on social media, these artificial triggers addict us and hijack our agency.
Tristan Harris, a former Design Ethicist at Google and founder of the nonprofit Time Well Spent, makes the argument that there is an asymmetrical battle going on for our attention. On one side, we have evolved instincts suited to a bygone ecology. On the other side is an army of high-IQ engineers informed by Ivy League persuasion labs tasked to create algorithms aimed solely at capturing and holding our attention. To make matters worse, the targets of these campaigns aren’t even aware this battle is going on.
In the interest of appeasing shareholders, large social media companies battle over the attention economy, and along the way they reduce our agency and turn us into memetic addicts. The pervasiveness of social media has created the sobriety crisis. Addiction, simply defined, is the compulsive engagement in pleasurable substances or behaviors despite their negative consequences. This is our new norm and it leaves us highly vulnerable to the predation of self-interested actors. Like the jewel beetle being devoured by foraging ants, our reduced agency leaves us blind and defenseless to actors with misaligned agendas.
Weaponization and The Warfare Crisis. Aleksandr Dugin, touted as the most dangerous philosopher in the world, published The Foundations of Geopolitics: The Geopolitical Future of Russia in 1997, with one reviewer stating that it “reads like a to-do list for Putin’s behavior on the world stage.” Used as a textbook in the Russian Academy of the General Staff, the book advises Russian operatives to “introduce geopolitical disorder into internal American activity, encouraging all kinds of separatism and ethnic, social and racial conflicts, actively supporting all dissident movements — extremist, racist, and sectarian groups, thus destabilising internal political processes in the U.S.” After the cold war Russia, no longer competitive with America in hard power, pivoted to aggressive soft power to regain their geopolitical influence.
If the 2016 American elections are any indication, Dugin’s strategy has been implemented. The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence stated that the Russians interfered with the elections with the intent to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process.” The Internet Research Agency, the source of Russia’s apparent sockpuppet troll army, sought to sow maximum discord throughout America. They disseminated fake news to support the campaigns of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Jill Stein, and targeted groups across the political spectrum, from Black Lives Matter (BLM) to far-right gun advocates. They even arranged pro- and anti-Trump rallies to occur at the same time, all in the service of destabilization.
Controversial cybersecurity commentator James Scott calls these campaigns “chaos operations.” They follow a basic formula: Understand the target audience through psychographic profiling, create messages that are attuned to the trigger points of the audience, seek out real or fake “incidents” to weaponize, and stoke outrage. A study by marketing professor Jonah Berger showed that anger increases the likelihood to share memes. This naturally selects for “outrage porn” memes, which provoke indignation and outrage and encourage receivers to spread them throughout the global village. Outrage porn is the supernormal stimuli of the culture war.
It is not only Russia who engages in information warfare. Other state actors, terrorist organizations, lone wolf hackers, and big data mercenary firms like Cambridge Analytica all engage in memetic operations. Minds are being weaponized around the world, to advance agendas they may not support or even know about. We find ourselves in a warfare crisis. Without a Geneva Convention for information warfare to govern how unfriendly actors must conduct themselves, we are in memetic anarchy.
To summarize the six crises:
- The meaning crisis weakened our collective understanding of what ought to be.
- The reality crisis fractured our collective understanding of what is.
- The belonging crisis took away a genuine feeling of community.
- The proximity crisis removed distance from conflicting views.
- The sobriety crisis reduced our agency and turned us into addicts.
- The warfare crisis transformed our minds into weapons for hidden wars in plain sight.
None of these crises alone created the new memetic tribes, but the combination of all six made it unavoidable. The meaning and reality crisis created a longing for a collective is and ought. The belonging and proximity crisis put the existentially isolated in close memetic quarters with those they can love and hate. The sobriety and warfare crisis turned us into memetic addicts, weaponized for the strategic aims of others. These crises set the stage for a new culture war we were severely ill-prepared for. The crises are dynamite distributed throughout the noosphere. All that was needed were some matches.
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**Art for this essay provided by @kelelowor
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