The secret life of memes and the death of intersectional activism
This is a 'classic article' from my legacy website.
Please note that while I still consider my current work to have evolved out concepts and frameworks that I present in this piece and others, I have greatly departed, in both thinking and tone, from the kind of dualist social/racial justice discourse I embedded this piece of work within.
I consider my current work to be fully dedicated to embracing the nondual nature of the cosmos, never hardening into essentials of good or bad, right or wrong.
I realize this title is likely to cause some charge.
For some, claiming the death of intersectional activism might feel like the freedom to breathe. For others, it might hyper-charge their alert systems.
Before we get into any argument about whether it is OK to claim the end of relevance of such an iconic concept such as intersectionality, only after a few years of it entering into social media consciousness, I want to talk a bit about the ‘being-ness’ of ideas themselves and how our nervous systems are tied into it.
In order to that, let’s start with taking about memetics. Richard Dawkins described in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, argued for a model for evolution that is centered around the survival of genetic information, rather than individual organisms. That is that organisms were actually simply vehicles for the survival of certain genetic codes.
Adjacent to this discussion, which took up the arguments of previous gene-centered evolution theories, Dawkins also introduced the ideas of memes. A meme is what Dawkins saw as a ‘unit of culture’, such as an ideology or a theory, that competes for their share of the marketplace of our mind space, just like how genetic code competes for scarce resources.
This is why ideas spread.
And yes, the term 'memes' as in referring to internet memes is directly derived from Dawkins' ideas.
If any of this was confusing, below is a very simple introduction to memetics that I found useful for myself.
I find memetics resonant because my own practice of cultural somatics is itself deeply rooted in animism, the worldview that all things are beings and all beings are interrelated, which of course is very compatible with memetics that sees thoughts as having their own drive for survival.
Within a cultural somatic framework for understanding memes, we might go a bit further and imagine their being-ness further by attributing them with sensations, emotions, and thoughts, that are in turn deeply entangled and embedded in the function of our own nervous systems.
To put it in more colloquial terms, we may understand that we are ‘possessed’ by memes. The primary resource that keeps memes alive is the emotional energy our nervous systems use to activate and protect them.
(If you’re feeling a bit of a head rush right now, I invite you to wiggle your toes for a bit and take a breath into your belly to get out of your mind for a minute or so.)
Recognizing the being-ness of memes is incredibly important to social change because it is inherently about large shifts in the dominance of certain memes in the scarce marketplace of our minds.
While most of us cognitively understand that memes have a life cycle, after all, history shows us that ideas like 'flat earth theory' come and go, what we tend to underestimate though is the amount of emotional impact the secret lives of memes have on us.
When we are changing our minds about something that requires a once-dominant meme to cede its place to another meme. When this happens, the preceding memes lose access to their life source, our nervous system. In other words, they die.
Because of this, the potential territorial conflict that can arise between memes can have severe results on our psyche. As the preceding meme fears its death, our own nervous systems that are connected to it can be taken over by their survival responses of fight/flight/freeze.
On smaller scales, this border skirmish in our minds expresses itself as violence in interpersonal relationships. On larger scales, it can boil over into all-out war - remember the crusades, anyone?
Understanding this phenomenon of meme possession is critical to building sustainable 21st-century activist culture. A big part of the widespread acceptance of social justice discourse into the mainstream has been through the accelerated spread of memes via modern networking technology. Terms and ideas such as ‘Intersectionality’, ‘identity politics’, ‘decolonization’, ‘white tears/fragility’, ‘believe survivors’, ‘intent vs. impact’, ‘check your privilege’ are all memes that have mass proliferated.
While this spread of activist memes has been greatly beneficial to us, it poses us with deep challenges. The virality of memes via social media means that their territories tend to explode like algae blooms and this means that natural succession cycles that challenge their place of dominance may come quickly, creating an incredible amount of socio-cultural tension. I believe that a lot of the memes we currently rely on to guide our behavior in social justice communities, such as the many I mentioned above, are already needing to be succeeded, having expanded far beyond their appropriate share of our mind.
When I say ‘appropriate’ here, I mean appropriate in reference to our human happiness. Our lives, especially our intellectual thoughts, have a deep relationship with memes, but they are not who we are. Rather, you might say memes are more like tools for humans to use, except that the tools have their own survival drives and we need to manage that relationship with a sense of agency.
We do not owe loyalty to memes as if they are our overlords. But we act is if we do. It’s called being ideological.
It is this ideological nature that many right-wingers deride as leftist Social Justice Warrior culture (not to say that the right is somehow not reactive). In this case, the right-wingers are correct about us. When you look at cancel culture, you see that memes have rampant control over how we think, talk, and act. We feel like we have awakened to new truths, yet we still have not recovered agency over ourselves and still acting as vessels for memes to protect their territory.
The problem with this is that we tend to end up using memes as tools that aren’t quite a fit for the task at hand. It’s like using knives to open cans. Sure, we can rely on a knife in a pinch, when there is nothing else around, but we should not confuse that for a lack of other options - in this case, a can opener. It certainly isn’t a reason for us to keep buying knives to open cans.
Repeatedly using ill-fitted tools for a task is a recipe for harm.
Specifically looking at intersectionality, we need to understand that it was originally developed as a communication method between institutions and people. Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term and introduced the concept in the context of law, as a term to describe the unique experience of black women who are marginalized for being both black and female.
As a meme, intersectionality has virally spread through our culture as the go-to for understanding interpersonal dynamics between people who hold unique identities, especially within activist communities. The problem here is that intersectionality was never meant to handle the tasks we are commonly using it for in our daily lives.
Intersectionality has very little to say on subjects such as nervous system regulation and attachment, which completely dominate our actual lived experience of interpersonal relationships. This doesn’t mean that our neurophysiology doesn't have a relationship to our intersectional identity - it absolutely does because our sociocultural position has such a strong impact on the traumas we experience for being who we are - but it means that to understand our neurophysiology we need to consider a LOT more than intersectionality.
In my work with clients, I've seen people who had little prior working knowledge of intersectionality, quickly become able to hold the complexity of oppression in an embodied way, while died-in-the-wool activists struggled to be in their bodies more fully as their minds became hijacked by their loyalty to intersectionality as a meme.
As a tangible example, I have had white clients who experienced bullying from BIPOC colleagues, often attacked through memes, who would end up anxiously spend hours trying to analyze the situation from an intersectional lens, ruminating how they need to understand the other because of how their intersectional identities interact, all the while their nervous systems were getting charged up and retraumatized. The meme's need to propagate itself has taken over the actual human task of happiness.
In these moments, it's been so much easier to cut to the chase and tell my clients that "sounds like you may have been wronged and you're angry about that". They needed a space where intersectionality isn't what matters and what matters instead is that they feel wronged and are angry. No need for other stimuli.
A lot of the activist memes that have spread over the last few years are very similar in terms of their inappropriate dominance. They were never meant to serve as tools to manage relationships, but they have proliferated because of a lack of anything else in the memetic ecosystem to balance their existence.
I don't blame the memes themselves for this. Neuroscience wasn't as popularly accessible when a lot of these memes originated and there is still little integration between the fields of relational neuroscience and activism.
The emerging activism we see in our communities is much more of a people-to-people movement. It is about embodied healing, restorative justice, and other highly relational approaches and has an orientation towards understanding trauma and other neuroscientific topics. As this happens, we are again reaching the limit of being able to retrofit our new needs to the older paradigms we have been building upon. There will be new memes that the old memes will have to cede their dominance to.
This brings us back to considering the title of this post that claims the death of intersectional activism.
As a society, we have a problem with grieving. It is a part of our lost ancestral heritage of death rites.
If we simply looked at the natural world around us, we would understand that death is fundamental to adaptation. When forests recover, they go through a series of transitions that see different species dominate the terrain until it reaches a stable-enough place. When something is thriving it does so through the death of many.
I was talking to my colleague Dare Sohei about this issue and we came to the agreement that, our inability to be with death creates a powerful emotional synergy between our nervous system and the survival responses of memes. The damage we cause in our communities from memed behavior stems from our lack of capacity to honor our embodied terror.
If we cannot deal with death, we can never be sovereign. We will continue to be stuck in trauma, which is really a loss of choice. This illuminates that hyper-memed behavior is really just dissociative reaction where our mind has lot its ability to choose how to think. The content of the meme itself still matters - I prefer a SJW meme over a white nationalist meme any day - just not as much as we think.
So having reckoned with all of this, how may we begin to reclaim agency in our relationships to memes and rebalance our memetic ecosystem?
The first thing we can do is spend a bit of time creating a healthy distinction between our nervous systems and the memes that occupy our mind space.
Below is a simple visualization exercise to help you start on that path.
- Take a few moments to settle and ground yourself. Rub your legs and belly so you have good sensation in your lower body.
- Think of a meme that you might have an activating relationship to. Maybe it is a meme that you feel like is aggressively encroaching on your life or a meme that you feel like you rely on too often and is causing you stress.
- Assign the meme a personality. Imagine in your mind's eye their posture, their voice, and other characteristics. When you imagine them create a healthy distance between you and them where your nervous system doesn't get over-charged.
- In the presence of this meme, scan your body for sensations, especially in your lower body.
- Ask yourself, what do these sensations remind you of? Are there any childhood experiences they resonate with? Often memes 'possess' us through wounds we have accumulated as children and we develop connections to them that resemble our early life relationships.
- Notice if your power relationship to the meme has shifted and you feel like you have more agency.
TIP: Memes can be incredibly powerful, especially because not following them can make us feel like we will lose our social standing - something that can feel like death to our nervous systems. In freeing ourselves from the dominance of memes, it is important to keep reminding ourselves that they are only useful so far as they align with our happiness.
Finally, I want to finish this post by recognizing that even the new activism I am celebrating in this post are memes and they will have to cede thesmelves one day to welcome what is next.
In a healthy culture, people have their own natural life cycle, transforming from infant, to student, to leader, to teacher, to elder, and finally to ancestor.
The life cycle of memes is no different.