Can you bear to listen to ideas you find false, hard to believe or even offensive? Until last week I thought that any serious student who wanted to learn would say ‘yes’ – and then argue if they disagreed. I was badly wrong.
Based on my TED lecture, I was asked to speak on memes and temes by the Oxford Royale Academy – an organisation, not part of the University, that provides two week summer courses for international students aged 16-17. I prepared my lecture carefully and, having been asked to ‘engage them’, used lots of images, video, and included popular Internet memes such as the latest craze for ‘Fatkini posts’, the spread of rumours on Twitter, and my favourite Gangnam Style parody (Python style).
I began with some basics of evolution by natural selection. Without this you cannot understand any biology let alone the idea of memes – but as soon as I mentioned the ‘E’ word, a young man in the second row began swaying from side to side and holding his arms over his head. I persevered, trying to explain why evolution is inevitable – if you have information that is copied with variation and selection then you must get (as Dan Dennett puts it) ‘Design out of chaos without the aid of mind’. It is this inevitability that I find so delightful – the evolutionary algorithm just must produce design, and once you understand that you can forget believing or not believing in evolution because you see how it works.
I went on to explain how memes, like genes, are replicators that evolve by competing to be copied from person to person. To make the idea clear, I invited volunteers to come up to the stage and invent a new meme. This same young man rushed up, followed by four others. I asked him, at the word ‘go’, to make some simple movements and sounds. ‘One, two, three, Go,’ I said, and he waved one hand around, chanting ‘In the beginning was the word, and the word ….’ The others then imitated him, three reciting from the Bible, but the fourth stretched out his arms, declaring, ‘There’s a big old man in the sky’. This raised a huge laugh and cheer from (some of) the audience. Seeing a great opportunity, I asked everyone to imitate either of these two new memes, whereupon there were shouts of, ‘In the beg…’, ‘There’s an old man …’. Good, I said, we’ve now got two memes, you have just seen meme mutation and selection at work.
At this point, I probably thought the mixed audience were enjoying the lecture and were willing to disagree with me and each other. I gave many examples of memeplexes and – as the organisers must have expected me to – I included the idea of religions as viruses of the mind. I frequently discuss religions because they provide a fascinating example of memeplexes that protect themselves with dire threats against non-believers and untestable promises to believers, while taking up lots of their followers’ time, effort and resources to propagate themselves. I showed slides carefully chosen to represent all the major faiths and did not single one out. I expected disagreement – but not what actually happened.
Five or six young Muslim men got up and began to walk out. As they crossed the large hall, I said ‘Excuse me, would you mind telling me why you are leaving?’ There was a long silence until one said, ‘You are offending us. We will not listen’. Soon after that another bunch left, and then another. ‘Won’t you stay and listen to ideas you disagree with?’ I asked. ‘My ideas may be wrong, so can’t you stay and decide for yourselves?’ But they left. Feeling offended was reason enough to shut out ideas that clashed with those they’d been taught to defend.
I left profoundly depressed at the state of the world – a world in which young people are trained by the religions of their parents to block their ears to any challenge – and so to new ideas. I am so used to open-minded disagreements that I took it for granted that youngsters coming to Oxford would relish a good argument and would welcome new ideas. Lots of them did but a large number of Muslims, and some Christians, did not. They knew ‘the truth’.
I learned a lot from this experience – both for giving future lectures and about memes. It seems to me that ‘offence’ has become a new meme-trick; cry ‘I am offended’ and it permits people not to engage with new ideas. So the old memes protect themselves with a new cage for their hapless carriers.
Thinking back over this unpleasant experience I’m wondering how psychology can help. The psychologies of change, of opinion formation, of learning and of persuasion are obviously relevant here. So too are the ideas of frames and ‘latitudes of acceptance’. But above all I am left with this question to myself – to what extent do I tone down my lectures, or leave out important arguments, in case I offend people? I don’t think I should.