The People Meme

There’s a curious expression in the English language. We use it all the time. It’s become a fixture in our conversations. So much so, we don’t even realize how much power it has over us. It’s the expression “People”. As in, “What will people say?” Or “People talk”. More particular than the general usage of the word “people”, as in the French equivalent “gens” or the Spanish “hentes”. Or when we say, “I met lots of great people on this trip.” which is another way of saying “persons”. No, what I mean is when we use it as a metaphor for an unnamed, unspecific but powerful concept that is akin to a prevailing attitude or an imagined collective super ego.

It’s not specific about what or whom we’re referring to. We’re not literally saying “everyone”. We’re not saying “this person” versus “that person”. We’re using a metaphor that was embedded in us as children, by people (here I’m using it in the bland generic sense) who were perhaps quite concerned about the opinions of others and wanted to transmit that concern to us. And they learned it as children from their elders, and so on. It is essentially a phantasm, a creation of the human mind, and like any meme, can take on a life of its own.

Just because I study and utilize memes on behalf of our clients, doesn’t mean I find them all to be beneficial. The “people” meme is one that is to be avoided scrupulously by anyone wishing to be creative, inventive, or innovative. Living under the spectre of what the phantom menace called “people” might think of our decisions, is quite different from having a moral conscience or ethical code. It is an atavism of culture, like the appendix is to the human body.

Unlike Richard Dawkins, who takes the hard line view that humans are merely platforms for memes, just as all organisms can be seen as mere platforms for genes to replicate, I feel that there’s a constant interplay between humans and the memes that engage us, like a never-ending dance. Most of the time, the memes lead the dance, and because of our passivity and unconsciousness, we follow unwittingly. But occasionally we can awaken to the dance and decide to lead it. After all, all memes are wholly dependent for their survival on those who think thoughts: Us.