We feel the masters of our thoughts. We have no awareness of the automatic processing that makes perception meaningful and thought possible. Nor does self-awareness bring home how much our ideas come from others. We use the knowledge and skills acquired by ancestors over millennia. Drummed into our heads from infancy, the ideas of our group provide most of its content (see “The atoms of thought“) and to a large part direct our thought.
Group-inspired norms govern most of our minute-to-minute conduct. The automatic resort to them achieves an economy of effort that leaves enough consciously-directed resources of the brain to focus on the very few perceived alternatives for action. Extremes such as unrehearsed emergencies readily surpass the brain’s capacity for analysis and considered action. For most circumstances of communal existence the reliance on set options works well, but it creates the danger that the one set of ideas masters the thought of most in the community. Meme tyranny at its extreme drives mentally ill individuals into psychosis or a community into group extremism. A group’s prejudices give megalomaniacs the means to drive it to extremes. Nazism and Stalinism provide just two of the many examples thrown up by the 20th century.
Sigmund Freud and others attribute to the group mind the power to dragoon its members into concerted actions, from the sublime to the most vile, from self-sacrifice to pack rape. I suspect that Freud’s insights reflect the Jew’s awareness of a pressing reality, the pogroms so prevalent in the Europe of his day. I suggest that the force of the group mind lies in its consensually accepted memes. Their power to concert the thought of its members has made civilisation possible. It binds the group. Memes direct thought in or out of the aroused group. In remote Bolivia, Klaus Barbie, the SS commandant known as the butcher of Lyons, treated a neighbour vilely as long as he mistakenly believed him to be Jewish. His error corrected, they became good friends. Years later at his trial for war crimes he could have pleaded not guilty by reason of meme tyranny and in effect he did, drawing upon the SS oath of obedience to the leader. The banality of the group’s memes explains the banality of common evil.
The press on individuals for conformity creates the potential for disaster. Ossification of a group’s memes, for example, those held by the Incas at the pinnacle of their empire, leaves the group vulnerable to adverse change in circumstances. Its opposite, the welcoming of diverse ideas, increases the strength of the group to compete with others, but has its own downside. It undermines the group’s unique identity. The clash of interests becomes a question of which matters most to the group, preservation of its memes or its members.
Minorities pose the threat to break the uniform mold that holds the hearts and souls of the intolerant group in tyrannical subjection. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the multicultural society abandons a uniformity of memes to multiply its members. The evolutionary interplay of its memes melds the minds of its members into a mongrel composite of the original communal memes. The evolutionary interplay of ideas throws up the brilliant variation in the brilliant mind. History reveals that tolerant communities produced the leading societies of the world. I suspect that my group’s tortured past explains why, from Abraham to Einstein, so many illuminating ideas have come from recently emancipated Jewry, who escaped the crippling meme tyranny of their group’s theocracy.