What better funereal tribute could there be for a dearly beloved aunt than to eat her brains? If the cause of death is an ill-timed antelope stampede, or a disagreement with the chief over who makes the sharpest spears, then go right ahead! Let her memory be preserved, at least for a couple of hours, through the digestion of her venerated noggin.
But if her method of decease was almost anything else – sickness, poisoning, more sickness (there are so many interesting ways to get sick), then that is precisely what you won’t do. Neurological body bits are where many of the toxins that can cause death are densest, and passing them along in culinary form is one of the fastest ways to create a vicious spiral of grey-matter munchies. The diseased brain is consumed, which spells the end of the eater, who is then consumed as part of her own mourning rituals, which then causes…but you get the idea.
Outside of cannibalism, the only other area I’m aware of affected by this issue is the pet food industry, which routinely buys euthanized animals from shelters and zoos to mix into Fluffy’s dinner. However, Fluffy’s consequential mess on the floor might never be connected with the penguin who passed away a year ago at the Baltimore Aquarium, whereas surely, we assume, someone would notice if half the community suddenly goes the way of our beloved aunt. Surely someone would say “Hey, maybe just this once, let’s eat the toes instead“.
Not so, says the law of negative memes! One study noted that a negative meme can wipe out 70% of a population before someone questions its underlying validity. But here it becomes more complicated because it’s not just a blindness to facts that must be overcome. Without an understanding of germ theory, we can imagine our poor cannibals mulling over the issue of a population die-off, and after many long days of pondering, coming to this conclusion: “We are all dying! The gods must be angry with us! Quick, pacify them by eating more brains!”
An interesting natural experiment of just this phenomenon is occurring in Japan as we speak, and no one has to eat anyone. Since the 60’s, Japan’s anti-feminist culture has been playing havoc with their population prospects. While men and women receive the same education and early professional pressures, women are often let go after marriage, and professional ladies with children can expect to be stigmatized as “devil wives” (at least one female CEO recently visiting Japan was forced to re-title herself as a secretary to her male subordinates in order to attend her own meetings).
With almost no tradition of daycare, and, do forgive me, no system of child-brides or slavery in place to counteract female unwillingness, it’s not a surprise to find that a huge percentage of the lady population has chosen to opt out of relationships. And not only them – lots of men are rejecting the monetary pressures of keeping a spouse in a society that won’t allow them to share the stress of being sole breadwinner. Celibacy in this sort of climate is one route to freedom and equality, and as a result, the Japanese population will soon be losing a million people every year. Current trends place its complete extinction sometime in the next century. Which, to use a scientific phrase, would just suck full of suck.
As a western-raised feminist white Jewish liberal short lady (I’ve been assured the shortness has a lot to do with it) it’s very easy to point the accusing finger of righteousness and demand, how hard would it be to just to pass a couple little equal rights concessions? Offer a couple daycare tax breaks? Maybe even, dare I say it, full-pay maternity leave like that offered by that bastion of women’s rights Iran (yep, even Iran has better protection for working moms than Japan. Full disclosure, they have better protection than the US as well, so.) And yet, such risque proposals haven’t made much headway.
Like our unfortunate cannibal friends, when a negative meme is firmly entrenched there can be a lot of confusion about where the problem really comes from. Many of Japan’s conservative LDP party would argue that the true issue is not Japan’s anti-feminism, it’s that Japan has not been anti-feminist enough. If only women (and increasingly, men) would adhere more closely to their traditional pre-world War II roles the problem would be solved! As of yet there have been no dystopian-style attempts to criminalize female employment or enforce a one-child-per ovary policy, but it seems imaginable as the situation becomes more dire. The true power of a negative meme is hidden and subtle: the meme offers a solution to the problems it causes by propagating the meme even more strongly. Our people are dying! Quick, eat more brains!
This all sounds really depressing, but the good news is that negative memes, the truly virulent ones that can take down an entire population, are usually self-correcting. Here’s a good metaphor: the absolutely pants-wettingly terrifying super-virus Ebola. Ebola can rip through an entire population in weeks. It’s intensely contagious and can survive outside of the human body for years, a combination that should have turned the world into a scene from Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ decades ago.
And yet, we’re still alive to spout social science at each other. The key is in its extreme virulence – the virus is so deadly, and kills so quickly, that there’s rarely enough time for the victims to spread it beyond the immediate vicinity. Ebola’s very toxicity acts like a natural quarantine – in a small, immobile village population, the virus perishes with the last available host.
Now consider the case of Krokodil. Like Ebola, Krokodil turned up in the 70’s, this time in Russia, as a quicker, cheaper, more addictive alternative to heroine. Krokodil is the crack to heroine’s cocaine, the Ebola to heroine’s mild flu. It will also kill you stone dead in a particularly gruesome fashion, by rotting your skin off from the inside, but that’s almost beside the point. Krokodil is relatively easy to manufacture – any number of websites will give you the instructions on how to stir up the codeine/iodine/phosphorus mix. And yet, so far, the streets are not full of rotting zombie corpse people.
The key seems to be in Krokodil’s very virulence – even though any kid with access to a CVS and her mom’s stove can saute up a batch, who would want to? Like biological pandemics, memes survive through repetitive propagation – the passing of a piece of information from mind to mind, or in this case, victim to victim. But while someone could technically take Krokodil for a year or two before checking out, they usually succumb to a gory list of secondary infections long before then.
There is no peer pressure to sample Krokodil because no one lives long enough to pass the meme along. No one is saying, “Hey, I just tried this stuff and it’s awesome and you should too” because, not to put too fine a point on it, that would require still having a mouth, and anyway, who would take advice from someone who looks like they’ve taken Krokodil? Despite its persistent availability, Krokodil as a meme is just too nasty to spread beyond isolated outbreaks here and there.
Krokodil is back in the news this month thanks to a scattering of reported incidents in Illinois, none of which have come up conclusive. Let me repeat that – without even a single verified case, that is to say, not one person who has actually tested positive, media outlet after media outlet has spent the last two weeks seeking to outdo each other in righteous condemnation and gory pictures. This isn’t yellow journalism, or at least, it isn’t just yellow journalism. This is what a negative meme is up against: society’s immune system is extremely clumsy in its targets, but it can be fantastically powerful in its effects.
For example, in a different section of these same outlets earlier this year many sites devoted a few paragraphs to “Gallon Smashing”, that brief-lived prank which saw teenagers walk into grocery stores and stage a massive pratfall while carrying (breakable) containers of dairy. Like many pranks, a forgiving viewer might view this as a sly social commentary: the action loses money for a large corporation and inconveniences it by the necessity of cleaning up the mess. All while the stores’ wrath is hamstrung by their own customer service policies and existing social mores: it looks goshdarn mean to take out your wraith on a kid who just metaphorically wet themselves in public.
Now, that feeling of control over a large institution, even when it’s through an act of self-humiliation, has a lot of appeal. The high-minded might attempt a parallel to the passive protests during the civil rights era, when workers who could not outright rebel nonetheless protested by pretending to be more stupid or clumsy than they actually were. That’s the idealistic view of it. In reality, let’s be honest, this was just unbelievably dumb. Grocery stores are often locally owned, and the wage slaves forced to clean up might easily be classmates of the perpetrators. A long-term propagation of this meme might have meant damage to the nearby economy, the complete collapse of the national dairy industry, mass calcium deficiencies, plagues of hungry kittens everywhere…
News outlets duly wrote up the Gallon Smashing phenomenon, with many a ‘crying over spilled milk’ pun, as the new Harlem Shake. The elements weren’t that dissimilar – the same ritualized humiliation and the same sly anti-authoritarianism (part of the fun of Harlem Shake videos lies in witnessing a sedate office environment transformed into…whatever). And yet days went by, and the internet reacted to Gallon Smashing, not through a loud outcry of support or condemnation, but through the worst possible punishment that can be meted out, to ignore it. Despite high viewing numbers – in the same class as early Harlem Shake videos, milk spilling videos received just a fraction of the Harlem Shake’s comments. Very few clips, meme-wise, were actually ever made, and even fewer once perpetrators began to get arrested. Eight months later there are less than 38,000 spill clips on youTube. That might sound high, but for comparison, even a year after the Harlem Shake broke there remain more than 4,640,000 clips, and every single one is hilaaaaaarius.
We’re well-aware of the ugly side of social pressure – the side that advocates on behalf of established social standards against the rights of the individual. The Oscars love nothing more than the story about a hero’s valiant struggle against a fiendish societal presumption, and rightly so. But it’s easy to forget that social pressure has another duty: to nip negative memes in the bud before they get going. This is social pressure at its very best. In a way it’s what social pressure is for. When a meme goes wrong, the white blood cells of our disapproval swing into action – whether it’s to prevent an epidemic of zombies, or just a little spilled milk.
Low grade negative meme-infections surround us all the time- in fact, fighting them is an important part of a healthy society, and it gives socially awkward undergrads a reason to get excited and meet new people, which is also of vital importance. I’m looking at you, me of 1998. Japan is a rare opportunity to witness a negative meme so subtle that it has managed to use a society’s own natural defense system against itself. What sort of inoculation might jump-start Japan’s baby-friendly antibodies is anyone’s guess. Speaking as an outsider, all I can say is, whatever you do, stay away from the brains.