Memes and Brights

[Drafted this a while ago. Seems like The Brights are becoming quite active these days.]

A critique of the “meme coining” centred on the negative connotations of the “bright” adjective:

Brights: Not Too “Bright” (Doubt and About)

A few scattered thoughts.


Whatever term may be used to designate a group of people, diverse connotations will link the term to the group and vice-versa. Mooney’s point was about the term “bright” sounding arrogant, even as a noun. The implication being that an aura of arrogance would be detrimental to the “movement” because it’s precisely the personality trait from which Brights want to move away. Since both Dawkins and Dennett specifically mentioned that their intention was not to encourage arrogance, Mooney would seem to be right: the term “Bright” would accomplish the opposite of what Brights seek to accomplish, namely to be accepted in society. Yet, there’s more to the situation than the connotations of whichever term might be used.

After all, the term “Gay” which is explicitly used as a source for the “meme coining” has exactly the kind of connotations that people associate with homosexuals. Those connotations are “positive” (it’s an “up word” in Dawkins’ own terms). Yet, several homosexuals surely want to move away from the idea that they’re always joyful. After all, “selfish hedonism” is allegedly a Bad Thing(tm) in some social circles. The term “gay” carries all of these connotations, good or bad. Yet, the point that the term “Gay” has helped homosexuals seems easy enough to defend.
It wouldn’t be unrealistic to say that many Brights are in fact arrogant, smug, condescending, and self-congratulatory in terms of their own intellectual abilities. What’s more, many Brights care very little about being considered arrogant.

Among denotations and connotations of the term “intellectualism” are ideas of an emphasis on the intellect. What this intellect is opposed to could be bodily existence, spirituality, simple pleasure, religious faith, etc. Many intellectuals are seen as snotty, condescending, smug, arrogant, self-involved, stiff, etc. Yet “intellectual” is somewhat neutral as these terms go. It’s usually ok to be called an intellectual by someone else. Calling yourself an intellectual may carry some negative implications. But, on the whole, the term “intellectual” isn’t very detrimental as a label. At least, an intellectual’s actions may still speak for themselves.

“Geek” and “nerd” are rather negative terms which are now gaining some rather positive connotations. As with “intellectual,” it’s better to be called a geek than proclaiming to be one. As with, say, “fat” or “glutton,” calling yourself a nerd is almost endearing while being called a nerd could easily be an insult. Both “geek” and “nerd” tend to designate people who devote much time to a specific type of intellectual activity, whether or not this detracts them from other social norms. More specifically, some “nerds” are very “cool” and care very little whether or not other people think they’re cool.

Going back to the first coming out. Many Gays do in fact follow a rather hedonistic lifestyle. Not necessarily selfish. But an orientation toward pleasure. Yes, it can be a very negative thing in many people’s views. But it’s not as damning as some of the associations people may make between homosexuality and moral corruption.

Many Brights may be considered intellectuals but there’s no causal association between the two labels.

All this to say that the term “Bright” isn’t that bad a choice to designate a group of people who see themselves as holding a “naturalist” worldview.

Now, coining memes. Still haven’t read Dawkins’ Selfish Gene. Always had issues with the concept of meme. It’s intriguing and potentially useful. It connects with several other epistemological approaches. But it sounds rather like following an analogy too closely.

The issue here, though, is that the “Bright meme” is used for social marketing purposes. Mooney’s criticism stems from a standpoint linking marketing and communication. In my own personal views, marketing is as much if not more of a social product as it might be a social force.

The very idea of “coining” a term is intriguing to any social scientist interested in language. Coinage connects easily with a notion of innovation which itself connects with a notion of social progress. A new term will be an improvement over older terms. The person(s) responsible for coining a term should be considered innovative. Term-coining also goes well with a notion of “intellectual property” (perhaps most specifically with “trademark,” though with important nuances). Geisert and Futrell (those who coined the term “Bright”) in a way own the term or something about it. Sure, their goal is to have the term be as widely used as possible. But they still want to exercise control over usage. Humpty-Dumpty language.

To this French-speaker, this whole coining thing sounds quite Anglo-Saxon. In French, we do “coin” words fairly frequently, especially in academia. But the issue of controling a word’s meanings isn’t very prominent. Many Francophone authors seem quite happy with having their neologism understood and interpreted in new ways by other people. It’s one of the things that go with the stereotype of “thickness” in French writing. Most of these authors don’t mind their prose being perceived as “thick,” “dense,” or even “confusing.”

Going back to word-based marketing. Marketers try to come up with words which will work in the public and they often do so through the use of words which have no denotation in the host language. The strategy works in some but not all cases. Mooney seems to be saying that the error here was to adopt a different strategy, namely to use a word which already has denotations and connotations in the host language. My point is that no matter which strategy is used, the outcome is in social use of the term.

Consciously and explicitly pushing a meme is possibly a bad strategy if one specifically wants the term to “stick” in the general population. But it’s an interesting exercise.

About enkerli

French-speaking ethnographer, homeroaster, anthropologist, musician, coffee enthusiast. View all posts by enkerli

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