(Many thanks to David Hudson at Greencine for another cite, and to Dan Jardine for the plug at Cinemarati--both referencing my recent piece on contestations of community and identity in Prairie Home Companion and X-Men: The Last Stand. In the following discussion, I take a current Liberty Mutual commercial as a starting point for pursuing similar considerations of the boundaries of community and identity, and the role of viral memes in consolidating and challenging those same boundaries.)
A current Liberty Mutual television commercial opens with a man on a crowded New York sidewalk stopping to pick up a rag doll and returning it the child in the stroller. In the next scene, the mother of the child is in a coffee shop, and takes a moment to reposition a stranger’s coffee mug that is precariously close to edge of his table. This act is witnessed by a passerby through the window, and in the following scene that same passerby stops to help another man who has tripped on a busy sidewalk slick with rain…. The commercial contains several more iterations of this chain of kindness, wherein an accidental observer of each kind act then turns around and helps another stranger in a similar way.
Hill and Holliday, the marketing firm who produced the ad, describe it in their “blog” (which also contains a streaming-video of the commercial) as a “kind of a pay-it-forward concept that demonstrates the infectious nature of doing the right thing”—referring, of course, to the 2000 movie Pay it Forward (Mimi Leder), in which a young boy (Haley Joel Osment) comes up with the idea of repaying good deeds by paying them “forward” by helping three new people.
Despite this feel-good veneer of moral idealism implicit in this notion of “paying it forward,” the H&H commercial nevertheless contains several elements which suggest a more complicated, and darker, perspective on morality. Why, for instance, did H&H select a title for the commercial (“What Goes Around”) which is typically used to suggest that specifically bad or evil actions will eventually be repaid in kind?
The “pay it forward” vision of the contagious circulation of good deeds suggests that kindness effectively functions as a kind of a meme or, as Richard Dawkins memorably put it, as a “virus of the mind.” Dawkins briefly introduces his concept of memes in The Selfish Gene, suggesting that
Examples of memes are tunes, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm and eggs, so memes propagate in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.
Despite Dawkins’ own explicit comparison of memes to “selfish” genes, he nevertheless emphasizes both here and in subsequent writings that (some) memes differ from viruses insofar as their survival and success reflects their inherent “goodness” (i.e., their quality, truth, etc.). As Dawkins puts it in “Viruses of the Mind”:
The rapid spread of a good idea through the scientific community may even look like a description of a measles epidemic. But when you examine the underlying reasons you find that they are good ones, satisfying the demanding standards of the scientific method.
However, as Zizek points out in a discussion of this passage in The Parallax View, this criterion becomes somewhat tautological, insofar as the standards for evaluating the merit of memes are themselves arguably meme-like in character. Zizek cites Daniel Dennett (ventriloquizing Rorty ventriloquizing himself [Dennett], and addressing Dawkins) in an essay in Dennett and his Critics:
“What is your demonstration that these ‘virtues’ are good virtues? You note that people evaluate these memes and pass them on—but if Dennett is right, people…are themselves in large measure the creation of memes…. How clever of some memes to team together to create meme-evaluators that favor them.”
Dennett’s point here returns us back to Dawkin’s own famous argument about the inherent “selfishness” of genes—that their primary “loyalty” is not to the organism which they happen to inhabit, but rather to their own self-preservation. Similarly, we might ask, is the “loyalty” of individual memes to broader ideals of truth, morality, etc., or are they merely “selfishly” concerned with their own self-propagation?
Another complication for the notion that some memes owe their success to their inherent “goodness” is the fact that, as Dawkins emphasizes, spread by “a process which, in a broad sense, can be called imitation.” As any child who has played “telephone” knows, however, the imitation process inevitably introduces mutations. The effect of these mutations on the dissemination of memes is vividly illustrated by Dawkins’ concept of memes itself, as illustrated by his complaint, in a recent essay collected in A Devil’s Chaplain, that many “readers” have taken the concept of memes “far beyond” his “original… intention”:
I became a little alarmed at the number of my readers who took the meme more positively as a theory of human culture in its own right -- either to criticize it (unfairly, given my original modest intention) or to carry it far beyond the limits of what I then thought justified.
The irony here is that it is precisely the concept of meme’s own “meme-like” identity which allows it to mutate and “evolve,” and in the process diverge from the meaning (meming?) Dawkins originally intended.
If the inherent goodness of Dawkin’s own notion of “good memes” can be brought into question, what implications does this have for our understanding of the meme-like dissemination of the “good deeds” in the “What goes around” commercial? A potential answer can be found in the curious fact that H&H chose to debut the commercial during the June 5th season finale of NBC’s new game show, “Deal or no Deal.” As Said Shirazi discusses in a recent post on Print Culture, NBC’s “Deal or No Deal” is a game show in which contestants are presented with 27 briefcases, each containing a sum of money ranging from one cent to a million dollars. As the contestants open the briefcases, they are periodically made offers inviting them to accept a monetary “buy out,” or continue opening the briefcases until they reach the last one (the contents of which they are apparently allowed to keep).
The decision to debut the commercial during the materialistic game show is a curious one because, as one commentator to the H&H blog observed, “considering the theme is personal responsibility, it seems a bit odd that it debuted on a show that’s all about the exact opposite: get rich quick without doing anything to earn it.” Although Ernie, of H&H responds, “I could argue that Deal Or No Deal, because it offers such a high contrast climate, is in fact the perfect launch setting,” I nevertheless think that the commentator’s point remains a very interesting one. Indeed, despite the commercial’s stated concern with “personal responsibility,” is it not true that Liberty Mutual is, in the end, an insurance company, and therefore necessarily operates by reducing the complexity of human existence to its underlying actuarial realities? And, do not the contestants on “Deal or no Deal” operate like actuaries [although Said would argue very bad ones], constantly calculating and recalculating the ratio of risk to potential return?
The transition from the inherent amorality of Liberty Mutual’s underlying actuarial business model to the ostensible morality of the “personal responsibility” advocated in the “What goes around” commercial, therefore, suggests the possibility that the “good deed” meme within the commercial itself might similarly morph into something amoral, or even immoral.
For comparison, we might consider a famous scene in Gregory Hoblit’s 1998 thriller, Fallen, in which an assortment of strangers on a crowded sidewalk collectively sing the lyrics to The Rolling Stones’ song, “Time is on my side”—with each person singing a brief snippet and then inadvertently touching someone else who then sings the next snippet. While illustrating the way catchy songs are often literally passed “virally” from one person to the next (e.g., you overhear someone singing a song, and then can’t get the damned thing out of your head), in the context of the movie this process of musical contagion has a much more sinister explanation.
“Time is on my side,” we learn, was the song that the serial killer Edgar Reese (Elias Koteas) sang defiantly at his own execution. Even after his death, however, his signature murders continue, and evidence found at the sites of these new murders appears to implicate John Hobbes (Denzel Washington), the homocide detective who had helped to apprehend and convict Reese in the first place. It turns out that the murders were actually not committed by Reese “himself,” but rather by the fallen angel Azazel, who is able to jump from one human host to another with the aid of a single touch. In the “Time is on my side” sidewalk scene, therefore, what appears to be an instance of a catchy tune “leaping from brain to brain” (to quote Dawkins on memes), is actually Azazel leaping from host to host.
What if we were to take the fallen angel Azazel as our model for the “good deed” meme in the “What goes around” commercial? Like the “good deed” meme, Azazel moves virally from one host to the next, enabled by physical contact or close proximity among strangers. Importantly, however, Azazel’s loyalty is not to his transitory host, or even less to some metaphysical moral code, but rather he/it is quintessentially “selfish,” loyal only to him/itself. And, therefore what if the “good deed” meme in the commercial is similarly “selfish,” such that when it does eventually “come [back] around” it may have morphed into something unrecognizable?