Surviving Pithy Memes

I started writing today thinking about Pat, a grad school colleague and Opus Dei member, who once asked “So, where are you now with your faith?”

I replied “I’m a recovering Catholic.”
Pat looked at me and smiled, “Oh, that’s great that you’re coming back, recovering your faith!”
Had I been drinking I would have done a spit-take.
“Coming back? No! I mean I’ve almost completely purged all the bullshit I was taught.”

I thought of this exchange with Pat when I saw this putative Mark Twain quote in a meme:

“I was educated once – it took me years to get over it.”
— Mark Twain

It can take a long time to unlearn the “truths” one has been taught, once you are forced to face experience that conflicts with them. Being willing to reassess your truths is a superpower we should all strive to strengthen.

But by the same token, it can take a very long time to learn to question inbound assertions, before you integrate them with your very being.  Detecting the conflicts is another superpower to strive for.

Look at this meme/quote for example:

Did Twain really say it? And why would it matter if he had not?

Twain’s verifiable quotes on education are favorable:

“I never let schooling get in the way of my education.”

  “Education exists mainly in what we have unlearned.”

That last quote is the essence of so much of my experience, and at the core of my exchange with Pat.  Hand-me-down knowledge is often incomplete (if I’m being charitable), and sometimes we discover we’ve been fed fabrications, intended to mold our behavior and action in a certain, predictable direction. This can be in any realm of education or family history, not only religious belief.  Re-integrating, reshaping one’s story in the face of such “cognitive dissonance,” is critical, to avoid denial or clinging to unfounded certainties.

The unverifiable Twain quote in the meme casts “education” as something to disdain and avoid. What if someone wanted the American people to adopt this attitude?  Who would ever do that?  This quote is anti-intellectual, spinning “education” as something to “get over,” like, say… a quid pro quo bribery solicitation by a President? 


My hackles were raised initially by a mixture of confirmation bias, and then by a discrepancy

First, it was so reassuring, such an “aha!” moment, to see one of my favorite authors confirming what I already believed. I wanted to share this “knowledge.”  I’ve learned over time that when I become too eager to reconfirm a “truth” I  already hold true, I am open to making huge mistakes based on “confirmation bias” —  accepting a thing that aligns with existing beliefs or preferences without validating it.  I love Twain, and I have experienced the “truth” that we often have to unlearn indoctrination, so I was primed to accept this.

The second trigger was discrepancy: this quote did not conform with my existing knowledge.  I have read a lot of Twain and never encountered this aphorism.  I searched extensively, and I’m skeptical that this is a “real” Twain quote. I can find nowhere that properly cites the source, and the web-site that produced the meme (AZ Quotes) is a “Do It Yourself” meme factory — a source for rapidly generating visually appealing quotes.  Like the immortal

“Most quotes you find on the Internet are fake.”
— Abe Lincoln

So what’s a person to do, in the era of the pithy meme, information ubiquity, and tools that allow us to redistribute every thing that crosses our desk to a worldwide audience? Recirculate nothing that you haven’t validated, especially if your reason for recirculating amounts to nothing more than waving a flag, flashing a gang sign, or reciting a profession of faith.  Your pre-existing truths are suspect, and may hold you back.

Your uncritical agreement may be spreading propaganda.


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