Many thinkers have tried to come up with frameworks that describe the foundation of human rights, trying to frame them as “natural” or explain their a priori existence from sort of epistemological framework. Counterpoint: they’re just memes. Everything you hold dear as a right is because of people doing the age-old analog equivalent of like, sharing, and subscribing! That’s not to say that rights can be won by watching H. Bomb and Peter Coffin videos all day, as nice as that might be — rights always have required on-the-ground, often militant activity to establish and defend them. But “human rights” are just ideas that have gotten deeply woven in the DNA of our culture. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The concept of “memes” did not begin, as some may think, as people posting pictures of cats with humorous text using Impact font on social media. The concept is from Richard Dawkins, the Saruman the White of the New Atheism movement, in his work The Selfish Gene. Though many heralded it as a unique insight to the processes of evolution, in many ways, it was similar to ideas presented by anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin — yes, that’s right, motherfuckers, I’m referencing two Peters in this essay — in his works examining how social species thrive through mutual aid, and using it as a basis for an economy based on the principle.
Dawkins has more of a post-modern (Obi-Wan voice: “it’s as if millions of internet edgelord voices suddenly cried out in terror”), deconstructive take on the situation, which obviously fits well with his cynical white dude, Palantir-peering persona. Altruism, he argues, is nothing more than evolution looking out for those who protect the “genetically similar.” Dawkins is trying to come at this from a dispassionately scientific angle, recognizing, like most with an advanced understanding of biology, that “species” are sort of a fluid, artificial construct and that “speciation,” the creation of new species, often happens when a geographically isolated pocket of one species develops in response to environmental pressure.
Of course, I’m suuuuuuuure that the fact that the New Atheism crowd trended towards racist, tribalistic behavior has nooooothing to do with the fact they solely base their worldview off of the works of STEM scholars like Dawkins that are based around “similar genes” and dismiss anything involving sociology. I mean what good could the study of societies have in formulating a worldview about human society? That’s silly talk. Everything is just biotruths! Dawkins himself has trended a bit too much in that direction when he speaks on social issues, though his concept of a “meme” is an inherent recognition of how the development of societies is no largely longer a product of the evolution of genes, but memes.
Dawkins’ theories of memetics fit well with Marx’s — hey, Jordan Peterson wannabes, can you please stop screaming at me through the force? I’m getting a headache — memetics fits with Marx’s argument that, when an idea captivates the masses, it becomes a material force that acts upon the world. This especially makes sense given Marx was writing during a time before mass media, when often the only way to “replicate a meme” was through printing a shitton of copies of it. Fortunately, today, we have this series of tubes called the internet that enables us to replicate ideas much faster and without wasting more paper than a perennially jamming office copier!
The parallels between memes and genes exists because of the idea that the ones that help their “host” survive and thrive get replicated more. Of course, it’s extremely important to recognize that this sort of “natural selection” is blind to ethics and, in the process, can foster the growth of the deeply unethical. For instance, this explains the spread of colonialism — the process is racist and murderous, but it enriched its benefactors. The phrase, “the winner writes the history books,” is often said but rarely pondered deeply. Another way of framing it: the winner’s memes become culturally ingrained and normalized. The aspects of the world we “take for granted” are the memes that were so omnipresent in our life since birth.
The distinction between human rights and property rights becomes useful here. Many would argue that they are indistinguishable — that the right to property extends from owning yourself. And those folks are full of shit — and not just due to constipation from the too-low-in-fiber American diet.
If we could send European notions of property rights off to some memetic equivalent of AncestryDNA, we would find that shit is descended 100% from the divine right of kings. But during The Enlightenment, when a bunch of smart guys started asking if we maybe we shouldn’t be doing things just because God said so — and not even really because God said so, since it’s all filtered through a metaphysical game of telephone in which some of the players would have reasons to “mishear” beyond wanting to troll their friends. This left the wealthier ones going, “Fuck, well there must be some reason I deserve everything I have.”
Capitalism, by chasing profits above all else, supports the spread of these sort fuck-you-I’ve-got-mine memes — and is, in and of itself, an enormous one. The “marketplace of ideas” is the commodification of the memetic process itself, but, much like in any market, the status quo uses its market advantage to entrench its own existence. Since what we call rights are just memes, our perception of what they should look like is shaped by this process. To be blunt: property rights are emphasized — routinely at the cost of human rights.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with “owning stuff” either. Don’t worry, no one else wants to use your Doritos-dust-encrusted gaming keyboard either. The problem is that the memetic evolution of our understanding of “ownership” means hordes of people will passionately defend the idea of some people being homeless while Doctor Evi — I mean Jeff Bezos continues to rack up a meaningless high score. These memes will always be at odds with genuine human rights, as their existence is predicated on no consideration for those who go without nor the conditions of those involved in the production of that property.
The concept of “healthcare is a human right” or “housing is a human right” gets pushback from people who grew up in in a society that normalizes those concepts of property. The vast majority of counter-arguments boil down to: this means disrespecting property rights. However, this deep respect for property rights is not because they are somehow innately better than people not dying needlessly due to preventable reasons — it’s because they are memes that have permeated our culture to the point of being treated as a given.
“Taxation is theft!” the rallying call of right-wing libertarians everywhere, is a product of this property-first view of rights. Proudhon, the first person to label himself an anarchist, said that property is theft. Though most anarchists support the concept of personal property as distinct from private property, it is important to recognize that this framework of property “rights” is built on people being wronged for the profit of others. Capitalism itself is only able to exist through enclosure of the commons. The idea that every inch of land should “belong” to someone is only a few hundred years old, and people would routinely do communal farming in no man’s land, because they noticed that this ensured everyone could eat — hey, sort of like what Kropotkin and Dawkins were getting at!
Though people talk about the supposedly “voluntary” nature of capitalism, it only is able to sustain itself by monopolizing the options that people have. Without that, people often will voluntarily work towards the common good. Combined with the efficiency and automation possible with our increasingly sci-fi-esque world, we could easily provide post-scarcity abundance of stuff people need to live, but all of the resources that go into that already belong to someone. Even vacant land and undiscovered resources is all already carved up to only be used to profit a particular owner.
What we call “rights” are just memes, but they often aren’t just memes — that’s right, strap in bucko, it’s time for a cringey, forced double entendre! Memes spread or are snuffed out often without consideration of justice. Philosopher Immanuel Kant said we should base our actions upon moral principles that can be applied universally to any situation — the “categorical imperative.” The goal, while noble, is like one of those laser trap things in 90s action movies. Many have cited the non-aggression principle as an example of this, since it calls upon everyone to not act aggressively towards others. However, if you are struggling to survive under oppressive conditions, aggression might be necessary. You Kant… err can’t apply such guiding principles universally.
However, by shifting from categorical “imperatives”… that surely were not just attempt to adapt the religious concept of “commandments” to Enlightenment sensibilities *cough*… to categorical ideals, we can come up with some guiding principles that, while the path there might be murky, are aspirational. When Dostoyevsky said, “beauty can save the world,” he was not trying to say we need to put Scarlett Johansson in every role possible, no matter how offensive. Rather, the beauty of something can inspire people even more than the more destructive force of unchecked self-interest. By dreaming of a better, brighter future, we can inspire people to work hard to bring it to fruition.
Human rights are not things bestowed by nature or laws or God. They are a product of this aspirational beauty. They are just “just memes” — concepts that, when they spread and become ingrained in our culture, promote justice. Any idea can spread for perverse reasons, but a human right leaves goodness in its wake.
Defining housing, healthcare, food, etc. as human rights does not magically wish them into ubiquitous existence, but it reorients our culture to value these as ideals to fight for. The idea of a world where no one dies because their insulin GoFundMe winds up $50 short because people were too busy ensuring reality stars become billionaires? That’s fucking beautiful. And something we can create if we embrace the notion that healthcare is a human right.
So sure, these principles we hold dear might just be things we all collectively decided was a good idea, that’s more liberating than it is nihilistic. The fact that declaring these things as rights “costs” something becomes irrelevant in this framework. If a meteor was headed for earth, we would hopefully not spend tons of time bickering about the cost of a mission to divert it with Aerosmith ballads.
However, the chaotic, exploitative clusterfuck that is our world is akin to a constant shower of meteorites whose impact is limited to a small enough number of people we can try to not think about it. Human rights may be memes, but if we make those memes go more viral than weird commercials about taxidermists, they can captivate the masses into transforming those memes into a material force acting upon the world.