Memes and Nudity

Modes of social behaviour are governed by memes, i.e. learned ideas and attitudes. A meme is described as "An element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation". Richard Dawkins first came up with the idea of memes in his book "The Selfish Gene", 1976.

Dr. Susan Blackmore puts it like this:- "This means that whatever is copied from person to person is a meme. Everything you have learned by copying it from someone else is a meme; every word in your language, every catch-phrase or saying. Every story you have ever heard, and every song you know, is a meme. The fact that you drive on the left (or perhaps the right), that you drink lager, think sun-dried tomatoes are passé, and wear jeans and a T-shirt to work are memes. The style of your house and your bicycle, the design of the roads in your city and the colour of the buses – all these are memes."

There are good memes, those that benefit the holder or others and there are bad memes, those that cause a bad effect on one or more people, sometimes including the person holding the meme itself. An example of a good set of memes is found in nurses, doctors etc. the idea that helping the sick or injured is imperative. Had the same person been brought up in a criminal environment where brutality and violence were the norm, an injured person would not pose a threat so walking on by would be thought normal, even sensible. Both memes are successful. Once identified as bad, a meme can have its success reduced by rational means, but the really successful memes are very difficult to eliminate.

A successful meme lives on in society for a long time, possibly centuries. They replicate by various methods; they may mutate but still live on. A successful meme does not imply that it is good or bad, it is simply able to replicate and survive in a manner similar in behaviour to a physical virus. A bad but successful meme is "smoking is cool". It replicates well but kills off its carriers. It replicates by a number of methods, not generally by being taught, it is more subtle that that. Millions are spent by tobacco companies on these subtle methods to ensure the meme stays alive.

A related set of memes is known as a meme complex, groups of memes mutually supporting each other and replicating together. The lifecycle of a meme or meme complex can be compared with that of a virus. A person that carries a meme, the vector, infects a new carrier. The new carrier either accepts the meme or rejects it, they are either susceptible or immune. The original vector can now die, if the new carrier was not immune, the meme lives.

Clearly naturism is a meme complex, it is learned behaviour. Naturists would argue this behaviour provides significant benefit and is therefore good but its success as a meme complex is less clear. Although millions have now tried and liked at least some aspect of a naturist lifestyle, counter memes are very strong in their effect. The counter meme is that which causes people always to be dressed, even under extreme circumstances, reinforced by religious memes that cause a feeling of guilt about bodies, enjoyment or sensual experience.

Why is the dressed meme complex more powerful than the naturist meme? Because it is reinforced from childhood and fuelled by inappropriate sanctions. Consider the behaviour of adults when supervising children. If some 2 year olds are playing in a private garden, the adults would consider it quite normal for the children to play nude, even if people outside of the immediate family are present. If other children are brought along, they will happily join in nude and no-one would think a problem existed. As the children get older, both boys and girls will be encouraged to wear some kind of covering but the children will often abandon them as useless. As they get older still, parents will become more insistent, telling the children it is required to wear something, the children eventually accept that as the norm, they will also have seen that their parents are never nude in the garden even if they may see them nude at bath time. By now the children have learned there is something of a problem about parts of their body, an idea that would not have occurred to them had they not been taught. The meme is being reinforced all the time. In this situation dressing is not for warmth, comfort or status, it is for something beyond the understanding of such youngsters, but as they are generally accustomed to obeying their parents, they comply. By now it feels normal to wear clothes when playing in the paddling pool or in the garden. Unless these children are brought up in a naturist environment, the "always dressed outside" meme will rarely be in competition with an "its ok to be nude" meme. The dressed meme is by then firmly established.

Parents will feel that even though they have no objection to children playing nude in a private back garden, they will wonder what the neighbours will say, what friends may think if they visit such a household. Fear will play a part, fear very much increased in the present panic over paedophiles. Paedophiles are dangerous individuals, children must be protected from their perverted behaviour, but this protection must not be at the expense of the children themselves. Sadly this is just what happens, the always dressed meme is reinforced in all manner of ways by parents, neighbours, friends, TV etc. As they grow up, being always dressed will seem normal. The always dressed meme is supported by the "others will think us funny" meme if any nude activities go on in places visible by outsiders.

This has developed into a very successful meme complex, one that self replicates with amazing robustness. Even though when asked, many adults will say they have no argument against nudity from an intellectual point of view, they would not participate for emotional reasons, their memes are more powerful than rationality. To reinforce this and to make their memes even more successful, those who say "I don't mind if other people are naked" will almost invariably say "but I realise that most other people will object". This dual nature of their meme complex is perhaps the central reason it is so successful at replicating. When naturists challenge this view, the results are surprising. In England, about nine tenths of those asked thought naturists were harmless but the second part of the meme will still cause very effective replication, "stay dressed not for me but for others".

Since the start of the naturist movement, the idea of social nudity has increased, even in the face of very successful counter memes. There are two reasons for this, first that from a rational point of view, naturism is enjoyable and harmless so people work out for themselves that nudity is fine, secondly, those individuals who have discovered the benefits of naturism have actively promoted the idea. Such promotion is another means of meme replication.

Susan Blackmore again:- "Some memes succeed in getting copied because they are good, useful, true, or beautiful, while others succeed even though they are false or useless. From the meme's point of view all this is irrelevant. If a meme can survive and get replicated it will. Generally we humans do try to select true ideas over false ones, and good over bad; after all our biology has set us up to do just that, but we do it imperfectly, and we leave all kinds of opportunities for other memes to get copied – using us as their copying machinery."14

It is this idea that humans try to select the good over the bad that has resulted in a rise on popularity of a naturist lifestyle. In competition with other successful memes, a rational selection process is slowly increasing the success of the "its ok to be nude" meme.

In terms of memes, it is interesting to look at cults, if only because one of the very first publications on social nudity was Pudor's “Cult of Nudity". In this sense, a cult is a meme-complex characterised by self-isolation of the infected group, leader-worship, brainwashing by repetitive exposure and genetic functions being discouraged, e.g. celibacy. Naturists certainly isolate themselves but more for the sensitivity of others, not because they wish to be isolated. In what might be called modern naturism, there is no trace of the other four factors that describe a cult in memetic terms. There is no convincing evidence to suggest that all very early naturists were cult members, but in any case, the movement has changed considerably since then.

Some people, searching for their identity after a traumatic discovery have been heard to express the sentiment that "In order to understand my future, I must understand my past.". In terms of memes, what they are saying is that they have missed out on assimilating the memes of their past. If they do not feel part of the social group they feel they "should" belong to it is because they have yet to gather all the memes of the group. Going back to a mother country or culture helps to absorb such memes and hence to reduce the contrast between themselves and that culture, they feel more at home.

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2 thoughts on “Memes and Nudity”

  1. Excellent essay Howard. This may be the one that I share with some individuals in my life who have difficulty with my nudist lifestyle but have the intellectual curiosity to discuss it rationally. I wish to rekindle some discussions stuck in the mud and this may prove to be very helpful towards my effort to break the ice. Thank you.

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