All creative pursuits are essentially attempts at memetic engineering: introducing new memes into the world designed for a specific outcome. However the originator of a meme has little control over what happens when it spreads. Like a game of telephone, memes mutate over time, dropping parts that don’t benefit its survival, and picking up new components. As a result the meaning of a meme may no longer match up with the intentions of it’s creator, or the context within which it was created. Quite often it can be taken to mean the exact opposite of what they hoped.
This is easiest to see in famous misinterpreted quotes. You might have told a friend “great minds think alike” when they ordered the same beer as you, but you probably left out the last line “but foolish minds rarely differ”. If you’ve been warned “curiosity killed the cat”, you probably didn’t hear the second line “but satisfaction brought it back”. Rather than being about the dangers of curiosity, it’s an encouragement to satisfy it. Robert Frost’s "I took the road less traveled” is taken to mean people should go their own way, when in the full context of the poem Frost’s choice of path was actually arbitrary. Kipling is quoted when people express the belief opposites sides won’t see eye to eye: "Oh East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.” However in the very next line he concludes that unification is inevitable regardless of geo-political borders.
There are many such famous quotes where the current meaning is the inverse of the original. You’ve likely heard that "the Devil is in the details”, when Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s original quote was exactly the opposite: "God is in the details”. The phrase "Blood is thicker than water” is in common usage to remind you to choose family over friends, when the original proverb was referring to the “blood of the covenant”, the oath you swear when signing up for military service, superceding the “water of the womb”, your family bonds. The phrase “a rolling stone gathers no moss” is cited by frequent travelers justifying their vagrant lifestyle. Actually this old Roman proverb meant the opposite: those who don’t settle in one place will find it hard to make friends and find a partner. Memes are used as tools by people to express the meaning they like, not the meaning the author intends. If the opposite meaning is more likely to spread than the original, then it will, and the meaning of the meme will evolve away from the original author.
From the bible we say “money is the root of all evil”, but the original line is actually “the love of money is the root of all evil”. Essentially it’s saying that it’s ok to own nice things, so long as they don’t own you. In that regard it’s closer to the original meaning of the movie Fight Club: “The things you own end up owning you”. This book about counter culture and the effects of toxic masculinity, is unfortunately now a favorite amongst toxic white men, who quote from the movie with no trace of irony. As the author Chuck Palahniuk says “the author can only control things up to a certain point, and the author doesn’t really matter once the reader has read the story”. You hope that the memes you give birth to will be adopted and loved by the reader, but once you leave them on their doorstep, it’s out of your hands. Just like Hitler’s great grandfather couldn’t have forseen the damage done by his grandson, you have no more control over your memes, once they start growing on their own.
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