Internet meme (pron.: / ’mi:m/MEEM): a concept that spreads from person to person via the Internet. Meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene,” as an attempt to explain the way cultural information spreads; Internet memes are a subset of this, specific to the culture and environment of the Internet.
Have you ever Googled “lawyer dog”? If you do, be prepared to see a limitless line of websites all featuring identical photos of the same canine seated behind his desk, along with various one-liners related to the law, dogs and just silliness. (“The judge is a man? We’re golden. I’m man’s best friend.”) Such phenomena are presumably what people mean when they mention the word “meme.” Although it was originally invented as a pseudo-academic name for social symbols, words or ideas that emerge and represent part of a culture (like the peace sign), it has apparently been appropriated by humans’ computer habits. Some thinkers now believe the Internet is the only way that memes, or any cultural activity, are invented, perceived or have any impact on people. On the other hand, many avid Internet activists today use “meme” to merely describe anything that is currently popular on the Web. Some consider memes as just updated versions of stereotypes, only spreading much quicker. But here’s the problem: What if the meme becomes the message, that is, becomes so ubiquitous that it gets stuck in everybody’s mind – whether we like it or not – or whether it deserves to be?
Sometimes meme activity just happens in speech and practice, like using “Google” as a verb. Commentators sometimes use “meme” to characterize broad popular images, like a quarterback dating a cheerleader or a judge who is male with gray hair. More commonly, running Internet jokes, forwarded photos, satirical YouTube videos, open-ended questions and posted answers, etc., all creep into some part of our public observation and thinking. Hence, “lawyer dog” and the like. When this happens, no one yet knows the result. The Economist, a leading international journal, recently featured studies implying memes not only affect individual behavior, they shape entire societies.
Lawyers and judges are prominent meme creators. In fact, the language of law itself is perhaps the ultimate meme:
“All men are created equal.” But not all memes are created equal.
“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Couldn’t they have added “regular vacations” as well?
“Right to remain silent.” If only more lawyers would take advantage of this.
“I cannot recall at this point in time.” 1970s Watergate lawyers developed this perjury-avoidant answer for clients testifying to Congress. It is still heard by judges every day.
“I know it when I see it.” Yogi Berra could not have said it any better.
The non-lawyer world unfortunately has found its own legal memes, and they are not as entertaining as “lawyer dog” sites. In fact, they should serve to alarm us, especially considering the instant power of memes. Pondscumandlawyers.com is a fairly typical example. It routinely ridicules lawyers with a different joke each day. The website is not necessarily popular, but its method is pervasive. The basic lawyer meme is anything that shows lawyers as rude, greedy, arrogant or just plain dishonest. This means that lawyers and judges are culturally misperceived. For lawyers, this may not be such a serious issue because clients and fees will come as long as there are people with problems. But the world depends upon public confidence in judges – and judges can do little to control the meme effect of the Internet.
The good and bad news is that Internet memes can be created and spread by anyone. So why shouldn’t we judges create memes to control our cultural standing? For example, why not post a succinct video of a judge talking about his or her job? It should promote a meme-like slogan, like “We’re judges, but we’re not judgmental.” Maybe we can spread the stories of judges who have given their lives in Mexico and Eastern Europe, in the name of justice, by finding an image of one grieving relative and asking for public comment? Perhaps we try to start a popular legal blog and forum where real judges answer questions about the system, what it’s like to be a judge, etc. As far-fetched as it can appear to those of us who were trained by actual books, the world today learns as much from Internet memes as anything else. Whether we like it or not, we judges risk peril if we avoid these realities.
All in all, law will not be decided by the Internet – at least not yet. So judges and lawyers will still have to think, write and argue just as before. Memes are part of our cultural experience and can form the basis of contemporary thinking. But law is more than contemporary culture. Judges may have to proactively market an accurate image to the public, but memes will never take the place of a fact well-proven or a judgment well-reasoned.•
Judge David J. Dreyer has been a judge for the Marion Superior Court since 1997. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Notre Dame Law School. He is a former board member of the Indiana Judges Association. The opinions expressed are those of the author.