Pornography is an Indonesian pastime, despite the intensity of religious moral indignation directed at the activity.
People are blue-toothing, downloading and emailing celebrities and politicians in literally very compromising positions. Never before has technology been more compatible with such acts as creating and viewing pornography.
Tuti, an average sort of person with averagely good Muslim morals, is not even interested in porn, but she will open the file and take a look on her phone if a friend sends her a popular celebrity getting it on.
“I don’t search for porn. But there are lots of files being sent from phone to phone so I will sometimes have a look. My husband probably wouldn’t like me seeing those sorts of things though,” Tuti joked shamefacedly.
While watching pornography might seem natural to some, the act of filming and observing other people performing sex acts, as a pastime or activity, is called a meme in the area of co-evolutionary theory. Richard Dawkins, who coined the term meme in his book The Selfish Gene, said memes are units of cultural transmission passed on, imitated or copied from person to person. He gives examples of memes in the form of tunes, fashions, or ways or making pots or building arches and compares the process of replication to that of genes.
“Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation,” Dawkins said.
The activity of watching porn, as a cultural artefact that is transmitted through imitation, has what it takes to be a good replicator, to be copied, spread, and perpetuated and it is also linked to the biological human sex drive. Porn is thus incredibly hard to stamp out of society, out of the consumer economy, and out of people’s brains. Religious morality, however, tries to do just that by employing aggressive memes that replicate through carriers with a message of moral panic. Memes do not have to be particularly useful to humans; they just have to be good at getting copied.
So which one is more virus-like? Porn or religion?
Communications Minister Tifatul Sembiring illustrates how memes exhort their hosts to replicate them, in the case of Islamic religious morality, the morality memes instigate indignant moral panic. Sembiring has initiated several fervent censorship campaigns, on Indonesian Internet servers in the lead up to last years Ramadan and recently to Blackberry phones. Thankfully, and probably due to Tifatul’s intervention, average Janes like Tuti carry on as upright citizens and not degenerate lustful, porn crazed rapists. However, it remains to be seen if Tuti will go to hell for her encounters with porn memes.
“I don’t think I will go to hell. Not really. But if we watch porn films it will destroy our thoughts, especially the younger generation who are not yet married. It’s not praiseworthy,” she said.
Morality memes take advantage of opportunities to create publicity for their cause, to incite moral panic and gain new hosts for the spread of memetic ideas about right and wrong behaviours around sex.Indonesiaenforces an anti-porn law that demonstrates how Islamic morality memes replicate ideas about sex and position the concept of pornography as deviant and taboo.
Nazril Irhan, aka Ariel, lead singer of a popular rock group Peterpan, was sentenced to three and a half years jail under the anti-porn law early this year for allegedly making and distributing a porn video involving two other female celebrities. In this case, units of cultural transmission, porn memes, replicated compulsively and hyperactively after a homemade video was stolen off Arial’s laptop, copied, and distributed widely over the Internet and via smartphones.
Porn memes display incredible resilience because people are biologically set up with sex urges, even in the face of morality memes that compete for survival within the host. Some hosts experience this as an inner struggle, often personifying their struggle through religious discourse as the ‘work of the devil’, where their guilt and shame is actually the work of morality memes using these ideas to ensure their survival and reproduction in human culture.
So has Tuti seen Arial and the now infamous threesome, or did porn crusader Tifatul manage to capture and destroy most of the porn memes floating about in cyberspace?
“I saw it on a friend’s phone. Everyone saw it because it was a big story. They’re [Arial and two lady friends] not a good example because they’re not married. I watched it but I felt dejected. I think he deserves prison time because if young boys watch films like his it can influence them to rape girls. The boys who cannot endure abstinence will be influenced to rape,” she said.
So although Tuti looked, she insists she herself was morally detached from the deviant implications of viewing porn.
But that is beside the point. The porn meme has successfully mutated and replicated to the point where selection is favoured in prominent figures. This means that people like Tuti who would never normally involve themselves with pornography, are themselves replicating the meme by watching clips on handphones and sharing porn among friends, even outside of sexual gratification. The porn meme has thus mutated and captured a wider audience by taking advantage of technological distribution.
Even politicians play host to porn memes. Arifinto, an Islamic Prosperous Party MP, known for his stance as ‘anti-porn’, resigned last week after being caught watching porn during a session in parliament on his tablet computer, as reported by The Jakarta Post. And another lawmaker, Iwan Farjarudin, was involved in a case similar to Ariel’s, where a laptop he said he sold, had pornographic photos of him and his wife that were also publicly circulated.
This lawmaker avoided jail and investigation for the matter because in defence of his ‘deviancy’ he insisted he was the victim of a smear campaign, his enemies using porn memes to bring about his demise. In reality, some hosts are better morally placed than others and Arifinto’s political and Islamic affiliations protected him from fair treatment as an ‘offender’ under the same law that convicted Ariel.
While morally superior people such as the religious have strong impulses to copy their religious morality memes in the face of dissenting memes like porn, they are still at the mercy of ideas and behaviours stemming directly from genetic evolution. Morality concerning sex is not natural, it is learned through memes. Religion is a memeplex, a co-operation of memes that support and reinforce each other. Religious memes have a social function, or at least claim to have a useful social function, however religion largely scaffolds power at the level of social and individual control.
Thinking about and engaging in sex also involves memplexes, since most human behaviours and ideas are fundamentally social and cultural products, although sex has a biological and social function. Meme theory shows how human behaviours, artefacts and ideologies are evolutionary cultural tools that can drive the processes of gene selection.
It is not yet clear what advantages religious memes have given humans in natural selection, although religion may have been useful for creating a hierarchical social strata and forming strong social bonds with the in-group, which gave stronger tribes an advantage over less bonded and less socially structured tribes.
The most successful memes are passed on and imitated, becoming as Dr Blackmore says, “the tools with which we think”, but they do not necessarily have to have a positive effect on their hosts; their goal is merely to replicate.
Memes need to be copied: they rely on imitation, thus religious morality as a meme, concerns itself with propagation. Porn is also reliant on propagation and its ability to be copied and spread is no where more apparent than on the internet, a virtual breeding ground for memes of all sorts including songs, theories, video games, technology, fandom, popular culture and any other transmissible cultural products.
Dr Blackmore said memes are not just concepts or ideas. “They are the very behaviours and artefacts that fill our lives. They are whatever is copied”. For example, Islamic morality in the form of the meme that transmits ideas that sex is taboo and women are either virgins or whores, exhorts the host to propagate the meme, to spread it and enforce it upon others so that it will be copied and copied again. This quality makes religious morality a successful replicator, the fact that Islamic religious morality is equipped with imperatives necessitating imitation and dispersion of its ideologies.
Dissemination and expansion is literally wrote into Islamic memplexes and backed up by influential exhortations. Thus, when Islamic sexual morality organises ‘common knowledge’ such as that watching, engaging in or distributing porn is a sin and a crime, the meme must necessarily be replicated with threats and promises such as either going to hell or jail or going to heaven. The problem for religious morality is that porn is also a successful meme inIndonesia(and elsewhere) and it has never seen eye to eye with religious sexual morality.
The meme war illustrates a continuing battle between a meme which is useful to replication from a gene’s point of view; porn is linked to sex and is fuelled by a biologically driven urge to engage in material sexual practices; and a meme which is not apparently genetically useful, but succeeds in spite of a potentially detrimental effect to its hosts because it is good at getting copied; Islamic sexual morality can contribute to social inequality, sexual repression and sexual servitude, and also consumes psychological resources.
In this sense, memes do not have to be useful or true to be copied, they just have to be good at being copied. Porn, or the practices engaged in as a result of watching porn, is a product of both technology, such as video cameras and the Internet, and also products of cultural evolution that replicate ways of thinking about and practicing the sex act. Not everyone is interested in porn, nor does every culture produce pornographic material, yet porn as a human cultural artefact is designed by natural selection to survive, not because it is exploitative of humans, but because humans exploit it for pleasure and reproduction.
Islamic morality on the other hand, requires persistent threats and promises to enable imitation, and only replicates where certain other memes are in place, such as more general religious memeplexes like belief in an omniscient God who is watching for evidence of sins. Sex must be taboo before morality memes can determine that porn is deviant.
Where porn is be replicated in numerous formats that persist in imitation and dispersion, so too Islamic morality can be seen replicated in legislation, marriage, and religious texts. Morality opposes porn through the conscientious setting up of a social space of honour and shame that stigmatises the porn user and ostracises him/her in the eyes of the community, thus decreasing the likelihood of imitation and replication. Yet porn has an evolutionary advantage in that biological sex drives perpetuate transmission of behaviours that might result in sex.
Both memes constitute elements of culture, but of the two, morality is a more unstable meme because it requires constant vigilance and ongoing deliberate self-replication to remain acculturated into people’s ideologies and ideological behaviours. Technology has only increased the ease with which porn will replicate itself and be passed from host to host as a memetic form of behaviour, hence, if Arifinto is any example, porn memes often gain the upper hand in the midst of the strongest morality memes. And vice versa.
If the direction of the evolution of religious sexual morality memes is indicated by continued attempts to suppress and criminalise porn, then technology is aiding the efflorescence of porn rather than diffusing it. As long as Islam is a successful meme, the particular form of Islamic sexual morality will always compete for higher frequency replication and more social and cultural space, yet as long as humans enjoy sex and human genes equate sexual behaviours with reproduction and orgasm, watching porn will continue to be copied across Indonesian society in spite of its moral meme rivals.
Could it be though, that Islamic sexual morality has not evolved enough to cope with the seamless technological adaption of porn, to porn’s processes of variation, heredity, mutation, and selection? Could the intense surveillance and forced deviancy of porn be the eventual diffusion of the Islamic morality meme, or will the morality meme mutate and evolve to cope with porn’s continued triumphs over morality’s most devout meme hosts like Arifinto and Iwan?
Tuti thinks it will.
“Porn is here to stay,” she said both innocently and wisely. “It cannot be gotten rid of but will keep emerging”.