Chavs, Scallies, Townies, Neds. Whatever you call its proponents, antisocial behaviour is becoming a serious problem in the UK, undermining our desire for a civilised and tolerant society. This article examines the phenomenon from the point of view of Darwinian cultural evolution.
Wikipedia defines "chav" as "a slang term which has been in wide use throughout the United Kingdom since 2004. It refers to a subcultural stereotype of a person with fashions such as flashy "bling" jewellery and counterfeit designer clothes or sportswear, an uneducated, uncultured, impoverished background, a tendency to congregate around places such as fast-food outlets, bus stops, or other shopping areas, and a culture of antisocial behavior."
The term is essentially a point of amusement (see websites such as ChavScum), but this particular form of stereotyping has been criticised as "a new form of classism" or "social racism". Whatever your views on this, it is not my intention to be controversial or to offend with this article (it's only a bit of semi-light-hearted science), so I will concentrate on one aspect of the above definition - the "culture of antisocial behaviour". I don't think anyone could be criticised for "discriminating" against senseless, unthinking and often violent criminal activity. However, as this article will go on to argue, certain ideas and patterns of behaviour tend to co-exist in an individual or social group. This is not an opinion; it is a simple statistical fact. Not all followers of "chav fashion" and lifestyle are criminals, and not all criminals are chavs. But there is a statistically interesting overlap between these groups which will be examined here. Stereotyping and discrimination is not something to be criticised when it is the truth.
The term "meme" was first coined by Richard Dawkins in his book "The Selfish Gene", published in 1976. It refers to a piece of information (a particular idea, thought, theory, melody, movement etc) that may be transferred from one mind to another. Because of the way it is replicated and passed on, a meme has a close resemblance to a gene, the unit of heredity in living organisms.
In genetics, a successful gene (or group of genes) is one whose phenotypic effects (how that gene is manifested as a behaviour, trait or feature of the organism) promote its own replication (through reproduction of the organism) at the expense of its competitors. This is how natural selection operates and how all life on Earth has evolved.
Dawkins argues that there is nothing special about a gene as a unit of natural selection. He used the more general term "replicator" to identify an entity on which natural selection may occur. Another example of a replicator, he goes on to suggest, is a meme. Memes copy themselves by being passed on from person to person, either directly or via books, recordings, broadcasts etc. Some memes are more successful than others at being copied - a catchy tune gets "stuck in your head", making you more likely to hum it and pass it on to others. It may also be copied imperfectly (the "Chinese Whispers" effect), and these alternate versions of the meme may be more or less successful at being copied than the original. In this way, natural selection can occur and human culture evolves in a Darwinian manner.
Furthermore, individual memes may form groupings known as "meme complexes" or memeplexes. These are collections of memes that have evolved a symbiotic or mutually supportive relationship - ideas that reinforce each other.
Religions are vast memeplexes. The idea of a "god" as a single meme would not be very successful - with no proof, a suggestion that some invisible entity in the sky magicked everything into existence would not stand up to much scrutiny. But the God meme doesn't have to compete on its own - it has evolved as part of a package of coadapted memes that we call a religion. Miracles, virgin births, hymns and rituals - not to mention particularly handy and appealing memes such as the idea of life after death - go together to form a memeplex that can influence and exert control over almost every aspect of a mind it infects. Once such a memeplex is installed, it can be extremely difficult to remove.
My key point for this article is that Chav culture (or "Chavism", as it might be called) is another such memeplex. The fashion, jewellery, slang language, tasteless car modification, binge drinking and bus-shelter related recreational activities are all individual memes which have co-evolved to come as part of the memeplex. So is the associated culture of violence and crime.
Several other memes are vital to the success of the Chavism memeplex. Every memeplex needs cohesion - ideas which act as "glue" to ensure that the whole package is passed on together. In religions, all aspects of the religion (belief in the miracles and holy texts, participation in the rituals and observation of the teachings) must be accepted together to ensure the approval of your chosen god, and ultimately pleasant treatment in the afterlife. You cannot pick and choose, or mix ideas from different religions.
In Chavism, this cohesion is provided by the fear of rejection, derision and humiliation by fellow chavs. Chavs can be extremely intolerant towards others. They are typically bullies, pouring scorn (and often violence) on those who do not act or dress as they do. Seeing this behaviour inflicted upon others, individuals infected with the Chavism memeplex are very careful to conform completely to minimise the risk of non-acceptance by other chavs.
So why is the Chavism meme so successful in the first place? Most memes are selected for in a horizontal fashion, between a large group of peers and individuals who share ideas through various means of communication. In this case, the meme pool - the population of competing memes - is very large, and only those memes that are exceptionally successful at copying themselves come to dominate. Most memes are less successful, only occupying the minds of a smaller percentage of individuals. This is how politics and debate originate, and why every person holds a slightly different set of ideas and opinions about the world.
However, memeplexes such as religions and Chavism have an unfair advantage - they are often transmitted vertically (from generation to generation). Most members of religions have not chosen to join as adults, but have been brought up from birth to follow that particular faith by their parents. And many chavs are raised by chav parents. While the child's brain is in its crucial formative years, the meme pool it is exposed to is very shallow.
For (biological) evolutionary reasons, the minds of young children are very likely to accept or believe any ideas that are presented to them. Any gene which encouraged a child to doubt parental advice such as "do not go near lions" is more likely to end up in the digestive system of a lion than in the next generation of humans, so that gene is selected out of the gene pool. For this reason, a child will accept unquestioningly whatever its parents tell it. Kids believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, but these are individual memes which are easy to shake off when the child grows up and its mind matures. Large memeplexes such as religions are much harder to remove, as they continue to be reinforced by the child's parents and other adults throughout adolescence, and contain the "sticky" memes discussed above which resist any other rival memes trying to get in.
So, any child brought up in a chav household is likely to be infected itself with Chavism. Once this has happened, the child has little chance of escape. When the growing child begins to read and learn about the differing lifestyles of its schoolmates and peers, and others through television and other media, its "intolerance of non-conformity" meme kicks in. Rather than being interested in these other ways of living and moral outlooks, it immediately rejects them and identifies them as inferior and deserving of scorn. The child will gravitate naturally towards other chavs in its peer group for the same reasons. In this way, the Chavism memeplex is further reinforced and gains an even tighter grip on the mind.
One final part of the puzzle is still missing - why is Chavism any different to any other social group? Every clique, club and association, from Goth teenagers to the Labour Party, could be defined as "a collection of people who share the same ideas" or, more fittingly for this article, "a collection of people whose minds are infected with some of the same memes". All of these groups usually coexist quite happily, rarely coming to dominate in the population or going extinct completely, but maintaining equilibrium with other groups. Of course, very few of these groupings are so tightly bound by memes for hatred of nonconformity, and few contain memes for violent criminal behaviour. But the Chavism memeplex contains another meme which sets Chavism apart from all these groups, even vicious and pervasive memeplexes such as religions, and makes it a particularly worrying trend in our society.
Sex. Chav attitudes to sex are well known - they start having it as young as possible, rarely use protection, and don't have much concern about pregnancy. Many chav girls have several children by the time they reach their late teenage years, often by different fathers. All of these children will be brought up as chavs, the memeplex passed on vertically from the parent into the receptive and defenseless mind of the child. A new generation is born, infected with Chavism and ready to continue passing on the dangerous memeplex.
The implications of this chav sex meme are important. On average, chavs have children earlier than non-chavs, and they have more of them. The simple mathematical result of this is that the number of chavs in the population will tend to increase exponentially. Each generation will be several times the size of the previous one due to chavs tending to have more than one child. And each generation is very short (perhaps only 14 or 15 years) due to the meme for having sex as early as possible.
The Chavism memeplex has discovered a novel way of ensuring it is replicated as much as possible. It has hijacked the reproductive system of its host organism, and is manufacturing new minds which it can infect. It has become a virus.
Dawkins used the term "Viruses of the Mind" to describe his memetic analysis of religions, but I believe that Chavism fits this description even more closely. Religions have an internal conflict which meant they never discovered the trick of making their own hosts. To control behaviour, most religions contain the idea of sin, and encourage the avoidance of "base pleasures". This meant that a meme for promiscuous sex, despite being extremely useful for the memeplex, could never get a foothold as it would contradict other memes and reduce the cohesion of the memeplex as a whole. This weakening could be very dangerous for the successful replication of the memeplex, so it has never been adopted.
Chavism has no such problem. A core concept of Chavism is the idea of not having to answer to anyone. Chavs can ignore or refuse to accept that their actions have consequences, and as such can carry out their indiscriminate violence, crime and bullying without a pesky conscience to get in the way. Where religions use a god as a replacement for a healthy, self-developed sense of morality, Chavism rejects it altogether. In this way, the memeplex can reproduce by encouraging promiscuous sex and young pregnancy without any conflict or contradiction from other memes.
I have argued that an increasing number of people living in the UK are infected with an extremely dangerous virus. It is not only dangerous for the carrier, but for those who have to interact with him or her. Ordinary, decent members of society, especially the elderly, are forced to live in constant fear of physical attack on themselves and damage to their property. School children are threatened daily by serious bullying, both physical and psychological torture, for the simple crime of wanting to think for themselves and develop their own individuality. Teachers are putting themselves at risk every day for just trying to do their jobs. Billions of pounds have already been spent repairing damage from vandalism and injury.
As this virus continues to spread and replicate itself, it will increasingly begin to have an impact on the fabric of society, picking away at the edges of civilisation and undermining hundreds of years of effort to make this country a pleasant and free place to live. Chavism is already a serious problem for those who are direct victims of violence or crime, but if it continues to spread it will become a very serious problem for all of us.
Is there a solution to this problem? The key to preventing the spread of any disease is to understand how it works. If you can discover how the virus infects people and is passed on, you can begin to develop the correct treatment. And if you can give the immune system as much help as possible, it can fight off the infection. A memeplex has evolved as a cohesive group of symbiotic memes which rely on each other to survive. To reduce the strength of the memeplex, the cohesion between the memes must be reduced until it is sufficiently weakened that other memes can begin to compete on a more equal standing, and hopefully replace the dangerous memes in the mind of the individual.
The only way to fight a virus of the mind seems to be through education. Offering as many alternative memes as possible, presenting a different viewpoint on life and morality, may reduce the grip of the memeplex to the point where it can start to leave the mind. Of course, one of the reasons that Chavism is successful is that it contains mechanisms to reject this education, to resist exposure to other memes which may compete with it. But by encouraging free thought and speech, good education and by teaching people to examine each idea presented to them in a critical and moral manner, we may eventually be able to defeat this dangerous and worrying memeplex.