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Letter: Totems, thought germs, and how we can spread them
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We live in a world filled with germs. As we go about our daily lives, we come into contact with thousands of them. Sometimes they infect our vital organs, and if they’re successful, they reproduce using our bodies and spread to another host.

But I’m not talking about any kind of real microbe or virus. What I’m talking about are thought germs. Thought germs are everywhere: on the TV, at the coffee shop, even in this newspaper. What I am sharing with you right now is a thought germ. These germs, of course, are not real; rather, this is just a handy way of thinking about the information we share, and why we share it.

Our different emotions are like different organs of our body; they can become infected by the right type of germ. Shock is one of the fastest to infect, usually by someone who says “You’ll never guess what I heard!” Happiness is easy, as when someone tells us a funny joke; we like to turn to our other friends and spread it to them. Anger is one emotional organ that is special.

Like our respiratory system, when a germ infects it, anger gets inflamed. But anger rarely spreads alone. When one angry individual declares, for example, “Ranch flavored chips are the worst!” other people hear that, and typically catch an anti-germ: “That’s unreasonable! Veggie chips are the worst!”

When they catch this germ and share it, others catch another germ: “No! Veggie chips are best chips; ranch is terrible!” This goes on, and like viruses, the best medicine is usually a good night’s rest, but sometimes it doesn’t end there.

If a group of similarly infected people congregate, they tend to talk about their view of the opposite germ, and enhance it with more unlikable features. “Ranch-likers probably voted for that new ranch and cheese-flavored chip.” “I heard veggies sided with sour cream and onions against us!”

These enhanced views may be truthful, but more likely they have become totems of what they really represent: extreme, fake and misleading. It doesn’t matter about truthfulness to the thought germs, because they succeeded when more people came together to be angry at the totem, infecting and frustrating them, so they frustrate and infect others.

We didn’t have to deal with this in the past. That’s probably because, thanks to the internet, it has never been easier to find like-minded people. For any other emotion, that’s a good thing, but when people come together out of anger, they will unwillingly be only vessels by which the angry thought germ congregates, infects and spreads by.

So in the future, if you get angry at something and feel the urge to share, remind yourself of two things: First, that you are spreading an infectious, possibly harmful germ to others; and second, that the thing you are angry at might only be an imaginary totem, spread by a very successful anti-germ.

Julian Hershey


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