In 1956, a young Liverpudlian named John Winston Lennon heard the mournful notes of Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel, and was transformed. He would later recall, “nothing really affected me until I heard Elvis. If there hadn’t been an Elvis, there wouldn’t have been the Beatles.” It is an ancient human story. An inspiring model, an inspired imitator, and a changed world.
Mimesis is the phenomenon of human mimicry. Humans see, and they strive to become what they see. The prolific Franco-Californian philosopher René Girard described the human hunger for imitation as mimetic desire. According to Girard, mimetic desire is a mighty psychosocial force that drives human behavior. When attempted imitation fails, (i.e. I want, but fail, to imitate my colleague’s promotion to VP of Business Development), mimetic rivalry arises. According to mimetic theory, periodic scapegoating—the ritualistic expelling of a member of the community—evolved as a way for archaic societies to diffuse rivalries and maintain the general peace.
As civilization matured, social institutions evolved to prevent conflict. To Girard, sacrificial religious ceremonies first arose as imitations of earlier scapegoating rituals. From the mimetic worldview healthy social institutions perform two primary functions,
- They satisfy mimetic desire and reduce mimetic rivalry by allowing imitation to take place.
- They thereby reduce the need to diffuse mimetic rivalry through scapegoating.
Tranquil societies possess and value institutions that are mimesis tolerant. These institutions, such as religion and family, are Mimesis Machines. They enable millions to see, imitate, and become new versions of themselves. Mimesis Machines, satiate the primal desire for imitation, and produce happy, contented people. Through Mimesis Machines, Elvis fans can become Beatles.
Volatile societies, on the other hand, possess and value mimesis resistant institutions that frustrate attempts at mimicry, and mass produce frustrated, resentful people. These institutions, such as capitalism and beauty hierarchies, are Mimesis Shredders. They stratify humanity, and block the ‘nots’ from imitating the ‘haves’.
Girard’s thinking raises several interesting questions about the current moment,
- Can mimetic theory explain, in part, the increasing volatility of American society and politics?
- Have the Mimesis Machines of American society somehow broken down?
- Is the ancient practice of scapegoating on the rise as a result?
I argue yes to all three. Today’s frenzied politics are a direct result of malfunctioning mimesis systems. Additionally, these systems are the most broken for the youngest cohort of society. Unable to diffuse mimetic rivalry, young Americans are embracing ancient rituals, and this is fueling the rise of scapegoating-centric social movements such as Social Justice.
Mimesis Machines: Religion and Family
To Girard, Christianity was the ultimate antidote to mimetic rivalry and scapegoating. In The One By Whom Scandal Comes he wrote, “Christ is the only man to overcome the barrier erected by Satan. He dies in order to avoid participating in the system of scapegoats, which is to say the satanic principle.” Religion more broadly is a powerful Mimesis Machine. I see a good Buddhist, and mimetic desire makes me want to become a good Buddhist.
Through a relatively simple program of meditation, ritual, and behavior I can become a good Buddhist. There is no scarcity of spiritual fulfilment, and my serenity does not prevent yours. Almost anyone with base amounts of discipline, restraint, and social skill can become a good Buddhist, (or Muslim, or Christian, or Sikh). Religious traditions are excellent at diffusing mimetic rivalry, and delivering contentment to a populace. Perhaps this a reason that religious and mythical traditions have accompanied every settled civilization in human history.
Family is another Mimesis Machine. I see a good father pushing a twin stroller in Central Park, and mimetic desire makes me want to become a parent. After finding a willing mate, traditions of parenting, advice from my own parents, and instinct will allow me to become a good father. Akin to religious fulfilment, reproduction has no scarcity value, and children can be created at will, (and by accident), by almost anyone. Once more through the institution of family, mimesis is achieved and conflict is avoided.
Mimesis Shredders: Wealth and Beauty
But that is not the whole story. Our society contains many institutions that amplify conflict and rivalry. Capitalism is a major Mimesis Shredder. When I see Jeff Bezos, I want his power and his billions. But becoming Jeff Bezos is, just to let you know, extremely hard. It takes a mixture of factors, both internal (intelligence, industriousness, conscientiousness) and external (social network, academic credentialing, luck), to become a successful capitalist. The vast majority of people are not equipped to compete at the highest levels of the global economy. Indeed, the extremely unequal information economy, whose products are produced by dozens and used by billions, has intensified capitalism and arguably worsened mimetic rivalries.
Maybe you don’t want Bezos’ billions, but instead desire his bulging biceps. Beauty hierarchies, and their epiphenomenon of narcissism, are also major Mimesis Shredders. No matter my effort, I am incapable of imitating Ryan Gosling’s or Gal Gadot’s arresting symmetry and physical magnetism. However, the $62 billion American cosmetics market and the $8 billion plastic surgery market demonstrate that many, many people are attempting to. And while the ratio of beauties to un-beauties is relatively stable over time, awareness of beauty inequality is increasing due to our social media selfie-culture. In 2017, the average person is acutely aware of their beauty-status relative to the outwardly lovely demi-gods who sit atop our culture.
Mimesis and Millennials
While the imbalance between Mimesis Machines and Mimesis Shredders affects all portions of society, it is most acute for those under 35. In every category, (religion, family formation, wealth accumulation, and beauty-status anxiety) Millennials struggle. These broken systems frustrate mimetic desire at every step, and produce the angry, discontented people who staff the radical political movements of 2017. Lacking ways to diffuse mimetic conflict and rivalry, the young are returning to the oldest human rituals.
Every culture maintains its own particular form of scapegoating, from the Greek practice of Pharmakos to the Babylonian Submission of the King. The contemporary American practice is Disemployment, an expulsion ritual in which a mob pressures an employer to terminate a condemned individual. In I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard describes the purpose of expulsion, “this act was supposed to transfer onto the animal everything likely to poison relations between members of the community. The effectiveness of the ritual was the idea that the sins were expelled with the goat and then the community was rid of them.” Over the past decade the practice of purging individuals to purify the community has undergone a troubling revival.
This is not to say that Americans of the past did not engage in periodic hysteria and scapegoating. Rather, it is to note that the Social Justice movement represents an increase in this behavior. Indeed, scapegoating has become a monthly ritual in American life. Those of us concerned about halting political correctness and the Social Justice movement should spend less time on the first order problem of refuting their ideas. Instead, we would should think how we can fix or replace our society’s broken Mimesis Machines, and provide young Americans with healthy outlets for their desires and rivalries.
Girard, Rene. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Stanford University Press. 1987
Girard, Rene. The One By Whom Scandal Comes. Michigan State University Press. 2014
Girard, Rene. I See Satan Fall Liking Lightning. Orbis Books. 2001
Davis, Hunter. The Beatles: The Authorized Biography. W. W. Norton & Company 1968