Secrets about People: A Short and Dangerous Introduction to René Girard
The more we understand about the world around us, the less it seems we understand about people and the way they are. This post is an introduction to one man, named René Girard, who bucked this trend: his perception of the nature of behaviour is like a laser that goes right to the core of the human condition. We watch and learn by copying others, and the most important thing we learn from others is desire. Girard understood something important about desire; so did Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, and so do Kanye West and Donald Trump. This secret, once you understand it, will challenge you.
René Girard has always had a bit of an underground cult following in Silicon Valley, partly by proximity due to his appointment as a Stanford professor, and his name began circulating more widely when Peter Thiel shared that his trademark contrarian style (which, unlike the imitators, is actually contrarian) was in part based on Girard’s philosophy. This post is my attempt to summarize his body of work and capture the main point of what he would have to say about life today in America, on the internet, and out in our strange modern world; I hope you enjoy it.
Triangular Desire: We don’t want things; we want to be things
Human beings are creatures of mimicry. We are evolutionarily supercharged to do one thing better than anyone else: learn by watching and copying others. And the most important thing we learn is how to want.
As we grow up and live our lives, we watch others and learn what it is we ought to want. Aside from the basics, like food, water, shelter and sex, our desire for any particular object or experience is not hard-coded into our DNA; we’ve learned to want it by watching other people. But what is hard-coded into our DNA and hard-wired into our brains is the desire to be; and to belong. The true root of all desire, Girard and others argue, is never in the objects or the experience we pursue; it’s really about the other person from whom we’ve learned to want these things.
Girard calls these people the “mediators” or the “models” for our desire: at a deep neurological level, when we watch other people and pattern our desires off theirs, we are not so much acquiring a desire for that object so much as learning to mimic somebody, and striving to become them or become like them. Girard calls this phenomenon mimetic desire. We don’t want; we want to be.
One way we continually give this away is through our language and word choices. There’s a reason why Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront doesn’t lament “I coulda contended!”; the line is “I coulda been a contender”. Venture Capitalist thought leaders in Silicon Valley don’t want to think contrarily; the want to be contrarian. Advertisers understand this principle really well: you’re not trying to convince somebody that they want Bud Light or a Ford F150; you’re telling them they ought to desire membership to a particular peer set, and the way to become a part of that group is to drink Bud Light and drive an F150. It’s why Abercrombie can advertise their clothes with models that aren’t actually wearing any of those clothes; the clothes aren’t the point.
The objects themselves form the bulk of our day to day activities and concerns, but they’re transient; what matters is other people. The way we perceive those objects and the degree to which we care about them is overwhelmingly coloured by the opinion of the role models we care about. Anyone who’s ever been a susceptible teenager has experienced this. If you care a lot about joining the group of cool kids, and you also like listening to Green Day, what happens one day when the cool kids say “actually Green Day sucks”? Not only will you keep quiet about liking Green Day; in fact, you’ll probably convince yourself in short order that, actually, Green Day is bad and you’ve never liked them.
Marcel Proust’s masterpiece A La Recherche du Temps Perdu is all about this phenomenon: how our memory of objects and experiences is powerfully and retroactively shaped by the opinions of people who we aspire to imitate. In the book, Proust’s character is on a literal and metaphorical search to rediscover his initial impressions of experiences as he actually perceived them, before those memories became coloured by the mediating influence of others.
One of the tragic elements of mimetic desire is that it induces a lot of self-deception: lying to yourself in order to reshape your perceptions, your experience and your identity to be consistent with who you feel you ought to be. When teenage you convinces yourself that you actually hate Green Day, not only are you rejecting something that you love, which is sad enough in itself, you’re going to experience shame: the feeling that you are not living up to the kind of person that you want to be. You want to be someone who hates Green Day, because that’s who the cool kids are. To rediscover past impressions is a kind of humility: it’s accepting that you may not actually be like those role models. But it frees you to perceive things as they actually are, and enjoy them as your genuine self. Humility and shame, when viewed through a mimetic lens, are opposites.
Whereas some people experience mimetic desire explicitly as a desire to imitate other people, other people experience it in a different form: narcissism. Narcissists are often described as people who are in love with themselves; when we look at it through a lens of mimetic desire, we can see clearly what’s going on. For narcissists, the model that we watch and copy and strive to become is ourselves – or, really, an idealistic version of ourselves that we aspire to project. You might ask,”if narcissists want to be themselves, then aren’t they happy?” No; quite the opposite: narcissists are usually deeply unhappy, because the person they strive to imitate and impress most is themselves; the harder they try, the less they’ll succeed.
Two-dimensional versus three-dimensional conflict
The next important piece of the Girardian worldview concerns the nature of human conflict. In children’s stories and other simplistic storylines, we frequently see a kind of Hero’s Journey narrative manifest itself as a sort of ’two-dimensional’ plot: the Hero (good!) wants the Goal (object), and there’s an Obstacle (bad!). In order to succeed, the Hero must overcome the Obstacle in order to reach their Goal. The central relationship in this story is between the Hero and the Object; she will fight through any kind of Obstacle in between. These storylines can be entertaining, but they’re not how human conflict usually presents itself in the world.
In more realistic “three-dimensional” or human conflict, the central relationship that matters isn’t between a Hero and an Object. It’s been the Hero and their ideal, the Model. The Hero wants to become the ideal, and the way that he expresses this desire is by mimicking the model: wanting what the model wants and has. Sometimes this can be a literal object, sometimes it’s a love interest, but usually what the Hero wants is something more ephemeral: status, significance, respect; to be seen as a particular kind of person, and to feel like that person.
Realistic human conflict doesn’t involve an unshakeable relationship between a Hero and an Object, with transient Obstacles thrown in its way. It’s inverted: the critical relationship is between the Hero and the Model, with transient Objects that bubble up as today’s pursuit and tomorrow’s obsession. Girard has written on several occasions that the great novelists – Proust, Dostoevsky, along with Shakespeare – are the true expert authorities here. He wrote two books on this: Deceit, Desire and the Novel and Theatre of Envy, both of which are great books to start out with if you’re looking to tackle Girard for the first time.
Out in the world, this kind of conflict often manifests itself as the pursuit of status. Status, in mimetic terms, just means being; pure and simple. It can sometimes mean equivalency and inclusion (for someone who’s on the outside trying to get in), or it could mean non-equivalency and exclusion (for someone who’s on the inside and trying to level up to a higher social group and leave behind the rest.) Anyone who’s been a part of a “scene” of some sort will recognize these dynamics really well: a local music scene, where bands are all hanging out with one another and jockeying to hang out with the cooler, bigger band and the gatekeeper record label, is pretty indistinguishable from a local startup scene, where prospective entrepreneurs all jockey to hang out with the successful founders and the gatekeeper VCs. Every scene ultimately comes to resemble the fashion industry: it’s a ritualized, interactive structure for creating and navigating status difference.
Status, like with many things, is ultimately zero-sum in nature. Models and their admirers eventually and inevitably become rivals. Mutual desire will inevitably turn them into competitors, and the intensity of competition has little to do with the value of the object itself. What matters, again, is the interpersonal relationship. We admire our models for being our inspiration, and we simultaneously come to resent them and hate them for being our obstacle and rival.
Modern status forums like Instagram are designed explicitly to bring out this dual admiration/resentment emotion within us. Instagram’s real product isn’t photos; it’s likes. The photos and the events they depict are just the transient objects that bubble up to the surface; what really matters is the relationship between the people. But the fact that Instagram’s product is built around the objects and not the models isn’t an accident: it’s sneaky. It creates way more space and oxygen for resentment and desperation to grow beneath the surface. It’s not about the photo or what it depicts; it’s always about the other person.
There are two ways that a person might handle this conflict. The first way is to direct the conflict outward: to actively go pursue those objects or experiences that will turn you into the kind of person you want to be; your frustration will be directed towards your mediator and rival, and they will become your enemy. You’ll be motivated by a feeling along the lines of “the reason why I’m not X person or have X is their fault.” The second and more narcissistic way is to direct the conflict inward, and blame yourself for not being the kind of person you aspire to be. “The reason why I’m not X person or have X is my fault.”
In Dostoevsky’s masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov, Dmitri the oldest brother (the temperamental sensualist) is the first kind: his desires and insecurities are angrily directed outward at other people, particularly his father. For Dmitri, the three-dimensional conflict plays out in the open. Ivan the next brother (the narcissist) is the second kind. He’s the most educated and the most intellectual, and also the one who’s the most tortured. He obsesses over being a particular kind of person, same as Dmitri, but he handles it in the opposite way: because his internal model is himself (or, specifically, an idealized version of himself), he continually torments and blames himself for not being that person; the harder he tries, the more shame he feels for trying. For Ivan, the three-dimensional conflict is fully internal; he is the one we pity most, for he has become his own worst enemy.
We do not fight because we’re different; we fight because we are the same
Now, here’s the next key thing to understand, and this is really the anchor for the entire Girardian worldview: The amount of distance between the subject and the model matters a great deal.
Girard outlines a spectrum between two kinds of models: models who are far from you, and models who are close to you. Models who are far from you, which Girard calls “external mediators”, are like God, heroic figures in culture or history like Raskolnikov’s desire to be seen as an important figure like Napoleon in Crime and Punishment, Don Quixote’s desire to become an “ideally chivalrous” model knight, or a commanding hierarchical figure like a general leading an army: they are not the subject’s peer in any way whatsoever. This distance is important: the subject can strive as much as she likes to become like the model, yet the relationship between the two of them is unlikely to change. The model will never become an obstacle to the hero, because the model is simply too far away; they may not even be a real person. In Girard’s view, these tend to be the good kind of role models.
Models who are close to the subject, which Girard calls “internal mediators”, are a different story. The subject’s efforts to become more like the role model transforms the relationship between the two of them. If someone close to you like your smart coworker, your successful neighbour, or some other kind of peer becomes a model for you, then it will have a powerful effect on a) what you subsequently desire, in your effort to become more like them, and b) your relationship with that person as they progressively become your competitor, obstacle and rival. Your role model torments you, pulling you in two directions simultaneously: “Be like me, because that is what you desire; but also don’t be like me, because to try would expose you as an imitator and embarrass you in front of everybody.” Narcissists, whose role model is themselves, feel a cruel twist: “the harder you try, the more you’re embarrassing to yourself.”
The most intense and personal form of mimetic conflict is when it is internal to your own family. Freud talks a lot about the conflicting roles of the parents as a model for the child’s learning and development, while simultaneously acting as a barrier to the child (through prohibitions and punishments). Freud believed that this internal conflict that develops in the mind of a child (between the parents’ conflicting roles as a model and as a barrier) was the root of neuroses and mental illnesses that manifest in adult behaviour, years later.
Here’s where Girard’s powers of observation begin to uncover the non-obvious and important. When our role model is far away, we continually praise them and draw comparisons between ourselves and them whenever possible. But when our model is close – if they’re our peer, or coworker, our neighbour, or even a family member – we do the opposite. We desperately hide the fact that they are the model for our admiration and jealousy. As our mimicry intensifies, we will progressively go to greater lengths in order to disguise our feelings, and what initially was a feeling of admiration will mutate into envy that we desperately try to hide. We begin to do all sorts of things that seem out of character – attack our model for all various reasons; slander them, sabotage them, do our best to ruin them. (I had a boss once who compulsively took positions, both personally and professionally, that were the exact opposite of one of his peers that was seen in the community as more successful than he was.) Furthermore, because they’re our peer, odds are that they will symmetrically feel the same things towards us: an initial desire to imitate and impress, which yields to envy and descends into symmetric hostility that mirrors and amplifies itself. We don’t fight because we’re different; we fight because we’re the same.
One particularly human feeling along these lines is a certain kind of anxiety: the need to make sure your peers recognize that you have obtained something, or have accomplished something, or in some other way have become a particular type of person; while simultaneously needing to make sure they don’t catch you trying to make sure they see it. To get exposed as a striver is the worst thing that can happen to you, because it basically confirms to everyone else that you’re not that particular person you’re trying to project; we can’t both be X and also be actively striving to become X. (Once again, narcissists experience this in a particularly tormenting way, because the person they’re lying to and are ashamed in front of is themselves.) The closer the role model is to us, the more shame we feel as we flip back and forth between adoringly imitating them and performatively distancing ourselves from them.
The fight was so fierce because the stakes were so small
There are definitely people out there who intuitively get the idea that “we don’t fight because we’re different; we fight because we are the same”. But they make a key error in understanding why that is the case: they’re stuck thinking in terms of the object being fought over, rather than the relationship between the rivals. They’re still thinking of similarity as “We’re the same because we both want X.” If the conflict was genuinely over an object, we’d expect that the more valuable or precious the object, the more intense the fighting should be. But instead, the opposite is usually more true: the smaller the stakes, the more intense and the more personally ugly the fight.
Now why is this? There are two reasons; one categorical, the other causative. First, small stakes imply similar participants. It’s hard to imagine a situation where two people very far apart from one another might come into conflict over an inconsequential object. So the smaller the stakes, the closer the participants are likely to be to one another off the bat. Second: the smaller the stakes involved, the more urgently you will be compelled to hide the fact that the root of the fighting is your admiration and jealousy of your peer. If you’re fighting over something big, then your fight is plenty justified in the eyes of others. But the smaller the stakes, the harder you are going to have to work in order to justify your conflict. The way you’re going to do that, in all likelihood, is by fighting dirty: smearing your opponent’s reputation, and waging a campaign to delegitimize him in an effort to draw eyes away from your secret admiration and jealousy.
As Henry Kissinger (who, whatever you think of him, undeniably saw his fair share of large conflicts) once put it, describing his time in academia: “The battles were so fierce because the stakes were so small.” The initial stakes being fought over – some trivial object, like desirable desk space in an office or a lawn care dispute among neighbours – are like the tiny grain of sand at the centre of a pearl. Which particular grain of sand seeds the pearl isn’t important. If the conditions for pearl formation are there, sand will be found.
Ultimately, these kinds of conflicts threaten to spiral out of control because they’re not over anything; so there’s no possible resolution or compromise that can be made; at least, not concerning the object being allegedly fought over. These fights are strictly symmetric in character; Girard calls them mimetic violence. Historically, mimetic violence between two individuals would often boil over and conclude the only way possible: in a duel to the death. Duels are the inevitable conclusion when neither party will back down, and no compromise is possible because there is no object being fought over that could legitimately coax either party into a truce. More dangerous still, if we keep going back in history, are blood feuds: “You killed someone in my family? I’ll kill someone in your family” becomes such a catastrophically dangerous form of tit for tat violence that it could mortally threaten the survival of entire communities. Without safeguard systems in place, like a formal justice system, runaway mimetic violence is a terrifying prospect.
Girard’s answer is, essentially, distance and differentiation. A relationship between subject and model that is differentiated, in terms of rank or distance or some other real factor, will be safe; whereas a relationship that is undifferentiated, because the subject and the model are peers, is dangerous. The Girardian mindset basically says, “Lasting peace and harmony inherently requires differentiation. A stable society is a differentiated one.” (If you just had alarm bells go off at that sentence, which you should have, hold on; we’ll get there.)
Violence, Scapegoating, and Blame
Here’s where Girard takes a turn into some of the material for which he’s most known. He asks us to consider what it’s like to live in a premodern society, without the same kind of justice system we have today. In Girard’s view, mimetic violence was the most dangerous threat to your community if you were living earlier in history: it stems directly from human nature, it naturally magnifies in character (as the sides of each conflict get steadily larger and angrier), and it’s difficult to stop once it gets going. Unlike inter-tribal conflicts, where we fight over actual stakes and can deter conflict by arming ourselves, intra-tribal conflicts have no such recourse: there’s no way to pre-emptively defend against them, because the enemy is you.
The more homogenous your tribe, and the more each of you are peers with one another, the more inevitable mimetic conflict becomes. That’s too bad, because there are real advantages with everybody being alike: well-aligned groups can accomplish more together than they could on their own. A major aspect of why humans evolved the way they did was positive evolutionary selection for people who could imitate each other and work together. But that group behaviour, as we know, brought with it a new kind of danger.
Once mimetic conflict has been seeded and starts to escalate, what are our options to stop it if there is no justice system? If de-escalation isn’t an option, you really have only one move left: to find a scapegoat. Scapegoating is when the community on both sides of the mimetic conflict collectively decides to find someone to blame for all of this violence. If they can come up with a surrogate victim who is “responsible” for the conflict in the eyes of the community, then they have a rare opportunity to escape the violence: they can end the fighting in one decisive stoke by stating, before everyone, that “the true source of this fighting has been found, and we will kill him.” The community comes together by murdering the scapegoat victim, and as they do so, the conflict resolves.
Two immediate questions: who is the victim, and why does the conflict end? First of all, tragically, the victim should ideally be someone neutral to the conflict; therefore someone who is innocent of any real culpability. They have to be neutral, because if the victim were assignable to one side or the other in anybody’s mind, then this killing would simply be interpreted by the community as another salvo in the back-and-forth conflict, which would demand a response just like all the others. Second, by assigning responsibility for the conflict to the victim and then killing them, we do two important things. First, we channel all of the violence in the conflict into one person, who is now killed and cannot return violence. Second, we’ve now created credible grounds for violence to cease: “We found the cause of the conflict! And we have stamped it out.” Everyone can now get what they want, which is a peaceful exit while saving face. Except the poor victim, of course, but they can’t respond because they’re dead.
Nowadays, we’ve fortunately moved on from human sacrifice – but the instinct remains. When all else fails, we turn to blame as a conflict resolution mechanism. Pent-up conflict and aggression in the community, especially when it’s rooted in interpersonal resentment and mimetic conflict, will find an outlet one way or another. Finding somebody to blame for all of our problems, and then channeling all of that frustration and resentment into that person, feels really good.
If you ask Girard he’ll tell you: of course this feels good. We’ve learned this behaviour over thousands of years. Mimetic conflict is a threat, and if you can release some of the pressure by channeling anger into a scapegoat, you’ll feel as if you’ve done a good thing for your community. Successfully blaming someone will score you huge points from your peers, and they will promptly imitate you in turn by piling on more blame themselves. I’m sure everyone reading this has witnessed plenty of pile-on scapegoating events, both personally and professionally: simmering problems beneath the surface suddenly (and often randomly) get directed squarely into one target, who will likely be seen as “deserving it”.
Hierarchy and religion as early defences against mimetic violence
Let’s return to Girard’s challenge: it’s hard for us to imagine what everyday life was like in a world where mimetic violence and the threat of runaway retaliation was an ever-present threat to your community’s entire existence. In modern society we have laws, a justice system, and societal norms that frown on mimetic retaliation that’s explicitly violent. It’s hard for us to imagine how societies without a judicial system might keep revenge in check.
One way, which still exists today in different forms, is hierarchy. If I’m a subject and you’re the king, then I may in fact be less jealous of you than I am of my peer and neighbour. That’s because jealousy and resentment isn’t a function of any particular object that’s desired (which you, as king, will have a lot of) but rather is a function of the distance between us. If you’re the king, then you’re sufficiently far away and differentiated from me that you’re what Girard calls an external mediator: I may look up to you, but I won’t be jealous, because we’re not peers.
We can think of hierarchies as trading one kind of justice for another kind of justice: hierarchies may not fit well with our modern concept of fairness or equality, but they are generally successful at establishing differentiation that suppresses mimetic violence. Hierarchies establish distance between us. From our vantage point today, we call these kinds of structures societally unjust; with good reason. But Girard asks us to consider the point of view of someone living in a different world than us, where the threat of actual violence is much more of an everyday concern.
Hierarchies work better if they are “natural”, rather than meritorious. With royalty, for example, the source of the King’s power and differentiation cannot be earned in a typical sense – if it were, then the King would be your peer, albeit a more successful one than you. Kings are not CEOs. The power structure of the hierarchy needs to come from something else – either from the divine, from dynasty, or otherwise from the faraway.
Silicon Valley startups have learned this lesson. CEOs, who are promoted into their titles and earn their power by working their way up to it, are in many ways less effective than founders, who rule their companies as if by divine right. Founders are differentiated from their employees to an absolute degree: the title of ‘founder’ can never be earned or seized the way CEO can. In a culture where Founder (and not CEO) is the highest-status title, there’s no point in jealously coveting your founder’s title, because it’s not something that you can take. The only way you can act on that envy is to actually become a founder yourself. In Silicon Valley, envy is divergent and productive (in that it creates more founders) rather than convergent and destructive (many people jealously competing over one CEO title).
Religion is the ultimate source of hierarchy. There is no role model more powerful, more virtuous, or more far away than God. God is not your peer. Nor are the priests your peer, nor is the king (whose power is largely granted through blessing and cooperation of the priesthood) your peer. All of these non-peer relationships establish distance and differentiation. Here we reach the real meat of Girard’s body of work, which concerns the roles and purposes of religion. To Girard, early human religion evolved as a necessary, inevitable and successful defence against jealousy and mimetic rivalry within communities. His book Violence and the Sacred is all about this evolution, and about how early religions carried out the crucial role of suppressing and preemptively diffusing mimetic conflict.
One particularly gruesome but widely prevalent way that early religious institutions suppressed mimetic violence was through human sacrifice. Human sacrifice as a religious rite came in many different forms across prehistoric religions, but they all seem to have a basic structure in common. The rites begin by acknowledging undifferentiation and “sameness” within the community as the source of problems. Then, it channels those problems ritualistically into a sacrificial victim, who is scapegoated as the cause and answer for their problems. Upon killing the victim, the community celebrates the return of “differentiation”. (While this barbaric practice may seem completely primitive and foreign to us, the mechanics of the ritual persist into modern life in all kinds of funny places, including in Silicon Valley, as I’ve written about before.) In performing these rites preemptively, rather than as a reaction to mimetic rivalry that has escalated into violence, the community is able to “exhale” on a recurring basis. Violence has been postponed for another day.
Things hidden since the foundation of the world
The problem with ritual sacrifice and with scapegoating in general, as you may have guessed, is that it doesn’t actually resolve the conflict. It may bring peace, but only temporarily. The source of the conflict is still there; it’s just been placated for a little while. But it’ll come back.
The Christian Bible, in Girard’s interpretation, covers this subject pretty extensively. From the very beginning, Adam and Eve are cast out of the Garden of Eden – for doing what, exactly? For eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, which is the one thing they’re not supposed to touch. Knowledge of what, though? It’s often written as “knowledge of good and evil”, although again, without saying what evil is, we aren’t given an answer. But the answer is revealed in the very first thing that Adam and Eve do upon eating the fruit: they realize that they are naked, feel embarrassed, and cover themselves.
Knowledge of “Good and Evil”, in Girard’s view (and also mine) is really knowledge of Self and Other. The moment that they discover their nakedness is the moment they discover that there is an opinion of the other, that this opinion somehow matters, and that you ought to care about it. This moment at the beginning of the Old Testament is the seed of our worst behaviour: pride, shame, envy, and the other components of mimetic conflict. What happens next? Upon being expelled from Eden, the next major story is the rivalry between the sons Cain and Abel, where Cain initially admires his brother, but eventually becomes resentful of him and is ultimately driven to murder. If that’s not a parable about everything we’ve just talked about, I’m not sure what is.
Remember, Girard would implore, that at the time these texts were written and transcribed mimetic conflict was most likely a top-of-mind concern. In the time of the Old Testament we were still in a world where early beliefs, with their practices around scapegoating and human sacrifice, were pretty common. By the time of the New Testament, the Romans had codified together a sophisticated justice system, and a more “modern” world was being built where primitive fears around mimetic violence were mostly buried and covered up by society. But that doesn’t mean those same instincts and urges weren’t there.
As the Bible puts it in so many ways, the Devil acts through making us conscious of the Other. A modern civilization with layers of layers of safeguards in its judicial system and society is not automatically therefore full of “good people”. On the contrary, it means that the mechanisms of evil are masked, buried and not as well understood as they were in earlier times. Furthermore, the more connected and cosmopolitan a society (as Rome was becoming), the more opportunities there are in front of you to care about what the Other thinks, and to admire and mimic them.
Girard’s interpretation of the New Testament is laid out in his most challenging book, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. The title references a passage where Jesus tells us, “I am here to reveal things hidden since the foundation of the world”; in other words, something we used to understand but have now forgotten. We’re told, in Girard’s narrative: “At the beginning of human history, we understood that the nature of evil lies in knowledge of the Other. The Devil acts on us through our peers and neighbours (internal mediators); the only way to overcome evil is through God (the one, true external mediator). The great human temptation is to try to conquer evil ourselves, without God’s help. Redirecting that evil and violence into sacrificial scapegoats – through any mechanism – will not actually destroy evil; it only hides it temporarily. As society gets more and more sophisticated, we get better at denying the presence of evil, and pretending it isn’t there, while it continually grows stronger.”
In Revelations, the final chapter of the New Testament, we get a warning: “In the future, an Antichrist will come who brings a promise: we can all be Gods and models for one another, and we can all live in harmony together.” The Antichrist promises us that the answer for how to be and what to want can be found in one another. Revelations is a warning to reject this: the more we turn to each other for answers rather than to God, the more we are inviting evil, and setting ourselves up for a future where everyone is each other’s peer, everyone becomes a model, and everyone becomes a scapegoat.
Girardian themes in modern life
The Internet brings people closer together. Is that a good thing? Not really, in Girard’s view: the internet decreases the effective distance between us and the role models that we imitate. When you see your role model mediator on Instagram every single day, or have the ability to comment directly on a stranger’s post or tweet with an effortless comment, or have the ability to share things and read what others have shared with zero friction, in each of these cases your effective peer set is enlarging: it’s putting everyone up on the same flat surface. This abolition of distance is messing up our ability to desire things in a healthy way.
I think a lot of people continue to think that the Internet’s effect on desire is that it makes it easier for us to find stuff we want, and to tell the internet what stuff we’re looking for, and to have stuff advertised to us that we might want. While this is certainly true, it’s a sideshow compared to what’s really going on: the internet makes it easier to gaze longingly at the people we admire and envy, and creates an overpowering amount of pressure for you to become, and be seen as, a particular type of person. Again, I think the worst contemporary offender here is Instagram. (It’s the only major social network I refuse to join.) People say, “Everyone is miserable because all we do is want things.” Okay, well what is causing us to want things? It has little to do with the fact that we’re being shown shown these things online 24/7, and everything to do with the fact that we’re seeing our peers online 24/7.
I think part of why anxiety and depression has become such a ubiquitous challenge for my generation and younger ones is that the internet has created a forum where everybody is each other’s peer. Social Networking and the web is like our own version of eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge: the Internet is basically a supercharged, everyday reminder of the presence of Self and Other. When the other is not your peer – if they’re far away, the more they’re differentiated from you in a particular way (like they’re older or younger, or have a different background or life experience), then awareness of the other is less of a problem. But when the Other is your peer, when they are close to you, and when their mediating influence puts you into that awful simultaneous torment of “you want to be like this, but you can’t get caught trying”, that’s when we get driven miserable. This isn’t a new thing, either. If you go back and read a lot of 19th century literature, there’s a recurring theme of “The world is getting more connected; what used to take ten days now takes two; we can communicate so fast now… it’s certainly good for our quality of life, but I’m not sure it’s making us happier.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Ok, so here’s a difficult section. I’m gonna say it right off the bat and then do my best to explain myself: Donald Trump is a very Girardian president.
Part of the reason why Trump appeals to a lot of Americans, I think, it’s that Trumpism is based on the idea that a forced flat society does not work. It’s not unfair to characterize Trumpism as a rejection of the last couple decades of policy and rhetoric that have advanced, more or less, the agenda that “everybody is equal and the government is going to actively make sure that everyone is treated the same.” Trumpism, to me, can be summed up as a rejection of the idea that we are and ought to be undifferentiated. This is a very Girardian mindset.
I’ve heard a line repeated a couple different times about the differences in American racism between the North and the South: “At least in the South you know where you stand.” If we put this in Girardian terms, it’d basically say, “A stable society is a differentiated one; in the South, that differentiation is explicit.” When people say “Make America Great Again”, I imagine that at some level this is what a lot of people are talking about: “Bring differentiation back to America. Bring America back to a time and place where we didn’t have this top-down enforcement of ‘everyone is the same’”. I think, quietly, if you asked a lot of people if what they genuinely meant by MAGA is “Make America more explicitly discriminatory again”, they’d say, “Well, yes. Undifferentiation is dangerous.” When terrorists shoot up mosques and synagogues in a crusade to fight “cultural marxism”, they’re saying it out loud.
I suspect that most people reading this, if they heard that phrase in any other context, would find it to be despicable. But now consider: if you found yourself nodding along in agreement several paragraphs ago, give a long hard thought to the fact that you can draw a pretty clear line from here to there.
What’s so frustrating about this is that not only is diversity important; diversity is the answer. Having lots of people who all come from different backgrounds, have different cultures, different sets of experiences, and see different people as their own peers is the answer to a homogenous, mimetic culture full of resentment and jealousy. But that’s not how it’s interpreted by the pro-discrimination crowd. To them, the threat is not so much “people who are different”, it’s “those people deciding that they are just as good as we are.”
I think what we need to do is to be able to construct a really solid understanding of what a world that is differentiated but not discriminatory looks like. I’m going to save it for another post, cause it’s an entire topic of its own, but I do think there’s something interesting that Canada has figured out in particular about how to do diversity right – or, if not ‘right’, at least better than most.
Coming back to the online world, we seem to be iterating through progressive cycles of a modern sort of anger: “outrage culture”, “cancel culture”, or whatever you want to call it, which has some recognizable characteristics of scapegoating that we talked about earlier. Our instinct to blame is strong, and we target that blame into specific people or groups of people as a way to protect our own community. It’s especially strong when that blame is justifiable to everybody in your peer set, and singling out a particular person as being worthy of outrage can provoke a definitive wave of pile-on mimicry among your group. They, after all, have just seen you successfully earn praise for casting blame on someone, so the instinct is strong to join in. The internet lets this mimetic behaviour scale far faster and far broader than ever could before. People get “cancelled”; modern-day sacrifice, basically.
The big problem (well, there are many problems, but here’s the Girardian problem) is that sacrificial scapegoating only diffuses tension if the sacrificial victim is neutral to the conflict. If the sacrificial victim can be associated or claimed by one side of the conflict or another, then it’s simply interpreted as yet another back-and-forth salvo in the ongoing tit-for-tat conflict. Let’s consider an oversimplified back-and-forth conflict between MAGA people on one side and the #Hashtag-Resistance people on the other. Deep down, the nature of this conflict at its core is Girardian: is differentiation and discrimination evil, or is it necessary?
Let’s look at #metoo as an example. The Girardian way to look at the me-too movement would be as essentially a community response to centuries of differentiation, where differentiation played out as: Men are allowed to sexually harass women and structurally exclude them and be awful to them in certain ways without consequence. (But are also expected to do things like hold doors open, treat women in particular kinds of respectful ways, and generally behave in ways that are also differentiated, just more positive.) In recent years, we’ve come around to a new concept of fairness and gender equality, which rejects that differentiation as being sexist and unfair, and rightfully so. This transition, as we now know, is making a lot of shitty men look bad. Many of these men are now getting “cancelled”. In isolation, a lot of it is appropriate and entirely deserved. But is it any surprise that the MAGA crowd (again I’m overgeneralizing, but that overall side of the political spectrum) has risen in a surprisingly unified stance against the me-too crowd? The discriminators, to a Girardian, are in some sense the heroes. Is it any wonder why Trump’s bragging about his sexual misbehaviour wasn’t a liability at all, but rather a core appeal as far as his base was concerned?
Unfortunately, the internet has fanned the flames of this conflict to a hysterical degree by making all of us internal mediators to one another. No amount of blaming or scapegoating will ever solve the problem, but any incremental “win” we can score feels like it’s a step forward. Unfortunately, as with any kind of mimetic conflict, the enemy is us. The Girardian looks at today’s world and sees Revelations a bit.
The Good News:
The good news, I think, is that we are slowly and steadily developing a kind of antibodies to the internet: as social networking becomes more saturated and more ubiquitous, the inevitable pullback to more one-on-one conversations and more closed circles of friends is bringing our peer set of internal mediators down to more manageable levels once more. “I’m sick and tired of being so online” translates pretty cleanly into “I’m sick and tired of having so many peers that I need to care about.” And the good news is that who you see as your peer set is entirely within your control. No one gets to be your peer without your active consent. And I think people are beginning to learn this lesson.
Perhaps one of the paradoxical benefits of the internet, in the long term, is shifting the way we think about peer relationships from “opt-out”, which it’s been since pretty much forever, towards “opt-in.” In an opt-out peer set relationship, we default towards needing to look good in front of people; towards caring what people think, towards being embarrassed about aspects of ourselves, almost automatically – regardless of who the other person is. Not caring about what other people think has to be this deliberate act of bravery that’s hard to do. But in an opt-in peer set relationship, we only people in as peers and role models selectively and deliberately; not caring about what most people think comes naturally, because it’s on by default. This is a healthy thing, I think.
People talk about this as “finding your tribe”, which gets at part of it. But the other part is a conscious recognition that a lot of the bad things that we think and do and see aren’t the result of individually bad people but because of the dynamics of group behaviour – when we do something bad, our peer set is in a way responsible. Fortunately, being aware of this means we’re able to ignore or reject this group dynamic while still appreciating individuals, and even being friends with them. Opt-in is a kind of happy humility: it means accepting that we are not the peers and equals of many of the other people that we see and might otherwise admire, and that that’s okay. I’m not sure what René Girard would necessarily have to say about this; he passed away in 2015. But hopefully this has been a helpful introduction for everybody. Thanks for reading through all of this and look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments.
Great post! The differentiation piece really rings true for me in a lot of ways. I fall into the trap of worrying who my peer set is all the time. One weird way is that whenever I meet someone successful I look at their LinkedIn to figure out their age/school to make sure they’re not my ‘peer’. For example, they’re significantly older I get a wave of relief, like ‘thankfully he/she is not my peer so I don’t need to compare myself to them.’