I had the good fortune last week of conducting a conversation with Luke Burgis, the author of a splendid book called Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life. The text is a practical and common-sense application of the theorizing of René Girard, one of the most seminal and creative thinkers of the last century. Girard’s fundamental insight—and it’s reflected in the subtitle of Burgis’ book—is that human desire is not straightforward but mimetic or imitative. This means that we rarely want something simply because we recognize it as good; rather, we want it because someone else wants it. There is, accordingly, a triangular quality to most forms of wanting, our desire for the object moving, as it were, through the desire of another person.
Though this can sound abstract, it’s actually on display everywhere. Just watch a young child peacefully at play next to a pile of toys. He remains utterly indifferent to a particular ball—until another child comes along and picks it up. Suddenly, he is mesmerized and wants that ball so intensely that a conflict breaks out. Or think of those rather clunky, red basketball sneakers that everyone had to have in the 1990s. We wanted them so passionately, not because they had such compelling intrinsic qualities, but because Michael Jordan wanted them. In point of fact, all of advertising is based on the Girardian dynamic of mediated desire.
Now, precisely because our desiring has this imitative quality, it leads, almost inevitably, to what Girard calls “mimetic rivalry.” Since I want what you want and since there is only so much of what we both want, we start fighting with each other. If we extrapolate from two individuals to a bigger group, we can see that a simple mimetic rivalry can become a mimetic crisis, a frenzy of conflictual desire among all the members of a community, a society, a church. So committed are the combatants to the rivalry that they become, in Girard’s language, “monstrous doubles” of one another, more and more alike in their fury and obsession.
At this point, we must speak of perhaps the most famous insight of René Girard—namely, the scapegoating mechanism. Since the war of all against all, prompted by the mimetic crisis, is intolerable, we, by an instinct more unconscious than conscious, tend to identify a scapegoat whom we can blame for our troubles. We convince ourselves that, if we but drive him out or eliminate him, we can relieve the tension in our community. Examples of this dynamic positively abound in literature and in history. Read Shirley Jackson’s haunting short story The Lottery, or Herman Melville’s tale Billy Budd, or William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, or watch any of the Hunger Games films, or for that matter, revisit the story of the woman caught in adultery from the Gospel of John, and you will see both mimetic desire and the scapegoating mechanism on full display. Moreover, even the most casual survey of history shows the prominence of the scapegoat: Hitler’s targeting of Jews, the lynching of African Americans in our country, race prejudice of all kinds, the Salem witch trials, etc., etc.
Girard speculates that the violent marginalizing or outright destruction of the scapegoat does indeed produce a brief peace, a respite from the violence. But it is necessarily evanescent and unstable and hence gives rise in short order to more mimesis, more rivalry, and more violence. One of Girard’s most powerful insights is that biblical religion—alone among the religions and philosophies of the world—effectively unmasks the scapegoating dynamic and demonstrates that God stands on the side of victims and not victimizers. It hence shows a way out of the awful rhythms of imitation, competition, and blaming.
There are wonderful and numerous resources if you want to get more deeply into the Girardian theory, but I rehearse it briefly now because of its massive applicability to the world that so many of us live in so constantly. The social media space is practically a Girardian laboratory, or better, a Petri dish. Because we are constantly on display to one another—through our pictures, our postings, our comments, our liking and unliking—the imitative factor is intensified and mimetic crises can, as we say, “go viral” almost instantly. Animosities and resentments that used to take months or years to build up can now develop in minutes. And the very ferocity of these rivalries produces the particularly virulent form of scapegoating with which we are all too familiar. Let’s face it: the social media space is practically a breeding ground for scapegoats, victims of the mob, objects of cancellation. And as Girard would have appreciated, the identification and elimination of the scapegoat brings a brief and unstable peace to the social media world, but it soon gives way to more violence and other scapegoats have to be found.
Is there a way out of this mess? In his book, Burgis recounts a few stories of people who, caught up in a mimetic frenzy and realizing how they were being affected so negatively, simply opted out. They stepped away from the imitation and the competition; they took their ball and went home. Arthur Brooks, keenly aware of how destructive social media can be, has said that a tremendous sense of liberation comes when we just put away our devices, get off of Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, and live more normal lives. In other words, just say no to the toxic world of the internet. Now, a complete abstinence might be impossible to achieve, but I might suggest an intermittent fasting from social media. The other—and more permanent—way out is to cultivate the virtue of love. Love, which is willing the good of the other, is an antidote to mimetic rivalry and the scapegoating mechanism. Instead of competing with another, desiring what he wants, you should desire what is objectively good for him. You will find that this dissolves conflict and hence obviates the need for scapegoats. When you find yourself, therefore, caught in Girardian dynamics, especially on social media, engage in the simplest act of love.