Elsewhere in recent conversations, we’ve been talking about “mirror neurons” in the context of empathy. But imitation (or mimesis) is not limited to the brain’s ability to echo or reflect emotional states detected in others.
Let’s zoom out and take a broader look at the phenomenon of mimesis.
Contagion (or mimesis) is an insightful sociological model attributed to Rene Girard, Emeritus of Stanford University. Girard crafted his model after studying the dynamics of the dysfunctional society caricatured in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novels (e.g. Crime and Punishment).
It’s instructive to go back to Professor Girard’s model. It looks something like this:
1. Mimetic Desire
One party identifies an object of desire and other parties imitate that desire. Examples of things children and adults desire: respect, attention, money, happiness, power, land, jobs, knowledge. Whatever the culture tells us is desirable, that’s what people adopt as worth having.
2. Mimetic Rivalry
Now the parties begin competing for some common object of desire. Whatever good competitive strategies emerge, others copy them. Since it’s a rivalry, it’s played as a win/lose game. To win, you only need to get more of the desirable object than the rival. If the object of desire is respect, you hit the rival with tokens of disrespect. This is done first with criticism, and escalates to rejection, alienation and incrimination.
Skandalon is a Greek word that means “baited trap”. It’s the root of “slander” and “scandal.” In the rivalry for respect, if one side is “dissed” they are caught in the temptation of Skandalon and feel compelled to respond, defend, or retaliate. Thus begins a “dissing” war, fought on the battlefield of the psyche. Skandalon is what makes it so hard not to take the bait, so hard just to walk away. It’s so tempting to react or even retaliate. The give and take escalates into mutual and mimetic enthrallment.
4. Alienation and Scapegoating
Eventually one side crosses some arbitrary threshold of concern where the supervising authorities feel compelled to intervene. It’s essentially random which side crosses first, but often it’s the weaker faction, which uses more creative or innovative methods to maintain parity. Whichever side goes over the arbitrary line becomes blameworthy, and the others who kept their responses below normative threshold are the victims. They gang up on and alienate the scapegoat, calling for the authorities to intervene and punish the blameworthy party.
5. Authorized, Sanctioned and Sacred Violence
To restore order, the authorities determine guilt and visit sanctions and punishment on the scapegoat. This escalates the violence to the next higher level of authority in our culture.
The 5-stage pattern can be observed to repeat at all levels of power and for all rivalries and competitions. The most virulent conflicts are over respect, attention, money, power, sex, land, cultural values, or ideology. Ethnic conflicts, political conflicts, and culture wars typically follow this model.
At every stage of the model, we need to be mindful of the dynamic we are caught up in, and consciously elect to run the model in reverse. Until now, the great theologians and peacemakers presented this as tenets of important religions or as tenets of ethics or morality.
Girard has taken us to the next step of reckoning this model as a sociological or systems theoretical model capable of guiding public policy, especially policy regarding the way we think about law and order or crime and punishment.