· Essays, Knols

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.

3. Skandalon
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.


Comments RSS
  1. Barry Kort

    From John Rogers in Econologics on Facebook …

    Great quote from the cult 1979 book "Gödel, Escher, Bach" by Douglas Hoftstadter, which is relevant to all working on new economics and new money systems:

    "There are cases in which only a few people have the necessary overview to recognize a system that rules the lives of many people, a system that was never before recognized as a system; then these people often dedicate their entire lives to persuading other people that the system really exists and that one should abandon it!" ~Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, 1979

    Note that Girard’s Model of Contagion systematically characterizes how most humans behave most of the time (especially in conflict situations).

    The whole point of Girard’s Model is to reveal that we are systematically behaving in an unbecoming, dysfunctional, and unconstructive manner, and that we should become aware of Girard’s Model so that, going forward, we can abandon the practice of employing it.

  2. dirk

    What is good for an individual is not necessarily good for society, and vice verse. Game Theory has something to say about this.

  3. Barry Kort

    René Girard, Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Stanford, has died at age 91. Girard is best known for his pathbreaking work on theories of conflict and violence in human culture.

    His brilliant work changed a lot of thinking about deep ideas that first arose as elements of theology.

    Three dominant sources of knowledge, wisdom, and pragmatics in human culture emerge from the disciplines of Science, Theology, and Statecraft.

    Of these, Statecraft has been a lamentably recurring source of systemic conflict and violence in the course of human history.

    What Girard did was to take a scientific systems theoretic approach to analyzing the roles of Theology and Statecraft in exploring the roots of conflict and violence in human culture. In doing so he accomplished an astonishing breakthrough: he found a unifying bridge linking classical ideas from theology to modern systems science. In alloying elements of Theology with modern Systems Thinking, Girard revealed the inherent (yet fixable) flaw in shallow political pragmatism.

    Girard’s work jibes with that of scholars in many connected fields, including Psychology, Sociology, and the Bardic Arts.

    It took centuries for the breakthrough ideas of Copernicus and Darwin to wend their way into popular acceptance. Girard’s comparably seminal ideas have been in circulation for a few decades. Will they take root in the public discourse before human culture collapses from a toxic overdose of shallow and myopic political pragmatism?

    Will René Girard prove to be the rejuvenating paraclete that humanity has long been waiting for?

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