Mimesis in Real Life and in Fiction; or, Wherever Two or Three Are Gathered, Look for Victims

I’ve seen several articles and essays pertinent to mimesis and rivalry in the news this month:


Another child dies in a hot car, and Gene Weingarten asks: Why was this a crime? in the Washington Post (15 March 2012)

We demonize, villainize and stigmatize others when we’re afraid that we’re actually like them; in this case, when we fear that we could make the same potentially fatal mistake they’ve made. And we could.

‎”The compassion that was eventually shown to Murphy in court led — as it almost inevitably does in these cases — to an ugly spasm of online denunciation, in the form of anonymous reader “comments” on news stories reporting the plea deal. “Mommy Dearest will be popping open the bubbly tonight,” predicted Tommy McGuire on The Washington Post’s Web site. On WJLA’s site, Lucre3 thundered: “SHE NEEDS  TO BE LOCKED UP AN [sic] FORGOTTEN. HONESTLY SHE DOESN’T DESERVE TO LIVE.” Many suggested forced sterilization. Said RJM: “Maybe she should get one of her vet friends to spay her.”

“If the ugliness seems puzzling to you, it doesn’t to psychologists who have examined this phenomenon. It’s a form of denial, they say: Deep down, people understand that all lives are fragile, that we are all capable of momentary mistakes or misjudgments that could destroy us. We don’t want to face this terrifying fact. So we must convince ourselves that the people to whom it happens are unlike us. To sustain our delusion of safety, we must make them monsters.”


Closed-System Sibling Knowledge at The Last Word on Nothing (12 March 2012) asserts that siblings may be hard-wired to not to be knowledge rivals but to have their own niches that encourage competition. The Girardian explanation would be that this adaptation exists, if it does, to prevent mimetic violence between the subject and the model/obstacle.  Envy, and rivalry in general, doesn’t come about just because we view someone else as having what we want or being who we want to be; it comes about when that other is proximate to us in space, time or status. Siblings are about as proximate as you can get: They live with us, we spend a lot of time together, and we generally view them as equals, similars, anything but remote. Only twins could be closer.

So it makes sense to me that we would try to differentiate ourselves in many ways from siblings, in order to keep from feeling envious, being rivalrous, and possibly resorting to violence against our siblings.

(Some more of my thoughts on differentiation)

(And some of Alain de Botton’s thoughts)


Why Won’t They Listen? “The Righteous Mind,” by Jonathan Haidt (23 March 2012)

This is a book review by William Saletan of Haidt’s book. Haidt is “a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who … seeks to enrich liberalism, and political discourse generally, with a deeper awareness of human nature.”

Saletan writes:

‎The worldviews Haidt discusses may differ from yours. They don’t start with the individual. They start with the group or the cosmic order. They exalt families, armies and communities. They assume that people should be treated differently according to social role or status — elders should be honored, subordinates should be protected. They suppress forms of self-expression that might weaken the social fabric. They assume interdependence, not autonomy. They prize order, not equality.

As those familiar with Girard’s work will recognise, according people different status and value based on hierarchy is an excellent way to maintain order.

Later, he writes:

Another aspect of human nature that conservatives understand better than liberals, according to Haidt, is parochial altruism, the inclination to care more about members of your group — particularly those who have made sacrifices for it —than about outsiders. Saving Darfur, submitting to the United Nations and paying taxes to educate children in another state may be noble, but they aren’t natural. What’s natural is giving to your church, helping your P.T.A. and rallying together as Americans against a foreign threat.

Again, valuing one’s own group over “the other” and rallying together against an outward threat is also an excellent way to maintain societal order. It provides an outward focus and target for any enmity and rivalry that may build up within the society, thus protecting the society from doing violence to itself. Unless you consider that an us-them orientation promulgates its own violence.


Finally , on to fiction. I haven’t seen or read The Hunger Games film or trilogy, though friends have and have described it for me.

Father Robert Barron (Professor of Faith and Culture at University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, IL) writes in the National Review Online about The Hunger Games movie with specific reference to Rene Girard’s work. He cites Shirley Jackson’s story, “The Lottery,” as well as the real-life practices of the Romans and Aztecs in an interesting essay titled The Hunger Games: A Prophecy? (27 March 2012).

From which:

The really interesting question is this: Why has this motif of the sacrificial victim played such a large role in the human imagination for so long? Why do we keep acting out this scenario, both in reality and in our literature? The contemporary literary theorist Rene Girard has speculated that practically every human community is grounded in what he calls “the scapegoating mechanism.” This is the process by which we discharge our societal tensions onto a victim whom we have decided, collectively, to punish. In this, we effectively (at least for a time) manage to bring some peace and stability to our always volatile communities — which goes a long way toward explaining why the scapegoat dynamic is so popular with governments and why it is usually given a quasi-religious sanction.

His conclusion:

Human sacrifice flourished in the midst of some of the most sophisticated and intellectually advanced civilizations in history. …

What haunted me as I watched The Hunger Games was that the instinct for human sacrifice is never far from the surface and that it could easily exist alongside of tremendous cultural and technological sophistication.


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