I submit two propositions for your consideration: 1) We become who we imitate. 2) We can’t help but imitate.
If someone had suggested these propositions to me a few years ago, I would have believed the first proposition but not the second. Considering the second, I might have said something like, “That’s why I don’t imitate. I do my own thing.”
However, in the last few years, I have been reconsidering my belief on this matter. I still believe we become who we imitate, and now I also believe that we cannot help but imitate other people.
And it turns out this has a lot to do with you and me.
And also grace and zombies, of all things.
Why Do We Imitate?
Human beings are strange creatures because we come into the world fairly devoid of a clear personality and purpose.
Animals have instincts that guide them almost entirely in becoming themselves. Humans, on the other hand, come into the world partially guided by instinct, but we have a great deal of freedom about who and what we become. Because of that, there is a large part of us that is undefined, open-ended, and yet-to-be decided. It is a void, a type of emptiness that begins to haunt us from our earliest moments of consciousness.
We are hungry for fullness and meaning. We hunger for abundance of being.
So how do we fill this hunger? We imitate other people and their desires–a process called mimesis. What they desire symbolizes fullness, meaning, and abundance to us, and so we imitate them because we believe that through acquiring the object others desire, we will obtain these things we so greatly desire.
Thomas Reynolds highlights this when he writes, “Desire is acquisitive in nature. It seeks to appropriate an object that promises abundance and sufficiency, something that satisfies, fulfills, or fills-in the empty space of a felt lack”.
This is why the world of advertising, fashion, and social media are so ubiquitous and successful. They capitalize on mimetic desire and our pursuit to fill ourselves through acquiring objects or people (often viewed as objects who will give us meaning).
In its basic form, mimesis is good because it is the “opening out of one’s self” into the world. It is through mimesis that we actually become attuned to others and something larger than ourselves. It is what differentiates us from animals.
Nicholas Lancret, “Concert in Park”
Despite its goodness, it can (and often does) lead to serious problems. One of these problems is mimetic contagion, which the French philosopher Rene Girard writes about in depth.
Mimetic contagion begins innocently enough through ordinary mimesis. I see someone desiring something, and I begin to desire it and wish to possess it. But then the person whose desire I am imitating sees me desiring the object she desires. Now she desires it even more.
And then the mimetic desire rapidly replicates itself. Everyone around us sees my desire and the desire of the person I am imitating, and they imitate both of us. Desire escalates, and now everyone looks the same, and now we want the same things. Girard calls this mimetic rivalry, and it quickly turns into a dangerous contagion.
Remember that we imitate because we want to define ourselves, fill the emptiness inside of us, and give our lives identity and meaning. But when everyone looks the same and wants the same thing, our sense of identity grows fuzzy. The void returns. This causes tension.
Furthermore, since everyone now desires the same object, we fear that we will not be able to possess it, and this further adds to our crisis of identity. This can cause unbearable and violent tension in groups.
“The Scream”, Edward Munch
Girard argues that historically at this point, groups subconsciously enacted a scapegoating mechanism in which they chose an outsider whom they blamed for all the group’s tension. They killed the innocent scapegoat, an act which relieved the tension of the group and allowed them to demarcate their identity again.
This new identity was rooted in an “us-them” way of thinking. The persecutors of the scapegoat certainly didn’t see themselves as persecutors. They saw themselves as the righteous “us” pitting themselves against the evil “them” (or “it”, depending on if the scapegoat was a single person or group).
Girard argues that ancient myths are an elaborate retelling of the scapegoat mechanism and that all civilizations, historically, were founded on an act of scapegoating.
One might naturally wonder if scapegoating still occurs today.
Mimesis and Scapegoating Today
Girard argues that when Christ died on the cross, he upended the scapegoat mechanism. Christ voluntarily became a scapegoat, and in doing so, he sided with all scapegoats to illuminate their innocence and expose the scapegoating mechanism for what it is.
The scapegoating mechanism is, in effect, broken today. Almost all of us know that blatant scapegoating is wrong, and we almost universally castigate the practice. So no one can really get away with overt and extreme scapegoating anymore.
But there’s a problem.
We still desire mimetically—we can’t help it. We still feel empty and long for a sense of fullness and identity. We still mimetically desire the objects that others want, and we still believe that this will give us fullness, being, identity and purpose.
Because of these elements of our humanity, we still experience mimetic contagion, which leads to the loss of differentiation, the loss of identity, and violent competition fueled by a scarcity mentality. But now we no longer really have the scapegoating mechanism to ease our violent tension and give us a renewed sense of identity.
We don’t know how to fill our emptiness and embrace fullness of being.
So, we continue to act violently. Girard writes, “Violence is what structures our collective sense of belonging and identities.” We are addicted to scapegoating and do everything we can to try to conceal it because we know it’s wrong.
One of the most common ways we act violently is through persecution.
“The Sacrifice of Iphigenia”
We, the Persecutors
We love to persecute people—usually groups of people—although we rarely recognize ourselves as persecutors.
Persecutors always believe they are doing righteous work. We believe that the group which we persecute is blameworthy and the cause of the major problems in our lives and the world. So we set out to suppress or crush the enemy.
We see ourselves as the righteous defenders of some world order we hold dear, and this becomes our identity.
So, for example, the “cool kids” persecute the “uncool kids” in middle and high school. The cool kids tell themselves a story about how the uncool kids are so annoying or gross or offensive that they are bringing violence on themselves. Really, we are just helping the “uncool kids” get their act together, the cool kids they tell themselves.
But really, they are just caught up in mimetic desire, longing to fill their emptiness through adulation from their peers, status, and the awards of high school prestige. They persecute the uncool kids to cement this coveted identity.
Or as another example, some people may believe that that their nationality or religion (or interpretation of their religion) or political party is co-extensive with God. In this case, they mimetically desire the status of “the theologically right ones” or “the best country in the world” or “the Chosen” or “the right party”.
When this become their identity, they deem as inferior or dangerous people of other nationalities or religions or political parties. And any kind of conflict with this other group can lead to acts of persecution.
So while the scapegoating mechanism is broken today, we still see persecutory acts like bullying, racial violence, nationalist violence, and religious and political aggression. These persecutory acts can take the form of physical, emotional, or social violence, but at their roots is mimetic rivalry which results in people creating an “us-them” view of the world in the search for identity.
Jacques-Louis David, ‘The Intervention of the Sabine Women” (Thanks to my friend, Ali, who knew the artist and title for this painting, as I originally couldn’t find it. Check out her blog The Mindful Gardener. You will be delighted.)
Zombie Life, Zombie Politics, Zombie World
Here is a strange paradox about me: I don’t really like watching violence on TV. I regularly leave the room during extremely violent scenes because I cannot deal with them emotionally. Generally speaking, I am a pacifist.
Despite this, I am fascinated by zombie shows (movies or television) and although there are some extremely violent ones I can’t stomach, a good zombie show is one of my favorite shows to watch.
Because I am increasingly convinced that zombie shows are really stories about mimesis, mimetic contagion, and the search for an alternative to our violence addiction.
Here is the thing about zombies: Zombies are perpetually starving. They perpetually feel empty. And the only thing that seems to satiate their hunger and temporarily fill their emptiness is devouring other people—and only living people, at that. Zombies are addicted to violence against people.
Here’s the bad news.
Unless we figure out how to fill our hunger and practice mimesis (which we inevitably do) without various forms of scapegoating, we become addicted to violence, too. We become zombies imitating other zombies.
And I think this is why so many zombie movies are really dark or depressing. We look around the world and see people engaging in acquisitive mimesis, persecution, and other mimetic violence, and we fear that we can never learn to be different. But I think we can. Girard does, too.
So how do we learn not to become zombies?
The Moment of Grace: Learning Not to Be Zombies
Is it actually possible to escape mimetic contagion and the inevitable ensuing violence? Can we learn not to be zombies? There is good news: Yes.
Girard suggests that we can escape patterns of mimetic contagion and violence when we come to see ourselves as a persecutor, and we learn to disavow this practice. This realization and decision is a moment of Grace, and it is a moment that anyone can experience.
What does it mean to recognize ourselves as persecutors and to disavow the practice? Girard does not spell this out in detail, but I would like to suggest several things it might mean.
First, it means that we recognize that we cannot help but imitate others and that if we imitate people who are addicted to a clear “us-them” vision of life (which is a persecuting vision), this eventually leads to different forms of physical, emotional, and social violence cleverly disguised as righteous indignation. (Remember, all persecutors think of themselves as righteous).
Second, it means that we learn to imitate in a way that does not result in mimetic violence. To do this, we must imitate something that leads us beyond ourselves into an authentic fullness of being, rather than deforming us into a narrow, scarcity-driven pursuit of identity.
And this is important. Primarily desiring objects (or people viewed as objects) will always push us into a narrow, scarcity-driven pursuit of identity. (I have written more about this here.)
Of course, desiring God and imitating God and Christ can lead to this fullness of being. However, Girard suggests that even for people who do not believe in God or are not specifically Christian, there are many things we can desire that will lead us to this greater fullness of being, such as desiring the good of another, community, creativity, and love.
Rebecca McAdams, a student of Girard, suggests that “Positive mimetic desire works out to recapitulate the Golden rule: we desire for the other what the other desires for her or himself”.
Girard suggests that learning to imitate these desires can actually cause a positive contagion in which everyone begins to desire the good of other, as well as greater community, creativity, and love. I would argue that such positive contagion is behind the spread of small acts of kindness like people sharing encouraging memes on social media or a chain of people in line at a coffee shop paying for the coffee of the person behind them.
I also believe it is the force behind all liberating social movements, especially non-violent ones which catalyze social change through acts of solidarity, compassion, and courageous resistance. Girard echoes this sentiment when he says of mimetic desire that “It can be murderous, it is rivalrous; but it is also the basis of heroism, and devotion to others, and everything”.
Third, we learn not to be zombies when we refuse to form our identity through punishing other people, and we eschew all forms of an “us-them” mentality. We embrace a higher vision of the world.
This leads me to closing point.
Does Repudiating Mimetic Violence Entail Accepting Everything and Just Being Nice?
Repudiating the “us-them” mentality that accompanies mimetic violence does not entail that we now accept everyone’s behavior. It does not entail that we fail to criticize or punish reprehensible acts. It does not entail that we fail to differentiate ourselves from people who act reprehensibly. It does not entail that we stop acting in self-defense to protect ourselves and others (something which can sometimes entail certain forms of violence).
There are people in the world who do bad, evil and reprehensible things: Girard would suggest that these immoral acts are fueled by negative mimetic contagion. Continuing with my zombie analogy, I would suggest that these people are infected by a zombie virus, with which we all have the potential to become infected.
Zombie viruses always require containment, but in seeking to contain zombie viruses, we must remember our humanity and the humanity of those infected with the disease.
In most (but not all) zombie movies, zombies are portrayed as hopelessly lost, infected by a disease from which they cannot recover. Girard’s theory teaches us that we all have the possibility of being infected by a zombie virus, and through Grace, we all have the capability of being cured of our disease.
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 Thomas E. Reynolds. “The Creative Desire for God: Mimesis Beyond Violence in Monotheistic Religions?”, pg. 174.
 Ibid, Pg. 62-63.
Rene Girard. The One by Whom Scandal Comes. Michigan State University Press: 2014, pg. 3-4.
Ibid, pg. 5.
 Rene Girard. The One by Whom Scandal Comes, pg. 31.
 Rene Girard. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. James G. Williams, trans. Orbis: 2012, pg. 156
 Thomas E. Reynolds “The Creative Desire for God: Mimesis Beyond Violence in Monotheistic Religions?”, pg 181
 Rene Girard, The One by Whom Scandal Comes, pg. 60
 Rene Girard and Rebecca McAdams. ”The Goodness of Mimetic Desire.”, Pg. 62-63.
 We imitate these desires by imitating people who exemplify these behaviors. This may be people we know personally, or it may be great leaders like Christ or MLK.
 Rene Girard and Rebecca McAdams. “The Goodness of Mimetic Desire”, pg. 182.
 Rene Girard. The One by Whom Scandal Comes, pg. 62-63
 Rene Girard. The One by Whom Scandal Comes, pg. 62-63.