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The Romantic Lie is Dead
René Girard, mimetic desire, body painting, and elite peer pressure
Girard has increased in popularity over the past few years mostly due to the influence and prominence of one of his students: Peter Thiel.
A few basic ideas from Girard:
It is a ‘Romantic Lie’ that our desires are individual and self-directed
The truth is that our desires are externally mediated; you do not independently choose what you desire but mimic it from a model or your peers (this is perhaps most obvious in teens, who are simply inept at hiding the mimetic nature of their desires)
Society’s ability to manage mimetic violence (people mimicking each other’s desire for specific ‘objects,’ leading them to conflict) was historically mediated by the scapegoat mechanism
The scapegoat, often a singular individual, would be sacrificed for the benefit of the community; the scapegoat was viewed as powerful, ie. the individual who is sacrificed to stop the plague is an individual who is believed to be capable of conjuring pestilence
Girard argues that these sacrifices are the foundation of civilization and can be seen in mythological texts, ie. Romulus and Remus
This mechanism is no longer functional as we do not believe the scapegoat to be the genuine source of our problems, even if our in-group continues to demand sacrifices in the pursuit of catharsis
Girard argues that it is the Christian revelation which has broken the scapegoat mechanism—the Salem witch hunts are, historically, not novel but the norm—what is novel is that we now default to belief in the innocence of the scapegoat
A few weeks ago I attended a crazy party. My friends told me, “If you like this party, then you should go to Burning Man.” It was certainly not my scene, and I don’t see myself going to Burning Man, but I did have fun. One of the coolest parts of the party was that there was a professional body painter who was hired to paint the guests.
After a party-goer had finished getting painted, other attendees would give them a thumbs-up or go up and tell them that they looked awesome. As these individuals spread throughout the party, the line for the body painting grew. I was initially waiting in line but left to go dance…and I ended up returning to the line after seeing my friends’ body art. In the moment it was clear to me that my desire was mimetic, I desired the body art because others desired it and were placing value on it.
I ended up spending close to an hour in line to get this body painting. Considering it was during one of the best DJ sets of the evening and I was only there for another hour and a half, it was a costly decision. “Competition is for losers.” This selfie is pretty cool though!
Beyond the content itself, I believe that the Girard course has distinguished itself in a meta way from a theoretical alternative, say in a Master’s program or at a community college. The cohort’s selection bias and the course’s structure mitigate the costs of mimetic desire endemic to formal education.
The participants in the Girard course are, barring the odd exception, not students enrolled in academia. They are individuals of various backgrounds who are interested in continuing their education independently. They are all willing to pay more than several hundred dollars for a remote course, which promises no resulting credential.
Whereas, if you took this course in graduate school, you would be surrounded by other students who are all figuring out what the next step in their life is. They would likely be taking on student loans to enroll and would be anxious about the resulting job prospects. You would be competing with these peers to try to get one of the scarce and prized As in the course. You may all be amiable but this competition is inherent to the dynamic. You likely would end up coming to desire a certain employment opportunity purely as a function of the influence of your cohort, leading to conflict, or at least competition, over these scarce positions. With the Girard course, we are all enrolled for varied reasons and are generally able to avoid the downsides of this kind of mimetic desire.
I experienced the power of mimetic desire in academia first-hand, particularly through its sudden absence. During my undergraduate experience, I was surrounded by extremely competitive students—my peers had never seen a tournament that they couldn’t win, some of them still haven’t. Many of them are currently five years into careers in competitive fields: software engineer, investment banking, consulting, law, medicine…At times, I found myself wondering if I should be applying for summer internships at JP Morgan or Deloitte. I didn’t know what a consultant or an investment banker was but it seemed to be the prized desire of my peer group.
Why wouldn’t I want to be one?
Luckily for me, I ended up having a socially isolated (and honestly depressing, but invaluable) fifth year of undergraduate studies through the Take Five scholarship. During this year, I was separated from my peers who were of greatest influence on me and, at the least, had time to return to previous influences and identify desires that felt more aligned with my self-conception. After this break from my peer cohort, I decided to turn down the more lucrative job offer at Epic Systems to instead co-found iZone.
I’m living with no regrets so that feels like it was the right decision. It’s hard to imagine another path that could’ve taken me to this place that I’m so happy to be.
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