The events that have unfolded in the United States during the first nine days of 2021 have been troubling and sad, to say the least.
I’ve spent more time in the past 72 hours listening to commentary than I normally allow myself in the course of an entire month. I felt that I had to, though, because this has been the playing-out-in-the-real-world of everything I’ve been writing about for the past two years. I take no pleasure in that.
I have noticed a deafening silence on one particular issue (which we’ll get to momentarily). The “experts” are looking past it. Or perhaps they have simply overlooked it because it has to do with human nature—something we seem to be in the process of trying to obliterate.
Perhaps this thing that I am referring to is too close for us to see properly. It’s more than close: it’s inside of us. And in a society filled with people who have little capacity for self-reflection—who seek technological or political solutions to every human problem—it’s no surprise that we’ve missed it.
What is this thing? Our propensity for imitation.
Not just any kind of imitation. Rather, the secret, sophisticated, and dangerous form of imitation that the social scientist René Girard called mimesis.
We have to strip away all of the tangled knots of moral complexity here (and there are plenty of them) until we get back to first principles—especially human principles—or I fear we’ll continue to see all of the symptoms without ever understanding the disease.
Many of the people I’ve listened to are getting themselves deep into the weeds—talking about things such as how to apply the first amendment, the moral responsibility of private companies, or structural changes to the communications industry. Those are all important discussions to have. But they are jumping ahead—to the “how to fix it” stage, without taking the time to sink down into reality and really understand what “it” is.
The most important questions right now are human questions, not regulatory or even political questions.
One human question, in particular, haunts me: What effect will Twitter’s decision to ban Trump have on the mimetic escalation of desire? On the desire to use violence in other to vanquish the “Other”?
The most eye-opening and throat-swallowing part of that first hour after the ban was hearing how many thoughtful people on both sides had a shiver go down their spine—yet, at the same time, the event became a meme-able object of laughter to many others. Why these two very different reactions?
We’ll get to the psychology of mimetic violence toward the end of this (relatively) short piece.
First, I will admit that Twitter’s decision seemed to me like a ‘nuclear option’—it inflames the very aggression it claims to prevent and unleashes a Pandora’s box of potential retaliation. We are imitative creatures, and few things are more mimetically seductive than anger and violence.
Below is a depiction of the nodes of a social network called Weibo—China’s equivalent of Twitter—showing how quickly various emotions spread on the app during a 6-month research period in 2010. The four emotions are joy (green), sadness (blue), disgust (black), and anger (red).
State Key Laboratory of Software Development Environment, Beihang University. Rui Ran, Ke Xu, and Jichang Zhao. “Higher Contagion and weaker social ties mean anger spreads faster than joy in social media.
In their highly cited paper, the Chinese research team reached the following conclusion: weaker social ties between people allow anger to spread faster—and likely more mimetically—than other emotions. Aggression is highly contagious. And it is most contagious when people have weak ties between them, when they are isolated, when they are alone.
It’s early 2021, and the pandemic is raging. Many people are alone. Many people are scared. Tension was already at a fever pitch. And given the actions of Jack Dorsey this week, it’s hard to imagine that fever not rising. If we were at 102-103° F before, we’re now about to enter the danger zone of brain-melting.
Except that we won’t see it. With the ban from Twitter (and other platforms following suit), the heat is simply going to go underground, where the pressure will continue to build until it eventually pops.
The question I’m concerned with here is not whether the tweets in question were indeed an incitement of violence, or whether Twitter had the right to ban Trump. They certainly did. The question is whether Twitter’s action was in itself an incitement of violence—and whether it might lead to a form of it (escalating, mimetic violence) that could be even worse than the alternative.
A precedent was clearly set by the ban. But what kind of precedent? It’s more dangerous than we suppose. It’s not merely a precedent for regulating speech. There’s more going on.
We can sit behind the plate and call balls and strikes. But it would be foolish and short-sighted to do so if there is a tectonic shift—a massive earthquake—happening directly under the stadium we’re playing in. That’s what it feels like to me.
So I’m not going to get into the specifics of the Twitter ban. Instead, I would like to draw attention to the mimetic aspect of human nature and how powerful it is even in the most trivial of actions—a handshake or an email correspondence. You can extrapolate from there.
For a mimetic action, there is not an equal and opposite reaction. There is a similar yet unequal reaction. And we should rightfully fear what it will be.
When some people learn about René Girard’s emphasis on imitation as a fundamental driver of human behavior—perhaps the primary driver of human behavior—their immediate reaction is often skepticism. It’s clear that humans imitate. But could it really be that pervasive, that important?
I am going to use extremely simple examples here because I believe we can only understand the all-encompassing role of imitation (it is a hyperobject, in my view) if we understand just how pervasive it is even at the micro-level.
In his book The Whom By Whom Scandal Comes, René Girard uses the example of a handshake to illustrate how-deep rooted mimesis is rooted in human behavior.
A handshake, like much of social life, is a ritual of imitation. I extend my hand. You extend yours. We grasp each other’s hand and give a slight squeeze and a pump, trying to match intensity. It’s very complicated. So complicated, in fact, that we notice the slightest difference.
Let’s say that a friend introduces me to someone supposedly “important” at a banquet. He’s around my age and has similar interests (he’s interested in Georgian wine and how The Rule of Benedict is the most advanced organizational psychology in history.) I’m excited. Finally, someone who might understand me.
The introduction is made. I extend my hand courteously, with a smile, looking the guy in the eye. But something happens that catches me off guard—he isn’t making eye contact. He turns away as if uninterested and leaves me hanging for a second before feebling grabbing my hand while looking at something over my shoulder.
Within a millisecond, my nervous system is sending signals that the ritual isn’t going as planned. The message this guy sent me (at least in my mind) is that he’s too good for me. (Never mind the fact that our man simply got distracted because he saw an old friend—and he didn’t see me extend my hand at first.)
Immediately, there’s a shift. Instead of him imitating my gesture of a handshake, I start imitating him. I match what I perceive to be his coolness.
To make sure that he knows that his slight didn’t go unnoticed, I go a few degrees cooler. When he returns his attention to me, I’m now talking with my arms folded on my chest, hands off-limits, brow furrowed, giving curt answers to things and trying my best to look more important—important enough that this jackass knows that I’m worthy of a good, solid, old-fashioned handshake that signals respect.
For his part, he can’t figure out why I seem to have something against him from the very start. He narrows his eyes at me, thinking about how much Midwest accents (like mine) annoy him.
In response to my coolness, he turns his nose up and gives the friend standing next to him a slight smirk.
My attitude toward him—through what I perceived to be his attitude toward me—has turned into a ridiculous game of one-upmanship. We are imitating one another’s aggressiveness. We’re imitating aggression.
“We suppose that there is nothing more normal, more natural than this reaction, and yet a moment’s reflection will reveal its paradoxical character,” wrote René Girard. He continues:
“If I decline to shake your hand, if, in short, I refuse to imitate you, then you are now the one who imitates me, by reproducing my refusal, by copying me instead. Imitation, which usually expresses agreement in this case, now serves to confirm and strengthen disagreement. Once again, in other words, imitation triumphs. Here we see how rigorously, how implacably mutual imitation structures even the simplest human relations.”
Every day, each of us takes social cues from our friends and colleagues that can be easily be misinterpreted and provoke a mimetic reaction. Our “default mode” is to respond to violence with violence, however small and passive-aggressive the provocation might’ve been.
A simple interaction with a stranger at a cocktail party who doesn’t reciprocate our handshake can leave us sour all night. We may even respond with aggression when we are introduced to that person via email a week or two later.
Which brings us to our next topic.
A quick reflection on the way that most of us answer emails can shed more light on the issue. In addition to being a form of communication, emails are guided by strict rules. They, too, are a ritual of imitation.
Good email responses, we are told, should match the tone and style of the original sender. The best communicators all know this.
A good bartender, for example, is not the one who is a bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed, over-the-top-friendly conversation maker with all guests; she is the bartender who matches the mood of each of her individual guests (in other words, she imitates it) and adapts her service and communication accordingly. If I sit down with my iPad to read or write at a wine bar (something I do, or did, rather frequently…) and am clearly immersed in my book, a good bartender keeps the conversation to a minimum.
Emails are trickier because we are looking through an impenetrable wall of insinuation and suggestion, trying to decipher behind every string of characters what the other person wants.
Consider the following situation. I send my colleague a note to check-in on progress for an upcoming deadline. “Hey Susan, how is the project coming? When do you expect to have a draft?” She gives me a one-word response:
Wait a second. I addressed her by name, but she didn’t address me by name. And she used a period after it. She must want me to leave her alone. She also didn’t answer my first question about how the project is coming.
In response, I imitate what I perceive to be her level of irritation with me by showing her who’s boss (after all, I am the CEO).
Dear Susan: How is the project going? What time on Thursday? Have you also filed the report that I asked you to last week?
Notice that I’m now using her first name again followed by an overly formal salutation and a colon (kind of awkward…) to show my displeasure with her informality toward me. I imitate her perceived aggression to make a point—but I go a step further. I carbon copy her direct superior and someone from HR on my response.
You know the rest. This leads only to anxiety and conflict unless the two of us are able to sit down and de-escalate.
It turns out that Susan was just swamped with work, her husband had just dropped a child on her lap, and she accidentally left out an exclamation mark (!) and a dancing emoji (💃) that she meant to include after her “Thursday” response.
But the die has been cast. We’re already in a mimetic conflict.
I realize that handshakes and emails are rather trivial compared with the events of this past week. But if we can’t see this dynamic playing out at the societal level, it’s because we can’t even see it playing out in our daily lives.
Nobody ever believes that they’re the ones who initiated the kind of mini-violence in the handshake or the email exchange, or in any of the thousands of other opportunities for silly mimetic rivalries that we may experience on a daily basis.
Our violent response is always a response to what we perceived as the violence of the other. We never think of ourselves as the aggressor. The other side always started it. We are simply “drawing boundaries” and reciprocating—following the lex talionis, the law of an eye for an eye.
When it comes to violence, our violence is always “good” violence; the other’s violence is always “bad” violence. Ours is justified and necessary to prevent further violence; the other’s is always an incitement. If you listen to how partisan people talk, those on each side clearly believe this about the other side.
In doing so, they are returning violence for violence while simultaneously justifying their own behavior. And we’ll see in a future edition of this newsletter why that never ends well.
The ending to the Trump Twitter ban is yet to be written.
What can we do today? We do have the freedom to choose not to respond in kind to every provocation. It starts with simply being aware that we are, by default, extremely mimetic creatures.
And even when we’re not being provoked, it still matters. We can choose not to respond in kind to the nonchalance and laziness that surrounds us—the mediocrity that cries out for transcendence, but which is all too easy to placate with little effort.
In Silicon Valley, where I cut my teeth, not everyone decided to start sending trite, unimaginative, prosaic emails in all lowercase letters, feigning, busyness and self-importance, at the same time. They learned this behavior mimetically.
So faced with a passive-aggressive—or simply lazy—email, here’s one way to be anti-mimetic: respond with something respectful, thoughtful, beautiful.
You will have broken the cycle, even for just a moment. And life, after all, is lived as a series of moments.