Imagine for a moment a virus. A virus which begins claiming the lives of the frail and vulnerable across the world. It is a communicable disease that spreads like previous strains. But it catches the medical community off-guard and its presence is met with unanswerable questions from virologists and those whose certainty usually incite peace.
Within weeks of its inception, drastic announcements and decisions are made by world leaders for people’s safety. Every piece of news, commentary, announcements and ideation is published at the speed-of-light across the globe, into the hands of the populous. Uncertainty and angst skyrockets. The world economy plummets.
So why on earth are people literally fighting in supermarkets for toilet paper? Why are people stockpiling foods and waiting at check-outs for hours? The rational mind can understand a hand-sanitizer shortage. But why the mind-boggling endless stream of pics and reports of everyday adults fighting like toddlers in a kindergarten over the ONE white building block in a rainbow of options that every child all of a sudden wants… because… ummm… everyone wants it?
René Girard (1923-2015) was a French-born historian, literary critic, and philosopher of social science. His works and theory on ethical systems of desire have made their way across psychology, mythology, theology, sociology, economics, cultural studies, and philosophy. In short, this John Hopkins and Stanford University professor’s contribution to thought and theory runs deep and wide. Some of Girard’s more known insights centered around violence, mimesis and scapegoating – things we are witnessing today, on mass.
The cool thing about Girard’s insights are, once you know them, you’ll see them everywhere – and realise you always have. They are hidden in plain sight and are woven into the fabric of humanity’s countless tales, stories and myths. In particular, Girard’s work on Mimetic Desire explains why Cain killed his brother Able. Why people camp outside Apple stores for days for a new iPhone. Why toddlers fight over seemingly silly things and why supermarket shelves are pillaged for toilet paper. Mimetic Desire is part of who we are. We are mimetic creatures, that is. We copy and mirror (mime) one another.
I spent some time studying Rene Girard’s work a few years ago when looking for contributors to organisational sacrifice and am no Girardian scholar – but let me break the basics for you as easy and quickly as I can, and see what you think of it. I think it’s amazing.
The theory of Mimetic (mime-etic) Desire claims that human desire is imitated. Yes, copied. This means that desire is not some random independent phenomena. Instead, desire is mirrored. One might say it desire is contagious… like a virus.
Mimetic Desire happens at a pre-rational level. Neurological research suggest it is present in newborns and needs to be. And unless one stops and reflects on what fuels their own desires, they remain blind to this pre-conscious mechanism. In other words, most of us have no idea that our desires are second-hand. We basically lie to ourselves and romanticise that the desires we have, are totally our own. Sorry.
A number of well-established branches grow from the theory of Mimetic Desire. Most relevant to our toilet paper madness are the concepts of competitive and inherent scarcity (lack), triangular desire, and violence. Let me explain.
Basically, we beautiful humans, are hardwired to avoid lack. Lack of food, shelter, safety and contact causes us great fear and anxiety, at the deepest level of our psych. And understandably so. When there is an abundance, or perceived abundance of these things, we are generally, at peace. When there is genuine lack, or perceived lack, of the objects we desire – we tend to freak out.
So, what if there are lots of people and a lack of objects that they all desire? Keep in mind that desire and need are not the same here. Remember, most desire is caught and unexamined – from our desire for the latest clothes, car and phone to the sports medals we play for, food we eat, haircuts we get and famous people we want to marry. What if there is a perceived LACK of OBJECT(S) that EVERYONE DESIRES, and now you want it… for some reason?!?
To put it simply, LACK leads to ATTACK. When scarcity is unrealised and ungoverned, rivalry reigns. Sacrifice and violence manifest. Without realising it, we are all capable of irrational violence towards one another – either hard violence like murder – or soft violence like racism. We are all capable of sacrificing another person and their needs, to get what we (mimetically) desire, because we don’t want to miss out. Worse yet, when we consider Girard’s Scapegoat Mechanism, we justify the violence through unified blaming and make a monument of it, questioning anyone who blows the whistle or doesn’t bow the knee like the mob (but that’s another story).
Can this be fixed? Is there a cure? Girard and others agree that we can’t escape our mimetic nature. But we can mindfully work towards desiring peace. And when peace is desired over violence, we all win. And there will be enough toilet paper for everyone.
My hope, at this time, is that we’ll all pay close attention to our actions, desires and their outcomes. Don’t buy the lie of lack, at the expense of your neighbour. Be careful who you point the finger at. And please, wash your hands.