Violence and the Sacred: College as an incubator of Girardian terror

I’ve written about René Girard’s ideas once before, to try my hand at identifying mimetic crises in the world of George R. R. Martin. Today I’d like to apply Girard’s ideas to another world in which people are driven to conflict over small differences and personal slights.

(Rather than attempting to explain Girard’s ideas in depth, I leave concessions to the reader, and point instead to discussions from the Raven Foundation and the IEP. If you’re looking for a quick introduction to the life of Girard, take a look at his obituary in the Times.)

Girard presents a model of human conflict that is Shakespearean, not Marxist. That is, he thinks that people are not engaged in class struggle, in which proletarians unite against the bourgeoisie. Instead, people reserve horror and resentment for people most like themselves. Consider the origin of the ancient grudge laid out in the opening line of Romeo and Juliet: “Two houses, both alike in dignity…” The Montagues and Capulets fight not because they’re so different but because they’re so alike.

The closer we are to other people—Girard means this in multiple dimensions—the more intensely that mimetic contagion will spread. Alternatively, competition is fiercer the more that competitors resemble each other. When we’re not so different from people around us, it’s irresistible to become obsessed about beating others. Girard’s framework vastly improves Freud’s phrase “the narcissism of small differences.” It’s also a framework for Kissinger’s quip: “Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.”

Where should we expect Girard’s predictions for mimetic crises to run most rampant? At places where values are confused and people are much the same. To me, that description best fits one place in particular: the American college.

In the US, where I attended college, nearly everyone starts undergrad in the same way: After graduating from high school at age 18. When they start school, few people have a clear sense of the career path they’ll set on; it’s rare to meet a person who has high confidence of what they’ll end up doing, and even rarer to see someone who actually follows that plan. Instead, people happily confess that they don’t know what they’ll do, and that they’ll figure it out by trying different classes and by joining clubs, sports teams, fraternities, and so on.

None of this is bad, really. Unless you’re a Girardian.

It’s hard to construct a more perfect incubator for mimetic contagion than the American college campus. Most 18-year-olds are not super differentiated from each other. By construction, whatever distinctions any does have are usually earned through brutal, zero-sum competitions. These tournament-type distinctions include: SAT scores at or near perfection; being a top player on a sports team; gaining master status from chess matches; playing first instrument in state orchestra; earning high rankings in Math Olympiad; and so on, culminating in gaining admission to a particular college.

Once people enter college, they get socialized into group environments that usually continue to operate in zero-sum competitive dynamics. These include orchestras and sport teams; fraternities and sororities; and many types of clubs. The biggest source of mimetic pressures are the classes. Everyone starts out by taking the same intro classes; those seeking distinction throw themselves into the hardest classes, or seek tutelage from star professors, and try to earn the highest grades.

There’s very little external intermediation, instead all competitive dynamics are internally mediated. The prizes are so obvious. The big companies that come to career fairs soothingly assure high-status jobs; the speakers at convocation tell us that we too will become as successful as them one day; our peers hold leadership positions at clubs, get internships at exciting companies, and earn those chances to have lunch with the university’s president.

The lack of external mediation explains why objects of desire on campus can be seen to have such high worth. And why certain leadership positions on campus are heavily fought over, even though they don’t seem to have much influence. It also helps to explain why so many people enter into only a handful of fields.

Mimetic contagion magnifies small fights by making people focus on each other. These processes follow their own logic until they reach conclusions that look so extreme to the outside world. Once internal rivalries are sorted out, people coalesce into groups united against something foreign. These tendencies help explain why events on campus so often make the news—it seems like every other week we see some campus activity being labeled a “witch hunt,” “riot,” or something else that involves violence, implied or explicit. I don’t care to link to these events, they’re so easy to find. It’s interesting to see that academics are increasingly becoming the target of student activities. The Girardian terror devours its children first, who have tolerated or fanned mimetic contagion for so long.

Girard’s main mechanism for renunciation of metaphysical desire doesn’t seem to have a big presence on most campuses. I think that’s also the case for secular society in general. (As an aside, I’ve started to become curious if the rationality movement, broadly defined, is the secular answer to Girardian renunciation.) I invite Girard scholars to tell me how or if he saw secular ways for conflict to be resolved.

No one has ever asked me how one should escape mimetic contagion on campus. Still here’s my answer: If one must go to college, I advise cultivating smaller social circles. Instead of going to class and preparing for exams, to go to the library and just read. Finally, not to join a fraternity or finance club, but to be part of a knitting circle or hiking group instead.

***

René Girard’s most famous student did not take the threat of mimetic contagion lightly when he ran a company. When Peter Thiel was the CEO of PayPal, he tried to minimize mimetic contagion, possibly because the company was hiring a bunch of kids who’ve been socialized in elite colleges. Keith Rabois has recounted that as a manager, Thiel allowed everyone to work on one thing and one thing only. Rabois couches in terms of ridding distractions, but it’s clear that this is good Girardian practice. People will not feel mimetic envy if they cannot look at the work of others.

Thiel’s comments on management more generally are worth reading. The Girardian themes are clear if one looks for it: “If you were a sociopathic boss who wanted to create trouble for your employees, the formula you would follow would be to tell two people to do the exact same thing. That’s a guaranteed formula for creating conflict. If you’re not a sociopath, you want to be very careful to avoid this.”

From the same interview, here are his entertaining remarks on business schools: “The conceit of the MBA is that you don’t need to have any substance at all. It’s just this management science, and you can apply that equally well in a software company or an oil drilling company or a fashion company or a rocket company. That’s the bias I’d want us to cut against. So for the degree, people would learn substantive things and then on the side you’d pick up some business skills. But you wouldn’t treat the business degree as the central thing.

“I think one challenge a lot of business schools have is they end up attracting students who are very extroverted and have very low conviction, and they put them in this hothouse environment for a few years—at the end of which, a large number of people go into whatever was the last trendy thing to do. They’ve done studies at Harvard Business School where they’ve found that they largest cohort always went into the wrong field. So in 1989, they all went to work for Michael Milken, a year or two before he went to jail. They were never interested in Silicon Valley expect for 1999, 2000. The last decade their interest was housing and private equity.”

***

I haven’t watched much TV recently, but the new show I’ve liked best is *Big Little Lies* on HBO. Rich suburban moms, with desires mediated by their children, are incited towards violence against each other in gorgeous Monterey, California. Who can resist?

The parents have drawn their battle lines by the first episode. The Girardian themes get heavier and heavier throughout the series, until the astonishing finale, which culminates in violent murder. Mimetic contagion races through the group of mothers, who battle over progressively higher stakes, until the show ends with communal violence against a mysterious outsider, the death of whom unites the community in frolicking harmony. The murder takes place during a masquerade-like public performance, over flames, alcohol, and music; the perpetrators each have a hand in violence; scenes of a beating are interspersed with the breaking of Pacific waves on rocks in all directions. That murder unites feuding groups under a lie, and previously lingering questions are papered over, without resolution nor need of one.

Isn’t this a fairly compelling depiction of a Girardian war and peace? I want to only gesture at another question: The parents make every effort to spare pain from the children, but isn’t it the case that the kids see things more clearly than the adults?

I liked the show a lot. Apart from the Girardian themes, the shots of Monterey are beautiful, the characters are compelling, and there are many funny moments. Do watch.

***

Here’s an article about how literal memes spread on campus. Apparently many colleges have Facebook meme groups sharing jokes particular to that school. The dankness of one’s meme reflects the high quality of the school.

Elsewhere in meme culture on campus, Harvard recently rescinded offers to at least ten incoming freshmen because they shared memes that were either sexually explicit or racist. This story is just too good. The college set up a Facebook group for the Class of 2021. People started to befriend each other and created a meme group. Unsatisfied with the lightheartedness of most memes, some members started a “dark” group, which created these unacceptable memes. To gain membership in this dark group, first one had to post a risqué meme in the general group.

It’s amazing that even before they met each other, the class of ’21 was already testing its members’ limits, sorting themselves into elite sections, and trying to outdo each other in explicitness. Instead of being focused on real goals, their gaze is directed at each other, and each concentrates on one-upping the previous go. Internally every move is so compelling; externally the situation turns too extreme.

***

If one is a Girardian, then there is perhaps no greater catastrophe than the growing tendency of the American meritocracy to be incubated in elite colleges. Is it not worth fretting that the people running the country are coming in higher numbers from these hothouse environments at a young age, where one is inflamed to compete over everything and where tiny symbolic disputes seem like life and death struggles? How much of the governing class has fully adopted this attitude, and to what extent can we see our recent political problems to be manifestations of this tendency?

I want to make a point that I’ve brought up once before: Because acts of youth are more easily recalled, our future elites will be made up of people who’ve managed to keep their records unsullied. What happens when most records of our life are accessible via Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, or blogs? I think that makes it so that our future leaders will be selected for whether they were willing to be really boring in their 20s, who have no recorded indiscretions that might derail a Senate confirmation. Are these the people we want to be governed by?

I liked this piece by Mihir Desai: “The Trouble with Optionality,” published in the Harvard Crimson: “The Yale undergraduate goes to work at McKinsey for two years, then comes to Harvard Business School, then graduates and goes to work Goldman Sachs and leaves after several years to work at Blackstone. Optionality abounds!

“This individual has merely acquired stamps of approval and has acquired safety net upon safety net. These safety nets don’t end up enabling big risk-taking—individuals just become habitual acquirers of safety nets. The comfort of a high-paying job at a prestigious firm surrounded by smart people is simply too much to give up.”

***

I think mimetic contagion is worst in US colleges. In Canada, people apply to major in certain subjects; if they earn admission, it’s not so easy to switch, so there’s less of this intellectual loitering one finds on American campuses. And when I attended a German university, students told me that German 18-year-olds don’t usually go directly to university after high school. Instead, they take a year off to travel, work or volunteer. These experiences create difference and maturity, thus better inoculating people against mimetic contagion.

I wonder about graduate schools in the US. I think they’re more free from Girardian conflict, though I’m not sure by how much. The place where one expects people to be most susceptible to mimetic contagion—business school—is composed of people with somewhat distinctive starting points and end goals. Those who start MBA programs usually vary more by age and have a clearer idea of what they want, at least relative to undergrads.

I submit that anyone who accepts the ideas of Girard should be extremely wary of being in anything resembling the college environment. It might be too much to ask high school students to read I See Satan Fall Like Lightning or Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. But anyone who’s familiar with these works ought to feel grand Girardian horror to contemplate exposure to these dynamics in college-like corporate environments or graduate schools.

An unhappy study shows that one in two PhD students experiences psychological distress, and that one in three is at risk of a common psychiatric disorder.

***

The two best novelistic modelers of mimetic desire are Marcel Proust and Stendhal. (And as I’ve written before, George R. R. Martin isn’t bad either.) I feel that I’d have said this even if the triangular desire in these novels weren’t pointed out by Girard himself.

Having Girard in the back of one’s mind is helpful for reading Proust in particular. His novels are like agonized letters. At first I found his transitions bewildering and his anecdotes too tedious to follow. Afterwards I felt a craving for his daily epiphanies, which really cannot be rivaled in their acuity.

It’s fun to read Proust with a particularly Girardian question in mind: Does our narrator ever have spontaneous desires of his own? Each episode of his various obsessions starts with someone else pointing out that a particular person is worth acquaintance or a piece of art is worth appreciation. The best examples are the actress La Berma and the painter Elstir. Once someone whispers to our narrator that he is in the presence of an exceptional talent, he feels the greatest sense of worship. If there are any instances in which our narrator comes to desire without a mediator, I’ve yet to find them.

At some other point I’d like to write about Girard and Stendhal, as well as more generally the validity of extracting lessons of mimetic contagion from literature.

***

I can only imagine one place that suffers from mimetic contagion in a worse way than the American college: the orchestra pit. Musicians compete fiercely to play pieces in which their part is slightly different from another playing the same instrument. Why fight so hard for the right part when differences are so slight? The Girardian explanation makes the most sense.

Here are other factors that make the Girardian dynamics more extreme: Musicians are in incredibly close physical proximity in high-pressure moments. They usually don’t have a great deal of say in determining repertoire. Most parts have only a few seconds in the spotlight during any symphonic work. Unless one makes it as a soloist, most musicians are basically commodities, facing all the economic conditions that the status entails.

***

To me, America’s greatest feature is that it allows people to embrace mimesis or free themselves from it. Society allows people of both types to thrive. It’s not like in other countries, where people are forced to socialize in certain ways or find it too easy to extricate themselves from society.

I want to make clear that mimetic tendencies aren’t all bad. Two types of people have the greatest capacity for learning: Those who are intensely mimetic and those who are incapable of mimesis.

Thiel gets at the learning capacity of the latter when he makes a point about Aspergers in the Valley: “If you’re less sensitive to social cues, then you’re less likely to do the same thing as everyone else around you. If you’re interested in making things or programming computers, you’ll be less afraid to pursue these activities single-mindedly and thereby become incredibly good at them.”

Meanwhile, those who are susceptible to mimesis can be excellent learners too. They’re better able to pick up social cues than anyone else, and they have a greater capacity to please. Mimetic ability manifests in “conscientiousness,” such a popular trait these days. They have a clearer sense of who successful models are, and they have the greatest eagerness to learn from them.

I submit that the key to success is to be aware of one’s tendencies, either to be very mimetic or not at all. Then one can harness these tendencies to maximize learning, and not spend all one’s time indulging solitary whims or be governed by mimetic contagion. It’s possible that the greatest possible amount of learning comes as a result of fluctuating between these extremes. And I feel that kind of fluctuation is possible only in America, not really anywhere else I’ve lived—Canada, China, Germany, and now Hong Kong.

***

A few last thoughts:

If you’re looking for an overview of René Girard’s work, I recommend Wolfgang Palaver’s primer.

The best case against my suggestion that college generates intense Girardian terror is the fact that most people remember their college years fondly. I concede that my analysis may be badly wrong. First, that I’m in error, in my analysis of Girard; second, that Girard is in error, in his analysis of the human condition; third, that more people are immune to mimetic contagion that this piece suggests; or fourth, that the warm light of memory makes people forget about these dynamics, so that they remember the peaks of what made college fun instead.

For academic year 2017-18, the school I attended—Rochester—will charge a $67,708 to incoming freshmen. At least I think that’s the case when I tally fees from this page. Curiously, the school offers breakdown of costs, but not their sum. That’s confusing because some fees are mandatory while others are not. That’s not the extent of total fees; the school mandates people to purchase health insurance, and if you take the one offered by the university, a freshman’s charge comes to a cool $70,000 a year. Other private schools are drifting to $70,000. For the upcoming academic year, Harvard’s billed costs are $65,609, Yale is at $66,900, Princeton is at $67,100. I’m sure you can find less well-ranked schools that present a higher bill.

A question: Can a contrarian really reject mimesis? One can only go against the crowd if one sees a crowd at all. Someone properly insulated from mimesis may not have a conception of a crowd.

Here’s an observation from Gonzalo Fernández de la Mora: ”One may admit to pride, avarice, lust, anger, gluttony, and laziness… There is only one capital sin no one admits to: envy.” Most New Yorker cartoons are Girardian, this one especially so: “It’s not enough that dogs succeed, cats must also fail.”

I’ll end with a quote from I See Satan Fall Like Lightning: “Mimetic desire enables us to escape from the animal realm. It is responsible for the best and the worst in us, for what lowers us below the animal level as well as what elevates us above it. Our unending discords are the ransom of our freedom.

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17 thoughts on “Violence and the Sacred: College as an incubator of Girardian terror

  1. Expanding administration, “customer-service” paradigm, and rising costs leveled power relations in US colleges, mostly at the expense of professors.

    While a common trope is that leveling of power relations is a good thing, Girardian conflict arises precisely in places where lines of hierarchy are not clearly drawn.

  2. Dear Dan,

    I feel seriously confused now, as if you and Girard were making such a basic mistake that you are probably too smart to make, which means the basic mistake may be mine.

    But basically: why mimetic competition for objects of desire, why not simply social status competition?

    Why do you and Girard take it for granted that people want the thing they claim to want instead of wanting social status?

    For example, why do you think Proust’s narrator really desires art, as opposed to desiring to look and feel like a sophisticated art connoiseur?

    I mean you seem to almost get it, when you say “It’s amazing that even before they met each other, the class of ’21 was already testing each its members’ limits, sorting themselves into elite sections, and trying to outdo each other in explicitness.”

    This is an as clear example for a desire of social status, being high in a dominance or prestige hierarchy, as it can be. So why do you consider it a mimesis of objects of desires? Why don’t you consider whatever “objects” they desire as simply tools for getting the real “object” of their desire: status, prestige, power?

    In short why do you think human desire is focused on external things, imitating teach others desire, instead of simply social status, winning, power, prestige, or at least feeling good about ourselves? i.e. why don’t you see the external object of desire as basically just bullshit, and see that it is really about desires about ourselves?

    • Dear reader,

      You’ve put your finger on the most important question when it comes to Girard. Are our desires really mediated by others?

      My understanding of Girard is quite limited, and I don’t want to make any grand claims on his views. With that caveat stated, I do think that there is a status issue here, and I believe that Girard has acknowledged it, though I don’t have a reference offhand.

      But I think your case is not antithetical to Girard’s at all. If you want status, you need to learn from others what gives you status, and that’s a social process. To gain what gives you status, first you have to look at what others want, even if your ultimate goal is status. You can replace the subject-mediator-object model of triangular desire with a subject-mediator-status model. You still need a mediator.

      • Yes, but apparently the Girardian model ignores the case when there is no object of desire beyond status. In this case the competition is simply in opinions, signals, without any identifiable object. And this is precisely what is happening in college, the whole social justice crazy.”I am so tolerant that I want to legalize all illegal immigrants.” “Really? I am so tolerant that I want completely open borders.” “Really? Well, I am so tolerant that I consider white people the cancer of Earth.”

        Or: “I am so tolerant I want completely equal rights for gays and transgender people.” “Really? I am so tolerant that I want to remove every aspect of heteronormativity from our culture.” “Really? I am so tolerant that I say cis people are scum.”

        In both of my examples, we had two desires of object in the first two sentences, quickly changing, and no object of desire in the third, just simply a desire for status via an opinion-signal.

        So while desires for things does work as a method for status competition, status competition can easily detach from it as well.

        The point is that you are very right to see these escalating some competitions everywhere. But the model of wanting the same thing seems too narrow. More often it is just basically about which group or person is cool or not.

        These articles are a good introduction: http://www.overcomingbias.com/tag/status

        For example when the debates around gay marriage raged, it was not about marriage being a desirable object and competing for it. Yes, it was an extremely clear case of imitation, of course, but not desiring the same thing. Rather the debates essentially boild down to who is cool and who is not ,they boiled down to boo/yay, who is high status who is low, the debates boiled down to gays yay vs. gays boo, Christians yay vs. Christians boo. And this seems to be a better model. Objects of desire are merely occasional methods for this imitational competition, status seems to be a more encompassing model of it.

        • The extreme social justice movement we are seeing today is a recent trend, while colleges have been around for a long time. I see the rise of the movement as closely linked to online social networking. You also see it outside of college — on Facebook, in some workplaces, on the street, and so on.

          It seems Dan is making a broader case that something about competitive nature of college may promote Girardian conflict of both the social justice kind and of other kinds, without saying that there is a need to focus exclusively on that movement. Girard did not write a lot about social justice movement, but I think he would say that it is a Christian-like cult of a victim except “weaponized” to the degree that it is no longer Christian. If you recall, Girard saw Christianity as a mechanism for resolving the mimetic rivalry. From that perspective, the social justice extremists are “conflict resolutionists” gone rogue or something like that.

          • yes, I’m really trying not to focus on current campus events. Instead this is about how college is constructed to be a Girardian nightmare in general.

      • My skepticism is exceeded by my ignorance of the original books by Girard. Yet, I have to ask , what proportion of those who seek status do so “mimetically”?
        Much status flows toward those who have intrinsic motives aligned with cultural values: many sports stars begin for a love of the game; being tall or beautiful is not (very) accessible to copy cats.
        To conclude – Originations of desire needn’t be social, since so much that we desire is much deeper than culture/fashion.

        • yes, and Girard distinguishes between “appetites” and “desires.” Appetites are more basic. We all want food, shelter, some other basic stuff. But desires for higher order objects are mediated.

  3. Doesn’t all this apply with even more force to high school? In college you have more opportunities to distinguish yourself by major, living space, where you’re from, then in high school. Maybe people enjoy college because mimetic competition actually begins to wane after peaking in high school?

    • Possibly yes, mimetic pressures may be worse in high school. But a Girardian might say that you have more opportunities to distinguish yourself, but they’re still fairly limited, and you’ve significantly broadened the pool of people you’re competing against. Much more thrilling and difficult to be on top of a larger heap.

    • A thought: though high school students are highly uniform in terms of geographic proximity and thus quite possibly socioeconomic status and all sorts of other things, the similarities only increase when one goes off to college. You are choosing a college, after all, so it doesn’t seem outlandish to presume that there are going to be groups of greater uniformity there.

      That said, my high school experience, being a participant in the gifted program, concentrated a bunch of students with similar traits — whether they were high or low achievers — and created a crucible for homeric struggle for primacy that would’ve made Nietzsche very proud.

      Skipping classes and going to the library is no defense: You meet the people sitting at your library table, and you’re off to the races…

  4. A fifth reason why people might remember their college years fondly, related to your fourth reason: perhaps when we have moments of success in environments of extreme mimetic contagion, we feel these successes more deeply than we do our more private successes, and so assuming we survive our years of peak Girardian terror, we’re going to remember it as the most intense period of our lives. Why intensity would leave a positive memory I’m not totally sure, maybe a wish to narrativize our lives / live an interesting story.

  5. Could you elaborate more on the following paragraph?

    And I feel that kind of fluctuation is possible only in America, not really anywhere else I’ve lived—Canada, China, Germany, and now Hong Kong.

    I’m very curious why you feel that way only in US?

    Thank you

    • I think that in some places you’re heavily socialized in certain ways, especially when you’re young, and it’s difficult to avoid these treatments from the family or society. And in other places, it’s easier to extricate yourself from society if you wish to be alone; people generally respect that tendency.

      My personal feeling is that in the US, you can choose as little or as much mimesis as you want. In a place like New York, you can engage in society as much as you like, there’s so much to do; or if you choose, to sequester yourself in libraries and art galleries and parks, you can do that too. It works in a smaller town as well. There’s a good mix of low-ish social expectations and many opportunities for social interaction.

  6. I stumbled across this via a Twitter link and already forget from whom. So it goes.

    I enjoyed this. I was not aware of Girard before this, save perhaps some passing references not really assimilated.

    I was struck by many elements but most of all by the final quote you offered. I appreciated the contrast Girard makes between the Bible and other myths, and his counter-Nietzschean use of Nietzsche. But my main thought throughout was not necessarily whether or not Girard’s categories were correct or sufficient, but “Do I want to be freed of that world, as he offers?”

    Do I want to live in a perfect world, even if perfection happens to match my own understanding of the term?

    That last quote suggests that Girard asked and answered that question for himself, too.

    Does that strike you as an errant reaction?

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