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.

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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 them: “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.

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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.

***

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.

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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.

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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