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Mimetic Theory and Facebook (April 20, 2018)

After steadfastly resisting for many years, I joined facebook a few weeks ago. We wanted to set up a facebook group for our church, and in order to be one of the moderators of the group, I had to set up a facebook account.

All I can say is “Wow!”

Not in a good way.

These last few weeks have convinced me even more that so much of social media is a complete and unadulterated waste of time.

I learned very quickly to ignore most of what I read. Much of it is inane. Much of it asks me to post more about myself than I’m comfortable doing. Some of it is people passing on “news feeds” which even the least amount of research will show that much of it is false. Other people post memes in a failed attempt at some kind of public discourse. And then there are the ads.

I’ve discovered that only about 1% of the stuff is worth reading, or liking, or sharing.

What particularly strikes me is reading through some posts and then clicking on the comments. The current pipeline debate is a good case in point. Person A posts a meme about how safe (or how dangerous) the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline will be, and urges everyone to support the efforts to build (or deny) the pipeline. Then the comments start. Much of the “debate” (I put it in air quotes because much of what is written in the comments can’t really be called a debate) is not about the merits of the pipeline, but about the character of the person who posted the original post.

In Latin, this is called an ad hominem attack. It’s a strategy which is used to avoid genuine engagement with the topic at hand; instead you attack the character, motive or other attribute of the person making the argument. We often see ad hominem attacks used by people opposed to religion; instead of debating the merits of faith, they attack people of faith as being weak–willed or weak–minded, or simply unable to deal with the reality of life and therefore seek a false consolation in their faith.

We’ve seen Donald Trump use this kind of attack as he tweets to vilify those who disagree with him.

Why do we do this kind of thing? Why use this kind of strategy?

Here’s where mimetic theory becomes useful. Mimetic theory was developed by Rene Girard (1923–2015). A French historian, anthropologist, literary critic, and philosopher of social science, Girard’s genius lay in noticing something vitally important and seemingly obvious but which had never before been recognized as important.

Girard developed what he called “mimetic theory” after the Greek word mimesis, which means “imitative” or “mimicy”. The theory is based on what the observable human tendency to either imitate others or to want what others have. Girard observed this across many different cultures.

Human beings naturally imitate the desires of other people. Have you noticed that? Obvious, isn’t it? We are all of us mimetic creatures, people who imitate others or want what they have.

One of the most obvious areas in which we can see this is in the advertising industry which works to activate our mimetic desire, with demonstrated success.

We also see mimetic desire operate in the use of violence. Certainly in physical violence—if you hit me, I’ll hit you back. The same thing with verbal violence—if you attack me, I’ll counter–attack. If you say something negative about me, I will naturally respond by saying something negative about you or your family or your faith or your …. well, you fill in the blank. “Oh yeah? So’s your momma!”

And so the cycle continues. It happens at an individual level. It also happens at provincial or national levels. Just witness the verbal battles between John Horgan and Rachel Notley about the pipeline. Or the comments section on facebook.

And so it continues.

Until someone stops the cycle.

Until someone apologizes.

Until someone does something to make it right.

Donald Trump (and tons of other politicians) claim to follow Jesus. But their words and actions betray them. They don’t seem very Christ–like to me. You know, like the Donald who says “Get even with people. If they screw you, screw them back 10 times as hard. I really believe that.” Because surely you remember that passage in the gospels where Jesus says, “If someone slaps you on the cheek, slap that clown on the other cheek even harder!”

Well not really. The Jesus I (imperfectly) try to follow teaches us to turn the other cheek … to walk the second mile … to love our enemies.

Here’s the value of mimetic theory. It claims that we will always imitate someone. That’s why Jesus says, “Follow me.” He knew that we need a model.

I understand that it’s hard not to fall into the cycle of violence. When you back down, they’ll just come after you harder. They’ll rub it in your face.

Maybe so.

But, if we keep doing that, the cycle never stops. Violence escalates.

The way of Jesus stops the cycle in its tracks.

And I know that’s the way I want to try and live.

So I’m not going to get sucked in by the facebook feuds. I’ll just shut off all my notifications.

Rev. Yme Woensdregt