Violence and the sacred on campus

Dan Wang has an interesting piece, “Violence and the Sacred: College as an incubator of Girardian terror,” that you should read before you read this one, because I’m going to agree slightly and disagree slightly with it. He writes:

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.

I think he’s right about the way American colleges are homogeneous and the way homogeneity can create mimetic conflict, but that kind of mimetic conflict is also limited to a relatively small group and, in a political sense, they’re mostly activists (I argue something very similar in “Ninety-five percent of people are fine — but it’s that last five percent,” which is based on my experiences teaching college students). Ninety-five percent of college students are not that susceptible to mimetic contagion for many reasons, one important one being that, for the most part, they have no idea what’s going on (and I include myself when I was a college student and arguably now) and are more interested in self development, partying, getting a job, and getting laid than they are in mimetic competition for status-oriented pursuits.

That being said, I also suspect that, the richer the students and the society, the more prone we are to mimetic conflict. In the absence of real problems humans tend to invent ones. That, for example, is one of the more charitable readings of Trump as president: we’re so rich that we feel we can elect an unqualified buffoon to office and get away with it. If we felt we were facing real crises, we’d be warier of electing a buffoon.

Back to Wang:

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.

Remember, though, that the crazy campus protests and the abuse of the campus bureaucracy occurs among a small number of students at a small number of schools—to return to an earlier point, the students at Yale are rich and satisfied enough to go bonkers over Halloween costumes; students at community colleges are too worried about paying the rent. The vast majority of students respect and admire free speech and get the importance of free ideas. Those events that “so often make the news” make the news because they’re pretty uncommon, even at rich, well-marketed schools.

One problem campuses do have, however, is that the more reasonable students are often reluctant to challenge the crazier, noisier ones. And these days, contingent faculty (like myself) are reluctant to explicitly challenge the crazier and noisier ones, because when college administrators see a ruckus they mostly want that ruckus to go away, and one easy way to make it go away is to make sure there are no extra sections next semester. The student soon graduates and the adjunct goes away even sooner. Ruckus solved!

Don’t get me wrong—those events are bad and the administrators (and sometimes faculty) should stand up for the freedom to speak and think. But always think about the incentives facing the actors in a given situation when you start applying highly abstract moral reasoning from outside the situation.

Wang notes many of the ways that students engage in zero-sum competition:

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.

There’s a lot of truth there, but I’m not sure fraternities and sororities are good examples. There, I think the students are less in the grip of mimetic contagion and more in the grip of simple libido (which brings us to an easier supply-demand story and perhaps evolutionary biology story—as I argue at the preceding link). They have zero-sum qualities, but people can and do start new fraternities and sororities, and I don’t know that most fraternities and sororities have the kinds of hard caps that make them truly zero sum.

I’d say that the worst mimetic crises are actually experienced not by undergrads but by humanities grad students (Wang addresses grad students towards the end of his essay). In the humanities, there are almost no jobs after graduation. The field has become highly political in nature and grad school has become cotillion for eggheads. The dearth of jobs and challenges in getting them is one reason grad students are willing to do and think whatever their professors say: the students need to do everything right if they’re going to have an even remote chance of getting a real gig. Over time you get nonsense like most of “literary theory” and Alan Sokal debunkings.*

Science isn’t immune to mimetic crises, but at least scientists have the real world as a fairly objective measuring stick. From what I’ve observed, the humanities have the most serious crises, followed by the social sciences, and followed finally by the hard sciences. Business and law schools are probably somewhere near the rank of the social sciences (and Wang’s Thiel quotes about MBAs are great).

Then Wang shifts to talk about Big Little Lies, and his reading of the show is also excellent:

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?

I can! I watched a couple episodes and while the murder premise held my attention initially, the stultifying atmosphere of stupendously rich and childish idiots drove me away. It wasn’t funny enough to justify itself. In other words, I dislike it for some of the reasons Wang likes it. But seeing it through that Girardian lens makes me like it better, or at least understand it better. You could also do a good Girardian reading of the first season of UnREAL, which is my favorite recent TV show.

Then there’s this, which is just important and probably underrated:

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?

Among my friends I hear a common joke or refrain: “I could never run for office after last weekend.” Or: “I could never run for office after the pics I sent her.” Except it’s not really a joke (though in the age of Trump I begin to wonder how true it is: maybe the electorate is more accepting than I’d previously thought). And you know what? I could never run for office. I also have a terrible personality for politics, but many people who show political promise can’t run in a polarized world that remembers everything. Not until the culture changes.

I’m not a Girardian and whenever I’ve started his books I’ve felt torn in two: some passages and sections are brilliant and some are idiotic, and sometimes brilliance and idiocy are right next to each other. Is the latter the price of the former? I just looked for my copy of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, but I can’t find it and suspect I must have donated it somewhere along the way, assuming that I’d never read it again. My copy of Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World seems to have also disappeared.

Still, after the thousand words above, I do wonder if it would be a good idea to tell college students that they are susceptible to mimetic crises. There is no good mechanism for doing so right now, but the idea is a good one. I also favor explicitly telling students that some majors and paths to graduation are pretty bogus in terms of learning and are mostly there to keep students happy (they get a degree), professors happy (they get a job), and administrators happy (they get tuition money). One could at least conceive of colleges telling students to be wary of mimetic desire. One cannot conceive of them telling students to be wary of the incentives the college itself faces.

EDIT: I also thought, and maybe still think to some extent, that sexual attractiveness is not that subject to mimetic desire, at least among men. But while reading Henrich’s The Secret of Our Success I came across this passage, which supports the sexual aspects of mimetic desire (though not mimetic crises):

neuroscientists have examined the process by which people change their ratings of facial attractiveness in response to cultural learning. In one experiment, male participants rated 180 female faces on a seven-point scale from 1, unattractive, to 7, attractive. After each rating, they were then shown what they believed to be the average rating for that face by other men. In reality, however, on 60 random faces this rating was generated by computer to be 2 to 3 points higher or lower than the participants’ ratings. The rest of the time, the ‘average rating’ was calculated to be close to the participant’s own rating. Then, a half an hour later, participants underwent brain scanning while they rated all 180 faces again, though no average scores were provided this time. The questions are, how did seeing others’ attractiveness ratings influence their subsequent ratings of the same faces, and what was going on in their brains?

As usual, participants raised their attractiveness ratings when they saw higher averages from others and reduced them when they saw lower ratings. The brain scans reveal that seeing the different ratings of others altered their subjective evaluations of those faces. Combined with data from other similar studies, it appears that shifting to agree with others altered their subjective evaluations of faces. Combined with data from other similar studies, it appears that shifting to agree with others is internally (neurologically) rewarding and results in enduring neural modifications that change preferences or valuations. (265)

So we have at least one experimentally verified example of mimetic desire operating on men’s views of women. The faking of other people’s evaluations is a particularly nice touch!

This may also argue that we have much stronger incentives to manipulate user reviews than I’d previously thought. If so, that in turn applies we should not trust Amazon reviews that much.

* It’s still possible to find humanities articles that would make the kinds of moves that Wang does in his post: take someone interesting, comment on its relationship to some larger society, and tie it into some work of art in a novel-but-readable way. Today, though, that style of peer-reviewed article has mostly disappeared under an avalanche of bad writing and “theory.”

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