Ask any priest: envy is the least confessed sin, yet it is probably the most pervasive. It is so central to the human condition that covetousness is addressed seven times in the Decalogue. The last commandment (“or anything that belongs to your neighbor”) deals with it exhaustively. The key word in that tenth commandment, though, is neighbor. What is so important about the neighbor? It seems that we are most likely to notice the lives and goods of those who are closest and most like us—and that is where the danger lies.
Who are you more likely to envy? Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, with a net worth estimated at over $180 billion? Or, the person who works in the same line of work, from a similar background, who makes an extra $10,000 per year and always seems to take better vacations? The answer for everyone is the second person.
We have not yet grasped the implications of social media as an engine of desire—and especially of envy—in this way. Social media has now put us all in the peculiar position of suddenly being neighbors to practically everyone in the world. That is its seductive power. The platforms are not powerful because they elicit dopamine hits from the flashy red “new activity” notifications; they are powerful because they are for envy what a bordello is for lust: do you really think you can walk through the door without being affected?
Our Mimetic Predicament
No thinker in the past 100 years has done more to diagnose the modern world in my view than the French Catholic polymath René Girard, who spent nearly the last twenty years of his academic career at Stanford. Girard’s fundamental discovery is what he called “mimetic desire”—the notion that humans, being the most social and thus imitative creatures in the world, do not desire things independently and autonomously but through imitating the desires of others. People imitate other people, real or fictional, who act as (usually subconscious) models of desire. We all think our desires are products of our Imperial, Autonomous Selves (to paraphrase Richard John Neuhaus), yet that is an Enlightenment Lie—a Romantic Lie.
Our desires are generated and shaped in and through our relationships with other people, and with God. When it comes to our fellow humans, the phenomenon of mimetic desire creates powerful inclinations toward rivalry because the people we (unconsciously) take as models of our desire are simultaneously people we idolize and hate at the same time. They would not be models of desire to us if we did not somehow think they possessed some quality of being that we lacked; yet they are scandals to us because they stand in the way of our ever attaining it.
They are who they are, we are who we are. But most of us live with the frightening delusion that our happiness is to be found in some object of desire that our neighbor is blocking our path toward. And that is why we envy. Walker Percy addresses this “The Envious Self” in his masterpiece, Lost in the Cosmos:
THE ENVIOUS SELF (in the root sense of envy: “invidere,” to look at with malice): Why it is that the Self—though it Professes to be Loving, Caring, to Prefer Peace to War, Concord to Discord, Life to Death; to Wish Other Selves Well, not Ill—in fact Secretly Relishes Wars and Rumors of War, News of Plane Crashes, Assassinations, Mass Murders, Obituaries, to say nothing of Local News about Acquaintances Dropping Dead in the Street, Gossip about Neighbors Getting in Fights or being Detected in Sexual Scandals, Embezzlements, and other Disgraces
René Girard makes the same point far more succinctly:
More and more, it seems to me, modern individualism assumes the form of a desperate denial of the fact that, through mimetic desire, each of us seeks to impose his will upon his fellow man, whom he professes to love but more often despises.
I have been thinking about this strange dynamic lately with regard to social media personalities that we follow with part fascination, part bile. I think, “Did he really just tweet that? What was she thinking?” Yet we cannot quit following them because the very possibility of untethering ourselves from the object of our fascination would be too painful to bear.
There is a subject-model or model-model relationship between everyone on Twitter (to focus in on one particular platform, which happens to be the one I am most active on)—and it is not always clear which kind of relationship we are in. Who is following who? Who followed who first? Who is paying more attention to the other? Who is more affected by slights and subtweets and nasty replies?
Then there is the mother of all mimetic power plays: the block. Blocking someone simultaneously cements the Blocker’s status as a “model” and the other as an unworthy Follower turned Non-Follower while also reinforcing the in-group status of everyone who has not been blocked. There is an outside and an inside.
The popular author Nassim Nicholas Taleb recently went on a Blocking spree. He has a cult following of ready acolytes but has caused a civil war among them because he has not bought into the new crypto-religion that so many of them do. In recent months, Taleb has developed a hair trigger finger for the block button. As I have watched that situation play out (I am indeed a follower of Taleb), I have been musing, mortified, about the mimetic dynamics of social media. Everyone is imitating everyone else, yet nobody is really sure who is a model and who is an imitator, and everyone seems to be looking for tiny pieces of affirmation to prove that they are real. (At least getting Blocked signals that you might be important, or real, enough for someone to notice!).
This new social reality we are all suddenly thrust into (and understand very little about) was alluded to by René Girard. In the world of social media, we have all become existential neighbors to one another now and are more alike than ever before, yet all are trying desperately to find ways of differentiating themselves in the dissembling fog. In Girard’s theory, this mimetic situation always, or almost inevitably, leads to conflict and violence. Scapegoats are made, people are canceled (or blocked), and there are ever more nuanced layers of distinctions and dissent until all distinctions become distinctions about distinctions, and nobody remembers what we are talking about anymore.
I imagine if Dante wrote The Divine Comedy today, one of the deepest levels of hell would be like this. It would be the realm of Everlasting Distinctions, through which the eternal quarrelers always come back to the point from which they departed, thinking themselves all the wiser.
Love To See You Canceled
This new world did not spring forth overnight. Reality television laid the hate-watching eggs; social media is simply hatching them. Consider the way that Donald Trump built a cult-following through his show The Apprentice. For more than twelve years, tens of millions of Americans watched the same TV show. Battle lines were drawn at the beginning of each episode. Every person on the show wants the same thing: the prestige of being proclaimed the victor, which will earn them praise from an authority figure and, with it, the adulation of the masses. And each of them is willing to do nearly anything to get it.
They fail. They engage in finger-pointing, backstabbing, and betrayals. Then, when the game is over, they walk into a giant boardroom. Donald Trump is seated, scowling, at the middle of a long table. They all want to be his next apprentice, but only one can win. Trump lets the mimetic crisis escalate until it is boiling over. Finally, he points a finger at one of them and says, “You're fired!” The crisis is averted. The scapegoat goes home. The team can get back to business.
Meanwhile, the perception of Trump as a mimetic model—a person who knows what he wants—grows stronger every time he points his finger and utters the words “You’re fired.” After a dozen years of Trump cultivating and cementing his status as the “master” and everyone else as the “apprentice,” it is not surprising that he became a cult-like figure. He single-handedly resolved a mimetic crisis by bringing order during each of the 192 episodes of The Apprentice (including The Celebrity Apprentice, which received even higher ratings).
Such a person mimics the role of the High Priest in ancient Israel. Once a year, on the feast of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, two male goats were brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. Lots were drawn to determine which goat would be sacrificed to God and which one would be sent away to Azazel, an evil spirit or demon believed to reside in remote regions of the desert. The high priest would lay his hands on the head of the goat that was bound for Azazel. As he did so, the priest would confess all the sins of the Israelites, symbolically transferring them onto the animal. After the priest had said the appropriate prayers, the people would drive the goat out into the desert, to Azazel, expelling their sins along with it. This goat came to be called, in English, the scapegoat.
The idea of the scapegoat was not unique to the ancient Jews. The ancient Greeks had their own version of a scapegoating ritual—but they sacrificed humans, not animals. During plagues and other calamities, the Greeks would select a pharmakós, a person at the margins of society—usually a cast-off, criminal, slave, or someone thought to be excessively ugly or deformed. The word pharmakós is related to the English word “pharmacy.” In ancient Greece, the pharmakós was someone initially seen as a poison to the community. The people believed that they had to destroy or expel this person to protect themselves. The elimination of the pharmakós was the remedy to the problem. In this sense, the pharmakós was both the poison and the cure.
The people often tortured and humiliated the pharmakós in a public place. By way of the ritual, they experienced what Aristotle called catharsis: the process of releasing strong emotions or impulses through participation in some external event. Aristotle thought catharsis was the purpose of tragic drama. Through it, audience members could release some of their sorrow and pain, thus giving those emotions a safe outlet.
This is what Donald Trump, or any reality TV judge for that matter, provides at the climax of a show—and it is what people are increasingly looking for in social media, too. For lack of entertainment, we have become the entertainment. What is our outlet in today’s social media landscape? Jack Dorsey banned Trump, but the catharsis that many felt seemed short-lived. Is scapegoating still an effective solution for our collective social media sins? For our envy?
The essence of the problem, in my view, is that we are trying to diagnose what is wrong with social media while turning a blind eye to what is wrong with ourselves: our inclination to desire according to wordly models. We desire what others have, or what others want, believing it would bring us happiness if only. And this leads us into believing that other people are the problem—not sin, not our own mimetic impulses, not our own illusory ambitions. Those rich people? They took a disproportionate share of wealth. Those beautiful people? Shallow. Those vitriolic, idiotic people spouting hatred on social media? Everything that’s wrong with the country.
Yet these people are only visible to us because they are models—and we have greater access to and interest in them than ever before thanks to the Mimetic Machine each of us has in our pockets. But I do not mean to sound dour. The book that I wrote on this topic, Wanting, was literally dedicated to hope. I do believe there is a more excellent way. Mimetic desire is ultimately about love. The question is: what model are you imitating?
The model of love embodied in the person of Jesus of Christ, itself a reflection of the Trinitarian love between the Father and the Son, is the only model powerful enough to keep us from imitating worldly models that are not worthy of our great dignity as sons and daughters of God.
EDITORIAL NOTE: Adapted from WANTING: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life by Luke Burgis. Copyright © 2021 by the author and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.