In my last post in this series, I noted the example of Polixenes in The Winter’s Tale who showed a reasonably accurate view of reality by praising the qualities of Hermione, but that the jealous rage of her husband Leontes distorted the reality deeply. It is the same distortion that happens in the nursery when children fight over one toy as if it were the only one when the reality is that there are many toys to play with. Mimetic rivalry over romantic partners will likewise distort the human reality in a school or other social setting. In a non-rivalrous situation, girls can imitate each other in finding various boys desirable and, like Polixenes, can admire the choices their friends make. But if two or more girls are in rivalry with each other, perhaps over something such as the position of captain on the girls’ field hockey team, then they will cease to see the qualities of the boys more or less for what they are. It is often said that love, especially infatuations, is blind, but conflicted mimetic desire is much more blind than that.
It is important to distinguish honest disagreement from rivalry. In both cases, there is mimetic desire but in the former case, it is a shared desire to arrive at truth or discernment of right action. In the latter case, the two people are trying to outdo each other for the sake of outdoing each other. The shared mimetic desire is a victory over the other and truth and right action fall by the wayside.
The movie “Doubt” is an excellent illustration of this kind of situation. With Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius are permanently locked in mimetic rivalry, it is not possible that the truth of whether or not the priest has abused Donald Miller, the Afro-American boy in the parish school, can be known and that is why the movie never resolves the question. Donald Miler, of course, is clearly a victim of this strife regardless of what has or has not really happened.
There is a qualitative difference between honest disagreement and rivalry but it is also a fine line between them. We can easily start with honest disagreement and fall into rivalry if we allow ourselves to become more obsessed with the person we disagree with than with trying to see what is true and what should be done. This matter calls for constant self-examination where we continually ask ourselves as honestly as we can: What side of this line am I on? How far on that side am I? We also have to keep alert to whether we are actually listening to what the other is saying or if we are only thinking about what we want to say. If we neglect this self-examination, we are pretty certain to fall over into the wrong side of this divide and become lost in mimetic entanglements.
A shared mimetic desire for truth does not guarantee that truth will be reached since our viewpoints cannot encompass all relevant realty but it is a sine qua non for reaching some semblance of the truth. On the other hand, when we are locked in mimetic rivalry with others, it is not just some abstract principle of what is true that is a casualty, but real human beings will suffer as victims, like Donald Miller in “Doubt.”
Continue on to Mimetic Desire and Truth (4)
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Great truth and valuable distinction. honest disagreement is rare, I find. I find slander, exaggeration, personal attack, unreasonable comparisons, and insult usually takes over.
Maybe this is why I so often remain silent in groups I don’t lead. I am trying to figure out my motives in contributing.
Yes indeed: I think that the failure to distinguish between honest disagreement and mimetic rivalry will probably be the failure we will – perhaps – see as THE failure of history, political and otherwise. In political correctness for example, there is a growing level of undifferentiation between egalitarianism (universal, objective respect and a desire to do unto others what one would wish to be done to oneself) and identity politics (not racial, sexual, gender or other kind of EQUALITY – which would be great – but a discrete essentializing of one’s “cultural” identity which separates people of different backgrounds rather than unites them (us). That said, equality does not solve resentment, since it creates more reciprocity and reciprocity in turn spawns conflict. However, equality must be realized so we can even begin to tackle conflict and not try to conntrol it through taboos and (unfair) hierarchies (white-black, male-female, straight-gay, abled-disabled, etc.)
René Girard suggests that equality increases resentment as there is no reason why somebody else should be “better” than anyone else. Shakespeare demonstrates in his histories how members of the nobility engage in deadly mimetic rivalry for the crown but only a few people can so compete. In modern society, everybody can compete for everything. Hence the growing urgency of the need to renounce competitive mimetic desire.