Wanting is about Being

A couple years ago when I started this newsletter, the inaugural post was an introduction to René Girard. I’ve been meaning to rewrite it for quite some time. Today – Election Day, 2020 – seemed like a pretty good time to do that.

In my opinion, Girard’s worldview on mimetic desire, differentiation, and scapegoating is still the best way to understand Trump and the MAGA movement. So I went back and substantially rewrote the original Girard essay. I think this one’s a lot tighter and better, and clarifies some of the misconceptions people had over the last one. Even if you read the last one, I hope this one is valuable to you too.

Wanting is about Being

Last July, I became a parent. Our daughter is now one going on one and a half years old, and it’s been fascinating to watch her become a little person and develop an identity and sense of self.

Kids are learning machines. The whole world is new to them, and they have to go make sense of it. And kids learn very quickly that the most important thing to pay attention to and learn about is other people. It’s really sweet, but also a little nerve-wracking, when kids start explicitly imitating you. It starts early, when they’re not even a year old. Kids want what what you have, and want to do what you’re doing.

This hard-wired desire to imitate is deeper than any given object, or any given behaviour they’re trying to copy. We’re relentlessly amused when our kid takes pretend sips of our coffee mug in the morning and then fake smacks her lips and goes “aaaaaah”, or when we laugh about something that happened in our adult lives, she fake-laughs along with us. (It’s really clear she’s fake-laughing in order to fit in; she’s not a very good liar yet. It’s adorable.) It’s funny, but also quite serious: it’s not about the coffee, or about the joke. She wants to be like us.

We have some insight into why this is, neurologically. There’s a mechanism in our brains called mirror neurons that fire when you do or get something that successfully imitates someone else. The more you care about that other person, the harder these circuits will engage. Those neural pathways carve out habits that shape who we become as people; even when our role models aren’t directly around, the behavioural predispositions we’ve acquired from them persist.

When we grow up, not much changes. Desire isn’t about having, or doing. It’s about being. It’s never really the objects or experiences we’re pursuing; it’s about the role models off of whom we’ve learned that behaviour, and acquired that desire. Girard calls these people the “mediators” or the “models” of our desire. We want whatever they have, and to do whatever they do. It’s never really about the object.

One way we continually give this away is through our language and word choices. There’s a reason why Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront doesn’t lament “I coulda contended!”; the line is “I coulda been a contender”. VC thought leaders in Silicon Valley don’t want to think contrarily; the want to be contrarian.

Advertisers understand this principle: you’re not trying to convince somebody that they want Bud Light or a Ford F150; you’re telling them they ought to desire membership to an aspirational peer set, and the way to become a part of that group is to drink Bud Light and drive an F150. Growing up, I remember thinking it was funny that Abercrombie advertised their clothes with models that weren’t actually wearing any of them. It makes sense; the clothes obviously aren’t the point.

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Πηγή: danco.substack.com

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