Memes matter-- even off of Facebook. While many colleges today are in brutal competition for the best Facebook meme page, there is another far less recognized and unintentional competition occurring-the battle to proliferate mimetic contagion.
Rene Girard, a French sociologist whose explorations of literature and myth helped establish a generation of philosophy, built his career around the idea that human motivation was solely based on desire. People are fundamentally free, he believed; however, they seek things in life based on what other people want. Their imitation of those desires, which he called mimesis, is imitated by others, leading to escalating and destructive competition.
Girard argued that mimetic rivalry can escalate through a process he called mimetic contagion until a society is almost torn apart by rivalry. Girard expanded his theory through the study of myths and history, arguing that mimetic contagion can be resolved through the creation of scapegoats. Looking at the ways groups often create scapegoats, only to torment and kill them, Girard argued that this sacred murder creates a greater unity. In his 1972 work “Violence and the Sacred,” Girard argued that the death of a scapegoat is essential to creating social order.
It is hard to imagine a more perfect environment for mimetic contagion and scapegoating to flourish than than elite college campuses. Students are forced to compete in brutal zero-sum competitions during the admissions process. As acceptance rates tank into the low single digits, these competitions become even more intense. Schools that once only required better than average SAT scores now pit students against each other on hundreds of axes. From elite sports to international math and science Olympiads, students are brutalized through Herculean trials to earn a spot at any number of so-called elite colleges.
Once within these schools, social dynamics create additional intense competition play. From eating clubs and Greek life on the social side to overworked schedules that accommodate the most desirable classes to earning respect from star professors, students are constantly engaged in a sort of mimetic contagion loop.
With this contagion comes the creation of scapegoats-innate hierarchies that isolate and deprive individual students from opportunity and can curtail opportunity decades after graduation. Many of these scapegoat dynamics are decided decades before a student enrolls through multi-generational family legacies and donor relations. These games are played across generations.
The prizes of the games are far from insignificant, and are constantly dangled in front of students as prominent alumni celebrate their affiliation with exclusive student organizations decades after they graduate. Promising opportunities exclusively to their in-group, they curtail the opportunities of scapegoats (and out-group members) for decades.
Mimetic contagion forces an artificial obsession with winnable zero-sum games, causing students not to leave campus but instead to fixate on hyperlocal politics and drama. While students could leave campus to take higher risk and novel opportunities that could propel them outside of their original standing, they instead choose to fight in barbarian local wars. The objective extremity of these conflicts as viewed by outsiders is central to our culture and media-from Gossip Girl to The Social Network, the general public adores these narratives.
What is perhaps most insidious about these games is their ability to proliferate outside of campuses. As our society and country are increasingly run by former competitors, they map their sociosubjective realities onto our day-to-day lives, turning government and society at large into additional zero-sum games to be conquered and finding additional scapegoats to be slaughtered.
I would like to suggest an alternative option: Exit.
As Balaji Srinivasan noted in a 2016 talk, we are not just a nation of immigrants, but also we’re a nation of emigrants. We are shaped by both voice and exit: the Puritans fleeing religious prosecution, the American revolutionaries escaping British law, and the many immigrants that entered our country to escape the horrors of communism in the 20th century.
And it’s not just the US that’s shaped by exit. The Ivy League itself is also shaped by exit, an exit from traditional European education. We have the potential to remove ourselves and our children from brutal mimetic competition, and instead to build education systems that create win-win games for all.
From the Thiel Fellowship to untraditional schools and coding bootcamps, the work is underway to build this future — I just hope you’ll join. We cannot afford to let our world to become a zero-sum game.