This post is about violence and zombies. But first things first. I submit two propositions for your consideration:
1) We become who we imitate.
2) And we can’t help but imitate.
If someone had suggested these propositions to me a few years ago, I would have believed the first proposition but not the second.
Considering the second, I might have said something like, “That’s why I don’t imitate. I do my own thing.”
However, in the last few years, I have been reconsidering my belief on this matter. I still believe we become who we imitate. And now I also believe that we cannot help but imitate other people.
And it turns out this has a lot to do with you and me, grace, violence, and zombies, of all things.
Why Do We Imitate?
Human beings are strange creatures because we come into the world fairly devoid of a clear personality and purpose.
Animals have instincts that guide them almost entirely in becoming themselves. Humans, on the other hand, come into the world partially guided by instinct. But we also have a great deal of freedom about who and what we become. Because of that, there is a large part of us that is undefined, open-ended, and yet-to-be decided. It is a type of emptiness that haunts us from our earliest moments of consciousness.
We are hungry for fullness and meaning. And we hunger for abundance of being.
So how do we fill this hunger? We imitate other people and their desires in a process called mimesis. What others desire symbolizes fullness, meaning, and abundance to us. And so we imitate them. In doing so, we believe we will obtain these things we so greatly desire.
Thomas Reynolds highlights this when he writes, “Desire is acquisitive in nature. It seeks to appropriate an object that . . . fills-in the empty space of a felt lack”.
This is why the world of advertising, fashion, and social media are so ubiquitous and successful. They capitalize on mimetic desire and our pursuit to fill ourselves through acquiring objects or people.
In its basic form, mimesis is good because it is the “opening out of one’s self” into the world. In fact, it is through mimesis that we actually become attuned to others. And we become attuned to something larger than ourselves. Mimesis is what differentiates us from animals.
Nicholas Lancret, “Concert in Park”
Despite its goodness, it can (and often does) lead to serious problems. One of these problems is mimetic contagion, which the French philosopher Rene Girard writes about in depth.
Mimetic contagion begins innocently enough through ordinary mimesis. I see someone desiring something. And I begin to desire it and wish to possess it. But then the person whose desire I am imitating sees me desiring the object she desires. Now she desires it even more.
And then the mimetic desire rapidly replicates itself. Everyone around us sees our desire. And they imitate both of us. Desire escalates, and now everyone looks the same. We all want the same things. Girard calls this mimetic rivalry. And it quickly turns into a dangerous contagion.
Remember that we imitate because we want to define ourselves. We want to fill the emptiness inside of us, and give our lives identity and meaning. But when everyone looks the same and wants the same thing, our sense of identity grows fuzzy. The void returns. And this causes tension.
Furthermore, since everyone now desires the same object, we fear that we will not be able to possess it. And this further adds to our crisis of identity. This can cause unbearable and violent tension in groups.
“The Scream”, Edward Munch
Girard argues that historically at this point, groups subconsciously enacted a scapegoating mechanism. This mechanism lead them to choose an outsider whom they blamed for all the group’s tension. So they killed the innocent scapegoat. And this act relieved the tension of the group and allowed them to demarcate their identity again.
This new identity was rooted in an “us-them” way of thinking. The persecutors of the scapegoat certainly didn’t see themselves as persecutors. Instead, they saw themselves as the righteous “us” pitting themselves against the evil “them” or “it”.
Girard argues that ancient myths are an elaborate retelling of the scapegoat mechanism. And he further argues that all civilizations, historically, were founded on an act of scapegoating.
One might naturally wonder if scapegoating still occurs today.
Mimesis and Scapegoating Today
Girard argues that when Christ died on the cross, he upended the scapegoat mechanism. Christ voluntarily became a scapegoat. In doing so, he sided with all scapegoats to illuminate their innocence. And he exposed the scapegoating mechanism for what it is.
The scapegoating mechanism is, in effect, broken today. Almost all of us know that blatant scapegoating is wrong. And we almost universally castigate the practice. So no one can really get away with overt and extreme scapegoating anymore.
But there’s a problem.
We still desire mimetically because we can’t help it. And we still feel empty and long for a sense of fullness and identity. So we still mimetically desire the objects that others want. And we still believe that this will give us fullness, being, identity and purpose.
Because of these elements of our humanity, we still experience mimetic contagion. And this contagion still leads to the loss of differentiation, the loss of identity, and violent competition fueled by a scarcity mentality. But now we no longer truly have the scapegoating mechanism to ease our violent tension and give us a renewed sense of identity.
We don’t know how to fill our emptiness and embrace fullness of being.
So, we continue to act violently. Girard writes, “Violence is what structures our collective sense of belonging and identities.” We are addicted to scapegoating and do everything we can to try to conceal it because we know it’s wrong.
One of the most common ways we act violently is through persecution.
“The Sacrifice of Iphigenia”
We, the Persecutors
We love to persecute people, although we rarely recognize ourselves as persecutors.
Persecutors always believe they are doing righteous work. We believe that the group which we persecute is blameworthy and the cause of the major problems in our lives and the world. So we set out to suppress or crush the enemy.
We see ourselves as the righteous defenders of some world order we hold dear. And this becomes our identity.
So, for example, the “cool kids” persecute the “uncool kids” in middle and high school. The cool kids tell themselves a story about how the uncool kids are so annoying or gross or offensive that they are bringing violence on themselves. Really, we are just helping the “uncool kids” get their act together, the cool kids they tell themselves.
But really, they are just caught up in mimetic desire. They long to fill their emptiness through adulation from their peers, status, and the awards of high school prestige. They persecute the uncool kids to cement this coveted identity.
Or as another example, some people may believe that that their nationality or religion (or interpretation of their religion) or political party is co-extensive with God. In this case, they mimetically desire the status of “the theologically right ones”, “the best country in the world”, “the Chosen”, or “the right party”.
When this become their identity, they deem as dangerous people of other nationalities, religions, or political parties. And any kind of conflict with this other group can lead to acts of persecution.
So while the scapegoating mechanism is broken today, we still see persecutory acts like bullying, racial violence, nationalist violence, and religious and political aggression. These persecutory acts can take the form of physical, emotional, or social violence. But at their roots is mimetic rivalry which results in people creating an “us-them” view of the world in the search for identity.
Jacques-Louis David, ‘The Intervention of the Sabine Women” (Thanks to my friend, Ali, who knew the artist and title for this painting, as I originally couldn’t find it. Check out her blog The Mindful Gardener. You will be delighted.)
Zombie Life, Zombie Politics, Zombie World
Here is a strange paradox about me. I don’t really like watching violence on TV. I regularly leave the room during extremely violent scenes because I cannot deal with them emotionally. Generally speaking, I am a pacifist.
Despite this, I am fascinated by zombie shows (movies or television). And although there are some extremely violent ones I can’t stomach, a good zombie show is one of my favorite shows to watch.
Because I am increasingly convinced that zombie shows are really stories about mimesis, mimetic contagion, and the search for an alternative to our violence addiction.
Here is the thing about zombies. Zombies are perpetually starving. They perpetually feel empty. And the only thing that seems to satiate their hunger and temporarily fill their emptiness is devouring living people. Zombies are addicted to violence.
Here’s the bad news.
Unless we figure out how to fill our hunger and practice mimesis without various forms of scapegoating, we become addicted to violence, too. We become zombies imitating other zombies.
And I think this is why so many zombie movies are really dark or depressing. We look around the world and see people engaging in acquisitive mimesis, persecution, and other mimetic violence. And we fear that we can never learn to be different. But I think we can. Girard does, too.
So how do we learn not to become zombies?
The Moment of Grace: Learning Not to Be Zombies
Is it actually possible to escape mimetic contagion and the inevitable ensuing violence? Can we learn not to be zombies? The answer is “yes”.
Girard suggests that we can escape patterns of mimetic contagion and violence when we come to see ourselves as a persecutor. And further, we learn to disavow this practice. This decision is a moment of Grace, and it is a moment that anyone can experience.
What does it mean to recognize ourselves as persecutors and to disavow the practice? Girard does not spell this out in detail, but I would like to suggest several things it might mean.
First, it means that we recognize that we cannot help but imitate others. And if we imitate people who are addicted to a clear “us-them” vision of life, this eventually leads to different forms of physical, emotional, and social violence. Furthermore, we usually “cleverly disguise” such violence to ourselves as righteous indignation. (Remember, all persecutors think of themselves as righteous).
Second, it means that we learn to imitate in a way that does not result in mimetic violence. To do this, we must imitate something that leads us beyond ourselves. We must imitate something that leads us into an authentic fullness of being, rather than deforming us into a narrow, scarcity-driven pursuit of identity.
And this is important. Primarily desiring objects (or people viewed as objects) will always push us into a narrow, scarcity-driven pursuit of identity. (I have written more about this here.)
Of course, desiring God and imitating God and Christ can lead to this fullness of being. However, Girard suggests that even for people who are not specifically Christian or religious, there are many things we can desire that will lead us to this greater fullness of being, Such things might be desiring the good of another, community, creativity, and love.
Rebecca McAdams, a student of Girard, suggests that “Positive mimetic desire works out to recapitulate the Golden rule.” She adds, “We desire for the other what the other desires for her or himself”.
Girard suggests that learning to imitate these desires can actually cause a positive contagion. In such a contagion, everyone begins to desire the good of other, as well as greater community, creativity, and love.
Such positive contagion might be behind the spread of small acts of kindness. And example of such an act might be those like people sharing encouraging memes on social media. Or another example might be a chain of people in line at a coffee shop paying for the coffee of the person behind them.
I also believe it is the force behind all liberating social movements, especially non-violent ones. Such movements catalyze social change through acts of solidarity, compassion, and courageous resistance. Girard echoes this sentiment when he says of mimetic desire that, “It can be murderous, it is rivalrous”. And he adds, “But it is also the basis of heroism, and devotion to others . . .”.
Third, we learn not to be zombies when we refuse to form our identity through punishing other people. And we eschew all forms of an “us-them” mentality. We embrace a higher vision of the world.
This leads me to closing point.
Does Repudiating Mimetic Violence Entail Accepting Everything and Just Being Nice?
Repudiating the “us-them” mentality that accompanies mimetic violence does not entail that we now accept everyone’s behavior. And it does not entail that we fail to criticize or punish reprehensible acts. It also does not entail that we fail to differentiate ourselves from people who act reprehensibly. And it does not entail that we stop acting in self-defense to protect ourselves and others.
There are people in the world who do bad, evil and reprehensible things. Girard suggests such immoral acts are fueled by negative mimetic contagion. Continuing with my zombie analogy, I suggest that these people are infected by a zombie virus, with which we all have the potential to become infected.
Zombie viruses always require containment. But in seeking to contain zombie viruses, we must remember our humanity and the humanity of those infected with the disease.
In most (but not all) zombie movies, zombies are portrayed as hopelessly lost, infected by a disease from which they cannot recover. Girard’s theory teaches us that we all have the possibility of being infected by a zombie virus. And through Grace, we all have the capability of being cured of our disease.
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You might also enjoy these posts:
 Thomas E. Reynolds. “The Creative Desire for God: Mimesis Beyond Violence in Monotheistic Religions?”, pg. 174.
 Ibid, Pg. 62-63.
Rene Girard. The One by Whom Scandal Comes. Michigan State University Press: 2014, pg. 3-4.
Ibid, pg. 5.
 Rene Girard. The One by Whom Scandal Comes, pg. 31.
 and Rene Girard. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. James G. Williams, trans. Orbis: 2012, pg. 156
 Thomas E. Reynolds “The Creative Desire for God: Mimesis Beyond Violence in Monotheistic Religions?”, pg 181
 Rene Girard, The One by Whom Scandal Comes, pg. 60
 and Rene Girard and Rebecca McAdams. ”The Goodness of Mimetic Desire.”, Pg. 62-63.
 We imitate these desires by imitating people who exemplify these behaviors. This may be people we know personally, or it may be great leaders like Christ or MLK.
 Rene Girard and Rebecca McAdams. “The Goodness of Mimetic Desire”, pg. 182.
 and Rene Girard. The One by Whom Scandal Comes, pg. 62-63
 Ibid, pg. 62-63.
Published by shellypruittjohnson
My name is Shelly Johnson, and I am a writer and philosopher with a Ph.D. in philosophy. One of my primary personal and philosophical interests is how we can learn to love ourselves and each other better in order to cultivate personal and political resilience. I teach ethics and a variety of other courses at a local college. I am the author of the blog Love is Stronger. I am also the author of three logic and critical thinking books for high school and middle school: _Argument Builder_, _Discovery of Deduction_ (co-author), and _Everyday Debate_, published by Classical Academic Press. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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19 thoughts on “On Our Violence: How to Not Be a Zombie”
I agree that we do become a sum total of all the influences around us. It is very tricky to isolate what is it that we are truly from all that we imbibe, absorb and become conditioned with. This includes all that becomes a part of us as family traits and then the chosen associations we make. I have realized it to be very important to be very conscious of what I read or who I listen to – by nature I am very receptive – so everyone else’s way of thinking can become an implant in me unknowingly. It becomes a continual consistent effort to find my pure true choices apart from those.
P, this is such a helpful comment to me. When I was writing about imitation in this post, I was primarily thinking of the people we imitate. But you helped me remember that we can imitate people we read or things we listen to. Thanks for this very thoughtful comment!
My pleasure that you got me thinking 🙂 Your post is such a deep study of this topic.
Thank you so much, P. It makes me feel so happy when you say one of my posts is a deep study. I really try to be thorough with these topics.
You are very welcome 🙂
Your painting is Jacques-Louis David ‘The Intervention of the Sabine Women’ and I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to have remembered this!! I couldn’t read the rest of the article until I’d told you this! Bear with…
I find it helpful to have role models in my head, and to think ‘what would Michelle Obama/Chimamande Ngoche Adichie/Mulala Yousafzai do in this situation? I know they cannot be perfect and make mistakes just like you and I, but if I met them I would want to make a good impression, and that inspires me to act in ways I think they would approve of.
Mimetic contagion is so interesting. It is interesting to think about what my current influences are and where they came from…
Ali, I so agree! I have role models, too. Michelle Obama is one of my big ones. Girard’s theory has definitely made me think about my models more, and like you, I get really interested in the idea of mimetic contagion, too. I know I have been swept up in it before.
Ali! This is so exciting! Thank you for telling me this. I will go back and fill in this point later.
Ali, thanks so much again for supplying this artist and painting title. I am so impressed you knew that! I have a somewhat good knowledge of art, but I had no idea about that one. I corrected it on my post and included a shout-out to you and Mindful Gardener :).
Very thoughtful article. It seems to me that the ‘scarcity driven pursuit’ can only lead to misery, while the community/creativity/love of others direction can bring true happiness.
Ann: Thank you so much for reading and your thoughtful comment! Girard’s contrast of scarcity-driven pursuits in contrast to pursuits of community/creativity/and love is so interesting to me, too.
Oooooh wow, was there some very interesting things to think on in this one. Just like you, the first statement seemed obvious to me, but the second one hit me a little harder – “we can’t help but imitate.” Very intriguing! It does make a lot of sense especially in light of the examples you gave here, but it still has given me a lot to chew on!
M.B. I am so glad you found those first two statements, especially the second one thought-provoking. Until I began studying Girard, I didn’t really realize that we can’t help but imitate. Its implications are fascinating to me!
Excellent and fascinating post Shelly. Thanks so much for linking it. I love how the solution wasn’t a “just break free” from mimesis kind of solution, but rather use mimesis to bring out a greater goodness, through imitation of a higher desire, purpose and the like. I believe this fits in nicely with religions who use a central figure as an archetype of how one should act in the world, be it Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, Krishna, Lao Zi etc.