“Wonder was the grace of the country.”
~ George W.S. Trow
At a recent cocktail party, the conversation turned to conspiracy theorists and how to engage them. I offered a strategy that has served me fairly well in the past: I like to ask my interlocutor what information they would need to be exposed to in order to change their minds about their initial suspicion. To be clear, I think of this more as a litmus test for understanding whether a person has the capacity to change their minds on a given position, rather than an opening gambit leading to further argument and persuasion. Climate change is a good example: What fact or observation might lead a person to consider that global warming is happening, and that human economic activity is responsible for it? It is actually quite surprising how often people don't really have a standard of truth by which they might independently weigh the validity of their argument. Of course, in today's ‘post-truth' world, I suspect that it is just as likely that I might be told that nothing can change a person's mind, since everything is lies and propaganda anyway.
I was pleased that another person at the party made an even better suggestion. She said that she would ask not only what would change a conspiracy theorist's mind, but from whom they would need to hear it. This vaults the act of interrogation from a context grounded purely in individualism and individuals' appeals to authority, to something distinctly more social. It also specifies the importance of not just facts, but from where those facts emanate. Because as much as we would like to believe ourselves independently reasoning beings, that we come to our conclusions through a rigorous and sacrosanct process of discernment, we are still very subject to having our opinions shaped by others. This may seem somewhat obvious, but in these times, when new ways of sensemaking are in high demand, I believe this provides an important opening.
Interestingly, this cocktail chatter echoed a much more deeply elaborated mode of thinking, developed by the French theorist René Girard. If much of what drives us is desire, Girard postulated that desire was something that we learned from each other (and not to be confused with needs: consider the distinction of needing to eat, versus desiring one food over another). Desiring is therefore an intrinsically social experience. And we learned not just to desire from one another, but what to desire. We may be born free, but we don't know what to want of the world until we look around and see what others are wanting for themselves. Girard called this ‘mimetic desire'. This is desire as imitation, and as contagion. The corollary, of course, is that it doesn't really matter if we are born free or not; we only become fully human when we enter into this web of desiring what others desire, and having others learn to desire what it is we ourselves covet.
One manifestation is in that old American saying about ‘keeping up with the Joneses': a social vector that is extremely well-suited to commerce, with the proviso that money is to be made from leveraging desire most efficiently when coupled with manufactured scarcity. Consider, for example, the multi-day lines that form in anticipation of a new make of Nike's Air Jordan sneakers: it is an act of collective taste-making where the goal is to obtain exactly the same object for which everyone else in line. The same may be said of stock market bubbles (and the underlying ‘greater fool' theory of investing), neighborhood competitions around Christmas decoration, or any other phenomenon that somehow expands from something socially acceptable to irrational and perhaps even systemically dangerous.
But Girard's theory has an explanatory power that goes beyond the material aspect; it encompasses matters of opinion as well. How do I settle on knowing what I know about the world? For Girard, this is also a mimetic process. Although he did not address technology very much in his writings, here is an interesting thought experiment: what if mimetic desire, instead of being captured in the physical form of goods, could be reproduced endlessly, with little to no friction preventing its amplification? What if it were, for all intents and purposes, free?
The roles that so-called ‘fake news' and social media have played in this election cycle will be discussed for years to come. In a world of bespoke filter bubbles, it is easier than ever for us to only desire the things that already resonate with our existing worldview. In addition to seeking out the opinions of politicians, journalists and commentators with whose positions we already agree (and want more of), social media has inserted a crucial (inter)mediating step: we access these professionals through the good offices of our friends, or people we would like to be our friends.
This may seem banal, but keep it in mind when looking at the numbers: by a recent, widely cited Pew Research poll, 62% of Americans get their news from social media, with 18% ‘doing so very often'. Additionally, Facebook was the most widely accessed source, with Twitter and YouTube coming up relatively distant second. Importantly, despite all the discussion around the algorithms that serve up the information that we consume on these platforms, it is our relationships with the people we trust that constitutes the ‘last mile' of service delivery by which this information reaches our eyeballs. This is further abetted by the structural incentives of the social media platforms themselves. As Mike Caulfield writes,
…conspiracy clickbait sites appeared as a reaction to a Facebook interface that resisted external linking. And this is why fake news does better on Facebook than real news. By setting up this dynamic, Facebook simultaneously set up the perfect conspiracy replication machine and incentivized the creation of a new breed of conspiracy clickbait sites.
Here we return to the notion of conspiracy. It allows us to ask what role conspiracy thinking plays within a mimetic context. Obviously, it's one thing to want the same sneakers that the cool kids on the block are sporting. It's entirely another to jump on the bandwagon of a worldview that has produced everything from Trutherism to Birtherism to PizzaGate. If one accepts mimetic desire as a motivating force for the generation, dissemination and adoption of opinion, then fake news – and social media itself, which is the agar upon which fake news feeds – is merely symptomatic. There is another aspect to Girard's theory, that of the scapegoat, that takes us further.
For Girard, the bubble factory of mimetic desire isn't just how culture is created. With too many people chasing too few goods, mates or other social signifiers, the rivalries produced over and over again by mimetic desire eventually precipitate a crisis that threatens to reduce society to a Hobbesian war of ‘all against all'. There must be a mechanism by which society can hold itself together in the face of such forces, and for Girard it was the notion of the scapegoat:
When violence is at the point of threatening the existence of the community, very frequently a bizarre psychosocial mechanism arises: communal violence is all of the sudden projected upon a single individual. Thus, people that were formerly struggling, now unite efforts against someone chosen as a scapegoat. Former enemies now become friends, as they communally participate in the execution of violence against a specified enemy.
History bears witness to a number of practices where we can see this ‘scapegoat mechanism' at work. More often than not, these practices are so culturally important that they are regularly repeated, and in fact may very well be ritually encoded. Written in 1922, JG Frazer's still-magisterial ‘The Golden Bough' devotes several chapters to its function. A single example will suffice to illustrate the unifying power of the scapegoat:
In civilised Greece the custom of the scapegoat took darker forms than the innocent rite over which the amiable and pious Plutarch presided. Whenever Marseilles, one of the busiest and most brilliant of Greek colonies, was ravaged by a plague, a man of the poorer classes used to offer himself as a scapegoat. For a whole year he was maintained at the public expense, being fed on choice and pure food. At the expiry of the year he was dressed in sacred garments, decked with holy branches, and led through the whole city, while prayers were uttered that all the evils of the people might fall on his head. He was then cast out of the city or stoned to death by the people outside of the walls.
As Frazer demonstrates, the phenomenon of the scapegoat – whether human or animal – manifests not just in Greek and Roman culture but throughout the world. It is a catalyst by which society reaches a consensus with itself that, whatever its internal differences and disagreements (the ‘rivals' of Girard's mimetic process), there is a larger, more important threat to be overcome. Obviously, there is an open line to divinity here, as the scapegoat's sacrifice to the gods creates the expectation that relief will be provided, or a pathway to salvation opened (as in the case of Jesus Christ).
Crucially for Girard, the process only works when it is conducted unconsciously. That is, everyone must believe that the scapegoat is actually guilty of the transgressions. For example, even in the ancient Greek case cited above, the full weight of belief transforms the blameless poor man into a vehicle for gathering up all the plague within the city's walls, and, with his death outside those walls, its dissolution. Conspiracy thinking functions in a very similar fashion: applied to the recent election, Hillary Clinton has never not been guilty, and Donald Trump has never not been a fascist thug. What is lacking is a ritually encoded means by which this malevolent presence can be expunged, so that society might move on. One could contend that, for at least the former scenario, Trump could have indeed put Clinton in jail for her sins, which are of course the sins of her husband as well. But the fact that Trump blithely put this possibility out of mind almost immediately following his victory implies that Girard's requirement of belief (or at least, suspended disbelief) in the scapegoat is not fulfilled. What we then have is a fully functioning scapegoat mechanism that is nevertheless denied its consummation.
There is a more important point to be made about Girard's requirement of belief. All of the above would be of passable interest as far as analytical approaches go (in fact, I'm certainly not the first person to bring this up, having been inspired by this piece in The New Inquiry). The extraordinary additional wrinkle in this story, as The New Inquiry and others have pointed out, has been Peter Thiel's role. In a nutshell, Thiel is a libertarian Silicon Valley billionaire who embodies Randian ideals to an almost caricaturish extent. He was one of the first outside investors in Facebook. More recently, he acquired notoriety as the man behind the lawsuit that bankrupted Gawker. For our purposes, however, it's more appropriate to note that he was one of René Girard's students at Stanford.
Girard's influence on Thiel is quite clear. The notion of the scapegoat is explicit in Thiel's own writing, specifically in Zero To One, Thiel's contribution to innovation and entrepreneurship. As noted by The New Inquiry, Thiel writes:
The famous and infamous have always served as vessels for public sentiment: they're praised amid prosperity and blamed for misfortune… [It is] beneficial for the society to place the entire blame on a single person, someone everybody could agree on: a scapegoat. Who makes an effective scapegoat? Like founders, scapegoats are extreme and contradictory figures.
For Thiel, it is thanks to this Girardian process that society progresses at all. The problem is that, more often than not, it's people like him – the wealthy, the founders, the leaders – that wind up becoming scapegoats. The difference is that Thiel, thanks to his position and resources, is now actually able to intervene in this very process. This was the case with Gawker: spurred on by his personal beef, Thiel identified the site as a factory for the manufacturing of scapegoats, and bided his time until the perfect case presented itself, which he then used to destroy Gawker.
But other Girardian mechanisms are worth keeping around. For the reasons described by Mike Caulfield above, Facebook is a streamlined machine for reproducing mimetic desires, for creating rivals in desire and therefore for fomenting social tension. The difference with a platform like Facebook is it is a thoroughly quantified domain. Suddenly, there is an opportunity to guide and channel these passions. Scapegoats will continue to be generated, but if the process can be influenced, however subtly, then we have effectively replaced the prior, ritually encoded consummation of the practice of scapegoating with one that is is micromanaged by algorithm. More importantly, at least according to Thiel's worldview, we will avoid scapegoating the ‘wrong people'.
This theorization points to a hard truth for not just public opinion in general, but journalism in particular. Writing recently in The Guardian, Caitlin Moran struck a hopeful tone:
I think things are going to get worse for newspapers before they get better. We're living in a post-truth age and people don't seem to care, because we're drunk on the internet; and I think things will have to get a bit messier before we start wanting to have facts again. The tone of politics right now is one of shouting and trolling, and that tone has absolutely been set by social media. At some point, probably when society and the economy have got much worse than they are now, we'll reinvent the idea of having a creditable, trustworthy press.
Unfortunately, I am extremely skeptical that a return to a dignified public discourse is imminent, or even possible. If we buy not only into the Girardian scenario, but one which is moreover actively guided by those in the position to do so, then it is difficult to conceive of the kind of event or trend that will provide a turning point and return us to a prelapsarian idea of ‘truth' or ‘journalism' or even ‘media'. More broadly, as George WS Trow wrote in the New Yorker almost 40 years ago, “To a person growing up in the power of demography, it was clear that history had to do not with the powerful actions of certain men but with the processes of choice and preference.” It seems sensible to assert that structures of power that can exploit these processes will maintain a steady upper hand, compared to those that seek to disrupt them. If we take Girard at his word, mimesis may well be sufficient unto itself, as it has been for a long time already.