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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Mimetic models can guide how to contain outbreaks of violence
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Mimetic models can guide how to contain outbreaks of violence

Insights from mimetics theory can explain why we need peace solutions that outlast short reprieves

The conflict in Manipur is the latest manifestation of this primal phenomenon whose damage will affect every Indian, regardless of demography, gender, financial status, location, political ideology or ignorance of the cost to be paid by us as well as future generations. (HT_PRINT)Premium
The conflict in Manipur is the latest manifestation of this primal phenomenon whose damage will affect every Indian, regardless of demography, gender, financial status, location, political ideology or ignorance of the cost to be paid by us as well as future generations. (HT_PRINT)

Human beings fight not because they are different, but because they are the same and, in their attempt to distinguish themselves, have made themselves into enemies, human doubles in reciprocal violence." French philosopher and anthropologist Rene Girard made this observation in his theory of ‘mimetics,’ whose premise is that human desires are largely shaped by imitation. Girard argued that individuals do not develop their desires independently, but instead adopt these from others around them, especially those whom they admire or consider role models. Even if those desires are contrary to their personal values or well-being, which explains why otherwise compassionate individuals can be coalesced into frenzied, bloodthirsty mobs. And these mimetic models have resultant social structures, norms and behaviour, especially when acting as a group. It is mimetics that motivates patriotism, tribal pride and a sense of surrogate achievement when any of one’s own tribe wins. The dark side of mimetics can provoke rapacious vengeance and similar surrogacy in meting out violence to out-groups regardless of their guilt or innocence.

The basics of this theory apply across all group sizes, ranging from just two individual rivals competing for the same thing to factions contesting common resources and major countries with conflicting ideologies. Unchecked mimetic desire can lead to intense rivalry and wars whose viciousness goes far beyond rationality, leading to ‘scapegoating’ and sacrificial violence.

Scapegoating has its origin in the Torah. Once a year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), two goats would be chosen by a priest, one to be sacrificed to God and the other sent to an evil spirit believed to be deep in the desert. The priest would place his hand on one of the goats and confess the sins of all villagers, thus symbolically transferring them onto the animal that would then be banished into the desert; in terms of etymology, this ‘exorcizing of sins’ gave us the term ‘scapegoat’.

A similar transfer of anger, shame, sorrow or fear experienced by a majority by unjustly blaming an innocent minority for the wrongdoings of others, followed by action against them in purported retaliation, has been displayed by every culture. Hitler infamously attributed part of the German defeat in World War I to Jews, which enabled conditions for their slaughter. The US persecuted immigrants and citizens of Japanese origin during World War II. France grossly mistreated over 6,000 of its own women as ‘collaborators’ by parading them naked with shaven heads; some were beaten to death.

Closer home, horrific memories of Partition still haunt us decades later. Every conflict results in devastation of the innocent and defenceless, mostly women and children. This is human behaviour at its worst, but human behaviour nonetheless. Such injustice is perpetrated when a social mimetic model permits it. Both warring sides like to believe their violence is benign, retaliatory, just and minimal, while the other’s violence is bad, over-provocative, unjust and disproportionate; that their own kind are good humans with compassion, noble values and a rich cultural heritage, which makes them righteous inheritors, while their adversaries are animalistic, sullied and unreasonable encroachers. Such binary negative mimetic models demean the adversary, thus breaking down respect and trust, which worsens the situation.

The conflict in Manipur is the latest manifestation of this primal phenomenon whose damage will affect every Indian, regardless of demography, gender, financial status, location, political ideology or ignorance of the cost to be paid by us as well as future generations. And its reverberations will continue unless root causes are addressed. However, to paraphrase James Clear, we don’t rise to the level of our lofty goals, we fall to the levels of our mimetic systems. So, appeals for peace and better security will at best provide temporary relief. When resources reduce and contestants increase, conflict is inevitable.

Northeast India is one of the most diverse regions of the world, with over 200 major and minor tribes competing for depleting resources and increasing aspirations. It has scores of tribal, ethnic, nationalistic and administrative fault-lines. Plus, there is organized crime, narcotics, weapon and human trafficking and our deadliest adversary at a stone’s throw that would be glad to take advantage of it. Unless a robust, long-term and collaborative resolution mechanism is implemented, our much-vaunted diversity and economic potential could slip into conflict between hundreds of negative mimetic models. The risks are especially high on the eve of national elections.

Conflicts don’t end when violence is stopped by force or those who are weaker are subdued by overwhelming power. They simmer, foment and erupt again. The only way of resolving conflict is through empathetic rapprochement and the implementation of fair and just systems. Anything less only achieves a transitory armistice during which the winning side gloats over a short-lived victory and the losing side prepares for another round of violence. This ensures that everyone loses and the sins of one generation are visited upon the next.

Raghu Raman is former CEO of the National Intelligence Grid, distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation and author of ‘Everyman’s War’.

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Published: 24 Jul 2023, 09:14 PM IST
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