Using René Girard’s Mimetic Theory to Understand Today’s Online Culture Wars

Geoff Shullenberger
The interdisciplinary theorist René Girard’s work traces the sources of human conflict to the tendency to imitate, and identifies scapegoating as a fundamental means of social pacification. This interactive seminar will explore Girard’s core insights with reference to the fraught realm of contemporary social media.
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Past dates

Feb 11 & Feb 18
Feb 11 & Feb 18
5pm PT / 8pm ET
90 min


René Girard (1923-2015) developed an ambitious account of human society and culture. His foundational insight was that humans are imitative creatures not only in terms of behavior, but in terms of desire: we determine what we want by imitating what others want. The result is that desires converge on the same objects, generating jealousy, envy, and devastating conflict. In response, societies have evolved various mechanisms of conflict resolution. The most prevalent of these, Girard claimed, is an extremely violent one: the scapegoat mechanism, by which a community’s conflicts are transferred onto a single victim who is expelled or killed. In addition to offering an overview of his major intellectual contributions, this seminar will explore how well Girard’s claims hold up in a modern setting, with particular attention to the internet. Social media platforms are built on imitation, or what Girard called mimesis. We will consider the hypothesis that the pathological behaviors visible online today are not really anything new, but a reemergence of what Girard identified as the most ancient human cultural pattern: the scapegoat mechanism. 


Sessions will be interactive; brief lectures will provide necessary background, but most of our time will be given over to discussion. The first session will provide an overview of Girard’s theories, while the second will apply them in contemporary contexts and consider some challenges to his ideas. 


No prior background is required for the event, just open-mindedness and curiosity!

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