I like to think I’m too smart to be manipulated. I have a Master’s Degree. I’m an avid reader and writer. Critical and creative thinking is my business. Then I attend one of those Hollywood productions (of the better variety, like Life of Pi), and despite my knowledge of all those structural techniques I still find myself being moved, with the simple use of music and cinematography. What?! No. Not me.
Does that make us susceptible? I don’t know…maybe. Where it becomes dangerous is on the sociopolitical landscape. I ask myself this questions from time to time: How can people stay narrow minded? If I’m in a grumpy mood, I might think people just don’t have the intelligence to witness dynamics in the macro. On an average day, I think people don’t have access to an educational system to give them opportunity to think critically about their social situations. But in an age when you can gather an Associates Degree education on any subject through the use of YouTube, then that theory goes out the window. Then if you also consider how pop culture continuously offers people opportunities to think critically about serious issues. It starts to seem like people are choosing to be susceptible.
Nothing we do is that simple. It’d be great if we could just end there. There is something resonate about thinking, “People are inherently smart enough to broaden their intellectual perspective, but choose to stay susceptible,” and in a certain sense it’s true but there’s a little more to it.
Your existence is dependent on being accepted by a certain group of people. If the majority of the people in your family and circle of friends are racist, homophobic, domineering, and destructive, then in order for you to survive you must accommodate those values so as to retain connection to the people who have shown you love and support your entire life. Yeah, ideally we would be brave and do the work to change those family members, but most people are not thinking about bravery, people think about survival.
Self-preservation will dictate that you will conform to your surroundings. We see this all the time. A woman stays in a relationship with a guy who has a lower intelligence and she will keep herself dumb. Why? For love. We’re social animals and need connections with other people. Unless you have Aspersers Syndrome like me and are socially inept, then you’re going to conform.
People are choosing susceptibility out of survival. In our society, you really have to work to stay ignorant, you have to work hard to dehumanize entire groups.
So outside of self-preservation, why would we spend so much energy on justifying the most negative parts of ourselves? At this point, Girard’s theory of the memesis makes the most sense. Largely, it makes sense to me because it coincides with my ideas of self preservation and modalities of collectives staying unified.
I’m not going to break down Girard in it’s entirety. You’ll have to do that work, but in short Girard posits individuals and groups mimic desire and desire creates conflict between individuals and groups (mimetic rivalry) attempting to satisfy the same desire. This goes beyond resources. It rolls over into abundance as well. I would even argue mimesis is more intense in abundance. Maybe mimesis doesn’t even start until human populations reach abundance. But I should save that argument for another nerdy post. Oh, yeah, in short… To calm the conflict (the problems of conflict), we create a scapegoat. So we place all the blame on something, someone, somebody, some people, anything that will unify the group who were fighting amongst themselves. We sacrifice the scapegoat and then we worship the scapegoat.
I’m going to take Girard one step further. I don’t think it’s only desire that triggers the scapegoat mechanism. Yes, desire creates conflict (I’ll give him that). But it’s the stress triggered by the conflict that triggers the scapegoat mechanism in people. So I argue that stress is the primary trigger for scapegoating. But more or less, stress will keep us narrow minded. It forces us into a position to find a scapegoat (i.e., racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.). All this is archaic, but we do it everyday. Remember how I started this post? With the Hollywood structuralism comment? Yeah, it’s the same deal.
When you get stressed at work, what do you do? Do you reflect on your own inadequacies? Make adjustments? Move forward? Maybe if your degree is in psychology, but for most of us we find someone else in the office to blame. We see this all the time as well. There are changes at the office, and then all the workers panic, and then one person starts getting bullied more so than others in the group. Said individual starts to consider changing jobs. They quit. Then you rehearse who that person was and what they were like and how you didn’t like them over and over and over and over and over and over, you keep talking about the poor fool you sacrificed and sent into the wilderness. Yup, you were made into a social dupe by one simple structural technique: stress.
Does that mean you’re keeping yourself susceptible? Or you are not intelligent enough to see through the veil? No. That’s not the case. You’ve been played by those who structure society in the same way Hollywood structures movies. Play the right music, show the right cinematography, and like magic: You follow.