How conformity leads to conflict

Two households, both alike in dignity,

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene

Romeo & Juliet

Human beings are copying machines.

This is the central idea of “mimetic theory”, which was put forward by historian René Girard to explain the motivations of human beings, the evolution of culture, and ultimately the rise of war.  As he put it:

“Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.”

On the surface this might seem a bit facile, and not especially insightful. Is it not simply an articulation of what we might now call “fashion”, or even “keeping up with the Joneses”?  To a degree it is, however when you think about it more deeply you discover that it is a more powerful and meaningful force than any such terms suggest.

Simply put, if we are all copying each other (and we are), then we will gradually converge until we collide; as we all reach for the same status, possessions, space, customers, and whatever else everyone desires.

To give you one basic example of this, I shared a link in my Christmas newsletter to a short explanation of the theory of “elite overproduction”.  This idea states that societies eventually reach a point where you get more people vying for the same high status positions than there are available vacancies.  In other words, you get a surplus of “elites”.  In the United States this is currently manifesting through more people getting degrees than there are jobs requiring degrees, leading to incredibly intense competition for “mimetic careers” that everyone wants such as those in finance, law, and consulting.  The consequence naturally is many overeducated and underemployed people who are unsurprisingly pissed off.

If people were truly “following their own path” then such a thing wouldn’t happen; people would have a wide variety of different ambitions.  However, due to our mimetic behaviour, everyone ends up following each others’ paths, ultimately ending in conflict.

Conflict is the key idea here, because contrary to the assumption that it is those who are very different who clash, it is actually those who are extremely similar who end up colliding.

This is why the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet emerged; not because they were chalk and cheese, but because they were “two households both alike in dignity”.  This is also the root of sectarian violence.  This is why Christopher Hitchens observed: “in numerous cases of apparently ethno-nationalist conflict, the deepest hatreds are manifested between people who—to most outward appearances—exhibit very few significant distinctions.”  In short, this is the root of Freud’s “narcissism of small differences”.

If there were no differences, then there would be no conflict: you’d be on the same team (or in the case of job competition, you’d be the same person!).  But if there are small differences, then parties must compete over who gets to define and occupy the subject of mimetic desire:

“There can only be one of this thing, and that’s going to be us!”

Business, naturally, is just as mimetic as anything else.  A couple of months back I wrote about this in my piece concerning why founders fail to build distinctive brands – boring startup brands who all look alike.  The very fact that blands exist is purely down to mimetic behaviour.  More cynically engineered corporate brands, by elevating market analysis over taste, often protect themselves from falling into the mimetic trap – thus leaving the most egregious forms of mimicry in the hands of startups.  This is especially true of tech / DTC startups, which of course should come as no surprise, since making a tech or DTC startup has become a mimetic trend in and of itself.

This is why the idea of avoiding competition is always central to my advice.  It is a way to diminish the lure of mimesis, so you can put yourself into a scenario where you aren’t in bloody combat with other brands who wish to occupy the same space.  By encouraging difference, you encourage harmony; like different notes combining to produce a chord.

It’s a bizarre way to think about it, I admit, but in a manner of speaking all business competition is a form of “sectarianism”.  In each case you have two (or three, or four, or five…) versions of the same thing, each with trivial differences, each wishing to represent the final version of “that” thing.  Just as with other forms of sectarianism, this battle comes at a heavy cost to its participants – and to an outside party (such as a consumer), appears completely pointless because hey, they’re basically the same aren’t they?

Rejecting competition then, is essentially a “mental shortcut” to diffuse this process, which you would otherwise fall into automatically, without even thinking about it.  I myself am in no way immune.  When I did a bit of “rebranding” on Basic Arts last year, I hired a designer who I’d worked with on a client project, and in the end ultimately picked a route which looked very similar to what he’d done for them.  I only realised this after the fact, and was quite shocked by it – however fortunately given that the client in question was an alcohol brand I’m not in danger of too much crossover!  Indeed one could argue that copying something which is utterly different from yourself can actually produce an original outcome.

Elsewhere, there are other shortcuts you can use to avoid the trap in various different fields.

A famous one in the area of hiring was popularised by Peter Thiel – who is himself a passionate acolyte (and former student) of Girard, and a leading advocate of rejecting competition.  In his case, he wished to avoid hiring people who were particularly susceptible to mimetic desire, and as a result always asked the interview question: “what important question do very few people agree with you on?”.

As he explains:

“This question sounds easy because it’s straightforward. Actually, it’s very hard to answer. It’s intellectually difficult because the knowledge that everyone is taught in school is by definition agreed upon. And it’s psychologically difficult because anyone trying to answer must say something she knows to be unpopular. Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.”

Almost everybody in that situation would give an answer which is in fact highly agreeable – and thus would out themselves as someone “mimetically vulnerable”, and so not an ideal hire.  I mean, can you imagine throwing out a genuinely unpopular opinion in a job interview?  Most people can’t.

Another shortcut, on the more macro level, is to simply consume a different media diet than everyone else.  If you exclusively read the New York Times, watch Netflix, and read the latest bestsellers, then it’s going to be very tricky to resist mimesis.  However if you largely read, say, books that are over 50 years old (one for all the Lindy fans out there), then you will not only be knowledgable; you will be divergently knowledgable – which confers not only competitive advantage, but also, paradoxically, social harmony.

Anyway, these are just a few examples.  Sufficed to say we all copy far more than we think we do; and far from making our lives easier, it often makes them harder.

Keep in mind that strategic thinking is rooted in finding the gaps between the mimicry – and so demands resistance to that powerful desire.

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