‘Groups of Trump supporters swarmed through the streets, singling out people of color to fight, some of whom appeared to belong to small vigilante squads of local anti-fascists, as well as others who appeared to be mere passersby.’ (Daily Beast, August 5)
Think about it: imitation is a powerful influence in our lives. It’s why advertising works even when we know we are being targeted by the marketing. Most cars, insurance companies, medications, appliances and exercise equipment don’t make us as happy as they suggest but we want them anyway. Things that seem to give others joy or health or better looks is what we want for ourselves. Burgers and donuts aren’t the same in real life as they are in an ad but they still really look good … and those people sure seem to be enjoying them … so we unconsciously mimic what we see and stop in to McDonald’s for lunch.
Mimicry is how babies learn and develop – they see how other children and adults get food into their mouths, communicate with sounds, move their bodies, and they want to do the same. Note to parents: children also mimic what they see when it comes to substance use, recreational activities, conflict resolution, problem solving, work ethic, anger management, morality, showing affection and general family systems. Mimicry is why children often end up being adults who are much more like their parents than they ever expected to be.
Mimicry can extend outside of family too. It is why teenagers try desperately to fit with their peers by wearing impractical clothing, listening to similar music, getting a driver’s license or being seen with certain people. It’s also why we often observe families who have a higher percentage of people in similar careers or who vote the same party as their parents. Certainly genetics and life-expereinces play a role but mimicry is very powerful.
However there’s more. We also seek to fit in, to be like the group we are connected with. Mimicry partially explains why most Canadians think in fundamentally different ways than most Americans. It’s why humans have clubs and gangs and political parties and religious denominations and family reunions – we want to be with our own kind but we also naturally begin to act and think like those we are with.
Mimetic Theory explains how we define ourselves by the others in our lives and come to be like whoever we spend time with. Scientists have discovered something called ‘mirror neurons’ which fire in our brains when people clap their hands but also when we see others clap their hands. Basically our brain doesn’t seem to know the difference between doing and perceiving when it comes to someone else’s enthusiasm or desire.
The good news is that mimicking aids learning and encourages moral character; the bad news is that mimicking affects perception and enforces ‘us against them’ emotions. Mimetics explains why children fight over one toy in a room full of toys, or criminals try to take each other’s turf or adults fight over which hockey team is better.
Things get much more dangerous when a group’s commonly held beliefs become self-righteous and it attacks those who disagree with them. Self-justification then causes even more anger. Mobs are frightening because mob mentality easily spins out of rational control.
I have written before about how one disagreement sparks pay back which in turn causes another payback until there is a fight or war. But another option, if it becomes apparent that the escalating conflict is becoming dangerous, is for the mob to focus on a third victim to absorb all the anger and blame on everyone’s behalf.
So let’s begin a look at what it means to live in a world of Mimics, Mobs and Me.