Why do people in movements engage in infighting?
Infighting does not make logical sense. In my book, The Intactivist Guidebook, I show that no movement can win or achieve its goals without collaboration. This means that infighting or internal conflicts that decrease collaboration are detrimental to a movement’s goals. Yet, most movements have a lot of infighting. Why?
Rene Girard’s Theory
One explanation for this comes from French philosopher Rene Girard. Girard argued that we actually learn our desires by watching others, which he called mimetic desire. Mimetic desire is desire based on another, or desire modeled after or imitating the desires of others.
If you’ve ever had a child want what was on your plate rather than theirs, even when you made them an identical plate, you’ve seen this in action. The child does not just want food. They want to be like mom and dad. Wanting what is on mom or dad’s plate is an expression of this desire.
This mimetic desire continues throughout a person’s life. We see people we wish to emulate and desire to have what they have and become like them so we can have the same qualities. For example, if a young person admires a star athlete, they might think if they become like this person they will have the qualities they perceive this athlete has having (strength, popularity, social status, etc.).
Where this runs afoul is when this desire does not fulfill the qualities we think it will confer. For example, someone might wish to be a star athlete because of the pleasure they think it will bring but discovers that being an athlete actually means training every day. They are constantly busy and sore. Plus, there is steep competition for the role of “star athlete.” Not everyone can be the star, and many others are competing with them for the same desire. Stardom is a scarce resource.
When multiple people are competing for the same learned desire, a mimetic rivalry develops. There is potential for conflict or even violence. In order to prevent this violence, societies engage in scapegoating. Rather than everyone fighting for the same role, one person is chosen as the reason they cannot have it and destroyed. If one person wants a thing, there will soon be more. This mechanism of mimetic desire soon leads to many competitors, but it can also align many people to all mimetically desiring to destroy the same person.
Scapegoating can also occur when the role or object of desire does not fulfill the qualities the person thought it would. In this case, the scapegoat is chosen as the reason this role was not fulfilling. For example, a person might go to college and get a high-paying job only to feel unfulfilled. Rather see that this was a learned mimetic desire, and the person might never have wanted to work in an office except that everyone around them told them this is what they should want, a scapegoat is chosen.
The scapegoat could be a person (ex: a boss or person in the office everyone hates) or it could be broader (ex: social systems such as “sexism”). The scapegoat could be a real problem, but what makes it a scapegoat is the idea that you would be happy with your mimetic desire is the scapegoat didn’t exist. For example, if a person makes sexism their scapegoat, this might be a real problem, yet they would still be unhappy working in an office even if no sexism existed if this desire does not actually confer the qualities they thought it did.
Girard and Movements
How does this relate to activism and movements? Most movements are learned mimetic desires. We are not born wanting to engage in activism. We see others taking action and learn the desire to do the same. Often this desire is born from a quality we believe becoming an activist will confer. (Ex: If I become an activist, I will be heard.)
However, if this desire does not produce results, people begin searching for a scapegoat. “I thought this would give me what I wanted, but it hasn’t. Who is to blame? Obviously not me. It must be someone else…” And the search for the scapegoat is born.
Often, this scapegoating will focus on people who seem fulfilled in the same desire we sought. If the desire is seen as a scarce resource and someone else has it, then it follows that them having fulfillment means you have less. If you can destroy their fulfillment then there will be more for the rest. This is how movements often tear down their most successful figures.
Yet, there is a lie here. Fulfillment is not a scarce resource. It is abundant. In fact, the more success you have in a movement, the more potential for collaboration exists, and by extension the closer the movement is to victory.
What makes something a movement is when many people desire the same thing and work together for that desire. When many people all desire to write books in the same style, you have a literary movement. When many people all desire to make films in the same style, you have a cinematic movement. When many people all desire the same social change, you have a social movement. These desires are not scarce but amplified the more people share them.
This scarcity mindset probably goes back to our hunter-gather days in which food was a scarce resource. Yet, most of what people desire now is not scarce. If I write a book, it does not mean you cannot write a book. The process is still the same, regardless of however many people have written books before us.
Lessons From Girard
How can we apply this theory to movements to reduce infighting?
First, infighting tends to occur more between people who are alike rather than different. That might seem counterintuitive, but it makes sense with Girard’s theory. If two people both identify as the “filmmaker person” of a movement, and one perceives this as a scarce resource, then they might engage in infighting with the person they perceive as their mimetic rival. However, if filmmaking is not a scarce resource, then the logical action would be for them to align, collaborate, and create a cinematic movement.
(This is my way of saying I want there to be more films on the movements I’m involved in. Think about how many documentaries there on food or climate change. This is not a scarce resource. There should be just as many on other important issues.)
As a practical example, I noticed when I went from being a filmmaker to writing about activism, a few people who identified as “activism person” in the movement I was writing about that had been previously supportive of my work became passive-aggressive before even reading the book. They felt that by writing about activism I was entering their mimetic turf. A few even suggested that if I knew so much about activism I should start my own organization.
Of course, if I did start my own group I would really be entering a mimetic rivalry with them, especially if the group was identical to theirs in style or branding. They do not actually want me to do this. Instead, they perceived my desire as taking away the scarce resource of their activism. This attitude was part of what my book was trying to address. The primary advice of the book was “if you’re interested in activism, you should organize groups and collaborate with others.” For anyone trying to organize, this message is helpful, but for those in scarcity thinking, it’s perceived rivalry.
Second, if you run an organization this principle suggests that you should give people different roles. Billionaire Peter Theil has said that Girard’s book Things Hidden Since the Foundations of the World is his favorite and in interviews has said he has used Girard’s thinking in startups to make sure every person has a different role. If you have an organization, there might be infighting and conflict if everyone has the same role, but if one is the “social media person” and another is the “event organizing person,” then they have different desires and roles and are not in conflict.
Third, if you are successful, you should know that the people most likely to try to scapegoat or “cancel” you will be those who are less successful in the same field and bitter about it. Yes, this even applies to movements for social justice causes. You could win victories for people, and they might still engage in backstabbing because they perceive your success as a threat to their own. This is scarcity thinking, and you should treat these people like they have a terminal COVID-19 or a zombie bite, and quarantine them from you or anything you’re involved with.
Fourth, pursue blue oceans. Blue oceans is a concept that comes from the book Blue Ocean Strategy to describe untapped markets or entirely new ideas. Red oceans are areas where competition already exists. For example, if I was to launch a soft drink, I would be competing in the red ocean of a market that is already full of options. If I created a new health drink using a rare herb no one had heard of before, I would be creating a new category I owned or blue ocean.
The same logic applies to books, films, businesses, activist organizations, etc. If pursue a desire many have already fulfilled, you might be entering a red ocean. Instead, look at the underlying desire behind your desire. What are you hoping this desire will fulfill? What qualities do you think it will confer? If you were to pursue those qualities directly, what might you see instead?
Remember, infighting occurs between groups that are alike, not different. If you differentiate, you can avoid this infighting. Instead of saying “I want to create something like that,” look for something no one has ever done before. This will requires greater creativity but offers a greater reward.
(By the way, you can still do things others have done if you do them in a new way. I’m not the first person to write a book or make a film, but the projects I’ve made have been new in their category. I could still start an organization following this advice as well, as long as instead duplicating an existing organization, I created new in a unique space only I could fulfill.)
Finally, Girard’s theory asks us to examine our desires. What are you hoping the things you desire will bring you? Do you really want what you want or have you learned your desires from others? What do you authentically want?