The odd heroism of doing nothing

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We are living in a time of pandemic but it seems so many people have been more focused on panic buying or flouting restrictions on social distancing and public gatherings. Why is it that many are less concerned about the virus than what they can buy or do?

Out of stock sign (Getty images/Naomi Baker)

One explanation is that people are making calculations based on factoring in a period of lockdown and social isolation, or the possible threat COVID-19 presents to them personally. Yet, if this is so, then why the panic in buying toilet paper? Or other items that will be re-stocked and replaced if everyone shopped according to their normal pattern?

And why the blasé attitude to infection in Sydney where infection rates are increasing at the highest rate in the country? These are not rational reactions, even if public messaging has not been clear.

We need an alternative explanation to explain our current behaviour and change it. One is provided if we understand humans as highly imitative, social beings.

A supermarket employee put it like this: ‘The question on everyone's minds at work: Why are they buying everything? One customer summed it up: "Because everyone else is."'

Steven Taylor, an expert on the psychology of pandemics, says that panic buying is a sign of human herd behaviour common to pandemics: ‘It always happens. It's a kind of a mass hysteria.’

 

'In a similar way to panic buyers, those flouting government restrictions are acting in mimetic ways. Because others are doing it, the attitude is that it’s "okay" for me to flout public restrictions. It is a pack mentality.'

 

The philosopher René Girard argues this kind of hysteria occurs because humans are sophisticated imitators. It is what makes us capable of high levels of learning, socialisation and adaptation. Much psychological research supports the idea that humans are highly imitative. Neurological research indicates that mirror neurons likely influence the process.

Girard identifies our imitative capacity not only how we think but, more fundamentally — in how we desire — that our desire is stimulated by others. Desire is not structured by mythical ‘individual preferences’ but by what we perceive others want.

This imitative or ‘mimetic’ capacity can introduce us to various forms of desiring, which we can freely and rationally choose between. However, it also leads to social contagions in which we imitate each other in intense and irrational ways.

During these social contagions, our desire intensely fires from multiple points of stimulation, such that it is difficult to resist.

As we act on these desires, we compete with others and feel ‘in control’ (as Waleed Aly in The Age noted about panic buyers). At the same time, we validate each other’s desires in a perverse feedback loop.

Girard remarks: ‘In imitating my rival’s desire I give him [or her] the impression that he has good reasons to desire what he desires, to possess what he possesses, and so the intensity of his desire keeps increasing.’ Thus, as we desire the same objects, we become rivals, which intensifies if the objects become scarce. This leads to acquisitive behaviours that become violent, as we’ve seen in supermarkets and shopping centres.

It also leads to selfish and unrealistic demands for desires to be met. We treat each other as instruments or rivals for our desired objects. As a supermarket employee stated: ‘We were being bombarded daily with abuse from the public. They were talking to us like we weren't even human.’ Because the market is currently unable to satisfy and defuse this contagion of human desires, violent behaviours become more likely.

In a similar way to panic buyers, those flouting government restrictions are acting in mimetic ways. Because others are doing it, the attitude is that it’s ‘okay’ for me to flout public restrictions. It is a pack mentality.

However, this can shift once social pressure becomes overwhelmingly in favour of restrictions. It is, then, that we will find a change in the way most people behave, as they imitate their peers.

In order for this social pressure to arise, public messaging must be clear in emphasising what is at stake and how non-compliant behaviours will have consequences. If people start desiring the survival of themselves and others, this will shift behaviour in a new direction.

Alongside the fear of negative outcomes, positive models and forms of imitation are crucial for a sustained and sensible effort to eradicate COVID-19.

Heroic medical professionals who put themselves at risk to treat the infected are clearly positive role models. They can stimulate better behaviour and everyday heroism, as the viral cry has gone out: ‘We came to work for you. Please stay home for us.'

In this vein, David Brooks argued in The New York Times that we will require social solidarity to get us through this crisis. He defined this solidarity as a form of virtuous action which grows out of Catholic social teaching as ‘an active commitment to the common good’.  It is shown in ‘caremongering’ or the ‘kindness pandemic’ where people give out toilet paper, like at Secret Market Square in WA.

In doing this, we show that we are willing to share our objects of desire, rather than fight over them. This is a major social breakthrough. We become more than pre-rational imitators, but self-conscious, social beings who find fulfilment in their solidarity with others.

Sometimes this solidarity calls us to sacrifice for the good of others, over and above the satisfaction of my immediate desires. In the current crisis, this firstly means social distancing and isolation.

A meme comically sums this up: ‘First time in history we can save the human race by laying in front of the TV and doing nothing. Let’s not screw this up.’

Or as Brooks puts it: ‘It’s an odd kind of heroism this crisis calls for. Those also serve who endure and wait.’

 

 

Joel HodgeJoel Hodge is a lecturer in theology at the Australian Catholic University.

Main image: Out of stock sign (Getty images/Naomi Baker)

Topic tags: Joel Hodge, COVID-19, panic buying

 

 

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Well observed, Joel. Mimetic desire (Girard) is the paradox of seeking to be distinctive, to stand out, by following the desires of others. We hoard toilet paper not only because the mob is doing so, but also so we can be different from the mob--in particular, by having the means of control that others lack (i.e. toilet paper, which protects us from a widely feared aspect of lost control). In the face of crisis this is very important. An extra aspect is added by the anthropologist Mary Douglas, in 'Purity and Danger'. She points to a widespread fear of lost control at the borders of our social body and its equally widespread imaginative linkage to lost control at bodily orifices. I suspect that the fear of 'epidemiological incontinence' regarding COVID-19 is displaced to a fear of actual incontinence which manifests itself in the rush on toilet paper. Girard might add, from his perspective, that we don't want to be among the vulnerable. He would also want to say that scarcity is a modern phenomenon, created by a society and economy marked by quite non-traditional levels of envy and rivalry. All scarcities are our own fearful, rivalrous doing.
Rev Canon Professor Scott Cowdell | 27 March 2020


This is such a good article, and it explains so well the light that René Girard's insights give about human behaviour. Thanks so much for writing it Joel. A store assistant told me of the response someone gave to him when questioned about buying a trolley full of toilet paper. It was exactly as you state: "Because everyone else is". How fortunate we are to have tools like mimetic theory to help us understand why we do what we do.
Susan Connelly | 27 March 2020


Rev Canon Professor Scott Cowdell: “All scarcities are our own fearful, rivalrous doing.” Susan Connelly: “….why we do what we do.” Is a sin objective because it imposes an adversity upon an innocent? Is hoarding objectively a sin because it is proven to impose an adversity on, say, an elderly or disabled person? Is the guilt for hoarding subjective if the act is driven by unconscious herd factors? Is the common application of the adjective ‘selfish’ unjust because it is too wide: must one first see if the toilet rolls end up in the garage rather than on eBay? Can theologians help save religion by wondering, in the ad breaks during a ‘laying’ (in America, anyway) in front of a TV, what is a sin if a dysfunction to the image and likeness of God that imposes an adversity on an innocent is not punishable? Evangelisation is the bringing of the Law so people know what brings punishment, in which case it would be inexcusable for a Christian to do more than a measured self-defensive hoarding, but even without the Law there is a natural law ‘in the heart’. What does that natural law say about unconscious genetic herd proclivities?
roy chen yee | 28 March 2020


Interesting how those behaving like sheep always claim that everyone else is. What evidence do they have? Or do they consider that "everyone" excludes people prepared to think for themselves? I wonder if this was used as a defence by those persecuting minorities in Nazi Germany
Tony Fay | 28 March 2020


It is interesting that Scott Cowdell and you, along with Chris Mitchell, co-edited a recent book about Girard's mimetic theory, Joel. Girard is one of those French theorists on everything. They have them. It is a Gallic tradition. He would fascinate theologians, who have been working on the origin of evil for centuries. His mimetic theory may, to some extent, explain why people behave in certain ways in certain situations. It is a possible diagnosis, but it does nothing to suggest a cure. That is where I think many theories stop. We do not have, in Western Christianity, a tradition of the Fool for Christ, which the Orthodox still do. They did and possibly still do, speak the simple Christian answer to what seemed an incomprehensible problem. Christianity started off as a foolish thing in a world full of philosophers and theologians. I can imagine some of the wise in First Century Palestine shaking their heads at Jesus, saying: 'Poor feller. Mad as a March hare. Good thing they put him down. Caused all sorts of problems.' I am reminded that, during the Nazi era, many academics either supported Hitler or were silent. Only a few spoke out. Were Bonhoeffer and others like him Fools for Christ? I think we need a simple Fool for Christ now.
Edward Fido | 30 March 2020


Recognising the Socratic shortfall in an exclusively rationalistic response to human behaviours, as Edward Fido does, affirms the Christian understanding of our reliance on God's grace. Christ's metaphorical self-identification with "the vine" and the faithful as "the branches" concludes emphatically: "Without me you can do nothing." (Jn 15:5) Reason and faith need to work together in addressing issues that confront us, despite some regarding the two as mutually exclusive and their co-operation as folly. The case of COVID-19 is no exception to the Catholic understanding of the integration of faith and reason and its relevance to enduring and overcoming the virus itself and the social and economic issues that attend it.
John RD | 01 April 2020


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