Stories, Violence, and a Two-Part Project
Too few have really sought to understand violence and look for ways to help us break up with it for good.
The following is an excerpt of an essay by Brian McLaren in The Seventh Story: Us, Them, and the End of Violence. Pre-order the e-book now!
"We’ve all witnessed squabbles among kids; we may even have started a few ourselves. Shouts and name-calling escalate to pushes and punches and tears.
The pattern repeats itself too often among hot-headed heads of state who start with threatening words and quickly escalate to guns and bombs.
Between playground squabbles and nuclear wars, violence takes a thousand forms, from domestic violence to mass shootings, from petty crime to gang warfare, from drive-by’s to ethnic cleansing.
We humans are stuck in a dysfunctional relationship with violence.
If we take the long view and study the statistics, it turns out that we’re in less danger of actually dying from violence than we were centuries ago. But it often doesn’t feel that way. Our brains our wired for danger, so violence gets our attention like nothing else. News media know this and exploit it to gain viewers; politicians play on our fear of violence to gain votes, and artists and entertainers find that violence attracts viewers and sells tickets and advertising. To but it bluntly, like sex, violence sells, and a lot of us are making a handsome living on hurting and killing, which makes our relationship to violence all the more dysfunctional.
Meanwhile, too few have really sought to understand violence and look for ways to help us break up with it for good.
The French anthropologist René Girard was one scholar who devoted his working life to understanding what makes and keeps humans violent.
Imitation and Desire
In a sense, Girard got hold of one seminal idea early in his career, and like a dog on a bone, he kept working on it until his death in 2015. That simple but profound central idea was this:
At some point in our evolutionary past, our ancestors’ brains made a shift in how they allocated space. Less space was devoted to instinct so that more could be devoted to imitation.
Everything changed with that increased capacity for imitation. (Girard’s word for imitation was mimesis, and his theory is widely known as mimetic theory.) Imitation enhanced human capacity for language and for the transfer of innovations, skills, and knowledge across tribes and generations. In a real sense, the brain’s capacity for imitation became the basis for human culture."
Read the rest of this essay in The Seventh Story: Us, Them, and the End of Violence — pre-order is open now!