When I was a kid, I loved baseball cards. In my after school YMCA program, I’d trade baseball cards with a friend, another kindred spirit who loved baseball just as much as I did (a lost art, since no one has the patience for baseball anymore). The trading was basic; you’d swap some duplicate card you had for something probably not that exciting. It was a monumental day when you came across an actual blockbuster trade.
One day my friend shows up with an Alex Rodriguez card (he was cool back in 2002). I had to have it. I offered him good deals. Great deals even. He shot me down, multiple times; he didn’t want to part with it.
So I did what any other self-respecting 8 year old trying to get ahead in this world would do: I stole it from him.
We'll focus on this idea for the rest of the essay; it's important because it shows us about a fundamental aspect of human nature we cannot escape and why it matters for our continued progress.
(And don’t worry, I ended up returning the card the next day after suffering under extreme guilt all night).
The idea, borrowed from the excellent writing on Scholar's Stage, in context refers to the state of modern American society. We've come a long way in our quest to achieve universal equality and economic prosperity as a society. But the strong individualism and prosperity has come at a high price: we’ve lost our communities, associations, connections to families and friends, and most importantly, our ability to think for ourselves. With no one else to turn to, we find ourselves all looking towards the same sprawling institutions (corporations, the government, Universities) for answers. In Scholar’s Stage, we find that:
America has been atomized; her citizens live alone, connected but weakly one to another. Arrayed against each is a set of vast, impersonal bureaucracies that cannot be controlled, only appealed to.
People have become isolated, seen their “clans” and local communities destroyed; we find ourselves on an island of individuality, with unlimited freedom and choice ahead of us, but fearful to take the first step towards it.
Because of this, we now live in a sea of uniformity, not unlike the dystopian one Alduous Huxley wrote about in his novel Brave New World in 1932.
“One Believes things because they have been conditioned to believe them.”
Unlike in the Huxley universe though, we do have the freedom to choose what we think and decide to. We just can’t.
In his book Escape from Freedom, written during the height of World War 2, German philosopher Erich Fromm writes,
What then is the meaning of freedom for modern man? He has become free from the external bonds that would prevent him from doing and as he sees fit. He would be free to act according to his own will, if he knew what he wanted, thought, and felt. But he does not know. He conforms to anonymous authorities and adopts a self which is not his.
And so, we’ve all become more or less the same, at least in how we choose to create our beliefs. This necessarily means that when we see someone else with a slight advantage, ahead of us, we can’t help but want to destroy them. We see ourselves in them; but when we see their advantage, it becomes unbearable for us to feel like we’re behind .
It’s classic Girardian mimetic theory at work. At a high-level, mimetic theory suggests that human nature pushes us towards imitation; when we imitate, we copy the desires of others, which inevitably creates competition around our sameness. We try to “beat” our competitors in an arbitrary manner without any clear “thing” we’re striving to beat them to (If you’re interested in a longer explanation of mimetic theory, I’d suggest Alex Danco’s excellent piece here).
You can see how this cycle of sameness and uniformity can create the conditions for economic and cultural stagnation, tremendous widespread unhappiness, and potentially violence with no clear way to resolve it. Everyone strives towards something that they themselves didn’t choose; competition has become fierce. And of course not everyone can win these aimless competitions. Nor can they easily be resolved anymore. Once everyone has the same thing, it immediately loses its value.
You might be thinking: we’re not all the same! Look at all of those niche subreddits and Substack newsletters and the long tail of shows on Netflix! There are countless ways to be different today, more so than every before!
And you’d be right. But that’s actually the point; look around and everyone touts their individualism, their uniqueness, focused on what makes them different from everyone else. But this core line of thinking, a desire to standout, actually proves the point even more. Our values and our fundamental desires abide.
So, what can we do to win some of our freedom and uniqueness and dynamism back?
Danco suggests finding a way into differentiation without discrimination. If we can differentiate and truly utilize the freedom we have, we start to focus on ourselves and stop coveting what our neighbors have. We can use our energy to improve and create the world we live in rather than constantly analyze ourselves against our peers.
So this comes full circle. We need to rid ourselves of the mimetic “shock” that comes when we see disparity and accept it for what it is - different people striving for different things with different beliefs, that have nothing to do with us. This differentiation benefits everyone.
Remember the baseball card story: a tiny microcosm of this fundamental idea. Imagine instead of succumbing to stealing, I chose to use this as motivation to expand my card collection into new verticals (i.e. Pokemon?) Differences accepted. New ideas and less conflict. Played out across higher stakes scenarios and among billions of human interactions brings us to a healthier society.
Two centuries ago, Tocqueville accurately predicted the cultural state of American life if we destroyed our communities and reduced each person to their own individual island (we have). He understood that we’d fall into this Girardian trap if we adapted this uniformity; he knew that when we got what we wanted (freedom, the closest any civilization has ever been to equality), we’d try to turn back the clock and destroy everything diligently built.
The other problem I see is that we’ve ignored this fundamental part of human nature Tocqueville expresses. In no national discourse do we discuss how to maximize and leverage our freedom or why we try to destroy people similar to us or the fact that people have stopped thinking for themselves. Instead, we look at ideas on the surface that don’t matter; who said what, interest rates, blaming people with advantages.
Peter Thiel has written about our lack of trust in the intellect and our new faith in AI and big data. But AI and data can’t reveal these crucial, fundamentally human problems. We need to start thinking for ourselves, looking deeper under the surface, discussing and solving the underlying human problems if we want anything to change. We should be grateful for certain disparities; it’ll mean we chose to embrace our individual freedoms and transcend the dangerous parts of our fundamental nature.
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