A TL;DR Summary of Alex Danco’s Introduction to Girard’s Mimetic Theory

Alex Danco lives in Toronto, works at Shopify, and writes an excellent blog and newsletter on Substack. In April 2019, he posted a summary of Girard’s mimetic theory that is so good we thought it was worth giving a TL;DR version. Here it is.


Humans are imitative creatures. We are evolutionarily programmed to imitate—to learn and copy from other people, starting with adults (and, as we grow older, people we admire).

Aside from the basic needs (the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), desire for any particular object or experience is not hard-coded into our DNA; we’ve learned to want it by watching other people.

The center of gravity of all desire, according to Girard, is not the object or the experiences we pursue. It’s the other person from whom we’ve learned to them.

Girard calls these people the mediators or models for our desire. We are not so much acquiring a desire for an object so much as learning to mimic a model and striving to become them or become like them. Girard calls this phenomenon mimetic desire. We don’t want objects; we want to be—like someone else. This desire for being itself is what Girard calls (adopting a philosophical category) metaphysical desire.


Mimetic desire naturally leads to conflict. Here, Danco nails it.

we frequently see a kind of Hero’s Journey narrative manifest itself as a sort of ’two-dimensional’ plot: the Hero (good!) wants the Goal (object), and there’s an Obstacle (bad!). In order to succeed, the Hero must overcome the Obstacle in order to reach their Goal. The central relationship in this story is between the Hero and the Object; she will fight through any kind of Obstacle in between. These storylines can be entertaining, but they’re not how human conflict usually presents itself in the world.

Alex Danco (alexdanco.com)

In reality, conflict is three-dimension. There is always a hidden model. The subject (hero) wants some ideal that the model represents, and desires to ultimately BE like the model—all the while, disguising from himself how much he wants this.


Girard believes that the distance between subject and model matters. Models who are a great distance away from subjects are called external mediators of desire (who live in a world Luke Burgis calls Celebristan). Models who are close to the subject—who are in their world, and who they can come into contact with—are called internal mediators of desire (they live in a world Burgis calls Freshmanistan). Danco explains the different “laws” of these two worlds like this:

When our role model is far away, we continually praise them and draw comparisons between ourselves and them whenever possible. But when our model is close – if they’re our peer, or coworker, our neighbour, or even a family member – we do the opposite. We desperately hide the fact that they are the model for our admiration and jealousy. As our mimicry intensifies, we will progressively go to greater lengths in order to disguise our feelings, and what initially was a feeling of admiration will mutate into envy that we desperately try to hide. We begin to do all sorts of things that seem out of character – attack our model for all various reasons; slander them, sabotage them, do our best to ruin them. (I had a boss once who compulsively took positions, both personally and professionally, that were the exact opposite of one of his peers that was seen in the community as more successful than he was.) Furthermore, because they’re our peer, odds are that they will symmetrically feel the same things towards us: an initial desire to imitate and impress, which yields to envy and descends into symmetric hostility that mirrors and amplifies itself. 


A mimetic crisis arises when everyone starts imitating everyone else—especially in a situation of internal mediation. In these situations, there is what Girard calls a crisis of difference. And the way this crisis is resolved is the scapegoat mechanism.

Once mimetic conflict has been seeded and starts to escalate, what are our options to stop it if there is no justice system? If de-escalation isn’t an option, you really have only one move left: to find a scapegoat. Scapegoating is when the community on both sides of the mimetic conflict collectively decides to find someone to blame for all of this violence. If they can come up with a surrogate victim who is “responsible” for the conflict in the eyes of the community, then they have a rare opportunity to escape the violence: they can end the fighting in one decisive stoke by stating, before everyone, that “the true source of this fighting has been found, and we will kill him.” The community comes together by murdering the scapegoat victim, and as they do so, the conflict resolves.

Two immediate questions: who is the victim, and why does the conflict end? First of all, tragically, the victim should ideally be someone neutral to the conflict; therefore someone who is innocent of any real culpability. They have to be neutral, because if the victim were assignable to one side or the other in anybody’s mind, then this killing would simply be interpreted by the community as another salvo in the back-and-forth conflict, which would demand a response just like all the others. Second, by assigning responsibility for the conflict to the victim and then killing them, we do two important things. First, we channel all of the violence in the conflict into one person, who is now killed and cannot return violence. Second, we’ve now created credible grounds for violence to cease: “We found the cause of the conflict! And we have stamped it out.” Everyone can now get what they want, which is a peaceful exit while saving face. Except the poor victim, of course, but they can’t respond because they’re dead.

Nowadays, we’ve fortunately moved on from human sacrifice – but the instinct remains. When all else fails, we turn to blame as a conflict resolution mechanism. Pent-up conflict and aggression in the community, especially when it’s rooted in interpersonal resentment and mimetic conflict, will find an outlet one way or another. Finding somebody to blame for all of our problems, and then channeling all of that frustration and resentment into that person, feels really good.

Alex Danco (alexdanco.com)

Where Danco really shines, though, is his analysis of where these themes fit into the modern world: unhappiness online, Donald Trump, #metoo, and more.

But there is good news. Danco suggests that we move from a model of “opt-out” to “opt-in”.

Perhaps one of the paradoxical benefits of the internet, in the long term, is shifting the way we think about peer relationships from “opt-out”, which it’s been since pretty much forever, towards “opt-in.” In an opt-out peer set relationship, we default towards needing to look good in front of people; towards caring what people think, towards being embarrassed about aspects of ourselves, almost automatically – regardless of who the other person is. Not caring about what other people think has to be this deliberate act of bravery that’s hard to do. But in an opt-in peer set relationship, we only people in as peers and role models selectively and deliberately; not caring about what most people think comes naturally, because it’s on by default. 

Wise words, it seems.