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Do Not Follow the Leader: Mimetic Nature of Human Beings

I watched an interesting clip. A man conducted an experiment where he stood in the middle of a city, in front of a random building. Next to him was a sign that said, “Line starts here”.

People would walk over and ask him, “What’s going on here?” He would say, “I don’t know. I just saw the sign and decided to get in line.” At first, they just shrugged and kept moving. But then something interesting happened. One couple strolling by said, “Okay”, and joined him. And then someone else joined them. Before long, the line was swelling with excited people who had no idea why they were queueing.

What this experiment proved

The experiment proved something about human nature: we are willing to do anything so long as someone else is doing it. We imitate each other. In fact, one might say, human society is built on mimesis. What is fashion but large-scale societal mimesis? One person, usually an artist or a person with social influence starts a trend and everybody imitates them.

It is also how language develops. One Gengetone artist said “sipangwingwi”, today we are all saying it. That is a new word added to the Sheng language. Language develops through mimesis. Culture develops through mimesis.
And it’s not just individuals who imitate. Whole countries imitate other countries. Christianity started in the Middle East, spread to Europe, from where it colonized large swathes of the rest of the world.

Our very own Constitution is said to be very American. It is highly liberal, emphasizing the rights of citizens and devolving a significant amount of power and resources from the executive to county governments and to independent commissions and offices. Coming from an autocratic system that gave us dictators, we were desirous of a constitution that centered We the People. We wanted a liberal Constitution, and what country on earth is more liberal than the US?

It might also explain why several political parties like Azimio La Umoja and Moses Kuria’s Chama Cha Kazi have adopted blue, which is an American colour—since we promulgated the 2010 Constitution, our politics have been flowing towards ever more liberalism.

Imitating into adulthood

Mimesis is also how children go from being helpless to being useful members of society. They learn language by imitating their parents. They learn how to walk by imitating everyone in their environment. Essentially, childhood is a period of observing how people do things and imitating them. Children from a very young age have career aspirations. They want to be doctors and engineers. These aspirations are generally mimetic, not drawing from the child’s talents or ambition. The child shrewdly observes that such are the careers the grownups around them consider important. The child may also aspire to the careers of their parents, siblings, teachers, and others in their environment. It is, therefore, safe to say that humans are predisposed to imitation.

Pros and cons

This mimetic nature of humans has its advantages and disadvantages. For instance, when you are fundraising, people will contribute because others are contributing. If only a handful of people have contributed, others will be reluctant. If a thousand people have contributed, expect a thousand more. With mimesis, the rich get richer. That’s why people with a lot of followers on social media get more followers with ease while people with a handful struggle to attract new followers.

On the other hand, mimesis leads to groupthink, mob psychology. Like sheep, humans will follow the leader. How did educated Germans allow the holocaust to take place? In 2007/8, our country degenerated into ethnic violence. The victims who survived the post-election violence report that it was their very own neighbours and friends who came after them with pangas to evict them from their homes or to kill them. They imitated what people from their tribe were doing to people from the “enemy” tribe.

Cult leaders understand the power of mimesis and they exploit it to manipulate their followers. The first thing a cult instructs its followers is to change their appearance. Every member will shave their hair or wear a specific uniform. This is a precursor of the uniformity of ideas that will be expected from followers. Cults tell their members what to think. People in cults get so used to imitating their leader and what their fellow members are doing that they lose the ability to think or make decisions for themselves. Being so used to imitating, they lose their authenticity.
This principle also leads to mimetic desire.

We want what others have only because they have it, not because we actually want it. Your friend buys a Benz, you have to have one. Your sibling vacations in Paris, you have to vacation in Paris, too. This can lead to a vicious circle where you waste all your money and attention on what everyone else is doing but never on what you really want to do. In the end, you lose yourself, just like those cult members. You lose the ability to decide things for yourself. To know what you want. You are unable to make decisions without consulting others because you have lost faith in yourself and you hold everyone else in high regard.

What to do

Qazini reader, use this wisdom wisely. Understand that in a group setting, most people are not sure of themselves or their opinions. Be bold in making decisions and speaking your mind. You will note that so long as you are bold, you will attract followers. Just look at what happens on social media: no matter how unpopular an opinion is, it always attracts supporters. A lot of the time people don’t know what to think or what to do: be a leader and show them the way. By virtue of you being bold enough to speak your truth and make decisive decisions, you will inspire others to do the same—though in many cases, what they will do is echo your utterances and actions, they will imitate you.

On the other hand, be wary of following others. Don’t be like those people I have told you about who got in line just because people were lining up. Always ensure your decisions flow from your personal desires and are to your strategic advantage. And please, I will not emphasize this enough: DO NOT JOIN A CULT. You never know when you join a cult. And in these days of social media, you could be in an online cult and you do not know it. You could be a follower of someone who uses cult leader techniques to manipulate you into agreeing with everything he/she posts and you don’t know. Learn how to think for yourself.

Don’t follow the leader. Don’t be a sheep. Be you boldly.

You will also love: Don’t Look Outside Yourself: You are the One You’ve Been Waiting for


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