Democracy and Mimesis

A Heretic’s Log: A series of philosophical essays written between September 20, 2002 and July 15, 2004. 

Values are the result of individual and collective experiences. They are not products that can be exported or imported, or some contagious microbes that can be avoided or quarantined. Nor are they behavioral patterns per se so that they can be expected to spread by mimicry, or, to be more philosophical, mimesis. Indeed, the spread of values depends heavily on two things: education and experience, not imposition, contagion or mimesis.

People imitate each other’s ways and manners, but they cannot imitate each other’s values. In the process of mimesis, the behavioral patterns being absorbed or adopted are first divorced from their cultural and valuational context, and then they are reintroduced, no matter how awkwardly, into the cultural and valuational context of the recipient. Some Muslim women, for instance, might adopt the flashy and revealing dress codes of the West, but does that mean they are necessarily embracing its freer sexual mores? Experience teaches that this is not necessarily so.

As such, Democracy itself, as a value or a set of values, is not something that can be imported/exported or diffused through some kind of a domino-effect scenario.

Democracy, defined as greater public participation in the political process and the existing system of governance, within a certain negotiated limits of checks and balances and some degree of manipulation by various interest groups, does indeed possess an ego-gratifying component that could make it, one could assert, potentially universal in its appeal. But this does not mean that the mere existence of a democratic centre is bound to lead to its diffusion to the periphery, or to other centers.

Those societies that have failed so far to develop democratic systems might look with envy at their neighboring democratic counterpart and with genuine desire at the very concept of democracy itself. But, as soon as they would embark on some kind of a democratic venture, they found themselves mired in the process of negotiating the limits and agreeing on a certain set of checks and balances as the various interest groups vie for control of the process itself, not to mention the countries involved.

Moreover, the interest groups involved are often formed along sectarian, ethnic, regional and tribal lines, a situation further complicated by the urban/rural divide, degree of education and gender and class issues, among others. As such, the persistence of such pre-modern (for the most part) modes of identification and identity formation, which flies against the very concept of Democracy as a value, serves to bog down the very process of democratization. Unless the peoples of these societies are reconciled to modernity first, it is highly unlikely that they would develop a genuine democratic potential, their aspirations, intentions and desires notwithstanding.

What can actually spread through a combination of imposition, contagion and/or mimesis is, for instance, consumerism, which is indeed a behavioral mode or pattern and not a value. Still, and while, the effect of such behavioral mode on democratization may not be dismissed entirely, it should be clear that in the absence of a systemized educational effort, no behavioral mode, no matter how open, visceral or gratifying, can actually lead to democratization, that is, to the adoption of democracy as a value.

As such, we are left with the above-mentioned combination of experience and education as the major tools of democratization, and wherein the educators probably represent certain disaffected and, to an extant even, disenfranchised actors who are trying to build or expand their power-base to allow for their entry into, the increase of their influence over, and/or the overhauling of the existing system of governance. Whatever role mimesis can play here, it has to play it as part of the overall systemized and methodological educational approach.

And the process will have to run its course. For democratization is, in effect, a psychological process that calls, by its very nature, for the descralization of many entrenched cultural precepts and fixed tenets. Initial resistance is bound to be enormous and only time, education and experience can facilitate the adjustment process. The Disneyfied mindsets of some, namely: the very people who expected democracy to magically mushroom and take root in Iraq as soon as the Iraqi dictator was removed, need to “retune” their expectations. A necessary reality check is in order here to prevent further disastrous developments.