Mimetic Desire and “Catholic” Twitter

Fr. Nicholas Rokitka, OFM Conv.
6 min readJun 8, 2021

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The 10th commandment, is traditionally put ,“You shall not covet
your neighbor’s goods.” We have two sources in the Old Testament for the 10 Commandments.

Exodus 20 says:

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house;
you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife,
or his manservant, or his maidservant,
or his ox, or his ass,
or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

Deuteronomy 5 is a bit more concise:

“You shall not desire anything that is your neighbor’s”

These two lines from the Bible are slightly but noticeably different than how many people remember it. The traditional Catechetical wording speaks of goods which is supported by Exodus 20. But both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 say, “anything that is your neighbor’s”. A small but important difference.

Rene Girard begins his book, “I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightening”, by speaking about how scandal is unavoidable. People desire something, and because what they desire is limited in number, two or more people will fight for what that thing is. In economics we can think of supply and demand, how a higher demand can increase the price or perceived value of an object. Girard says that the 10th commandment forbids that desire. And it is not limited to goods. People can desire all sorts of positions, titles, honors, or recognition. He uses the phrase mimetic desire.

Girard says, “What the 10th Commandment sketches, without defining it explicitly, is a fundamental revolution in the understanding of desire. We assume that desire is objective or subjective, but in reality it rests on a third party who gives value to objects. This third part is usually the one who is closes, the neighbor. To maintain peace between human beings, it is essential to define prohibitions in light of this extremely significant fact: our neighbor is the model for our desires. This is what I call mimetic desire.” ( I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning pp 9–10)

Mimetic desire presumes that we all have desires (which I think is true to various degrees) and that when two people are fighting or arguing over something, the value of what they are fighting or arguing about is determined by a 3rd party.

I think this a good way of putting the arguing I see on Twitter quite often. Two parties are arguing about something and everyone else can watch and click the like button to add value to the side they believe or support. Of course they can reply or quote tweet or retweet, but the like button gives the various 3rd parties the ability to place value on the opinion or tweet or person they like.

Whether we are cognizant of this value placement or not, it’s happening. And I would bet we are more likely to like a tweet that already has 100 likes than 1 like. This is what Girard calls “mimetic snowballing”. Once a tweet starting getting attention it gains momentum and grows and grows and grows.

Eventually this leads to a scandal, one of the parties claim that the other party did something so bad, and this creates a level of scandal. The one party claims that the other party did something outside boundaries of acceptable behavior. This claim might not have any basis in law or rules or teaching or values, but with Twitter, we let the 3rd parties decide by vote, by their likes.

The party with the winning votes holds a certain power, and if the pattern continues, the losing party may be expelled (or chased out) from the social circles or organizations or twitter cliques they are a part of. Girard claims that, “It’s not external enemies that ruin society; it’s the unlimited ambitions, the unbridled competitions, that divide human being rather than unite them.” ( I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning p. 53)

This is where Girard’s ideas mostly come to an end for my argument. He continues to speak about mythology, sacrifice, the founding murder, etc. It’s an interesting book, but I leave his ideas at that point.

So what does this have to do with Twitter?

Last week a friend got backed into a corner by another party, was ridiculed, questioned their vocation and love of the Church, said they are not as good of a Catholic yet because they are not married, and all sorts of other garbage. It was ugly. I didn’t witness it but saw the effects of it. And I’ve seen it before. Pretty frequently. It’s happened to me too, it’s terrible.

Party A claims that party B is doing something bad or speaking in a way that’s not fitting for a Catholic. The parties might not know each other well, may have never interacted before, but that doesn’t stop party A from making a claim. Party B defends themselves in a calm and fair fashion or they fight back pointing out the lies. This goes back and forth all while other people can click on the tweets of the party they think is correct. While that’s going on, one of the parties or any one third party subtweets the other person. Instead of having a discussion there’s scandal.

Maybe I’m not good at it, but I think serious discussions about serious matters are nearly impossible online. Tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, etc communicate so much that text on a screen can’t effectively communicate. Some people are certainly better writers than others. The best of writers can communicate quite a bit in 280 characters, but that isn’t most people.

While I was writing this article a twitter blue check journalist, who has a radio show called, “Open to Debate” blocked me for a somewhat witty reply to something he said about Catholic. The irony of that Twitter block is not lost on me!

Twitter’s mission statement is:

The mission we serve as Twitter, Inc. is to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers.

Although I’m sure they support increased Twitter usage through various “conversations” (more often than not the scandal I talked about) they don’t claim they have created an app that supports conversation or communication. Maybe you can share an idea or information quickly, but that shouldn’t be confused for a conversation.

And since Twitter is used by so many people throughout the world, this amps up the speed and intensity of Girard’s theory of mimetic desire. If you wait long enough and you have enough visibility on Twitter.com, someone will disagree with you starting the potential for this mimetic snowball.

So where does this leave us?

Everyone needs to make twitter good for themselves, and here’s what I’m doing for myself and why:

  1. Keeping things light

I’m just not going to have twitter conversations about anything all that important. I might ask questions for clarifications, but I’m going to be humble and charitable.

2. “Read the Room”

I really like using Twitter to get a feel for the pulse of various current events as well as whatever else that pops up. My ministry is almost entirely focused on working with and for the friars so I generally do not interact with lay people on a daily basis. Twitter opens up and keeps me connected to the laity and that’s most important.

3. Get ideas for articles

Like this one! I really want to write more. Medium.com is going to be way better than Twitter.com for this purpose.

Everyone uses Twitter for different reasons, and at least at this time in my life. Once a year or so I think I can give up Twitter. History has told me that’s not possible, at least not yet. A lot of good can come from Twitter and I want to support and encourage that. These 3 guidelines are what I’m going to try for the time being. I’m not claiming they are steadfast rules for everyone, just guidelines for me, for now.

The internet is real life in many, many ways. What we say digitally can hurt the heart. Be humble, kind, and charitable. Don’t let Twitter get you into a mimetic snowball.

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Fr. Nicholas Rokitka, OFM Conv.

I am a Catholic Priest and Conventual Franciscan Friar currently serving as a formation director in Silver Spring, MD as well as Province Treasurer.