The book seems to be very focused on the theme of mimicry as the root of social strife. It's dangerous to try to fit all of human society into one single social theme, but my impression of 20th century French intellectuals is that they engaged in these over-simplifications for playful reasons. They felt that if you want to understand an idea you must take it as far as it can go and then some, and try to fit absolutely everything into it. Even if the fit is awkward, you must keep trying. They never say explicitly that the awkwardness of the fit might be telling in its own way, but instead expected you to figure that out for yourself. So I'm reading him forgivingly. Also, his ideas about mimicry, and how it can lead to rivalry and contests, while repeated on every page, also seem to be more of an invitation to bigger questions, rather than something that he seriously intends you to fit everything into.
Mostly it has me thinking about religion in general. Abrahamic faiths seem to be particularly versatile religions, in that they provide at least 4 things:
- A cosmology: God made the world, and that explains it.
- Morality: You must do good when possible, and atone and repent by the rules of the faith when you fall short, and God will reward you.
- Ritual: The year is organized by a religious calendar, with rituals for different facets of life at different times of the year. This focuses our time and endeavors, provides cohesion and outlets for our communities, and provides, in the words of Ecclesiastes, a season for all things.
- Community: The community of believers is distinct from other tribes.
When I contrast with older polytheistic faiths, one omission that I see is morality. One reason is that in ancient mythology it isn't clear which god you should look to for morality. The universe has no undisputed moral leader, but rather a strife between deities with conflicting agendas. And many of those deities are deeply flawed (the Greek gods being particularly flawed, but not unique in having flaws). Are we to look to these murderous adulterers for morality? At least the Old Testament God, when He smites the wicked, has an uncontested claim to moral arbiter status.
Instead, polytheists appeal to different deities for different purposes. Want victory in war? Sacrifice to the god of war. Want a bountiful harvest? Sacrifice to a harvest deity, or maybe a weather deity. And so forth. Also, while ancient polytheists were deeply concerned with tribal identity, alien tribes have deities whom some societies considered real rivals to their deities, rather than figments of alien imagination.
(Hinduism has morality, but there's also an idea that the multitude of gods reflect some deeper, higher order behind the world, something that might not be a single God like the God of Abraham, but at least brings unity.)
Political correctness offers morality and community, and increasingly ritual (e.g. land acknowledgments), but not (yet) a cosmology. I suspect that as they edge toward "noble savage" tropes we'll see a re-emergence of religious cosmology, particularly as the astronomy community struggles to reconcile their need for mountaintop observatories with traditional religious beliefs about sacred mountains, but we're not yet at the point of a PC cosmology. Maybe we'll eventually get myths about certain groups having not just more sustainable lifestyles but supernatural connections to the land, but we're not quite there (as far as I know).
Or maybe not. Ancient religions didn't check all of the boxes that Abrahamic faiths check, and much of the world gets by without all of those boxes being checked in their belief systems. Still, since PC seems to be quite Christian in its roots, being so focused on guilt and redemption, I am open to the possibility that eventually a full-scale recreation of Christianity will emerge.