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Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery

Steel tree at sculpture garden 

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, its lack much be a sincere form of rebuke and our hypertensive desire not to be seen to be intolerant of “judging” makes it one of the few measures we can actually use to understand what people really think.  The capacity to copy traits you think are good or useful and let the negative ones die out is one of the primary benefits of diversity.   It is the essence of adaption and the lubricant of innovation.  It is how all successful people and groups have prospered in practice, but it has never been very popular in theory.

It seems a little mean, especially since it will tend to fall hardest on the least successful individuals and groups in society, since they are almost by definition doing the things that don’t work as well. Nobody wants to copy what losers are doing. And it gets entangled with ideas of cultural values and ethnicity.

What is culture?  Basically, a culture is a set of habits and traditions that were useful at least some times in the past.  Whether they remain useful is a question we have to ask constantly. There is nothing sacred about any particular cultural traits and while we should be very careful when changing long-established practices and relations – like ecology, they often have connections and purposes that are not immediately apparent – change them we must.

American culture is extraordinarily good at this. In the 1980s, we went through a revolution in business management, where we copied, adapted and developed many organizational principles from Japan.  Emphasize those words adapted & developed.  It was not just a copy; it was something better suited to our needs. Or consider the changes in the American diet, at least the one we know we are supposed to eat. My father would not recognize many of the things we commonly consume. We have imitated and developed.

Yet it is a common theme that Americans do not learn from others and try to force others to be more like them. One reason for this is that we adapt & develop with so much ease that it often goes unnoticed, even by us.  Another is a kind of bias against American ideas.  When we adopt something, it seems to become “American” and others might resist it for that reason, often while imitating it, BTW – the sincerest form of flattery - because it works. But I think a lot of it has to do with the other side of that flattery equation. The lack of imitation is a kind of rebuke and there are lots of things we don’t imitate and don’t want to imitate.

But too often we are too hypocritical, i.e. politically correct, to be open. Instead we praise, but don't take any concrete steps to learn or adopt. 

In my observation, the more people effusively praise something, the less they actually respect it* and if you have to have a special sponsored celebration you can be pretty much sure that nobody will be imitating whatever/whoever you are celebrating (i.e. they don’t really want it).   Think about it from the point of view of what we really want. When we were trying to learn about Japanese quality control methods a couple decades ago, we didn’t have to sponsor special months for it. Everybody wanted it. People & firms paid their own money and spent their own time trying to learn about it because they really thought is was something they wanted.

The cynical saying that you should either be sincere or fake sincerity only works in the short term and only for transactions that involve mostly words. If you loudly praise the food I serve, but won’t eat it, I know you don’t really like it.  After a while, I will resent the insincere praise.

We should respect all humans because they are human, but there are some types of respect that cannot be given or demanded; they must be earned. You earn this kind of respect by what you do over a period of time.  It means doing something worthy of emulation or creating something worthy of imitation. Respect is a kind of mutual society. You can only get it and only give it if you are doing the right things. 

This is the harder part. There are some people whose respect you don’t want and some whose respect you can’t get. When you are not getting the respect you think you deserve, it usually is your own fault, but sometimes it really is their fault. 

* Here I am talking about traits, habits and culture. Of course, we may legitimately praise heroes or great events, but even that can go overboard.

BTW - the picture is a metal tree in the sculpture garden near the Capitol Mall. I hate it. Who needs an imitation tree when there are plenty of real trees. I wonder how much they paid for it.


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