Mimetic Desire and the Scapegoat Mechanism II (Perception Warfare p 10)

As one of the primary factors leading to such a crisis point, Girard points out that the homogenizing effects of democratic and capitalist society have multiplied our potential rivals to include just about everyone in our community (as well as virtually everyone else outside it). The scapegoat mechanism requires the sacrifice of a victim whom the group can agree is guilty, an “other.” The social group “huddles” together by perceiving an individual as a threat to be expunged, and then does exactly that. The figurative — often literal — blood of the sacrificial victim then becomes the glue that binds the group together. By relieving the pressure of mimetic rivalry, it prevents it from exploding into antagonism and violence. Such a primal ritual was recently enacted in the US with the alleged assassination of Osama Bin Laden. Whether or not Bin Laden existed, and whether he was really assassinated, are unimportant details. What counts is that the American people believed the narrative wholeheartedly and came together in grisly, gleeful celebration over the ritual sacrifice.  After the Sandy Hook killings, possibly an example of mimetic violence run amok, there was no such sacrificial victim to bind the group together again. While Lanza would certainly have fit the bill as a scapegoat — someone the whole group could agree was guilty — he was already dead by the time the news of the event broke. This prevented Americans bonding over the incident and left only the opposite: further disruption of the group’s unity, evidenced by continuing incidents of mimetic violence (“copycat effect”), and the frantic stockpiling of weapons.

According to the theory of mimetic violence, there is no kind of human social and cultural arrangement that won’t eventually lead to violence. The scapegoat mechanism is essential to human grouping because, without it, violence eventually erupts within the tribe and the group destroys itself. Directed violence at a collectively agreed upon “other” is the only way to avoid indiscriminate violence within the group (or society) itself.

The form which this violence takes does vary, however. The ancient Greeks practiced Cathartic theater (in which Oedipus was a favorite “fall-guy”) as a means to release the tension of potential mimetic violence within the community. For Cathartic theater to be effective, however, audiences were required to enter into trance-like participation with the performance. Perhaps surprisingly, it was essential that the violence not be acted out on the stage, but only reported by the characters in the play. The idea, presumably, was that audience members had to bring about (imagine) the resolution within their own psyches for the catharsis to happen. This is very different from later enactments such as when Nero got busy sacrificing Christians to lions in ancient Rome. Public executions have been popular in many cultures for centuries, and by the look of it they may well be so again.[i] Spectator sports provide a collective release of hostility and tension for crowds, and allow for a strengthened sense of group identity. Perhaps most popular of all is the revenge fantasy common to many modern movies, in which the “hero” hunts down and slays the evil-doer, not only for his own catharsis but that of audiences too.

Barring the occasional Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein, however, it’s only through entertainment that modern people can be unified in their agreement that a sacrificial victim is guilty. Modern society is too varied and multilayered, information too proliferate and complex, to create real-world enactments of the kind used by primitive tribes. As a result, the scapegoat mechanism has become diffuse, ambiguous. Modern sensibilities don’t really allow us to believe that someone is irredeemably evil and deserving of destruction — it’s too nakedly barbaric — unless we are first of all worked into a moral frenzy (as in the case of 9/11). It’s at that point that the scapegoat mechanism can be activated more “cleanly.”

With an incident like Sandy Hook, the idea that Adam Lanza was evil is difficult for many people to accept. Unlike Osama, Saddam, or the suicide pilots of 9/11, Lanza was one of the community which he (allegedly) decimated. This may be partly why a designation of autism was seized upon by the media. Unlike insanity, autism doesn’t let the perpetrator off the hook. He can still be seen as responsible for his actions. What it does do is make him qualitatively different. Like suicide bombers, an Aspergerian shooter can be regarded as a social aberration, but not as a victim of society. Like the killer of We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lanza can be reduced, in the popular imagination, to an avatar of chaos and a scion of darkness, and dealt with accordingly.

[i] The debate over whether or not to make executions a public spectacle has been going on for at least a couple of decades. There was an argument to broadcast Saddam Hussein’s execution by pay-per-view, and the idea of televising Timothy McVeigh’s execution was discussed after the Oklahoma City bombing. (McVeigh was in favor of it.) “Whether televised or not, an execution is always public by its very nature. The death of a condemned person is in no sense just his own death; it is also a killing by the state. Thus, the question of whether executions should be televised is more than just a question of manners and taste (as, for example, the question of whether to televise a suicide’s self-videotape might be); it is also a question of democracy. Executions are public in the sense that they are a state-imposed punishment for an offense against the law. They are also public in the sense that their conduct is regulated by public norms. And, ghoulish or not, the public is always present at an execution as an authorizing audience, unseeing and unseen, but present nonetheless. Every time the state kills, it kills in our name. The seemingly bureaucratic act of a few state officials is our deed as well. Hiding the deed does not change this fact. This is the haunting reality of state killing in a constitutional democracy.” http://writ.news.findlaw.com/commentary/20010405_sarat.html 

3 thoughts on “Mimetic Desire and the Scapegoat Mechanism II (Perception Warfare p 10)

  1. Have you tried or considered posting these writings in a forum or site that’s more academically oriented? This stuff is definitely worthy of consideration and discussion by highly intelligent people. I would like to see some critiquing by credentialed sociologists of some sort. Just a thought.

  2. Heh. I’m not sure I would! Those guys can be vicious.

    I am putting all this material together as a paper which I will make available as a PDF, and yes, I hope to get the attention of people in the autistic community and see where it goes from there.

    Thanks for the thought.

  3. I finished watching some Rene Girard interviews on YT, and was left with food for thought on myth from different angle.

    This part has to do with The Scapegoat.


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