René Girard’s Map to Meaning: We’re All Victim(izer)s
As we try to align ourselves closely with the true victims, René Girard shows how the ancient scapegoat ruse leads us to meaningful compassion.
“We are ready to deconstruct anything except the idea that we are self-directed and that the persecutors are always the others.”
— René Girard
Social media companies like YouTube and Facebook are running into conundrums as they debate what constitutes unacceptable speech on their platforms. They censor statements directing hate at particular groups, but allow statements like “men are scum” from victims of sexual assault sharing their #metoo experiences. There is no double standard here, since the men in question are not victims of hate speech but victimizers.
It’s less clear, however, how to categorize someone like Martina Navratilova — a tennis player and gay rights activist — who criticized transgender individuals for unfairly dominating biological females in her sport. Despite being both a woman and a lesbian, Navratilova was outflanked by an even more marginalized group: transgender activists. She apologized after a fierce outcry.
Critical thinkers like evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein have also been silenced using the cudgel of victims’ rights. Weinstein’s sin in the eyes of LGBT activists was refusing to surrender “sex” as a meaningful scientific concept.
Few, whether theistic or secular, acknowledge the possibility of their own complicity in persecution. This explains why Facebook, YouTube, et al. are having such a hard time classifying unacceptable speech, and why rational discussion has become increasingly difficult in the social media milieu.
The hierarchy of victimhood is one of the most perplexing phenomena to navigate in the modern world. Of course, right-wingers miss the mark when they deny the existence of outliers and true victims of prejudice, such as when they mock non-binary or intersex individuals based on an equally misguided understanding of biology. However, some percentage of alleged victims of bigotry are in fact imposters, using their minority status to earn sympathy, attention, and in the case of sports competitions, prize money.
Missing from this debate is a healthy “fear of God.” What I mean by this archaic phrase is an awareness that our words on such matters affect real people. Few, whether theistic or secular, acknowledge the possibility of their own complicity in persecution. This explains why Facebook, YouTube, et al. are having such a hard time classifying unacceptable speech, and why rational discussion has become increasingly difficult in the social media milieu.
Meaning and “the Text”
“Il n’y a pas de hors-texte (there is nothing outside the text).”
— Jacques Derrida
René Girard is a shining exception to the prevailing carelessness and self-deception on these difficult questions, which are fraught with danger of creating new victims or ignoring less visible ones.
Girard, a literary critic-turned anthropologist, was one of the clearest thinkers in contemporary humanities until he passed away in 2015. His academic career coincided with the ascent of postmodernism in France — a philosophical movement, in part, based on the assumption that all writing can be interpreted through the lens of a power struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed.
Prior to the pinnacle of postmodernism in the 1980s, a methodology known as structuralism arose to examine how meaning in the world is derived metaphorically from our use of language. As John Mann explains, in his “Gentle Introduction to Structuralism, Postmodernism And All That”:
“A simple explanation of structuralism is that it understands phenomena using the metaphor of language. That is, we can understand language as a system, or structure, which defines itself in terms of itself. There is no language ‘behind’ language with which we understand it, no metalanguage to explain what language means. Instead it is a self-referential system. Words explain words explain words (as in a dictionary), and meaning is present as a set of structures.”
While it might appear like overly-abstract academic jargon, the intellectual project of structuralism has had more concrete and practical implications on delicate issues like LGBT rights. The structuralists — led by Claude Levi-Strauss — inspired Jacque Derrida’s project of deconstructionism, which aimed to replace whatever assumed authority a text might have with a new meaning that the reader locates by picking apart apparent contradictions. At the root of these contradictions, it would appear there is no stable meaning — only power relationships.
This idea became the pretense for deconstructing not only the major texts of earlier philosophers (like Jean-Paul Sartre) and revealed religion (like the Bible), but also every institution and art form built on something that claimed inherent meaning, beauty, value, or truth. Postmodernism purports to show how the foundation of these values is unstable, contradictory, and ultimately a mere tool of the oppressors for maintaining power over and against the oppressed.
Today, the social sciences continue to replace traditional institutions and understandings with a view of the individual that is radically liberated from all authority. This is because, according to the deconstructionist view, the authority of old texts is rooted in a corrupt ruling power that seeks to suppress minority individuals. Thus you cannot understand our modern political discourse without reference to the postmodernists and their deconstructionist project. Delving into this intellectual endeavor and maintaining your sanity, however, requires some sort of anchor to reality.
At the same time that the “fear of God” was being replaced by the postmodern liberation of desire in the literary salons of Paris, Girard was drawing a different conclusion from great literary texts. He found stable meaning not only in the works of the literary greats he was studying, such as Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Proust, but also in the Bible — the one text that he and his colleagues were expected to ritually desecrate every time it was mentioned. In an academic realm allergic to viewing the texts of the Bible as having any grounding authority, Girard’s writings serve as a refreshing map to their meaning. He also provides an antidote to the disorienting word salads produced by the latter-day postmodernists who have inherited the humanities departments in most western universities.
Mimetic Theory and the Scapegoating Hypothesis
Against the structuralist view, Girard sought to understand what distinguishes a great work of literature from a merely good or mediocre one. What makes a Shakespeare, Stendhal, Proust, or Cervantes withstand the test of time, in his view, is their core insight into human nature. These writers saw that human desire was fundamentally imitative, or “mimetic.”
Girard’s mimetic theory holds that people are excellent copy-cats, making us capable of building on what our ancestors have done, but also prone to certain kinds of groupthink, as well as intense rivalries over scarce objects of desire — especially social status. The same herd mentality that enables social technologies like Facebook also drives lynch mobs and pointless competitions — including the modern competition to be the ideal victim.
Our mimetic nature inherently leads to conflict, which makes for good stories (both tragic and comic). Great books are distinguished by their author’s realization about their own imitative desires; their “conversions,” Girard theorized, allow them to re-write their masterpieces equipped with this essential understanding of human nature.
Next, Girard turned his attention to the great myths and religious texts of the world, and discovered that creation stories also held certain features in common. Archaic myths all seemed to be founded on a sort of “scapegoating” ruse. In them, a monstrous deity would be depicted as responsible for sowing chaos in the world (of which the community was a microcosm). The story would tell of the expulsion of the deity, and the ensuing restoration of peace and order.
In reality, a crisis was simply a result of mimetic rivalries — those conflicts based on our desires for the same objects — creating too much tension for the society to bear. In Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World(1987), Girard provides extensive evidence for his hypothesis that scapegoating served as the archaic antidote to such crises. He speculates that a lynch mob would project all of the societal tension at a single innocent victim. While the resulting peace in fact came from the all-against-one nature of the lynching and polarization of rivalries onto a single individual, it would have seemed like it resulted from a transcendental force.
Furthermore, this expedient act of expelling a single victim to save the collective would tend to get concealed or hidden by a dramatized retelling, such as Babylon’s creation myth, the Enuma Elish. Marduk, the warrior God, cuts his mother Tiamat in half and creates the heavens and earth from the upper and lower parts of her body. In reality, the lynching of a convenient scapegoat was transformed mythologically to lay the foundations for the new order, reversing the chaos and bringing about peace.
In biology, group selection theory affirms that the societies that tend to survive are the ones that develop advantageous norms for cooperation. The most successful civilizations were those that substituted various rituals, such as human or animal sacrifice, to re-enact the resolution to the crisis. The periodic re-enactment reinforced the myths, rituals, prohibitions, and taboos that held society together and prevented the outbreak of the next crisis.
This system, although ultimately sacrificial, contained the spread of mimetic rivalries in primitive cultures. In other words, it fostered more peaceful interactions between and especially within societies.
A World Without Scapegoats
The lie at the foundation of these myths was that the designated scapegoat was guilty. Girard expected to find this same lie at the foundation of the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. However, he was surprised to discover that instead of perpetuating the myth of the guilt of the scapegoat, the Bible inverts the typical mythological structure and tells the story from the perspective of the victim. From Joseph (Genesis) to Job, and from “Abel to Zechariah” the stories of the prophets in Judaism uphold the victims’ innocence against their unjust oppressors. The Hebrew Bible subverted the old myths while retaining just enough of their mythical flavor and structure to keep them alive in the collective memory.
By the time of Christ, the Jewish people had already become aware of the innocence of their victims — first replacing human sacrifice with animal sacrifice (a major evolutionary leap for monotheistic religion, recorded in the story of Abraham and Isaac), and gradually discovering that the God who led Israel through the wilderness wanted a contrite and humble spirit more than burnt ram offerings.
The period of Roman occupation beginning around 64 BCE brought about an external threat that amplified existing internal divisions within Judaism, making ancient Israel in the time of Jesus particularly ripe for a “mimetic crisis.” Normally, to avert catastrophe, such a society would need to rely on a reinforcement of “the Sacred” — a sacrificial interpretation of reality that allows ordered and religiously sanctioned violence to contain more chaotic forms of violence and lawlessness. However, Girard posits that the more archaic conception of the Sacred — embodied by the waning Second Temple order — was no longer effective, due to the growing awareness among Jewish people of the lie at the foundation of their own order. Christ fully revealed and subverted the matrix of ritual sacrifice, prohibitions, and taboos that humans create to bring about order — replacing sacrificial offerings and legalistic rules with a new commandment (to love God and neighbor) and new instruction (to follow him).
Deconstructionists refuse the authority of the texts, but despite the postmodern skepticism toward metanarratives — those grand, overarching stories that order our lives — secular society has retained the basic attitude of Judaism and Christianity regarding the perspective of victims. However, it has not adopted the humility that is required to see how often we can become persecutors when we refuse to acknowledge our complicity in the structures that give rise to victimization.
Appeals to victimhood work particularly well in a modern world that has become increasingly sensitive to the plight of victims since the scapegoating ruse was exposed almost 2,000 years ago. The situation we find ourselves in is truly apocalyptic, in the sense that our oldest and best strategy for coping with conflict has been unveiled. Yet we persist in trying to assign blame to some “other” who can unite the rest of the community in opposition. This dynamic is largely responsible for the adversarial culture within the humanities, as everyone struggles to align themselves most closely with the true victims, and distance themselves from any positions that might lead their colleagues to see them as being in league with the oppressors.
Rediscovering the Source of Compassion
Ironically, Girard notes, Christianity itself has become the easiest scapegoat, with all of its associations with historical oppression combined with the small-mindedness of some of its loudest promoters (like the Westboro Baptist Church). While it is tempting to heap yet more scorn upon a religion that is indeed guilty of creating its own fair share of victims, Girard warns us against throwing away the one text that has given us access to the very insights with which we are inclined to criticize it.
The Bible’s counter-narrative gave rise to secular modernity, with its ample concern for victims but lack of awareness regarding the origins of this concern. It reminds us that we are all to some extent victimizers, as well as victims. The spirit of self-criticism, central to Christianity, must not be warped into a rejection of the Bible’s authority to breathe living truth into the debates raging in popular culture and humanities departments around the world.
What is needed, he argued, was not a radical restructuring of society but a sincere conversion by each individual — in other words, repentance or “metanoia,” in the sense of turning away from old modes of being that no longer work.
I was among those who initially rolled my eyes at Navratilova’s apology for what seemed like a common-sense objection to biological males stealing the glory in women’s sports. However, a deeper look at the whole issue reveals diverse categories of intersexuality and transexuality that do not lend themselves to cut-and-dried solutions. There are biological and social realities for which we do not yet have the shared vocabulary to speak about intelligently. Transgender individuals are some of the easiest scapegoats for those who value traditional gender roles. Here especially, a fear of God is essential for curtailing the more strident speech acts on all sides of the debate — including Navratilova’s — thus allowing the truth to emerge from the experiences of victim(izer)s in a world that can no longer get away with expelling the truth or concealing it through myth.
Although he reverted to the Catholic faith of his youth later in life, René Girard insisted on presenting his ideas in strictly scientific terms, so they could stand or fall within academia on their merits. He has won many converts to his theories and continues to inspire critical thinking on matters of justice, fairness, and truth. What is needed, he argued, was not a radical restructuring of society but a sincere conversion by each individual — in other words, repentance or “metanoia,” in the sense of turning away from old modes of being that no longer work.
When it comes to debates over civility, speech, and controversies around gender and sexuality, Girard reminds us that words and ideas matter a great deal — and they have a real meaning. No matter how confounding or tied up with the messiness of human violence a text like the Bible may be, we must wrestle with these inspired words of the past to analyze our present conflicts. For those of us that consider ourselves disciples of Christ, this task turns out to be something akin to wrestling with God Himself.
If you want to read a good primer on Girard’s work, I recommend The Ideas of Rene Girard: An Anthropology of Religion and Violence — based on a series of radio interview with Girard himself and his acolytes around 2001, which first aired on CBC radio’s Ideas. [Full disclosure: I edited and published this primer in collaboration with David Cayley, the original editor, interviewer, and host of the programs.]
Originally published at Erraticus.co on August 6, 2019.