Scapegoating and Violence: Understanding René Girard

Rev. Katherine B. Ray Protestant Perspectives

Image via Huffington Post

I have a confession: I have harbored an instinctive aversion to René Girard since the first time I read his seminal work Violence and the Sacred.  I resist sweeping theories that attempt to account for the entire nature and destiny of humankind.  It seems like an arrogant enterprise.  So when right-wing, millennial commentator Tomi Lahren tells Daily Show host Trevor Noah that Black Lives Matter is the new KKK, I took it like a kick to the stomach.  

The first reason is because it seems unconscionable to compare a protest group to a network of individuals that systematically terrorized, raped, tortured, and murdered African Americans for over a century.  The second reason is because it forced me to concede, and not for the first time, that Girard got a few things right.  Viewed through his theory of scapegoating, Lahren’s theory, while still outrageous, also makes complete sense.  Furthermore, Girard’s theory of Christ offers insight into how I, outraged as I am, might respond both to Lahren and the reactionary culture that birthed her.     

Two key concepts are essential to Girard’s thought: mimesis and scapegoating.  Even if philosophy is not your cup of tea, once you grasp these two concepts, you are well on your way to having a functioning Girardian lens.  Let’s begin with mimesis:

Mimesis    

Mimesis means imitation.  According to Girard, we learn what to desire from observing the desires of others.  I learn what kind of a person I want to be, and what I want to possess, by observing what others want to be and possess.  Mimesis challenges the idea that I have total power to define myself independently of what others around me might be thinking or doing.  I learn how to define myself- and even that there is a “self” to be defined –  from those around me.

Once I begin imitating another’s desire, we become rivals for the object of our desire.  If I want to buy a house, for example, I enter into competition with others who want to buy houses, not to mention the jobs that will allow me to accumulate the capital to allow me to buy a house.  It may be that what I desire is not a tangible object.  Perhaps I want the American Dream.  I want to make a better life for myself and my children.  This intangible concept gets translated to tangible objects of desire, like money, houses, or perhaps admission into certain schools.  I compete for these objects with those who have taught me that I want them.

This rivalry leads to violence.  Girard’s understanding of violence includes more than physical abuse.  For Girard, “violence” means any attempt to keep another person from attaining the object you both desire.  To continue with the example of buying a house, outbidding someone else would be an act of violence.  Redlining practices that prevent African Americans from obtaining the loans they need to buy a house also constitute an act of violence.

Girard identifies a human need to justify our acts of violence.  When we impede the attempt of another to get what we want, we cannot simply see them as a fellow human being who wants the same thing.  We need to justify our action by claiming that the other was guilty of a prior act of violence.  Think, for example, of the argument that undocumented immigrants need to return to their country of origin and “wait their turn like everyone else.”  The argument here is that the immigrants have impeded someone else from obtaining residency in the US.  So it is justified to deport them, taking away the US residency that is the shared object of desire.    

Scapegoating                           

The violence of mimetic rivalry escalates.  Eventually, it needs some sort of safety valve to release the pressure.  For Girard, that safety valve is the scapegoating process.  As he defines it, scapegoating is “the strange process through which two or more people are reconciled at the expense of a third party or who appears guilty or responsible for whatever ails, disturbs, or frightens the scapegoaters.” [1] 

According to Girard, mob violence is the paradigmatic enactment of scapegoating.  In an American context, lynching is perhaps the most salient example. As I have argued in a previous post, African Americans have been cast in the role of scapegoat since this country began.   Any perceived slight against white cultural dominance- whether it be attempting to vote, gaining economic capital, or interacting with a white woman in any way alleged to be untoward- could unite a mob of white people to brutally murder a black person.   Antagonism against black people brought these white communities together.  This antagonism forged the Ku Klux Klan.

Scapegoating and Modern White Supremacy

Now that I have defined mimesis and scapegoating, I will come back to why, in Girardian perspective, it makes perfect sense that Tomi Lahren would compare Black Lives Matter to the KKK, however incorrect the comparison may be.  

Since the civil rights era, awareness of the oppression of African Americans has risen in the American consciousness.  Debates about racism and privilege are pervasive.  The Ku Klux Klan has come to signify the evil of extreme racism and racist violence.  When Lahren called Black Lives Matter the new KKK, she meant it pejoratively.  In her view, the KKK is bad.  

This awareness of the evils of racism has not led to its eradication because the need for a scapegoat has not gone away.  Yet as the language of oppression and civil rights gains salience, it becomes subject to mimesis.  Imitating their rivals in the civil rights movement, reactionaries have taken on the language of privilege and oppression in their fight for white dominance.  Hence, discussions of white privilege are rebutted with charges of black privilege.  Blue Lives Matter becomes the response to Black Lives Matter.    

Girard states the following:   

Scapegoating has never been conceived by anyone as an activity in which he himself participates and may still be participating in even as he denounces the scapegoating of others.  Such denunciation can even become a precondition of successful scapegoating in a world like ours, where knowledge of the phenomenon is on the rise and makes its grossest and most violent forms obsolete.  Scapegoating can continue only if its victims are perceived primarily as scapegoaters. [2]

Girard is saying that we now scapegoat others by accusing them of scapegoating us.  Tomi Lahren justified her comments to Trevor Noah by citing signs at rallies that said “F- the Police.”  She is casting Black Lives Matter in the role of scapegoater.  And since the KKK has become the example par excellence of scapegoating by mob rule, Black Lives Matter = scapegoater = KKK.  

God’s Response to Scapegoating  

As I stated previously, increased awareness of racism will not extinguish it as long as there remains the social need for a scapegoat.  This country’s long history of casting African Americans in that role cannot be easily overcome, especially since the terms of the scapegoating keep shifting.  Slavery became Jim Crow.  Jim Crow became the War on Drugs and mass incarceration.  As Girard notes, the mechanism of scapegoating, once identified as such, evolves to once again to conceal itself.  It is all too easy to mistake the evolution of the scapegoat mechanism for progress.  Instead, we need to escape the process of mimetic violence altogether.  

To do that, we need an example to imitate who will not cause us to enter into the escalating violence of mimetic rivalries.  For Girard, this is the role that Jesus plays.  He comes into the world to free it from the reigning structures of mimetic violence and to offer in its place the nonviolent reign of God.  In his crucifixion, Jesus becomes the paradigmatic scapegoat.  He assumes the role of the blameless victim.  When the centurion beholds him on the cross and says, “truly this man was innocent,” he is naming this execution as an act of scapegoating.   The centurion recognizes that this is not justice, but undeserved violence that runs contrary to the will of God.

Jesus, however, does not stay dead.  He is expelled from the community as a scapegoat, but he returns.  But he does not return seeking vengeance on those who had wronged him.   He does not remain in the role of scapegoat, but nor does he reciprocate the violence visited upon him.    If the crucifixion is the moment Jesus exposes the violence of scapegoating, the resurrection is the moment in which he transforms it.  He carves a new path away from mimetic violence.

Following the path Christ opened means striving to transform the social need for a scapegoat that perpetuates racial violence and oppression.  As Girard puts it, “the Gospels tell us that to escape violence it is necessary to love one’s brother completely – to abandon the violent mimesis involved in the relationship of doubles [the rivalries that emerge between two people competing for the same object of desire].” [3]  This means identifying the ways in which we participate in the scapegoating of others, a process in which we all engage.  It means recognizing how we are placing stumbling blocks before other people attempting to achieve the same goal we want to achieve.  It also means recognizing how we ourselves assume the role of scapegoat, and looking for ways to refuse the role without seeking vengeance.  

If scapegoating runs as deeply as Girard suggests that it does, this work must take place at the personal level if it is going to have any effect at the societal level.   

About the Author
Rev. Kathryn Ray is Pastor of Discipleship at North Shore Baptist Church in Chicago and a graduate of both the School of Social Service Administration and the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. She has served as project coordinator for Clergy for New Drug Policy.
References
[1] Girard, Rene, “Mimesis and Violence,” in The Girard Reader, ed. James G. Williams (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996), p. 12.

[2] Ibid, p. 5.

[3] Girard, Rene, “The Divinity of Christ,” in The Girard Reader, ed. James G. Williams (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996), p. 189.  Originally published in René Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metter (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987).