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  • Writer's pictureRJ Smith

Pell, Girard and the Scapegoat Mechanism

René Girard, 1923-2015.

A few days after my recent piece on George Pell was published on Quillette, a reader contacted me through this site drawing my attention to the works of René Girard on the subject of the scapegoat. I decided to follow his advice and accessed an abbreviated version of Girard’s principal works. The 24 hours that followed were revelatory.

Girard’s theory is that human culture is defined by relative peace punctuated by brutal collective violence. The victim—always innocent—is sacrificed to appease the mob and order in the community is restored. Girard, initially a literature professor, remarked that “every novelistic conclusion is a beginning.” The same is true of human culture, a fact borne out equally by history as the myths upon which human societies are built.

In Genesis, Cain kills his twin Abel and then builds the first human culture. Cain’s parents committed the original sin, but Cain committed the original murder, and this literally foundational myth is common to the three Abrahamic religions. The progeny of everything, according to Girard, is the murder of the innocent victim.

The crucifixion of Jesus is another obvious example. A travelling preacher and healer who professed peace and understanding, Jesus was killed in a manner designed to maximise his humiliation. Yet he never harboured hate for his persecutors. Jesus was the ultimate victim, and the ultimate exemplar of the capacity of man to reject violence and embrace love.

Abel and Jesus's deaths are archetypal according to Girard. Previously tolerated and indeed admired by their contemporaries, rumours begin to circulate, accusations are made, knives sharpened and torches lit as the mob's thirst for blood reaches critical mass. And this process is never disrupted due to the innate predilection of humans to imitate and follow our peers. Peter was the man, according to Girard “with the greatest spiritual investment in Jesus.” Yet he denied associating with Jesus to avoid the disapproval of those around him.

"All those who join a belligerent crowd act more or less like Peter. They all transfer their private scandals to some public target. Men become so burdened with scandals that they desperately, if unconsciously, seek the public substitutes upon whom to unburden themselves. As they become more numerous, the target's attractiveness as a target increases, and the process becomes irresistible...When this unanimity is achieved, the guilt of the victim becomes an absolute certainty to the participants and the expulsion and destruction of that victim is experienced by each one as a destruction of his or her own scandal, a personal liberation. When this happens, peace immediately returns and the mob is no more." – Girard

Jusepe de Ribera, Denial of St Peter, c. 1615

The catharsis sacrifice affords is usually based on the insecurity the victim triggers in the minds of his peers because of his exceptional qualities. But the victim is not always a he. Joan of Arc was another archetypal scapegoat. Joan’s trial at the hands of the English was a model of corruption. The judges were partisan. The accused had no access to legal counsel. Evidence was fabricated, documents doctored, all leading to Joan's death at the stake for the crime of professing to experience divine visions and for dressing like a man.

As with Jesus, factual guilt—the truth about this 19 year-old peasant girl—was wholly irrelevant. The mob had found its victim and would exact its phoney revenge, making a martyr of the accused and a scandal of themselves.

Witch hunts of this kind did not end in the middle ages. They reached their zenith in the early modern period, continued into the 20th century in China and persist to this day in primitive societies on every continent on earth except Europe and North America.

Three women found guilty of witchcraft in China, 1922.

But what about our own society? There is a tendency among peoples to consider their culture beyond brutality, beyond history. And indeed things have steadily improved in the West (with obvious, horrific reversions like the Holocaust) since Christ according to Girard:

“All of Western and then world history can be interpreted as a turbulent, chaotic, but constantly accelerating process of de-victimisation that is unique in all of world history and it can be traced only to Christianity.”

Girard’s message is ostensibly optimistic. However he was aware that Judeo-Christian values were and are in precipitous decline, and are the only antidote to the core human problem. Unless we follow Jesus’s example, whether or not we believe he was resurrected (which, I should add, I do not), we are bound to join the mob, to embrace hate and ultimately persecute the innocent.

On the right the tendency is to victimise members of minorities. On the left the growing trend is to scapegoat those perceived to hold positions of power. Indeed, the ‘privileged’ are particularly vulnerable today because of the dialectics of power and oppression that defines Marxist and post-structuralist thought and which, as Nietzsche prophesied, has spread like a virus throughout the secularised Western academe.

“A mere glance at world history will reveal that the odds of a violent death at the hands of a frenzied crowd are statistically greater for the privileged than for any other category.” – Girard

The propensity of the mob to target the innocent depends on the gravity of the threat the victim represents in their minds. Extinction Rebellion activists believe the world will end if our fossil-fuel based economy is not torn down, which justifies any actions consistent with the broad concept of de-industrialisation. Antifa activists believe white nationalist movements are assembling across the United States, a murderous ideology whose initiates must be neutralised.

The belief morphs into a kind of religion, giving its votaries—unburdened by the need to rationalise their prejudices—free reign to destroy the collective's heretics and interlopers. A mob, after all, is more defined by what and whom it is against than what it is for.

Which brings me to the Pell case. The response to my Quillette piece was the opposite of what I expected. I expected some if not a flood of hateful and/or condemnatory communications. But the piece provoked almost no negative commentary or dissent, less even than an article I published on the site on the relatively benign topic of positivist philosophy. To date no one has challenged me on anything except a few trivial aspects of the piece (dates, submissions of the Crown etc). No fundamental objection, whether reasoned or not, has been forthcoming.

This might be because Pell’s detractors consider his case is over. It might be because my arguments are so demonstrably false, so risibly ill-conceived as to not warrant a response. But I suspect it is something different. I suspect the people who partook so gleefully in the catharsis of Pell’s conviction simply do not care whether he is innocent or guilty. Pell is not being punished for his factual guilt but for what he represents on a conscious or unconscious level in the minds of his oppressors. As Girard says:

In a mob situation, tranquility does not return, as a rule, without some kind of victimhood to assuage the desire for violence. That collective belief appears so absurd to the detached observer, if there is one, that he is tempted to believe the mob is not duped by its own identification of the scapegoat as a culprit. The mob appears insincere and hypocritical. In reality, the mob really believes.

All of this is deeply ironic. Pell is not just a Christian but a theologian too. He knows that the Catholic communion is a rejection of the false accusation. That “Satan”—who embodies hate and deception—etymologically refers to the “accuser”, the Holy Spirit the lawyer for the defence, and Jesus—who embodies love and truth—the ultimate, innocent victim.

Now Pell is the victim. And if the authority figures in charge of his final appeal do not assert the rule of law and reject the rule of the mob it will only prove our culture harbours the same ignoble and squarely human trait of seeking out and persecuting the innocent, that the core of human nature is an irrepressible and atavistic lust for the blood of sacrificial lambs.


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