Monday, 14 March 2016

The Extraordinary Powers of Scapegoats

Jews being murdered during the Black Death in Poland, for which they were blamed
Many years ago I was Vicar of a rural parish spread over about 1000 square miles of South Canterbury. For about two years there was a very strong El Nino weather system in the Pacific Ocean and our parish suffered its worst drought in many decades. One day a parishioner, who had, many assured me, a prophetic gift, asked to see me. He told me that God had spoken to him and revealed that the reason for the drought was that there were too many Freemasons on our parish vestry and that God was withholding the rain until we did something about that.

Knowing the men he was talking about, I personally doubted that the Almighty was unduly concerned at them trying to serve their church by attending a meeting or two every month, and I was astonished, now as then, at what he was claiming for about 3 or 4  rather nice middle aged sheep farmers in one of the remoter parts of New Zealand: That by attending their local lodge, going through their set rituals, having a few beers and discussing what good works to spend their donations on, somehow had the power to affect a vast and complex weather system which involved such things as shifts in atmospheric pressure in Indonesia and Peru and the salinity of the ocean in the North Pacific which in turn affected the flows of currents up the coast of South America.

When a community becomes unstable because the mimetic forces which drew it together inevitably cause escalating competition, the primary mechanism for restablising it, says Rene Girard, is scapegoating. That is, the community blames someone or a group of someones - the scapegoat/s -and by getting rid of the scapegoat, get rid of their problem. In doing this the community is attributing supernatural, almost Godlike power on the scapegoat. These not quite arbitrarily selected people are capable of  all manner of huge and dastardly deeds. They make the crops fail or the rain to stop falling or the black death to kill vast numbers of people. They cause World Wars or influence the international banking system. They make little children ill and curdle the milk. They become the personification of all that is maleficent.

And when the community focuses on the scapegoat and works to rid themselves of the danger they pose, an extraordinary thing happens. The community is actually stablised. The problems do disappear. Our society, for example  has probably never been so united and cohesive as when we all joined together to fight the Germans or the Japanese. And when the Germans hated the Jews they did find a new sense of national identity, and the trains did run on time. Poor white people in the United States are currently feeling an increase in cohesion, purpose and power as they face the Muslim "threat".

Scapegoating actually works, at least for a time. Of course the real problems do not disappear and the instability will return at some stage, but there will always be a new scapegoat that can be identified and punished for the evils which have befallen the community. And in the meantime the old scapegoat is remembered: there is their enormous power to inflict evil, and, paradoxically, there is their power to effect the rectification of that evil through their death or banishment. And as the tale is told, the power of the scapegoat for both good and evil increase with the telling until the two parts of this paradoxical load of power becomes too big for one scapegoat to carry. At this stage in the telling of the story the scapegoat divides to become an evil presence, causing the problems of society and a good presence, effecting  salvation from those problems. A myth is formed, and retold, and grows with the years.

Behind every myth, says Girard, is an actual historical act of violence against some unfortunate victim deep in the history of the myth telling culture. These myths are codified in religions: all religion he says, has its origin in violence. Every myth, upon analysis can be shown to derive from some actual act of scapegoating and will reveal itself to sit on a well described path of development from raw act to sophisticated story. These myths serve to reinforce the values which the society cherishes as their founding principles. All serve to reinforce the position  of  those in power and to justify the violence by which that power is stabilised. There is one exception, however. The Judaeo - Christian system follows quite another path. Remind me to tell you about it sometime.

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