Mimetic Violent Contagion

René Girard’s account of mob violence at first glance seems perverse. For example, he attributes the death of Christ to the Jewish mob in throes of “contagious violence.” But isn’t that what today we call “peer pressure”? As Michael Levin points out,

Analytically speaking, the worst effect of reification is that it gives rise to pseudo-explanations. Appeal to such entities as society or crime appeases the appetite for understanding without supplying genuine intellectual nourishment. An hour later you are still curious.

Slum youths commit so much crime, we are told, because they are affected by “peer pressure.” Yet what is peer pressure but other slum youths committing crimes and inviting their friends along?

“Peer pressure” is just another name for the phenomenon we asked about in the first place, criminal behavior in the slums, leading us right back to where we started.

Girard is perfectly clear on this:

Those who look for the causes of Peter’s threefold denial only in the “temperament” of the apostle or in his “psychology” are on the wrong track, in my opinion.

They do not see anything in the episode that goes beyond Peter as an individual. They believe, therefore, that they can make a “portrait” of the apostle. They attribute to him a “temperament particularly impressionable and impulsive,” or owing to other formulas of the same kind, they destroy the typical character of the event and minimize its Christian significance.

The main thing, I repeat, cannot be the psychology of the individual named Peter. In succumbing to the violent contagion that does not spare any of the witnesses of the Passion, Peter is not distinguished from any of the other disciples in a psychological sense. (19-20)

In other words, it is impossible to escape peer pressure. “If the first of the disciples, the rock on which the Church will be established, succumbs to the collective pressure, how will the others around Peter, just average people, be able to resist?” If you had been in Peter’s place, then you, too, would have denied Jesus, but it wouldn’t have been your fault, as it wasn’t Peter’s, but rather the fault of “violent contagion” or indeed of peer pressure.

Levin comments:

Reification relieves the guilty individuals of responsibility. Don’t blame bad, unproductive, reckless behavior on the tiny cog, but on the big social machine of which it is a helpless part.

But the flip side of absolution for vice is disrespect for virtue. Tiny little cogs can hardly be autonomous, or have rights to freedom.

There is an obvious objection to Girard’s thesis. If in a crowd “we” are all imitating “each other,” who is the original who starts the mimetic cycle? Girard’s innovation lies in the idea of throwing the first stone, as seen in the Gospel account of the adulterous woman:

Once the first stone is thrown, … the second comes fairly fast, thanks to the example of the first; the third comes more quickly still because it has two models rather than one, and so on. As the models multiply, the rhythm of the stoning accelerates.

Saving the adulterous woman from being stoned, as Jesus does, means that he prevents the violent contagion from getting started. Another contagion in the reverse direction is set off, however, a contagion of nonviolence.

From the moment the first individual gives up stoning the adulterous woman, he becomes a model who is imitated more and more until finally all the group, guided by Jesus, abandons its plan to stone the woman. (57)

We might sympathize with the woman that was saved, because we moderns do not believe that adulterers deserve the death penalty. But would Jesus have similarly saved a serial killer? I think He would, because His actions represented His own mercy and forgiveness of sins, not a statement that no criminal shall ever be punished by the secular authorities.

Here then is another problem with Girard. What of the coldblooded clinical detachment of the justice system today in dishing out punishments for serious crimes? It seems to have nothing to do with the madness of the mob bent on lynching. Mises puts it this way:

Liberalism neither wishes to nor can deny that the coercive power of the state and the lawful punishment of criminals are institutions that society could never, under any circumstances, do without.

However, the liberal believes that the purpose of punishment is solely to rule out, as far as possible, behavior dangerous to society. Punishment should not be vindictive or retaliatory.

The criminal has incurred the penalties of the law, but not the hate and sadism of the judge, the policeman, and the ever lynch-thirsty mob.” (Liberalism, 58)

It may be proper for both Jesus and Christians to forgive, but the state is far less forgiving, and I think rightly so. We may grant that with the invention of the state, the war of all against all was transmuted into a conflict between all and one. But to fail to distinguish between just punishment of a violent criminal and casual destruction of an innocent holy man or even random misfit or freak seems to be to miss the point entirely.

Violent Unity of the “People” Can Be Wrong

Girard denies that Satan exists, considering him to be a mere metaphor for certain societal processes. His interest is in the Jesus’ argument: “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand; that is the end of him.” (Mk 3:23-26) Amazingly, he claims that “Jesus does not deny the reality of Satan’s self-expulsion; he asserts it.” (34) I don’t understand this: it’s obvious that He does deny it; the denial is precisely a highly plausible proof that His miracles are divine in origin.

For Girard, the main Satanic trick is precisely to cast out himself:

Satan can therefore always put enough order back into the world to prevent the total destruction of what he possesses without depriving himself for too long of his favorite pastime, which is to sow disorder, violence, and misfortune among his subjects. (37)

When the trouble caused by Satan becomes too great, Satan himself becomes his own antidote of sorts: he stirs up the mimetic snowballing and then the unanimous violence that makes everything peaceful once again. (43)

What is the cure-all of the prince of this world, his most clever trick, perhaps his only resource? It is the mimetic all-against-one or single victim mechanism. It is the mimetic unanimity that, at the highest pitch of disorder, brings order back into human communities. This sleight of hand remained hidden until the Jewish and Christian revelation. …

Thanks to this deception, human communities are indebted to Satan for the shaky relative order that they enjoy. They are thus always in his debt and cannot free themselves on their own. (44)

Perhaps this could serve as an argument in favor of political anarchism, because the state is such an awful and crude tool of protecting social cooperation. It is through the Satan of the state (or for the ancient Jews, the entire community armed with stones) that the Satan of private criminals is expelled. It’s a colorful way of describing the human condition.

But Girard is wrong that the devil does not exist as a real creature, a fallen angel. Moreover, the aim of Satan is not careful control; he wants to end mankind as soon as possible, but, being incorporeal, he cannot kill and destroy directly. He seeks to make us humans murder each other. Satan does not play games or have a “pastime.”

What then is the essence of collective violence? My mother just bought a nice new electric tea kettle. My own kettle, being 5 or so years old, was slightly leaking, but I “conservatively” made do. It is only when she got her own that I was jolted into desiring a new kettle for myself. There was indeed imitation. But never did it occur to me to steal my mother’s kettle or even to “covet” it. When my own desire for this good was kindled, I went on Amazon and bought my own. The imitation then was not rivalrous or violent. It was even good, a process of learning and self-discovery of what might give me future utility.

The mimetic violence then must refer to a special kind of imitation, i.e., of morality. How can a thousand Jews demanding the death of Jesus be wrong? To unite with them is to bind yourself to the community speaking in one voice, to be “accepted,” to belong. In this belonging, where dissent is not merely not tolerated but is inconceivable, there is a definite pleasure and strength is numbers. You are one of us. And yet this pleasure comes at a price.

To murder one as all, thereby earning a joyous “catharsis,” is the essence of respectability; or rather one can be respectable both in a peaceful country club and in a vicious gang. What crimes will you commit to merit your respectability?

The voice of the people is the voice of God, isn’t it? The crowd is infallible and omnipotent. You can’t fight City Hall. Well, not in the Gospels. It turns out that even the entire community can be objectively wrong about a point of morals or law. The voice of the people was in fact the voice of the devil inciting them to kill God.

I agree with Girard that this is an important lesson of Christianity.

Essence of Victimism

It’s not the concern with individuals as sufferers of government injustices. No left-liberal actually cares about the children or homosexuals.

Rather, modern victimism is about glorification of sin and ugliness.

Politically correct victimism does not enjoin us to love our neighbor but:

first, to love and praise the neighbor’s sins;

second, never to challenge the neighbor’s false ideas and even to convert to his idiocy ourselves,

since to do otherwise would constitute “aggression.”

But note again the Gospels episode of Jesus saving the adulterous woman. He has mercy on her and saves her life, but does not tell her, “Go, keep whoring yourself, and be proud of it.” He says, most reasonably, “Go, [and] from now on do not sin any more.”

It’s a perennial problem for people to love sinners but hate their sin. Victimism is just another grotesque error in regard to this elementary distinction.

Culture and “Initial Murder”

I’m on Ch. 8 of Girard’s book, and I am still having trouble understanding the connection between the “founding murder” and human civilization.

Girard suggests that “collective violence is the founding mechanism of sovereign states.” (95) This is entirely true; the state is the first most crucial invention of man. It’s what enabled the transformation of violence from “all against all” to “all / the state against one / a single victim.” With time, this violence became more and more rationalized.

But there is more to it: the “sign of Cain is the sign of civilization. It is the sign of the murderer protected by God.” (85) Perhaps the violence of the state is somehow tamed. It comes along with protections of the criminal, even one who has committed murder, such as due process, separation of powers, jury trial, the various rights of the accused, and so on.

I mean that in our primitive past it was possible for a person to point the finger at some miserable wretch or misfit and say, “You know why there is a plague / bad harvest / defeat in a battle / whatever? He is responsible. Kill him, and the curse will be lifted.” Presumably, we moderns don’t do this sort of thing, at least not consciously.

How irritating therefore that the author has not distinguished between just and unjust violence, between punishment duly allotted / well-deserved and mere blind fiery vengeance, or between lawful and unlawful sacrifices.

For example, people are “sacrificed” for the sake of society all the time, and rightly so.

Businessman Smith produces mousetraps. Jones invents a better mousetrap and puts Smith out of business. Smith’s welfare is sacrificed on the altar of consumer sovereignty, greatest good for the greatest number, and economic progress.

A judge is informed that the crime rate in his city has risen. He decides to throw the book at the next condemned criminal in order to deter future crime. The judge has and uses discretion, such as 2-8 years in jail lawfully; he imposes the maximum punishment on the next hapless unfortunate thief in order to bring about a socially valuable end. The end of lower crime rate justifies the means of extra suffering of the criminal.

A Catholic priest refuses to baptize an illegitimate child. The reason is not to punish the children but to discourage illegitimacy. If parents know that the Church will not baptize their children unless the parents are married, then this presents a potentially weighty incentive for them, indeed, to marry. The children who are not baptized are thereby sacrificed for the sake of society — or for the sake of order and propriety.

It cannot then be the essence of injustice that a “group” kills an “individual,” because a group can kill an individual justly, and at the same time an individual can harm society unjustly.

To imitate C.S. Lewis, it is no virtuous act not to sacrifice a man to the gods if you think that the gods do not exist. It’s an advance in scientific knowledge than nature gods do not exist, and an advance in religious doctrine that demon-gods do not need to be appeased, but it’s not a moral advance. Imagine a dark fantasy world explicitly ruled by bloodthirsty demons. Perhaps the practice of human sacrifice would be the only way for humanity to survive.

Perhaps the idea that human sacrifice was stopped upon the Incarnation has to do with the specific mission of each person of the Trinity. The Father concerns Himself with the entire world; the Holy Spirit with the union of humanity through love; and the Son, with each individual. Thus, the Incarnation changed the cosmic order of things by imparting enormous dignity and value to each individual person, whose eternal destiny now can no longer be arbitrarily sacrificed for any temporal end. Even then, however, God might lawfully exercise providence so as to trade off human happiness interpersonally.

Lie of the Myths

Girard compares and contrasts the myth of Oedipus with the Biblical story of Joseph, Jacob’s son.

Oedipus is expelled once for fear of the Oracle’s prophecy; he is elevated to kingship upon saving the city of Thebes; and then upon committing his crimes, in the process bringing a plague onto the city that welcomed him, he is expelled for the second time.

Joseph, too, is expelled by his jealous brothers. In Egypt he solves the riddle of the dreams and rises to the rank of prime minister, the second man in government after the Pharaoh, and savior of the entire Middle East from famine. In the end, Jacob’s family is reconciled.

NB: The crowd in the Oedipus story, in ganging up against the protagonist, is not being unjust. Oedipus really is guilty and deserves his punishment. The author of the myth is fully on the side of justice and righteousness. In this case, and as Girard argues, in all myths, justice is on the side of the mob, and the individual they persecute is guilty.

The reverse is true in the Bible: Joseph is in the right against his brothers as well as the next two times against the Egyptians, who imprison him. He is in the right against the wanton wife who accused him of trying to rape her. … Not only did Joseph not have sex with the wife of Potiphar, but he did everything he could to resist her advances. She is the guilty one…

The final triumph of Joseph is, not an insignificant “happy ending,” but a means of making explicit the problem of violent expulsions. … It is only this pardon, this forgiveness, that is capable of stopping once and for all the spiral of reprisals…

… no greater difference could exist. It’s the difference between a world where arbitrary violence triumphs without being recognized and a world where this same violence is identified, denounced, and finally forgiven. It’s the difference between truth and deception, both of them absolute. (109ff)

The myth is a lie not because it does not corresponds to any actual events, and not even because Oedipus in particular is mistreated, but because of its implication that every crowd bent as one on lynching or expulsion is right by the very facts of its unanimity and omnipotence.

Anti-Capitalist Victimism

Girard is well-acquainted with current events, particularly in his discussion of modern victimism. Our concern for victims, he proposes, is a stunning new development of civilization:

Since the High Middle Ages all the great human institutions have evolved in the same direction: more humane private and public law, penal legislation, judicial practice, the rights of individuals. …

When viewed in terms of the large picture, this social and cultural evolution goes always in the same direction, toward the mitigation of punishment, greater protection for potential victims. …

Every day we cross new thresholds. When a catastrophe occurs at some spot on the globe, the nations that are well off feel obligated to send aid or to participate in rescue operations.

You may say these gestures are more symbolic than real and reflect a concern for prestige. No doubt, but in what era before ours and under what skies has international mutual aid constituted a source of prestige for nations? (166)

What has caused this?

From one country to the other the sudden turns of fortune are different, but they cannot conceal the true origin of our modern concern for victims; it is quite obviously Christian.

Humanism and humanitarianism develop first on Christian soil. (163)

Nietzsche, that great enemy of Christianity,

to discredit the Jewish-Christian revelation, tries to show that its commitment to the side of victims stems from a paltry, miserable resentment.

Observing that the earliest Christians belonged primarily to the lower classes, he accuses them of sympathizing with victims so as to satisfy their resentment of the pagan aristocrats.

This is the famous “slave morality.” (173)

I’ll deal with the more general aspects of modern victimism in the next post. Here let me just say that there is a grain of truth in the Nietzsche’s critique.

The idea that under capitalism one cannot succeed without victimizing others is at the core of the PC movement. Of course, Mises saw all this more clearly in 1956 than most do even today:

In order to console himself and to restore his self-assertion, such a man is in search of a scapegoat. He tries to persuade himself that he failed through no fault of his own. He is at least as brilliant, efficient, and industrious as those who outshine him.

Unfortunately, this nefarious social order of ours does not accord the prizes to the most meritorious men; it crowns the dishonest, unscrupulous scoundrel, the swindler, the exploiter, the “rugged individualist.” What made himself fail was his honesty. He was too decent to resort to the base tricks to which his successful rivals owe their ascendancy.

As conditions are under capitalism, a man is forced to choose between virtue and poverty on the one hand, and vice and riches on the other. He, himself, thank God, chose the former alternative and rejected the latter.

This search for a scapegoat is an attitude of people living under the social order which treats everybody according to his contribution to the well-being of his fellow men and where thus everybody is the founder of his own fortune. In such a society each member whose ambitions have not been fully satisfied resents the fortune of all those who succeeded better.

The fool releases these feelings in slander and defamation. The more sophisticated do not indulge in personal calumny. They sublimate their hatred into a philosophy, the philosophy of anti-capitalism, in order to render inaudible the inner voice that tells them that their failure is entirely their own fault.

Their fanaticism in defending their critique of capitalism is precisely due to the fact that they are fighting their own awareness of its falsity. (Anticapitalistic Mentality, 11-12)

He continues this line of reasoning in his analysis of the phenomenon of detective stories:

Now this [detective story] reader is the frustrated man who did not attain the position which his ambition impelled him to aim at. As we said already, he is prepared to console himself by blaming the injustice of the capitalist system. He failed because he is honest and law-abiding. His luckier competitors succeeded on account of their improbity; they resorted to foul tricks which he, conscientious and stainless as he is, would never have thought of.

If people only knew how crooked these arrogant upstarts are! Unfortunately, their crimes remained hidden and they enjoy an undeserved reputation. But the day of judgment will come… (42)

It should be obvious that being outcompeted by a producer of a better mousetrap does not make one into a victim. Still earlier, Mises argues:

Marxism promises a Paradise on earth, a Land of Hearts’ Desire full of happiness and enjoyment, and — sweeter still to the losers in life’s game — humiliation of all who are stronger and better than the multitude.

Logic and reasoning, which might show the absurdity of such dreams of bliss and revenge, are to be thrust aside. (Socialism, 17)

Eric Hoffer, too, writes: “The ideal of self-advancement which the civilizing West offers to backward populations brings with it the plague of individual frustration. All the advantages brought by the West are ineffectual substitutes for the sheltering and soothing anonymity of a communal existence.” (True Believer, §33)

In short, as will soon become clear, modern victimism has opposed charity and natural law or grace and nature by falsely accusing the latter of oppression and injustice.

Anti-Christian Victimism

“In spite of its victims without number,” Girard writes, “Hitler’s murderous enterprise ended in failure. It has had a twofold effect: it has accelerated the concern for victims, but it has also demoralized it. Hitlerism avenges its failure by making the concern for victims hysterical, turning it into a kind of caricature.” (176)

Again, Girard opposes myths to the Gospels and the Bible in general by saying that myths assume the guilt of the individual and by this fact the righteousness of the lynching mob; while the Bible in its stories unfailingly affirms the innocence of the individual.

This view seems open to an objection. Why not focus on justice rather than “victims”? Sometimes the state punishes justly; and sometimes it viciously punishes an innocent victim. Is it not our obvious human duty to discriminate between these two situations? Why oppose myths to the Gospels rather than learn from both? Surely, not every person presently in prison is an innocent Christ-like victim. Isn’t execution of justice a non-trivial task?

Again, Christ may forgive all sins, but the human political authorities need not and probably cannot. Girard argues: “We cannot call the [principalities and] powers simply ‘diabolical,’ and we should not, under the pretext that they are ‘evil,’ systematically disobey them.” (98)

What is true, of course, is that one cannot be both an accuser and defender of the same person at the same time. You are either part of the crowd demanding one’s death, or you risk your own life defending the accused person. You are either deeply immersed into the warm unanimous and anonymous oneness of the mob to which you happily “belong”; or you are on the receiving end of the mob “justice” for daring to think for yourself. But is there no way to be neither the pathetic victim nor the evil unjust accuser? Is our only true choice between being a cringing cocksucker and a cruel tyrant? Between a submissive slave and ruthless dominating overman? Can’t one live his life in peace?

Now not every “victim” is a victim of human injustice; one can be a victim of bad genes or cancer or alcoholism or even of “circumstance.” In this sense victimism is more general that justice.

But also less general: a “victim” is someone unjustly wronged regarding something very specific; he is innocent of the particular crime he is accused of, but he need not be an angel overall. Like all other people, he, too, is full of flaws. For example, he may eagerly himself turn into a persecutor at the first opportunity and falsely accuse another.

A bit of theology will illustrate the issue. The Original Sin consisted in the misinterpretation of the fact that human beings have an overabundance of potential. This was taken too far into the idea that humans can determine their entire nature, that they are omnipotent over what they shall become, as though a combination of prime matter and God. The mimetic contagion may be an application of this error: when a mob unites into a unanimous violent force, its actions supposedly create right and wrong, justice and injustice. Oedipus was not merely guilty; he was guilty because and by the very fact that he was expelled. His punishment was sufficient proof of his guilt.

According to the myths, there is no justice and injustice apart from the decision of the unanimous condemning mob. “It is precisely because violent contagion was all-powerful in human societies, prior to the day of the Resurrection,” Girard explains, “that archaic religion divinized it. Archaic societies are not as stupid as we tend to think. They had good reasons to mistake violent unanimity for divine power.” (182)

In a crowd, sheltered in its anonymity, our vices are hidden; as Eric Hoffer writes, “No one can then point us out, measure us against others, and expose our inferiority.” (True Believer, §28)

Our (alleged) virtues, too, are magnified a thousand-fold. For if a thousand (or million) other people are united in something as one, how can we possibly be wrong?

But now we realize that there may be such things as objective natural law, truth and justice both, to which even a mob must submit. Paradoxically, this is precisely what is denied by the modern victimism-mongers:

We are always prepared to translate all our conflicts, even those that don’t lend themselves at all to it, into the language of innocent victims. The debate over abortion, for example: whether we are for it or against it, we always have to choose our side in the interest of the “real victims.” Who deserves our sympathy more: the mothers who sacrifice themselves for their children or the children sacrificed to contemporary pleasure-seeking and “self-fulfillment”? (176)

The current process of spiritual demagoguery and rhetorical overkill has transformed the concern for victims into a totalitarian command and a permanent inquisition. The media themselves notice this and make fun of “victimology,” which doesn’t keep them from exploiting it. (178)

This other totalitarianism presents itself as the liberator of humanity. In trying to usurp the place of Christ, the powers imitate him in the way a mimetic rival imitates his model in order to defeat him. …

The Antichrist boasts of bringing to human beings the peace and tolerance that Christianity promised but has failed to deliver. Actually, what the radicalization of contemporary victimology produces is a return to all sorts of pagan practices: abortion, euthanasia, sexual undifferentiation, Roman circus games galore but without real victims, etc. (180-1)

Neo-paganism would like to turn the Ten Commandments and all of Judeo-Christian morality into some alleged intolerable violence, and indeed its primary objective is their complete abolition.

Faithful observance of the moral law is perceived as complicity with the forces of persecution that are essentially religious. … the moral law [is seen as] an instrument of repression and persecution. (181)

Yet Jesus Himself warned us about this error: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.” (Mt 5:17-18) The pseudo-victims falsely accusing others of injustices themselves are guilty as sin.

The Christian grace of charity for fellow men does not violate the nature of the moral law but builds comfortably on it. But take away this natural righteousness, and grace, too, will inevitably collapse with horrific results. There will be seas of blood shed by people with “good intentions.”

Perhaps the final communion of saints in the new heaven and new earth promised to us is precisely a society where there are by virtue of everyone’s innocence and glory neither accused, nor just accusers, nor unjust accusers. Father, your kingdom come…

Whether Paganism Is Lighthearted Fun?

Girard accurately diagnoses the modern attitude toward this ancient nonsense:

Since the Renaissance, paganism has enjoyed among our intellectuals a reputation for transparency, sanity, and health that nothing can shake. Paganism is favorably perceived as always opposed to everything “unhealthy” that Judaism and Christianity impose. …

Everyone goes into ecstasy over the airy, wholesome, athletic character of Greek civilization, as against the supposedly closed, suspicious, dull, and repressive atmosphere of the Jewish and Christian world. …

In Christian history they see nothing but persecutions, acts of oppression, inquisitions. (179-80)

As Judaism represents the moral law, so Christianity is grace that builds on, and fulfills, this nature. Paganism is rather below nature, signifying its corruption in the form of destructive passions and personal wickedness given free reign by it.

In classical art the positive elements are generally in the foreground, but behind them, even in the case of Zeus, there are the “wild pranks” of the god, as they are called with an indulgence that is a little silly. Everyone agrees to “excuse” these escapades with a knowingly complicit smile…

In reality, the “wild pranks” are the traces of crimes similar to those of Oedipus and other divinized scapegoats: parricide, incest, bestial fornication, and other horrible crimes.

All of these are accusations typical of witch-hunts, with which primitive mobs are permanently obsessed, as are modern crowds seeking to find victims. The “wild pranks” are essential to the primitive phenomenon of divinity. (74)

Paganism is not hearty enjoyment of sensual pleasures unencumbered by guilt. It is not “healthy”; it’s brutal and cruel and dark.

Pagans do not care for you as an individual; they’ll blithely rip out your heart as they sacrifice you to their non-existent nature gods and all-too-real savage demon-gods.