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.
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.