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All against one weirdo: an anecdote to illustrate René Girard's scapegoat theory

A seemingly anodyne incident on a bus in Brussels helps argue that René Girard's theory of social violence can still shed light on human behavior in urban, secular settings.

By Anca Serbanuta

Vast and quiet, Uccle is a respectable residential area connecting Brussels with middle-to-upper class outskirts. Beautiful villas hide in gardens with park dimensions and polite elderly ladies wearing pearls around their necks shop for broccoli and charcuterie specialties in spacious supermarkets that never form annoying queues at the cash register. The ladies have enough time to be generous: they let you pass before them if you might be skipping office to get a couple of biscuits or a banana, and bid you a nice goodbye as you rush out. Little dogs, unaware of their fortune, roam the sidewalks and park alleys carrying with them men with cravats fixed under their chins, the amiable husbands of the ladies, who in turn carry a venerable past in the structures of government. The chaotic and smelly immigrant areas of downtown couldn’t be farther away; here, everything is the result of well-planned urbanism: the flower towers in the squares, the hieratic aigrettes standing on tiny islands in the middle of ponds, the book exchange booths at street corners. Nobody shouts, nobody laughs out too loud, there’s no petty thieves or hobos. The only anti-social activity is the occasional attacks on garbage containers by semi-urban foxes, to the delight of bobo ecologists and their children.

I sometimes take bus 38 to work, enjoying the little morning cruise on the hilly streets of Uccle. No matter how many times I’ve seen it, the rust-colored brick cottage with the proud display of its construction year (1572) on the front wall still makes me daydream about the domestic pleasures of traditionally bourgeois living mixed with all the blessings of technology: discrete led-lighting filtered through Flemish lace, a latest generation Italian oven to bake that butter pastry to perfection and the best chemicals yet developed for the preservation of ancient wooden artifacts into eternity. But today my lulling thoughts get interrupted by some kind of commotion on the bus.

A chubby elderly lady comes from the back of the bus to the front, visibly upset. A man in his thirties is following her, and sits right next to her. “This is outrageous! Get away!” – she pushes him with both hands and goes to find another seat. The guy is clearly deranged, or at least of diminished mental capacity, in a mild but still unsettling way: he sits too close to people or stares them in the eye. Otherwise, he looks normal, like a construction worker on a lunch break. He isn’t noisy or openly aggressive; he seems bizarrely playful, like an imp or a speechless djinn intent on pestering good people just for the kicks.

The population on the bus is on alert. People look toward the culprit, who seems to be prey to a rush of adrenaline. A woman in her early thirties is bravely pedagogic: “Sir, if you do not behave, we will have to punish you! We will send you to the front of the bus with Mister Driver!” For a moment the scene becomes almost merry. People are smiling and nodding their heads. But all of a sudden, the woman’s tone of voice shifts to a danger pitch: “And you will stop staring at me right now! This is unacceptable, I’m calling the driver!” Another young woman comes to her rescue: “We will not be forced to take this. I’m pregnant! Either you keep calm or we will ask the bus pull over right now and…” The pregnant woman has a particularly strident voice and a very compelling attitude; to the recipient, it’s sheer provocation. He bursts from his seat and tries to attack her, but is quickly tackled by her husband, whose reflexes had been sharpening all along the events. At this point an African man and a bearded redhead get involved in the struggle, the driver pulls over and brings his authority to the ring, everybody vociferates, and before you know it, the aggressor has been kicked out of the bus by the unanimous effort of about 14 hands. Flushed with rage and powerlessness, the outcast is mooning at the society on the bus, now safely separated from him as it continues its journey on the streets of Uccle.  

I couldn’t help but notice how the mood on the bus was different from that before the madman had got on and from that on any bus for that matter. People were talkative and cordial, smiling at each other and joking about the incident. At the end of the line, they all warmly wished nice days to each other and to the driver and left the bus seemingly on high spirits. Something about this sad encounter with a marginal had been strangely beneficial to all of us except the marginal himself.

This social situation can be looked at from two vantage points. The first one is comfortable, and is common to everyone on the bus. A dangerous loony had been neutralized and removed by collective effort. Imagine if it would have been a terrorist - that bus was filled with heroes. For once, in this mollified society where nobody dares to take action against aggressors, where so many of us look away in fear as others are being robbed, harassed, assailed, a bunch of people managed to cooperate and rid themselves of danger. This is very likely the story taken home by my fellow travelers on bus 38 that day.

The other perspective would place this collective action in a different context. It would see the community on the bus as a synecdoche for the whole society and the casting out of the looney as the enactment of a mechanism as old as society itself, but actually just a little bit older. That perspective would be heavily informed by René Girard’s theory of social violence and the scapegoat.

A view on violence

French scholar René Girard is considered an anthropologist in France and a historian and philosopher of social sciences in the Anglo-American tradition. Indeed, the two questions underlying his very long professional life (he was born in 1923) are seriously fundamental: what is the primordial drive for violence in human societies? And how come this violence does not devastate societies? The fact that archaic human societies have survived their own violent past was the deep anthropological mystery that Girard has been hoping to solve in a series of books investigating the relationship between violence, mimetic desire, community formation and the sacred.

According to Girard, every human society (or polity, or community) is founded on violence. At the origin of this struggle -the war of all against all, in Hobbesian terms- lies what Girard calls “mimetic desire”, that is, the desire to own or be in relation to an object desired by the other(s), not because the object is valuable in itself, but because it is wanted by more than just one person. Desire is thus a triangulating process, in which the relationship between subject and object is mediated by the model of the other’s desire for the same object. Consider the amounts of time and effort spent by Apple aficionados at the release of the newest IPhone, which isn’t substantially different from the previous generation, so the desire to own it has less than rational grounds.

Mimetic desire creates rivalry, and rivalry leads to local and finally generalized conflict, as the model inspiring desire becomes an obstacle to reaching the object of desire. This is what Girard calls the “mimetic crisis”: in an unregulated community, rivalry will finally turn into an endless cycle of violence, since mimetic desire is by its nature dangerously contagious and can engulf the whole community. Especially if vengeance -another deadly ingredient- adds itself to the scheme. There are plenty of examples of this ancient scenario, even in modern times- vendetta sprees have been annihilating almost entire lineages and groups in remote mountain communities in Afghanistan or Albania, or various mafia organizations around the world. This type of community is still beyond the reach of centralized governmental regulating systems and their own customs are not always efficient ramparts against escalating violence (sometimes customs actively sanction vengeance practices, such as the infamous Pashtunwali code still in force in certain Afghan/Pakistani tribal cultures).

Overarching justice systems are a fairly recent cultural development. Archaic societies, under threat of extinction from self-inflicted violence, had to find a different solution to the mimetic crisis. The neutralizing mechanism Girard identifies in all the foundation myths he has studied (mainly in his book Violence and the Sacred, 1972) is the collective sacrificing of a victim.

The idea that religious sacrifice is meant to appease human violent drives rather than divine anger is somewhat counterintuitive. Girard insists that sacrifice is a very human affair, but with a religious coating to ensure it has transcendental legitimacy (French philosopher Pierre Manent has criticized Girard’s view of religion as the “Interdisciplinary Super Institute of Social Sciences”; but Pierre Manent is a Catholic thinker). The victim mechanism - the scapegoating- has a double function in this context: it attracts all diffuse aggressiveness and thus heals society of it on the one hand, and it prevents it from sinking back to violence through the periodic or occasional reenactment of the sacrifice, which according to Girard’s comprehensive theory is the origin of ritual practice in general. All against all becomes all against one, through a symbolic transfer of collective guilt to the victim. This is why it is essential that the victim should be innocent, even arbitrarily chosen.

“For Absolute Removal”

In the Old Testament apocryphal Book of Enoch, Azazel is the leader of a group of fallen angels who teaches men to use weapons and women to use cosmetics. A sower of discord, he encourages competition, rivalry and war. In Leviticus, the word Azazel appears in relation to the practice of choosing two he-goats by lot and casting them out in the desert, as they carry with them the sins of the entire community “for absolute removal”. The term conveys the whole mythical framework: the demon of envy and violence, the social cleansing mechanism and even the setting: in some rabbinic interpretations, Azazel means the cliff from which the goats were cast down, to the absolution of social evil.

Girard and his disciples extrapolated this classic scheme to many historical cases, seeing it as a mode of functioning of human culture by and large. The profile of the scapegoat became complex and refined, and examples ranged from Oedipus to Christ to the French Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus, who exonerated the whole French military elite of the burden of treason by being convicted in a couple of infamously unfair trials (subsequently exposed as such in what was called the Dreyfus Affair). 

But not anybody has what it takes to become a scapegoat. Girard lists the social conditions predisposing specific individuals or groups to become expiatory victims: war prisoners, slaves, malformed children, kings and beggars. All these have in common a certain marginality, they deviate from normality. They all tend to escape society, either physically, or through its upper echelon (kings) or lower echelon (beggars, outcasts, various minorities). Pacifying the community goes through punishing nonconformity, thus making sure its members form a homogenous mass sheltered from all violence. Difference stirs, inflates passions and precipitates crisis.

The mechanism at work 

The situation on bus 38 is the occasion for a didactic exercise: apply the scapegoat script to what happened on the bus and test the theory in a daily life setting, far from mediatized public arenas and grand literary schemes.

I am aware of the risk: one modest incident cannot account for the tectonics of general human behavior, and besides, what is general human behavior? Girard has been accused- mainly by anthropologists who only swear by the field- of being an armchair anthropologist, who studies texts rather than behavior as observed by himself. The Bible and Greek tragedies are all fine pieces for literary critique, but anthropology should be about solid facts from the terrain, carefully contextualized and painstakingly documented. To which Girard answers furiously (he is known to deal badly with contradiction) that if social science isn’t reductionist, it isn’t at all. His type of enterprise is also decidedly etic (roughly meaning that it claims to grasp the behavior of the communities studied in words and symbols that make more sense for the researcher than for the community itself) and nomothetic (abstract and universal), which leaves little room for the humbleness of the social researcher, determined to confront their object of study in tabula rasa mode. Occam’s razor is of no use in anthropology, says contemporary anthropology; theoretical elegance is for physics and math. Conceptual straitjackets such as Girard’s scapegoat theory (as suggested by critics) are not informative enough and can even be politically dangerous.

Having said this, I will admit that as a witness to the scene on the bus and a reader of Girard, I was easily tempted to decrypt that particular group’s behavior against his theory. Not to interpret it in a literal checklist manner, but rather to discern a few motifs that together would give the situation a coherence slightly different from the obvious one: a trouble-maker neutralized by collective effort.

The first motif is deceptively camouflaged under legitimate public outrage. The violence of all against one is usually justified by the dominant ideology and does not reveal itself as a sacrifice to the survival of the community on a first look. The execution of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in 1793 was framed as necessary for high political reasons by Jacobin leaders.  The struggle for freedom from Roman occupation justified Christ’s crucifixion. Stalin made Leon Trotsky’s brand of bolshevism the mother of all Soviet evil, Jews and Afro-Americans were inferior races and so on.

The ideology underlying collective anger on bus 38 is so pervasive that it might be difficult to acknowledge it as such. While anthropology is taking an interest in security in a rather international relations and geopolitics related context (see Daniel M. Goldstein, Toward a Critical Anthropology of Security, Chicago Journals 2010), there seems to be less concern for a diffuse obsession with safety in our societies, although it is possible that the exacerbation of the need for both safety and security might have a single origin in a certain type of economic thinking. Safety has always been an important group norm and is paramount to social cohesion. Thus anthropological research tends to focus on the implementation and practice of the culture of safety but, from what I was able to find, there is not yet a well-shaped critical perspective on it.

But suppose the loony had entered a bus in the 1940s, bringing on it the same twisted sense of play. Would he have been considered a dangerous psychopath, or a sorry buffoon, more worthy of mocking jokes made at his expense rather than fear-driven physical intervention? In Uccle as anywhere else in the Western world, the safety imperative can justify radical, even violent action. It needs to be stressed: on the bus, aggression came from the passengers (especially women, whose mode of defense was strangely offensive) and it was directed toward difference, perceived as threat.

This brings us to the second motif - the nature of the victim. As mentioned, Girard points out the qualities that make for a good scapegoat. The individual on the bus had what it takes. In the past, before the modern institutionalization of madness, a fool was halfway to being a prophet or a saint. The pre-modern mind attaches a certain sense of the sacred to mental deviancy, as shown by Michel Foucault in Madness and Civilization: aware of the limits of our knowledge by being in the margins of society, fools can utter truths unheard anywhere else. Their potential to become victims of public lynching lies in the distorted mirror they show us; we do not like what we see. The guy on the bus was brazenly mocking our norms of behavior in public- stiff and jealous of our personal space, as if making believe there was no one around. This isn’t to say that the bus community was deliberately intent on punishing him for that. It is more a case of socially healthy apprehension toward the Other (healthy in the terms of Norbert Elias, who sees fear as instrumental to the transmission of “structures of society” to “individual psychological functions” and creating a “civilized character”, and an awkward buffoon has as much otherness as a complete foreigner or any other alien. This everyday experience shows at least how the Other is still necessary for shaping social cohesion.

A brief point here: in many cultures, the mythical expression of the Other is the demon or devil. One of the characters in Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel Master and Margaret is a demon named Azazello; he seems to take strange pleasure in fazing people by disrupting their routine behavior. Mischief and misdemeanor: the guy on the bus was a real-life Azazello.

Finally, the third motif and last part of Girard’s scapegoat script: the instauration of society. The sacrifice appeases collective violent drive and, through a sense of participation to the act, creates bonds. Just after the “victim” had been cast off the bus, an atmosphere of conviviality replaced the usual placid mood of public transportation. People were communicating, creating the narrative of what had just happened, and reinforcing their sense of legitimacy. There were kind goodbyes at the final stop, as among friends, or at least friendly neighbors after a nice barbecue. The elderly lady was talking to the African man and the bearded guy to the driver. If the mechanism described by René Girard does function, the disrupter and trouble maker had actually done a favor to everyone but himself.

As a former student of anthropology, I might feel that Girard’s theory is too beautiful to be true. Is such a situation a problem too complex to be sorted out elegantly by a narrative device? Is it not a problem at all, just a random incident in which there is nothing more to read? In social sciences such an anecdote has weak evidence value, if any, and for good methodological reasons. But this doesn’t mean it should be brushed away as completely irrelevant. Andrew Gelman and Thomas Basboll argue that stories have epistemic validity if they are anomalous (they present aspects which would not be well explained by existing theories) and immutable (having very specific details which can, again, have the potential to invalidate existing theories). Our little story has had enough idiosyncrasy (the violence of those who believed they were being aggressed, the nature of the disruption, the mood change at the end and the fact that women seemed to be more aggressive than men) that might suggest on deeper analysis that it cannot be fully contained by current theories of social exclusion or collective aggression. If René Girard has seen correctly into the fundamentals of our social behavior, the incident on bus 38 is likely to show that some archaic patterns can still emerge in our times.






Bronislaw #01

Anca Serbanuta

I was born in Romania but currently live in Brussels. I am a former student of history and anthropology in both Bucharest and Brussels, and I have also studied Conflict Analysis. Although I work in a different environment now, some basic questions of anthropology are still with me: how do we change? How do we stay the same? Sometimes it gets knotty: when we change the way we think do we stay the same? How do we stay the same while being sure we change? I am also interested in the anthropology of conflict and violence, and more recently, in what could be called the "culture of fear" as understood by sociologist Frank Furedi among others.




BronislawMagazine of provocative open-ended anthropological debate

Who are we? Bronislaw is an online magazine of new anthropological thought and debate. Our main purpose is in one hand to help disseminating anthropological research to a broader public, but in so doing, also to create a space where anthropologists can go beyond the limited frames of academic publishing and allow themselves to develop thoughts and questions that have arisen during research, to broaden fieldwork-based reflections, to expose developing ideas to community debate, or even to join into other contemporary anthropological debates by replying to essays published here or elsewhere.

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