When in the course of human relationships, we find ourselves in conflict over commonly desired objects, mimetically entangled as it were, we may not kill each other over a coveted parking space (although this too has been known to happen), but we will often hurt one another with words or gestures intended to ‘take the other down a notch.’ Our rivalry over a desired object may not lead to death, but often the loss provokes within us a hostility that burns within us. The husband cut off on the freeway (we all desire the road ahead of us), becomes rivalrous and gestures insultingly to the other driver, but still loses when the other driver cuts in front of him and ‘takes his space.’
When the husband gets home he is greeted by his wife, whom he promptly blames for some perceived aggravation. She is then hurt but knows when he is in one of his moods that it is better not to start a fight. Her anger at her husband is taken out on one of the kids (who probably have not done their homework on time). The child then becomes angry and swats at the dog that comes by. The poor dog is left wondering what in the world happened, and they all are completely unaware of the chain reaction that was started when some greedy driver cut off the head of their house on I-95.
This vicious cycle can be repeated over and over again for hours and days on end, producing fights and arguments, angry words and hostile looks. Anger is like the game ‘hot potato’, no one wants to keep it, we are always transferring it to another. It is like a plague to be avoided.
In times of great crisis, mimetic desire and the accompanying anger can be overwhelming to a culture, leading to a path of self-destruction. However, anger cannot be unrighteously placed without severe consequences. If the boss gives me a hard time at work, I cannot come home and kill my neighbor (although I may feel like it). I need a reason to become angry at someone. I must be able to justify my anger.
On one level, we have all been in situations where another’s hostility simply made no sense to us. We wondered why we were the targets of the other’s attacks or bad moods. On another level, we have all of us, created reasons to lash out at others to expel the anger within. That is to say, we have been both: persecutors and persecuted.
When groups are under mimetic stress, the group is on the verge of destruction and must find a way to deal with the negative consequences of all the residual anger that has accumulated from the various internecine conflicts. Lacking the animal world’s way of diffusing hostility, humanity has come up with its own braking mechanism to stop the escalation of mimetic conflict and that solution is the scapegoat.
It is difficult to explain all of the ramifications of this part of the mimetic theory. There are frankly too many to fit here! However the scapegoat mechanism can meaningfully explain the origins of almost all levels of human culture, and to do so in a way that helps us see the way that violence intrudes at every level.
Back in human “pre-history”, mimetic conflict reached a boiling point, and it became necessary to find an outlet for all of the hostility generated by rivalrous mimetic desire. The threatened community displaced its mimetic hostility onto a random innocent victim. This is the ‘originary’ event. (Girard’s term) The random victim becomes the focal point of the community’s aggression and creates the first truly united activity of the community, all against one. Seen in this way, the basis for human social cohesion is violence. For example: Police officers are aware that one of the most volatile situations they encounter is that of the domestic conflict. Mimetic passions heat up and one party calls for help. Oddly enough when they arrive on the scene to mediate and/or to stop the conflict, the two parties who were originally fighting each other turn their mutual hostility onto the officers, that is, they unite to expel their aggression on the mediator. This situation is far more frequent than we realize and there is reason for this. Mimetic desire is largely non-conscious. On a bigger scale, police monitoring a group where mimetic passions are inflamed have to be cautious as the ‘mob’ they are watching may at any moment become uncontrollable, demonstrating mob frenzy. The violence that escalates within the mob is easily turned into the violence of the mob against another. From a Christian perspective there is no clearer example than that of the Passion story of Jesus.
Once this anger has been poured out upon the victim, peace ensues. The act of violence becomes sacred, or “sacralized” as the community recognizes the way that it has brought relief from the mounting crisis. In many cases, Girard notes that the victim is also treated thereafter as sacred, as the bringer of peace.
Returning our attention to the Passion Narrative, we see elements of all these pieces of the mimetic puzzle at work. One major piece, however, is missing. Jesus refuses to accept the blame that his cast upon him by the crowd, (the opposite of the traditional scapegoat’s behavior) thereby drawing this previously unconscious process into the light. As a part of the mimetic cycle, the scapegoating mechanism must remain unconscious to work. Our wrath and violence must be justified. Jesus unmasks this fully for the first time, and begins the collapse of the viability of the scapegoat.
No longer can any person find a restoration of peace in the murder of the scapegoat. As history progresses, the scapegoat mechanism becomes more and more desperate, as the violence created by mimetic desire remains no more than partially dispelled. And as the scapegoat mechanism fails more and more radically, so human violence escalates. It is this new crisis that calls us in this day to unmask the mimetic trap and to reject violence out of hand.