• Stephen Balogh

Looking for goats to scape


It is by no means a feature unique to our times that we tend to look for scapegoats to blame for our own ills or those of society at large. Sacrifice of scapegoats is as old as human history itself. The relatively modern expression “othering” is an updated term for this phenomenon and has given rise to a great deal of academic work and popular expression, much of it constructive and ultimately seeking reconciliation but by no means all of it.


I tangentially mentioned Schumpeterian “creative destruction” in a previous post (https://www.baloghblog.uk/post/coronavirus-and-a-loss-of-social-capital-from-thinner-random-interaction) and it got me thinking about the nature of renewal in these times. If we are to “Build Back Better”, as the current slogan would have it, on what foundational hardcore are we building, whether economic renewal or transformation of the social fabric? What are we going to reduce to rubble to create that hardcore base?


Schumpeter’s characterisation of creative destruction is sometimes cited in support of unfettered capitalism but, in fact, he was equally preoccupied by the collateral damage of social consequences and undoubted examples of waste of still-valuable financial, physical and social capital too rapidly discarded. (A decent summary and examples of creative destruction can be found at https://www.investopedia.com/terms/c/creativedestruction.asp).


But I was also reminded of another way of looking at renewal contained in the work of the twentieth century French philosopher René Girard, which I studied in the Theology and Philosophy Masters degree I recently took at Heythrop College, University of London.


Girard came up with a concept he called “mimetic desire” that he formed into a grand theory of human behaviour. In essence, he argues that a deep-rooted aspect of the human condition is the desire to mimic others. This mimicry has a constructive and cohesive element to it but inevitably leads to rivalry that eventually threatens the community, at which point attention is suddenly focused on an identified “other” that carries the can for this tension and so must be sacrificed for the good of the whole. Once it is expelled or destroyed, the community feels a sense of elation and restoration but is doomed to repetition once tensions build again because the scapegoating act hasn’t definitively solved anything in an enduring way. There are plenty of subtleties to the theory, including the need for it to be a largely unconscious dynamic, so don’t consider my description as complete but instead take the time to read further (e.g. starting with https://iep.utm.edu/girard/).


The reason it came to mind is that in observing the current social convulsions, especially in the Western world, it seems to me there is an unmistakeable whiff of “othering”, of scapegoating, amidst genuinely constructive attempts at understanding, resolution and reconciliation. Such a tendency is accelerated when open debates are truncated, dogmatic positions are taken and crude demarcations asserted loudly and sometimes violently.


These are weighty questions to pose for myself, but I think necessary ones: to what extent am I participating in acts or schools of thought that look to “other” a person or community or crudely drawn grouping, to call them out, to label them, in the expectation that doing so will bring about some sort of expiation for social ills and a better future for me and those around me? Where is the line between legitimate cleansing and a destructive sacrifice? And, fundamentally, how sure am I that it will lead to real resolution?


At bottom, according to Girard, once today’s scapegoat has been sacrificed, another must be found. What social rubble from this round of sacrifice then will make up the hardcore for the next round?

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