Girard on “Scapegoat”

An Excerpt from René Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001], chapter twelve, “Scapegoat,” pages 154-160.

Chapter 12


The passion accounts shed a light on mimetic contagion that deprives the victim mechanism of what it needs to be truly unanimous and to generate the systems of myth and ritual: the participants’ unawareness of what is driving them. The spread of the message of the Gospels and the entire Bible must therefore bring about first of all the disappearance of archaic religions. And this is what occurs. Wherever Christianity spreads, the mythical systems decay and sacrificial rites disappear. After this disappearance, what does Christianity do in our world? This is just the question that we must now ask.

The complex influence of Christianity spreads in the form of a kind of knowledge unknown to pre-Christian societies, and it continually penetrates them in a more and more profound fashion. This knowledge, which Paul says comes from the Cross, is not esoteric at all. To grasp it, we need only ascertain that we all now observe and understand situations of oppression and persecution that earlier societies did not detect or took to be inevitable.

The biblical and Christian power of understanding phenomena of victimization comes to light in the modern meaning of certain expressions such as “scapegoat.” A “scapegoat” is initially the victim in the Israelite ritual that was celebrated during a great ceremony of atonement (Lev. 16:21). This ritual must be very ancient, for it is visibly quite alien to the specifically biblical inspiration as defined in chapters 9 and 10.

The ritual consisted of driving into the wilderness a goat on which all the sins of Israel had been laid. The high priest placed his hands on the head of the goat, and this act was supposed to transfer onto the animal everything likely to poison relations between members of the community. The effectiveness of the ritual was the idea that the sins were expelled with the goat and then the community was rid of them.

This ritual of expulsion is similar to that of the pharmakos in Greece, but it is much less sinister because the victim is never a human being. When an animal is chosen, the injustice seems less, or even nonexistent. This is no doubt why the scapegoat ritual doesn’t move us to the same repugnance as the “miraculous” stoning instigated by Apollonius of Tyana [earlier in ch. 4]. But the principle of transference is no less exactly the same. In a distant period when the ritual was effective as ritual, the transfer of the community’s transgressions onto the goat must have been facilitated by the bad reputation of this animal, by its nauseating odor and its aggressive sexual drive.

In the primitive and archaic world there are rituals of expulsion everywhere, and they give us the impression of enormous cynicism combined with a childish naivete. In the case of the scapegoat the process of substitution is so transparent that we understand it at first glance. It is this comprehension that the modern usage of “scapegoat” expresses; in other words, it is a spontaneous interpretation of the relationship between the ancient Jewish ritual and transferences of hostility in our world today. These latter are no longer part of religious ritual, but they always exist, usually in an attenuated form.

The people participating in rituals did not understand these phenomena as we do, but they observed their reconciling results and appreciated them so much, as we have seen, that they attempted to reproduce them without feeling shame. This was the case because the operation of transferring sins from community to victim seemed to occur from beyond, without their own real participation.

The modern understanding of “scapegoats” is simply part and parcel of the continually expanding knowledge of the mimetic contagion that governs events of victimization. The Gospels and the entire Bible nourished our ancestors for so long that our heritage enables us to comprehend these phenomena and condemn them.

“But never,” you will tell me, “does the New Testament resort to the term ‘scapegoat’ to designate Jesus as the innocent victim of an escalation of mimetic contagion.” You are right, no doubt, but it does use an expression equal and even superior to “scapegoat,” and this is lamb of God. It eliminates the negative attributes and unsympathetic connotations of the goat. Thereby it better corresponds to the idea of an innocent victim sacrificed unjustly.

Jesus applies another expression to himself that is extremely revealing. It is drawn from Psalm 118: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” This verse tells not only of the expulsion of the single victim but of the later reversal that turns the expelled victim into the keystone of the entire community.

In a world where violence is no longer subject to ritual and is the object of strict prohibitions, anger and resentment cannot or dare not, as a rule, satisfy their appetites on whatever object directly arouses them. The kick the employee doesn’t dare give his boss, he will give his dog when he returns home in the evening. Or maybe he will mistreat his wife and his children, without fully realizing that he is treating them as “scapegoats.” Victims substituted for the real target are the equivalent of sacrificial victims in distant times. In talking about this kind of phenomenon, we spontaneously utilize the expression “scapegoat.”

The real source of victim substitutions is the appetite for violence that awakens in people when anger seizes them and when the true object of their anger is untouchable. The range of objects capable of satisfying the appetite for violence enlarges proportionally to the intensity of the anger.

The effectiveness of sacrificial substitutions is increased when many individual scandals come together against one and the same victim. Scapegoat phenomena, therefore, continue to play a definite role in our world at the level of individuals and communities, but they are scarcely studied as such. If we question our sociologists and anthropologists, most of them will recognize the existence and importance of scapegoat phenomena, but they will tell us they aren’t sufficiently interested to investigate them. The deeper reason for this attitude is the fear of encountering religion and the sacred, which are really impossible to avoid once we go into the question a little more thoroughly.

Because of Jewish and Christian influence scapegoat phenomena no longer occur in our time except in a shameful, furtive, and clandestine manner. We haven’t given up having scapegoats, but our belief in them is 90 percent spoiled. The phenomenon appears so morally base to us, so reprehensible, that when we catch ourselves “letting off steam” against someone innocent, we are ashamed of ourselves.

It is easier than in the past to observe collective transferences upon a scapegoat because they are no longer sanctioned and concealed by religion. And yet it is still difficult because the individuals addicted to them do everything they can to conceal their scapegoating from themselves, and as a general rule they succeed. Today as in the past, to have a scapegoat is to believe one doesn’t have any. The phenomenon in question doesn’t usually lead any longer to acts of physical violence, but it does lead to a “psychological” violence that is easy to camouflage. Those who are accused of participating in hostile transference never fail to protest their good faith, in all sincerity.

When human groups divide and become fragmented, during a period of malaise and conflicts, they may come to a point where they are reconciled again at the expense of a victim. Observers nowadays realize without difficulty, unless they belong to the persecuting group, that this victim is not really responsible for what he or she is accused of doing. The accusing group, however, views the victim as guilty, by virtue of a contagion similar to what we find in scapegoat rituals. The members of this group accuse their “scapegoat” with great fervor and sincerity. More often than not some incident, whether fantastic or trivial, has triggered a wave of opinion against this victim, a mild version of mimetic snowballing and the victim mechanism.

Metaphorical recourse to this ritual expression, “scapegoating,” is often arbitrary in practice, but it rests on a logic that makes sense within its own frame of reference. The similarities are great between phenomena of attenuated expulsion that we observe every day in our world and ancient scapegoat rituals, as well as countless other rituals of the same sort — so great that they must be real. When we suspect people around us of giving in to the temptation of scapegoating, we denounce them indignantly. We ferociously denounce the scapegoating of which our neighbors are guilty, but we are unable to do without our own substitute victims. We all try to tell ourselves that we have only legitimate grudges and justified hatreds, but our feeling of innocence is more fragile than our ancestors’.

We could use our insight discreetly with our neighbors, not humiliating those we catch in the very act of expelling a scapegoat. But more frequently we turn our knowledge into a weapon, a means not only of perpetuating old conflicts but of raising them to a new level of cunning, which the very existence of this knowledge and its propagation in the whole society demand. In short, we integrate the central concern of Judaism and Christianity into our systems of self-defense. Instead of criticizing ourselves, we use our knowledge in bad faith, turning it against others. Indeed, we practice a hunt for scapegoats to the second degree, a hunt for hunters of scapegoats. Our society’s obligatory compassion authorizes new forms of cruelty.

St. Paul vividly summarizes this double bind in which we find ourselves in his letter to the Romans: “You have no excuse, O man . . . when you judge another, for in judging you judge yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same thing” (2:1). If condemning the sinner is to do the same thing we reprove in him, in both cases the sin in question is nothing else than condemning our neighbor.

The spectacle of secret substitutions, and slipping from one victim to another in a world without ritual permits us to see, in pure form we could say, the functioning of the relational (interdividual) mechanisms that underlie the ritual organization of the primitive human world. These mechanisms continue in our world usually as only a trace, but occasionally they can also reappear in forms more virulent than ever and on an enormous scale. An example is Hitler’s systematic destruction of European Jews, and we see this also in all the other genocides and near genocides that occurred in the twentieth century. I will say more about this later [ch. 14].

This insight regarding scapegoats and scapegoating is a real superiority of our society over all previous societies, but like all progress in knowledge it also offers occasions to make an evil worse. Let’s say I denounce my neighbor’s scapegoating with righteous self-satisfaction, but I continue to view my own scapegoats as objectively guilty. My neighbors, of course, don’t hold back from denouncing me for the same selective insight that I point out in them.

Scapegoating phenomena cannot survive in many instances except by becoming more subtle, by resorting to more and more complex casuistry in order to elude the self-criticism that follows scapegoaters like their shadow. Otherwise, we could no longer resort to some wretched goat to rid ourselves of our resentments. We now have need of procedures less comically evident.

Jesus makes allusion to this, I think. It is the deprivation of victim mechanisms and its terrible consequences that he talks about when he presents the future of the evangelized world in terms of conflict between persons who are most closely related:

Don’t think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. One’s enemies will be those of his own household. (Matt. 10:34-36)

In a world deprived of sacrificial safeguards, mimetic rivalries are often physically less violent, but they insinuate themselves into the most intimate relationships. This is what the text I have just quoted specifies: the son at war with his father, the daughter against her mother, etc. The loss of sacrificial protection transforms the most intimate relationships into their exact opposites so that they become relationships of doubles, of enemy twins. This text enables us to identify the true origin of modern “psychology.”

Thus the expression “scapegoat” designates (1) the victim of the ritual described in Leviticus, (2) all the victims of similar rituals that exist in archaic societies and that are called rituals of expulsion, and finally (3) all the phenomena of nonritualized collective transference that we observe or believe we observe around us. This last meaning leaps over the barrier that anthropologists attempt to maintain between archaic rituals and their modern substitutes, the phenomena whose persistence shows that, yes, we have changed a little since the time of archaic rituals but less than we would like to believe.

I believe that the modern usage of “scapegoat” is basically valid. This is contrary to anthropologists who want to maintain the illusory autonomy of their discipline and who avoid using the expression “scapegoat” so they won’t have to involve themselves in complex analyses that become inevitable when the absolute separation of the archaic and the modern is abolished. My own view is that the modern uses of the term are a sign that the Jewish and Christian revelation is becoming continually more effective and so is far from being a dead letter in our society.

The modern shedding of ritual brings to light the psychosocial substratum of ritual phenomena. We cry “scapegoat” to stigmatize all the phenomena of discrimination — political, ethnic, religious, social, racial, etc. — that we observe about us. We are right. We easily see now that scapegoats multiply wherever human groups seek to lock themselves into a given identity — communal, local, national, ideological, racial, religious, and so on.

The arguments I make are based on the popular insight that crops up in the modern sense of “scapegoat.” I am attempting to develop the implications of this insight. It is richer in true knowledge than all the concepts anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists have invented. All discourses on exclusion, discrimination, racism, etc. will remain superficial as long as they don’t address the religious foundations of the problems that besiege our society.

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