Rights of the Scapegoat

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Every stable social order is based on the sacrifice of a scapegoat. This is the bold statement in which the philosophy of René Girard can be summarized. Although seemingly completely uninteresting for anarchist and radical emancipatory politics – Girard is generally considered as a conservative thinker – I claim that his theory of the scapegoat deserves our attention. Picture yourself in a high school classroom full of insecure teenagers who are suffering by their overly active hormones. Girard would call this an unstable social order; there is no hierarchy, everybody can be attacked by everybody and everyone is looking to be recognized as a complete human being. In this teenage state of nature, the scapegoat mechanism will start to work. Because everybody wants to be recognized as a human being, but recognition always has to be done by someone else, the group will point out one scapegoat who doesn’t “deserve” this recognition. The out casting (and in this case bullying) of the scapegoat will allow the group to recognize itself and create a stable hierarchy.

It’s interesting to use this scapegoat theory to look at two contemporary examples of well known victims, namely: Jews and animals. First the Jews. Although anti-Semitism can be traced back to the third century before Christ, we will pick up its trail in the 18th and 19th century. A time in which most of the modern constitutions for nation states were drafted. The drafting of these constitutions happened only after long discussions about whether the rights these constitutions granted their citizens should also apply to Jews. These debates where mostly settled by making the compromise that these rights should apply to Jews only on the condition that they would never get their own nation state. As such, the Jews could be seen as the scapegoats on which the first modern nations where based. It’s for example telling that even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to a nationality. Although this seems a strange right – why should it matter to have a nationality for universal human rights? – it’s because only nation states are capable of guaranteeing these rights. What’s painful about this becomes clear if we realize that the first thing which happened to Jews once they were caught during the Holocaust was the stripping away of their nationality, Jewish victims of the Holocaust were stateless. It’s therefore discussable whether the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could have stopped the Holocaust.

The scapegoat theory got some validation from an unexpected disciple in recent years. Archaeologists had difficulty explaining why humankind shifted from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a society based on agriculture. Although it would have been logical if agriculture was a more efficient way to get your food compared to hunting, the problem is that this efficiency was only realized after a couple generations. Way too long to explain this shift. One promising explanation states that people started to live sedentary because that way they didn’t need to sacrifice their fellow human beings to their Gods, but could use the recently domesticated animals instead. This means that the only reason why animals where allowed a place within human culture was because they could be violently casted out again. If human civilization can be this fundamentally based on the sacrifice of both Jews and animals, the emancipation of these scapegoats may be more difficult then we realize.

2 gedachtes over “Rights of the Scapegoat

    • In Girard’s work there is always a tension between the scapegoat as, initially, the personification of evil who gets glorified after the sacrifice. Christ as scapegoat would be a good example of this. So yes, it seems that scapegoats can only be emancipated once there sacrification doesn’t seem necesarry anymore

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