“Sacrificial myths of alientation are not confined to ancient times. They continue, argues [René] Girard, to operate today even though the mechanisms for stigmatising the other have become more sophisticated and surreptitious. Girard goes so far as to claim that no modern society is entirely free from this scapegoating tendency-informed as every society is with mimetic rivalry for scarce resources, periodically resolved by making common cause against an agreed outside ‘enemy’. Thus may be explained the recurring phenomenon of witch-hunting and ostracisation, often under the guise of racism, anti-semitism or the so called ‘defence of national security’. Such persecutionary strategies work on the fantasy of the evil adversary without or within who is poisoning the wells, contaminating the body politic, corrupting the unsuspecting youth, eroding the economy, sabotaging peace and corrupting the moral fabric of society. Indeed, the popular media and press often play a central role in the demonising of a commonly identified ‘alien’ (individual or minority group).
But that is also one of the problems with scapegoating myths. A society can only pretend to believe in the lie because it is that same society which is lying to itself! Hence the ultimately counter-productive nature of ideological persecution: a fact borne out in the need for constant renewal and reenactment of the sacrificial act. The reliance on an alien-scapegoat never subsides. At least not until such time as we renounce our desire to always cover what the other has and thereby overcome the condition of mimetic strife which gave rise to scapegoating in the first place. A genuinely peaceful community would be one which, Girard contends, exposes the strategies of sacrificial alienation in its own functioning and enters the light of ‘true fraternity’-a society which lives without the need for scapegoats. Such a community would free itself from mimetic rivalries, based on conflicts of desire and condemnations of ‘aliens’, committing itself instead to principles of ‘transcendence’ beyond time and history. In short, peace requires nothing less than the decoupling of the alien and the other, acknowledging that the genuine ‘other’ is radically Other – an asymmetrical, vertical alterity irreducible to the envious ploys of mimetic desire. Girard, like Levinas, calls this ethical alterity-even if it addresses us through the face of the human other-God (Levinas, 1978; 1979; 1998).
While agreeing with Girard’s general analysis of scapegoating myths, I wonder if he does not sometimes go too far in his denunciation of myth per se. The question I would put to Girard is whether all myths (foundational or contemporary) are necessarily ‘sacrificial’ in his sense. Are there not at least some myths which are not based on the need to project false accusations onto scapegoats but express a genuinely creative impulse to imagine other possibilities of existence which may well change the status quo? Or to put it in terms of Ricoeur’s critical hermeneutics: might some myths serve a utopian function of symbolic innovation rather than an ideological function dissimulation and domination? (Ricoeur, 1977; Kearney, 1996). And if this be so, might we not accuse Girard’s blanket equation of all myth with scapegoating as itself an exercise in scapegoating-an effort to introject hidden sacrificial motives into the poetics of myth?” (Kearney 1999:252-254).
Kearney, Richard (1999) ‘Aliens and others: Between Girard and Derrida’, Journal for Cultural Research, 3: 3, 251-262.