Scaping Goats is Lots More Fun than Repentance

The more you can attribute blame for some bad thing to others, the less blame you need to shoulder yourself, and the less guilt you then need to suffer. And as guilt lessens, so does the costliness of the personal sacrifice adequate to its expiation.

Science now bolsters René Girard’s emphasis on scapegoating as basic to culture; recent research in social psychology has found that:

  1. Triggering feelings of personal culpability for a problem increases moral outrage at a third-party target. For instance, respondents who read that Americans are the biggest consumer drivers of climate change “reported significantly higher levels of outrage at the environmental destruction” caused by “multinational oil corporations” than did the respondents who read that Chinese consumers were most to blame.
  2. The more guilt over one’s own potential complicity, the more desire “to punish a third-party through increased moral outrage at that target.” For instance, participants in study one read about sweatshop labor exploitation, rated their own identification with common consumer practices that allegedly contribute, then rated their level of anger at “international corporations” who perpetuate the exploitative system and desire to punish these entities. The results showed that increased guilt “predicted increased punitiveness toward a third-party harm-doer due to increased moral outrage at the target.”
  3. Having the opportunity to express outrage at a third-party decreased guilt in people threatened through “in-group immorality.” Study participants who read that Americans were the biggest drivers of man-made climate change showed significantly higher guilt scores than those who read the blame-China article when they weren’t given an opportunity to express anger at or assign blame to a third-party. However, having this opportunity to rage against hypothetical corporations led respondents who read the blame-America story to express significantly lower levels of guilt than the China group. Respondents who read that Chinese consumers were to blame had similar guilt levels regardless of whether they had the opportunity to express moral outrage.
  4. “The opportunity to express moral outrage at corporate harm-doers” inflated participants perception of personal morality. Asked to rate their own moral character after reading the article blaming Americans for climate change, respondents saw themselves as having “significantly lower personal moral character” than those who read the blame-China article—that is, when they weren’t given an out in the form of third-party blame. Respondents in the America-shaming group wound up with similar levels of moral pride as the China control group when they were first asked to rate the level of blame deserved by various corporate actors and their personal level of anger at these groups. In both this and a similar study using the labor-exploitation article, “the opportunity to express moral outrage at corporate harm-doing (vs. not) led to significantly higher personal moral character ratings,” the authors found.
  5. Guilt-induced moral outrage was lessened when people could assert their goodness through alternative means, “even in an unrelated context.” Study five used the labor exploitation article, asked all participants questions to assess their level of “collective guilt” (i.e., “feelings of guilt for the harm caused by one’s own group”) about the situation, then gave them an article about horrific conditions at Apple product factories. After that, a control group was given a neutral exercise, while others were asked to briefly describe what made them a good and decent person; both exercises were followed by an assessment of empathy and moral outrage. The researchers found that for those with high collective-guilt levels, having the chance to assert their moral goodness first led to less moral outrage at corporations. But when the high-collective-guilt folks were given the neutral exercise and couldn’t assert they were good people, they wound up with more moral outrage at third parties. Meanwhile, for those low in collective guilt, affirming their own moral goodness first led to marginally more moral outrage at corporations.

These findings may of course fail to replicate – although that seems less likely than would be the case did they not so neatly contravene, and so sap, the Modern Cult of Social Justice, making them as heretical extremely hazardous to bruit about.

Girard argued that scaping goats is the basis of culture (NB: culture, not society per se, which must be presupposed by any social function whatever; there’s no way to banish someone from a clan that does not already exist). Enlightenment politics as actually practiced is entirely a process of scaping goats, so as to maintain an in-group.

As Girard so clearly saw, the only workable alternative to endlessly reiterated scaping of goats is the personal confession, repentance and reformation so central to Christian praxis. And in fact, confession, repentance, and reformation are the only effective way to solve one’s own concrete problems – which are the only sort that can finally matter. Just as you can’t rescue yourself by pulling a location, so you can’t turn your life around by blaming others for your predicaments. To ascribe the defects of one’s life to others, or to environmental factors, is in part effectually to damp and mediate their problematic aspects, so as to reduce both their discomfort and their urgency, so to deter and defer the difficult work of actually solving them. .

I set forth now to Church, to confess my sins, repent of them and repudiate them, commit again to reformation of my life and loyalty to my King, take up the sackcloth and ashes of mourning that befit the season of Lent, and thus cleansed and purified, to join myself once more to the body of my Lord.

A Holy Lent to you all.

9 thoughts on “Scaping Goats is Lots More Fun than Repentance

  1. Pingback: Scaping Goats is Lots More Fun than Repentance | @the_arv

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  3. Dear Kristor, concerning this: “There’s no way to banish someone from a clan that does not already exist.” Girard indeed argues (see Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World) that a group of our primate ancestors must, at some point, have crossed the threshold into fully human consciousness and a sense of community, and become a self-aware clan (a good enough word) through a first, spontaneous expulsion (or immolation) of one of that group’s members. The original expulsion becomes a ritual only in its repetition. For Girard, in sum, the very basis of our consciousness is the scapegoat mechanism. In terms of the possession of consciousness, every human being on the planet would be a descendant of that particular group. Sincerely, Tom.

    P.S. If you would like me to, I can post the relevant passage, perhaps with some commentary. (T)

    • Sure, that would be great. Most interesting.

      I used the word “clan” loosely. “Group” would have been better, I suppose. Although I doubt that prior to the first human sacrifice there was *absolutely* no human awareness of kinship relations – i.e., of clans. Cats and dogs, elephants and apes are, after all, evidently aware of their kinship relations.

      Crossing the threshold into fully human consciousness and a sense of community in a self-aware clan is crossing the threshold from mere society into culture. Lots of mammals have societies, with hierarchical relations, clans, even rituals (viz., of mating, or of singing, or of dancing). So far as I know, only man has culture – which is to say, cultic society, that understands itself in and as conditioned by religion. And sacrifice of the scapegoat does seem to lie at the root of it.

      Interestingly, chimpanzees seem to be at that threshold.

      Just as no social procedure can account for the society that all social procedures must in logic presuppose, I doubt that sacrifice is the crucial generative factor of consciousness per se. To be sure, it is a crucial factor of our peculiarly human consciousness as we now find it, just as it is a crucial factor of our peculiarly human society. But one must first be conscious in general, in order to be socially conscious or self-conscious.

      • Girard’s argument — also taken up by Eric Gans in what he calls “Generative Anthropology” — is that the original immolation establishes the type of consciousness that can represent itself to itself, and represent the world in general. It’s the sacred version of the Logos, which, paradoxically, can only come before the Gospel version of the Logos, which redeems the earlier, violent Logos. A similar paradox attends the sacrificial first murder. Until Cain slays Abel, there can be no law against murder; the law can only establish itself once the first murder has been committed.

        Girard’s hypothesis helps explain why the Gospel Logos has labored so long, and must labor so much longer, to ween humanity from its attachment to scapegoating. But once the representation of scapegoating exists (and it takes form in the Gospel narrative), scapegoating can only occur in a context of increasing bad faith. Witness today that the only way to make a scapegoat is to accuse someone of scapegoating.

        Give me a few days to put together something on Girard’s idea of primordial significance.

      • As usual, a fecund few paragraphs from you, Tom.

        … the original immolation establishes the type of consciousness that can represent itself to itself, and represent the world in general.

        Human self-consciousness is a department of human consciousness of conceptual abstractions from experience. Animals can abstract from raw experience in order to remember and to plan (e.g., so as to do the math involved in planning a trajectory along a hypotenuse to the future location of a fleeing antelope). But they do this imaginatively, rather than intellectually: the plan is *experienced,* rather than calculated. The plan is an abstraction from raw experience, but not from imaginative experience.

        Man does this sort of thing all the time too, of course. We do it without thinking, even to do simple things like set a glass down without breaking it. But that’s precisely the key: we run those calculations *without thinking.* What our animal brothers cannot (so far as we know) yet do is sit down and think about things – especially their own behaviour, and how it ought rightly and best to be governed – in abstraction from any particular concrete situation. This is the crevasse that separates man from the other animals, which Aquinas noticed in calling us the rational animals.

        What has never been quite clear to me is just how the first sacrificial murder bootstrapped human consciousness into awareness of itself. The only thing I have been able to come up with is that it engendered acute cognitive dissonance between remorse and grief over the loss of the values inherent in the victim while he yet lived, on the one hand, and on the other the feelings of justification and relief at his death. In healthy minds, cognitive dissonance prompts deliberation; for confusion about what’s what is a potentially mortal threat. But absent a capacity for abstract moral reasoning, there would be no way to resolve that dissonance between remorse and justice.

        I can well imagine a band of early men, sitting in a circle and consumed for days on end with the terrific anxiety engendered by their fratricide, or more likely their parricide, until finally one of them suffered a brainstorm and came up with something like the story of Kronos (“All of us would soon be dead, had the victim lived; so his death was necessary, indeed noble”), thus leaping at a single bound into the conceptual realm of myth, of religion, of metaphysics.

        Until Cain slays Abel, there can be no law against murder; the law can only establish itself once the first murder has been committed.

        Exactly. Or rather, the law can be “on the books,” but until there is a concrete example of the crime it proscribes, no one to whom it pertains will be able to read it – to understand what it means, and thus to understand how it could pertain to their lives as lived, and to their concrete decisions. It will be moot, and will therefore exert neither moral nor therefore nomological influence.

        Thus it was also for Adam and Eve in Eden, before they ate of the apple. The law against that eating was “on the books,” but they could not comprehend it.

        But once the representation of scapegoating exists (and it takes form in the Gospel narrative), scapegoating can only occur in a context of increasing bad faith. Witness today that the only way to make a scapegoat is to accuse someone of scapegoating.

        Hah! Brilliant! Absolutely correct, by God.

  4. Dear Kristor: Let me complicate your life a bit more. The original law against murder protects the murderer, that is, Cain. Sincerely, Tom.

    • Yes. As our mortality protected us from the full consequences of what would otherwise have been a rebellion angelic in its permanence and adamantine catastrophic purity. Adam and Eve can be rescued from Sheol. No such luck for Lucifer.

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