Rene Girard, the person whose work I touched on at the end of our meeting on July 7, has focused on what we commonly refer to as myth. Myth for Girard has to be distinguished from story. Myth is, strictly speaking, a story told from the perspective of persecutors at whose center victimization of some kind takes place. Thus, not everything we commonly refer to as myth is, in fact, myth in the Girardian sense – and myth is present in the Bible (e.g., 1 Chronicles 21.1-14).
Last night I distinguished between two kinds of myth: high and low. High myth is a story whose violence perpetrated against the victim is completely removed or concealed. The “Jesus Myth,” a fictitious story created for pedagogical purposes, we looked at last night completely removes all vestiges of Jesus’ “lynching,” as the author of the piece put it. Low myth is compromised high myth. By that I mean that there are elements within the story in which violence perpetrated against the victim is evident. In the Apollinaris myth, an example of low myth, violence is directed by him through the mob against an old mendicant. Girard would argue that what occurred here was a lynching, and the demonization of the mendicant provides the justification for his murder. I hope this is clear?
I also included, though did not have enough time to discuss, a propaganda story. Modern day propaganda is interesting for a discussion on Girard’s work because it functions in much the same way as myth. Girard maintains that we ought to read or interpret myth as we would read or interpret propaganda. How is it, you ask, that we interpret propaganda? As modern day people we intuitively know something is propaganda without even realizing the criteria we are using that designate it propaganda. Girard analyzes the hermeneutic (i.e., “her-man-new-tick,” a method of interpretation) that designates something as propaganda or myth. It consists of four lenses: loss of differences, crimes that eliminate differences, traits that mark a victim, and violence and its types. Usually, when at least two of these are present (sometimes one), one can rest assured that he or she is reading myth. The four lenses, which Girard calls, “stereotypes of persecution,” need explanation.
The first is loss of differences. A social order of a community divides reality up into neat categories in which people have a particular place and relationships operate in a specific way according to rules and mores. Marriage has a particular arrangement that needs to be followed for it to be considered acceptable: It could be monogamous, polygamous, between mates of only differing tribes, between only male and female, etc. The particular arrangement matters less than that a set arrangement exists that is sanctioned. When a community is in turmoil or falling apart and social relations between folks are weak as a result (often represented in myth by a plague or natural disaster), the normal rules and mores of the community tend to get broken. It seems as if society is plunging into utter chaos in which all distinctions that rules and mores ensure have the potential of being lost. This leads to a loss of differentiation of the community’s social order. Signs of this chaos are bestiality, human/animal creatures, monsters, etc. A modern day example of loss of difference is sometimes perpetrated by those who oppose GLBT marryiage. Some put forth the argument that if we allow GLBT folk to marry, we place ourselves on a slippery slope that will slide us into people marrying kids or their pets. Changes in traditional marriage arrangements suggest utter chaos in which all rules are abandoned.
The second stereotype is crimes that eliminate differences. These are the crimes that we have called the taboo of taboos. They are culturally dependent. In one culture the biggest sin might be blasphemy, while in another it might be incest, yet in another it could simply be murder. Girard writes, “All these crimes seem to be fundamental. They attack the very foundations of cultural order, the family and the hierarchical differences without which there would be no social order” (The Scapegoat, 15). To the community these offenses are especially dangerous because they readily point to the sacrificial crisis (i.e., a community in turmoil or chaos that is falling apart) in the minds of the people. How this could be so can be demonstrated by offering a contemporary example. Consider dialogue around adultery versus same-sex marriage. Everyone would say that adultery is not a common good that should be condoned. Yet, nobody sees that in accepting adultery as a part of life that our society, as a result, will finally crumble because everyone will therefore become adulterers. Yet, when it comes to accepting same-sex unions, ideas pointing to a loss of differentiation (see previous paragraph) quickly appear.
The third stereotype is traits that mark a victim. These are the indicators that mark the victim as marginal. The particular marks of marginality are again culturally dependent, though consistent in that each culture the victim chosen belongs to a group that is marginal. In some cases it is associated with a feature such as a physical or mental disability, virginity, or ethnic/tribal difference. In other cases it is rather associated with status: King, slave, child, etc. Usually, a combination of both is involved. Our stories from last night included a king and an old mendicant!
The final stereotype is violence itself. This refers to the specific kind of violence carried out by the crowd of persecutors as a mob. It involves the crowd coming together against another person or group that results in their death or expulsion, which (re)establishes the social order. Some of the common types of violence against victims include burning, stoning, drowning, and falling. These deaths are typical because there’s a distance between the crowd and the victim in the method of these murders. When a crowd encroaches upon a victim on a cliff, and the victim “falls,” it is not the crowd that deals the final blow. It is the fall. The distance enables the crowd to feel as if it is clean of the contagion of violence that the victim, in the end, embodies.
A great modern day example that contains many of these elements can be seen in the LA riots and what sparked them. A group of police officers beating a person of color, a person from a marginalized group. This led to riots or chaos and a community breaking all sorts of laws (it is easy to see that social ties in the wider community prior to the incident were quite weak). There are important differences here, however, that differentiate it from a typical sacrificial crisis, but all the elements are present.
You might be wondering what the point of all this happens to be. Why do human communities mythologize and what role does the victim play in all this? Myth and victimization play important social functions in ancient communities, and though they do today still, they function less effectively because we can see through “myth” or propaganda and have awareness that the victim is, in reality, a scapegoat.