Kristen Stewart: Modern Sex Scandals and Ancient Sacrifice
Last night someone asked me if I’d heard about the Kristen Stewart sex scandal. Unfortunately, I had. Because I check my email. I go through yahoo.com to get to my email, in part because yahoo.com is a quick way to catch up on news. Apparently, the folks at yahoo.com thought the story, with the headline “Stewart Cheats with Director,” was news.
Stewart, as you may know, plays the lead character in the Twilight series and played Snow White in the recent movie Snow White and the Huntsman. She has been dating her co-star of Twilight, Robert Pattinson, for a few years. Thanks to yahoo.com, I know that she is rumored to have had an affair with the director of Snow White, Rupert Sanders – who himself is married with two children.
And now, thanks to me, you know the drama.
I bring this up because our culture is obsessed with celebrity scandals. I’m on the internet for about 10 minutes and I’m already confronted with it. Why? Why do we care?
Call me crazy, but I think the reason for our obsession with celebrity scandal is the same reason people participated in ancient religious sacrifice.
We usually think that ancient religious sacrifice was all about appeasing the wrath of some angry divinity and that it served no practical function. But that’s wrong … in part. It’s true that there is no angry divinity, but ancient religious sacrifice did serve a practical function. In fact, ancient sacrifice was so practical that a community’s survival depended on it.
Here’s what happened. Ancient people often found themselves in conflict with one another. They fell into rivalry, which led to violence. The conflict, rivalry, and violence spread throughout the community and soon the group was threatened by its own chaotic violence.
Until a solution was found. As anthropologist René Girard claims, a solution was found in the community’s scapegoat. According to Girard, the scapegoat was blamed for the community’s problems and then sacrificed. He claims that
This observation, if correct, could account for the emergence of a bond among individuals who together scapegoat a third party, a victim. The redirection of the inner aggression of a specific group against an external element … creates a strong cohesion within the group itself. (Evolution and Conversion, 101-102)
The way archaic communities survived internal conflict, rivalry, and violence was to unite against a common enemy, whom Girard refers to as the scapegoat. A bond emerged within the group as chaotic violence was channeled into violence against their scapegoat. The scapegoat was sacrificed, creating unity and peace. But it was a temporary unity and peace, because the group never actually dealt with the conflicts, rivalries, and violence that threatened them. So, when their problems returned, the sacrificial process repeated itself.
What does all of this have to do with contemporary sex scandals?
Our addiction to sex scandals follows the same pattern as archaic religious sacrifice. The point is the bond that emerges within a group of people by uniting against a scapegoat. Celebrities who get caught in scandals (sex, drugs, whatever) become our scapegoats. We find social cohesion by uniting against them. It’s the same mechanism that caused ancient people to unite against their scapegoat.
What’s the solution to scapegoating? I think the solution involves intentionally reversing the scapegoating mechanism. Instead of uniting over and against a scapegoat, have empathy for society’s scapegoats. “Occasions for scandal are bound to come,” said Jesus. Why? Because humans make mistakes. And because we make mistakes there are always occasions to form a bond with others by uniting against a scapegoat. The only alternative to the scapegoat mechanism that has permeated human culture since archaic religious sacrifice is to form a bond by caring for others, especially those who are scapegoated by society.
Oh yea. And by avoiding yahoo “news.”