Conflicts of all sorts occupy a central place in mimetic theory which to a large extent may be considered as a theory of violence and conflicts. Among the many different forms of conflicts and violence that we find, mimetic theory distinguishes two major types. One which I will call rivals conflicts and the other sacrificial or displaced conflicts.
Both types of conflicts are mimetic, but they correspond to different mechanisms and rationales. Furthermore, because mimetic relations are a dynamic phenomena, each type of conflict may evolve into the other. Mimetic conflicts typically give rise to sacrificial violence once they have reached a certain level of intensity and displaced conflicts may lead to rivals conflicts in many circumstances. Nonetheless, it is good to keep in mind that they are not quite the same.
It Takes Two: My Rival and Me
Rivals conflicts, as the name indicates, oppose rivals. That is, opponents who are in rivalry for some good, goal, or benefit. Rivals, like sports opponents, are focused on the same objective, the same prize which they cannot share. Either because, like the child in the judgment of Solomon the object at the heart of their conflict cannot be divided without being destroyed, or because they do not want to share, or because complex institutional reasons prevent it from being shared. For whatever reason, the conflict centers on the same objects which both rivals desire.
According to Girard, that object should not be seen as the cause of their conflict, because behind the prize that both seek to obtain ultimately lies the opponent that each wants to defeat. The prize then is not really the object, but winning is, which is not a thing but an abstract relationship that asserts one’s superiority.
It does not follow that all conflicts, disagreements, or oppositions are by definition mimetic from the origin, in the sense of focused on the other. They may have perfectly justified causes and are often motivated by excellent reasons. Girard’s claim, as I understand it, is rather that all conflicts may become mimetic and more precisely that all conflicts abandoned to themselves, without any check and balances, will become mimetic.
This shift from the object to the antagonist constitutes, according to him, the ‘natural’, spontaneous evolution of conflicts. Left to their own devices, opponents, as they focus more and more on each other and as their mutual opposition grows stronger, progressively lose sight of the object which originally principled their opposition. Uniquely bent on defeating their opponent, they forget the prize for which they were fighting for at the beginning and that gave sense and meaning to their contention. They become enemy doubles.
In modern societies… victims of displaced violence are not so easily recognized, among other things because they are our victims.
When Politics Becomes Mimetic
Such an analysis and understanding of the spontaneous evolution of conflicts provides an important rule of thumb of when political confrontations turn mimetic or, to put it otherwise, of when mimetic rivalry eclipses factual differences and takes the lead. Essentially, when political opponents become more obsessed with each other than they are interested in the problems that need to be addressed. When the issues that move to the center of political discourse are not disagreement about problems and solutions anymore, but the evilness, immorality, stupidity or ignorance of the opponent. When whatever topic is raised, it is not raised to be addressed but as an illustration of the moral and intellectual failures of the other. In other words, when political discussions lose contact with reality and boil down to mutual accusations and denunciations. The reciprocal hatred of the contenders functions as a veil that prevents everyone from viewing the pressing issues that threaten them.
The Hidden Victims of Rivalry
The other type of mimetic conflict, displaced conflicts, do not oppose rivals. Rather they constitute what may be described as unequal encounters. Rivals are equals at least to the extent that they are vying for the same object which they both hope to capture. No matter how important the difference in forces and resources may be between them, their opposing desires are the same. As the conflict evolves and they lose sight of the object, their objective nonetheless remains identical: to destroy the other.
Displaced conflict on the contrary is characterized by a radical disequilibrium of power between those involved, between the aggressors and their targets or if you prefer, the perpetrators and the victims. For whatever reason, either physical, political or social, because some have rights which are enforced while those of others are not respected, the two parties do not stand on the same ground. More importantly, they are not rivals for anything, there is no prize that divides them.
Though it is of course usual for those who exert violence with impunity against others to accuse their victims of being dangerous enemies in order to justify their own actions. Nonetheless, the truth is that victims of displaced violence are not rivals, but their substitutes. They are third parties to the conflicts in which rivals confront each other.
According to Girard, victims of displaced sacrificial violence provide an outlet, a release to the violence and frustration of rivals locked in conflicts, in fact to the violence and resentment of each and every one of us. In traditional societies, sacrifice and other institutions make it relatively clear, to us at least, who these victims were. In modern societies, in the absence of such institutions, victims of displaced violence are not so easily recognized, among other things because they are our victims.
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Blaming Victims to Excuse the Executioner
Yet, here also there exists, according to me, a pretty good indicator. Not a proof, but a sign, that some are victims for the simple reasons that violence can be exerted against them with impunity. What is that sign? The victims of sacrificial and displaced violence are made responsible for the violence that is exerted against them. They are accused of actions that exonerate the perpetrators.
A 15-year-old boy becomes responsible for his own death because he failed to react immediately when shouted at and the plastic gun he was holding made the police officer feel threatened. The process that damns the victim and clears the executioner is public and collective. It is this collective mimetic process that condemns the victim and purifies the killer which transforms a murder, or an accident, into an act of displaced violence.
Displaced conflicts and violence take many forms. In their content these conflicts are usually unrelated to rivals conflicts, for that is precisely what defines the violence that characterizes them as displaced. They do not pit rivals against each other but oppose us to victims. That is, to others who are enemies, not because they are competitors, but because of who they are. They are dangerous, menacing, and threatening no matter what they do.
Displaced and rivals conflicts feed on each other and the more rivals lose sight of the object that originally divided them, the more fantastic accusations against third parties become credible, the more victims are made responsible for the violence they suffer.