Peter Thiel, Gawker and the Scapegoating App

Is Peter Thiel scapegoating Gawker? I’m sure you’ve followed the news – celebrity billionaire Peter Thiel bankrolls Hulk Hogan’s celebrity lawsuit against celebrity news site Gawker for posting a sex tape of Hogan in bed with his friend’s wife. Well, ex-friend, because, you know, that’s how that goes…

What a juicy scandal! Denials, justifications and accusations are flying like broken glass at a car crash and naturally it’s hard to look away. Recently the writer, social commentator and contributing editor for Esquire magazine Stephen Marche raised the question of scapegoating and it’s the most interesting angle on this story I’ve heard yet.

Marche writes in the New York Times:

Mr. Thiel is the most famous student of René Girard, the celebrated professor of philosophy at Stanford who developed the concept of the scapegoat mechanism. We blame others for our own sins and overcome that impulse only through “mimetic desire” — through mediation with other people. Mr. Thiel has turned Gawker into a scapegoat for the shifting world of celebrity culture that we all inhabit. He has made Gawker into a scapegoat for the world he himself is helping to create.

Well, I’m hooked! I’m a mimetic theory junkie. I founded, direct and write for the Raven Foundation, a site that provides social commentary through the lens of mimetic theory, and I’ve met Peter Thiel at conferences on Girard’s work. His foundation, Imitatio, is dedicated to furthering research into applications of mimetic theory and, full disclosure, Raven has received grants from Imitatio. Peter would not remember me, but I remember his effect on the scholars whose work he generously supports – they are unabashedly fans! Look, I admit to being susceptible to the allure of celebrity, but these academics are not the gawker type. But they most certainly appreciate someone like Peter who appreciates and supports their work.

Mr. Marche would do well to have attended one or two mimetic theory conferences, for though his instinct for scapegoating is a good one, his understanding of mimetic theory is not good at all. Allow me to unpack the good and the not so good, starting with Marche’s clever detection of scapegoating in the broken glass of this scandal.

The Scapegoating Virus

Scapegoating is indeed part of the equation here. It’s all around the Gawker site as it is in all media outlets, including the New York Times and Esquire. Despite what the parties to a scapegoating event claim, scapegoating is not about determining guilt or innocence. It is not in the least bit concerned with the facts or about who is right and who is wrong. Scapegoating is about making ourselves right as a direct consequence of making someone else wrong.

Did you get that? Scapegoating is the activity of creating my own goodness by believing in the wickedness of others. And oddly enough, that wickedness can be real or imaginary. As I said, facts don’t matter when it comes to scapegoating.

There is an undeniable reality associated with scapegoating however: wherever two or more are gathered who share the same scapegoat, they are quickly overtaken with solidarity and the warm glow of fellowship. Nothing generates bonds of friendship like agreeing on who does not belong at your table.

So Marche may be right that Peter is blaming Gawker for the fallout from a “celebrity culture” that he has helped create. If he is, then Peter is indeed making himself right by making Gawker wrong, and generating a sense of solidarity with his fellow libertarian celebrity billionaires. I can’t be sure how that’s working for them since I’m clearly not part of that crowd. But whether Gawker is actually wrong is not the point of who’s in and who’s out of Peter’s soirees. Which means that Marche’s well-written argument in defense of Gawker is neither here nor there, but it’s probably a safe bet that he won’t be given a chance to invest in Peter’s next start-up.

Mimetic Rivalry – Stick With Me!

The part that Marche has missed is difficult to detect without some serious mimetic theory training, so I hope he’s paying attention! If Peter is scapegoating Gawker (and the reverse might be true as well, or Hogan could be scapegoating Gawker or vice versa, or Marche might be scapegoating Thiel – ah, the possibilities are endless!), then it is most likely because they are caught up in a mimetic rivalry. What’s that, you ask? Marche mentioned mimetic desire as a cure for scapegoating which is a poor definition. Mimetic desire means that we learn what to desire from others, especially those we respect and admire and most especially those we detest and revile. I know, it’s illogical and a bit insulting to the modern faith in individual autonomy, but it’s true.

Let’s make the case for the rivalry between Peter and Gawker. I have chosen two statements, one from each of them that mirror each other. Here’s the comment from Peter:

It’s less about revenge and more about specific deterrence,” he said on Wednesday in his first interview since his identity [as the financial backer of the Hogan lawsuit] was revealed. “I saw Gawker pioneer a unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people even when there was no connection with the public interest.”

His point is that Gawker is doing a bad job of deciding what is in the “public interest” and that he, Peter, is a better arbiter of what the public should know about. Okay, here’s a comment from the Gawker Media’s Editorial Code written by John Cook:

Gawker Media Group’s web properties practice honest, conversational journalism about stories—whimsical or serious, joyous or grotesque—that matter, or should matter, to our readers.

Here Gawker is declaring that they, too, know what their readers want to know about – or should want to know about! Peter Thiel and Gawker each believe that they are the best arbiter of what matters to the public. They each want to tell us not only what to think but even what to think about. A mimetic rivalry happens when rivals who want the same thing want it more and more precisely because of the other’s desire. The rivals are actually influencing each other’s desires, like a sexy model in a car ad. The difference is that the sexy model (who represents the car manufacturer) wants to make it easy for you to achieve the object of your desire, while mimetic rivals see their models as obstacles. When the rivalry is about something scarce or that neither side wants to share – that’s when a crash becomes a near certainty.

The Scapegoating App

Oddly, being the most famous student of René Girard does not inoculate Peter from mimetic rivalry or scapegoating. We would all do well to run our own identities through a scapegoating scan now and then to see if we have been infected with a mimetic rivalry, not unlike a computer being attacked by a malware virus. It’s not until we crash that we realize what has happened to us. Maybe a scapegoating detection app can be Peter’s next venture capital project. Poor Marche – I’m sure it’s a billion dollar idea!

Of course, Stephen Marche wants to mediate our attention and direct our interest as well. Which means – hey, wait a minute. As I wrote that I realized that I want the same thing as Marche, Peter and Gawker – I want to be the blogger you go to in order to learn what to think and even what to think about. Am I in a mimetic rivalry with these guys? Am I, gulp, at risk of scapegoating them with my little self-important analysis of their celebrity scandal?

Wait – Peter just Facebooked me. He’s already developed the scapegoating app! I’m going through it now. “You are at risk of scapegoating if you desire the same things” – shoot, got me on that one. “Believe you can do it better” – check again. “Outraged that your rival doesn’t admit that you can do it better” – seriously New York Times, when am I getting my guest op-ed piece? “Having a jolly good time with your friends as you trash your rival” – okay, okay. Darn you Peter Thiel and your scapegoating app. Now what am I supposed to do with this blog? (PS Thiel, the app was my idea!)

Image: Screenshot from Youtube: “Hulk Hogan Gawker Lawsuit Funded by Peter Thiel, Paypal Co-creator” by ABC News

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