Truth, Lies, and Political Scapegoating: an introduction to mimetic theory with Hanna Mäkelä

Americans are asking questions about scandals concerning Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. When it comes to political drama, is there truth? Or is truth relative? If there is truth, how can we find it?

These are some of the key questions we explore with Hanna Mäkelä, Phd in Literary Studies and University Lecturer at the University of Helsinki. Hanna guides us through René Girard’s major works in relation to the political drama of accusations and scapegoating. In doing so, Hanna encourages us to discover the truth about politics and ourselves.

Conversation Notes

Conversation Notes

Girard claims to have found the truth about human relationships. He calls that truth “mimetic desire.” What does that term refer to?

Girard calls this truth the “novelistic truth.” In his first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, he opposes the novelistic truth with the “romantic lie.” Girard claims there are two kinds of novels. Most novels fall within the “romantic lie,” which highlights a certain kind of psychology where the character is a romantic figure – a passionate subject who is after certain objects (i.e., a love interest, a job, power, prestige, it can be anything) and he triumphs or tragically loses. Girard points out that the other kind of novel where this romantic illusion of a heroic subject who is driven by his passions and who chooses his own desires in life is replaced by a more psychologically realistic one, where the person realizes that this romanticism is an illusion. The character experience the truth when the character realizes his former life is an illusion. Where mimetic desire comes in is the relationality of different characters. They discover that, while they may like to be autonomous, their desires are always influenced by others.

The romantic lie is the idea of autonomy. That we are independent and we desire spontaneously. The novelistic truth is a deconstruction of that kind of romanticism. According to Girard, the best novels expose the romantic lie and reveal that we don’t desire spontaneously, but that we borrow desires from other people. We want something because someone else wants it.

Why does understanding mimetic desire matter?

It’s the psychological truth that people are not islands unto themselves. We are part of the me. People are fundamentally similar and we want things that are not chosen by ourselves. If I want a really nice job at a bank or university, I might want it because I need to make a living, but I also want it because I’ve seen others appreciate it. That’s how I borrow desires from my colleagues, superiors, parents, whomever. This is good and helps us learn. But it frequently leads to conflict when we want the same things.

Deceit, Desire and the Novel and Politics

In Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, Girard makes fascinating claims about mimetic desire and human relationality.  One is that the evil we see in the other is also the evil that consumes ourselves. We often talk about imitating people we admire, but Girard also claims we imitate people that we hate, people we call our enemies. There’s a desire to imitate distinguishing ourselves from our rival. For example, if one candidate wears a blue tie, the other will wear a red tie. In the primaries, accusations of being evil or disastrous were thrown around from within certain parties. Bernie Sanders claimed Clinton would be disastrous. Nearly every Republican candidate claimed Donald Trump would be disastrous. But now that we’ve come to the general election, everyone imitates everyone else by falling in line with the person who just a few months ago would have been so disastrous.

We all really want to be different because we want to be autonomous islands unto ourselves. We are in the age of individualism, which started in late 18th-early 19th century. Before that we had the middle ages and the feudal system. Before that we had slaves, masters, and priests. But now everybody can be somebody, which we believe we can achieve through autonomy. But everybody wants to achieve this by imitating the desire and methods that we are told lead to autonomy.

The red tie and blue tie example works and shows that when two people are desperately trying to appear different, they are actually desperately trying to hide their similarities.

Scapegoating and Mimetic Violence – Violence and the Sacred

In his next book, Violence and the Sacred, Girard claims that one way we attempt to stop violence is through violence. He calls this “mimetic violence.” But we always claim that our violence is justified and good, while our enemy’s violence is unjust and evil. Girard claims that this is part of the “scapegoating mechanism.” What does he mean by that?

When people desire mimetically, they borrow desires from the other. Eventually there is conflict because there aren’t enough objects to go around. There’s a scarcity, or perceived scarcity, so there is conflict. The more conflict, the less the object matters, because it no longer becomes about the object, but about the relationship with the rival.

Politics is a case where the real object is completely metaphysical, it’s the prestigious position of being president that matters. Girard claims that ancient society were “pre-consciously” aware that similar desires led to conflict, so they created taboos prohibiting desires for objects that could lead to a violent crisis. Communities that could ward off these rivalries survived. When rivalries became so intense, the group killed one member. Instead of killing each other, they united against one member, which let of steam and became cathartic. The lynching, or foundational murder, became reenacted through rituals, which then became sacrificial institutions.

But scapegoating in the ancient world was geared towards something good – a sense of peace. Their violence was directed toward the “good.” That good was a sense of peace, but it was only a temporary peace because the problem of mimetic rivalry was never dealt with.

Question from Audience –

Jim from Lake Oswego asks “This election has brought my attention to the tendency to subscribe to the strategy that the ‘end justify the means.’ This is used to justify distortions of the truth and outright lies. While I believe one candidate is outrageously subscribing to this philosophy, it is more interesting to me to discover what forces work against this strategy and what social barriers can and should be used. Does mimetic theory suggest any of this?”

Response: In a nonconscious way, humanity has always worked with this philosophy – that the end justifies the means. The means would be using some violence to pre-empt bigger violence. The question is whether there are ever ends that violent methods could justify. It was Gandhi who said that means are everything. Means and ends are the same. Gandhi was speaking from a post-sacrificial point of view. Scapegoating has changed now so that we scapegoat the scapegoaters. So, we’re saying that Hillary Clinton is a scapegoater because her actions or nonactions caused deaths of people in Benghazi. We say that Donald Trump is a scapegoater because he has molester women and exploited his workers. So, we scapegoat someone for being a violent person. In the ancient world, that wouldn’t have happened. It wouldn’t have been seen as a bad thing to be a powerful scapegoater.

The Truth in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World

Girard says we find the truth about the victim in the Judeo-Christian Bible. He notes that the Gospel, which he includes Hebrew Bible stories like Joseph and his brothers as well as the Gospels in the New Testament, speak to the innocence of the victim. There is a shift of perspective where we see through the eyes of the victim, not the powerful victimizers. This privileges the victim. The Gospels have influenced the world so much, that now the victim has a certain power over and against others.

In politics, Donald Trump is trying to claim victim status. He’s the victim of the media and liberal elite. This victimary status gives him a sense of power. Hillary Clinton is now making a similar move with the FBI, which is reinvestigating Clinton’s emails a week before the election. So, this good thing of listening to the voice of the victim can be abused by “playing the victim card.” But there are real victims. The danger is that we can play the victim card in a way that seeks revenge, not justice. We do this by projecting guilt upon another person or institution. A “good” politician is like Teflon, who projects blame onto others by making oneself the victim of the other.

Myths and Lies

Moderns tend to think of ancient myths as stories that tell us something beautiful and true about human beings. Girard claims they tell us something important about ourselves, but it’s not the truth or beautiful. It’s that myths are stories that cover up the truth about our scapegoating tendencies. Myths are narrative stories that lie and cover up the truth about our victims. Gil Bailie, in his book Violence Unveiled, says that the Greek word for myth comes from a word that means “to close” or “to keep secret.” Myths try to silence the voice of the victim.

We see this in politics when a scandal breaks out and someone claims, “We have to control the narrative about this.” The word narrative here is being abused. For Girard, there are mythical narratives and Gospel narratives. Myth is like a silk robe, whereas the Gospel is the skin of the sacrificial animal. Violence in ancient Greek myths seem beautiful and clean, whereas in the Bible, violence is shown for the ugliness that violence is. The Bible often claims God is violent. But the fact that the Bible does not hide its own violence makes a good case for the Bible’s honesty about its violence. There’s no cover up. It shows violence for what it is and the victim’s voice is frequently heard.

Jesus, Politics, and the Gospels

Before Jesus was crucified, he had a confrontation with Pilate, the political ruler of the Roman region of Judea. Here, Jesus, the representative of the Kingdom of God, comes face to face with the representative of the Roman Empire. Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” and Jesus is silent. What is the truth?

The truth is the historical truth of what went on, but also who is the victim and what is gained by silencing the victim. In the Gospel of Luke, Herod, the ruler of the Jews, and Pilate become friends once Jesus was executed on the cross. It’s not that people who commit violence are bad people. They are actually seen as good pillars of society who want an end that is good. They don’t see themselves as evil. They want good things, but they don’t see the good of the individual, but emphasize the good of the community. If someone has to be sacrifice, it may be unfortunate, but so be it for communal cohesion.

This is like Caiaphas, who was the high priest, who argued that it is better for one person to die than for the whole nation to perish. Girard calls this insight from Caiaphas the sacrificial principle. The fact that Caiaphas understands is troublesome because the more that people get it and still do it, the more culpable they are. In the ancient world, they were not conscious of scapegoating. But Caiaphas was conscious of the fact that Jesus was not guilty and he sacrificed him anyway.

Christian history has demonized Caiaphas for his part in Jesus’ death, but when we read Caiaphas’s logic, it can be easy to sympathize with it. His job as a ruler was to keep the peace. Jesus was not the threat Caiaphas thought he was, but his logic makes sense under a particular, if sacrificial, worldview. If I’m a member of the larger community, I likely might agree that it is better for one to perish than for the whole nation to perish.

The apostles claimed that they were sinners – they admitted that they abandoned Christ during his time of need. Peter denied knowing Jesus. They knew what they did and so they were quicker to judge themselves before they judged others.

Girard claims that it’s always easy to see when other people are scapegoating, but much more difficult to see when we are scapegoating. But we’re blind to our own scapegoating because we don’t want to see it in ourselves, so we project it onto others.

Question from the Audience –

There is said to be truth in fiction, science, history, etc, what are good ways to think about truth in it universal and temporal qualities?

One way of looking at the truth is to ask if it flatters you, or if it challenges you. If you write a story where you are the hero, then it is likely not the truth. Everybody tends to tell a flattering story about themselves. The truth often tells a story about ourselves that isn’t flattering, but also leaves us with the hope and work of transformation. The truth isn’t flattery, but it also isn’t mean. It doesn’t scapegoat. The truth is corrective of past mistakes and unmasks our illusions.

Girard and Battling to the End

Girard’s final book is Battling to the End. He turns to an apocalyptic view of the world. He takes apocalyptic violence away from God and puts the responsibility for violence upon humans. We are all guilty of violence, and if there is a God, then it’s important that the image of God be nonviolence. It’s also important that humans take responsibility for our violence, but do not judge that violence by projecting it onto others. The book explores von Clausewitz, who said war is diplomacy through other means. Girard’s argument is that this famous military strategist saw something that he did not dare to admit – that there is no good war. War always threatens to engulf everyone. This is the case, but Girard says we can no longer sacrifice individuals. If we don’t own up to our violence, then we risk annihilation.

The Election and Hope

Next week we will discover who will be our next president. Many are anxious. No matter who is our next president, where do we find hope?

Hope is about recognition. We need to recognize the other in ourselves. The more we see ourselves in the other, the more caring we become of the other and of ourselves. We should not sacrifice ourselves or others. We should say no to sacrifice. We should see Donald Trump as a living, breathing human being who has faults, but who is not the great disaster many claim he is. He is only the disaster if we are also the disaster.

Hope comes when we disown violence, recognize ourselves in the other, and tell unflattering stories about ourselves without sacrificing ourselves. This is the balance Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures call us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. There’s a relational, mimetic, element to that love, which includes those neighbors we call our enemies.

Hanna Mäkelä  works as University Lecturer of Comparative Literature (for the academic year 2016-17) at the University of Helsinki in Finland where she took her PhD degree in 2014. Her thesis, Narrated Selves and Others: A Study of Mimetic Desire in Five Contemporary British and American Novels, was jointly supervised at Justus Liebig University Giessen in Germany and it deals with the narratological possibilities of Girard’s mimetic theory.

Mäkelä spent the academic year 2015-16 as a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge working on post-doctoral research. Her peer-reviewed articles have been published in anthologies: “Horizontal Rivalry, Vertical Transcendence: Identity and Idolatry in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History” (The Poetics of Transcendence, Rodopi / Brill 2015), “Player in the Dark: Mourning the Loss of the Moral Foundation of Art in Woody Allen’s Match Point” (Turning Points: Concepts and Narratives of Change in Literature and Other Media, de Gruyter 2012) and “Imitators and Observers: Mimetic and Elegiac Character Relationships in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved” (Genre and Interpretation, Department of Finnish, Finno-Ugrian and Scandinavian Studies, University of Helsinki & The Finnish Graduate School of Literary Studies 2010).