I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (book)

Humanity tends to scapegoat individuals or groups to water the thirst for collective violence or to resolve tensions and angst. The scapegoating mechanism is at the heart of the Western canon: both Socrates and Jesus were put to death to appease the inflamed crowd. According to French American thinker René Girard, these are extreme, archetypal versions of a phenomena that plays out in lesser forms throughout human life.

Girard sits at the crossroads of various traditions but is uniquely brilliant when discussing the role collective violence has in human communities. At the heart of Girard’s work is the notion of mimetic decision-making. By this he means that humans by nature imitate what they see, hear, and read, including in what they desire. The imitators inevitably begin to go after the same things in a world of scarce resources, which increases tensions in the community. Eventually, the tension becomes too great, and the individual or group is selected for scapegoating, whereby the masses direct their rage and frustrations onto the scapegoat, who is labelled, attacked verbally and at times murdered.

The division between need and want is important here. For Girard, our needs are instinctual, and our wants are mimetic. In essence, once our survival instincts are met, our desirous minds begin to want things other people have or desire. The obvious result of this is unchecked and potentially destructive patterns of competition and desire. Economic and political decision-making is driven by the desire to be recognised, accepted, and praised by others, and is a highly intersubjective phenomena that cannot be narrowed down to the decisions of independent agents.

Of late, Girard’s thought has been making inroads into economic theory, partly driven by Peter Thiel’s enthusiasm for his Stanford professor’s ideas. When reflecting on how Girard’s theory helped him in business and life, Thiel notes that the mimetic nature of human decision-making leaves room for highly successful contrarian investors as the market cannot be rational when consumers and investors are swept up in mimetic contagion. However, perhaps more importantly, Thiel argues that if we can understand the scapegoating mechanism and the tendency to fight over what we mutually desire, then we can more effectively cut off the scapegoating process in our workplaces and political communities.

It was however through his theological text I See Satan Fall Like Lightning that I encountered and became deeply interested in Girard’s work. In this book he approaches the Bible through his mimetic worldview. He works to “demythologise” the concept of Satan by turning the Prince of this World into a personification of scapegoating rather than a living entity. He does this because, for him, the process is impersonal as the vast majority of those caught up in the scapegoating are not aware they are captured by behavioural contagion.

He argues that Pontius Pilate, like many political leaders, gives into mimetic contagion as a way of ensuring the future stability of the community and his position in it. After seeing the crowd reaction to his offering up of Barabbas, Pilate understands that the crowd can only be placated through the murder of Jesus via the scapegoating process. Moreover, even Peter, one of Christ’s loyal followers, gives into the mimetic contagion, fulfilling Jesus’ prophesy that he would be betrayed three times before the rooster crowed. The spirit of collective action and acceptance is thereby revealed as seductive to all humans regardless of station.

One curious aspect of this view of human conduct is that mimetic contagion can look a lot like conspiracy. That is, the uniformity of senseless action across a wide range of people, including leaders, can appear so coordinated that one is automatically left searching for an external hidden hand. However, we also know that the mimetic nature of human beings is continuously taken advantage of by advertisers, influencers, celebrity culture, spin doctors and nudge units. Perhaps the two notions are complimentary rather than opposed; or put another way, nefarious social actors use our mimetic tendencies against us to achieve ends unknown to those immersed in the frenzy.

The saving grace in the whole affair is that for Girard our mimetic character enables us to enter relationships involving positive reciprocity. For this, we need cultural figures, politicians, and artists that can provide compelling, positive behaviors for the collective to imitate, with forgiveness the most potent personal safeguard against spiraling mimetic rivalries. It is not enough to merely expose those among us pushing society towards corruption, violence and the scapegoating of individuals and groups. Finally, we need a cultural environment built on the inherent dignity and rights of all people regardless of their group identity, because without this, we too easily revert to the tyranny of the masses and the scapegoating of individuals and groups to sedate the crowd.

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