step 70: scapegoating and sacrifice
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Step 70: Scapegoating and Sacrifice

Scapegoating & Sacrifice

Reversing inner pressure outward requires a scapegoat to sacrifice in order to stabilize society.

Discovering the hidden models driving us reveals our motivations, but more importantly, Rene Girard‘s theory accounts for civilizations’ cybernetic energies and release valves. Paired with Georges Bataille’s theory of Sacrifice required due to excess (the general economy) we find explanations for seemingly irrational behavior.

Drawing from Luke Burgis’ “Wanting: Memetic Desire in Everyday Life” we look at the basics of memetic rivalry, hidden models, and mediators before jumping to scapegoating. Then we move into Lacan’s notion of the “objet petit a” to consider the subject as desiring, and the self as commodified. In the end, we turn to Bataille‘s “The Accursed Share, vol. 1” to intertwine scapegoating and sacrifice.

Note: there are references to earlier podcasts on Cybernetics and Mimetic Desire.

  • 0:01 Mimetic desire and the imitation loop.
  • 2:37 We are programmed automatons who will never capture the flag.
  • 5:00 Introduction of the desire by a mediator.
  • 7:57 Intentional rationality vs instrumental rationality.
  • 12:38 How to relieve the anger?
  • 15:17 Happiness is created by condemning one: scapegoating.
  • 17:41 Old habits are hard to break.
  • 22:57 Bataille: The general economy of the natural economy is excess.
  • 25:01 How do you deal with excesses? through sacrifice.
  • 27:28 Violence comes from memetic desire.

Step 70: Scapegoating & Sacrifice

Part 1: Desire, mediators, externalize violence

“Desire is not of this world,” Girard has said, “… it is in order to penetrate into another world that one desires, it is in order to be initiated into a radically foreign existence.”

Rene Girard

 As a little recap on mimetic desire, people tend to crave and desire the same thing. Whether that’s an object or status, or a person. They fixate and then converge on the “object”, which leads to violence. 

What’s so strange about this is often somebody else has to introduce and model for you that something is desirable.  Girard refers to these introducers of desire as “mediators” who “model” desire fulfillment. This only works when the model is hidden. Girard says our goal is to expose these hidden systems so that we do not act unconsciously, unthinkingly, under their sway. 

While the mediator can be your buddy, a television ad, or the serpent in the garden, it can also be the society you live in. 

Consider when you want an object like I currently want an espresso machine. And I can argue with myself about cost-benefit, quality versus time, etc… and it can be rational even though it’s obviously a luxury. We engage in Jurgen Habermas’s instrumental rationality or instrumental reasoning: reasoning to get to a goal. I adjust the means to reach the ends, but the goal itself is not rational. I live next to 5 coffee shops, and it will take me 10 years to pay off the espresso machine. And more counterintuitively, if I had an espresso at home I would rob myself of the socialization and status of being a known espresso guy at the coffee shops where this idea was originally modeled for me. When we pursue something less tangible or socially manufactured, like status or honor, or the dubious distinction of being an espresso aficionado, there becomes a lot of room for rationalization. Which is all we really need in life: coffee and rationalization. 

“I never go a day without Coffee and Rationalization.” 

Ryder Richards

Are we attempting to be authentic individuals? No, we are trying to be a type of someone. I want to be the type of someone who drinks espresso barefoot on a yoga ball while shaving with a straight razor and yet still have a luxurious beard. It’s confusing to know who you are: it also requires ambidexterity and perhaps a few trips to the ER. 

So, to clarify: we pursue similarity but with differentiation: You can try to be quirky and smart, while your rival attempts to be stable and conservative… all to gain the same goal… yet this behavior is imitative even in inverse. By reacting to each other, in the same tiny social circle, you are forming a closed loop of pursuit through small differences, which you exaggerate as big differences.

Psychologically, if you define your “self” through negation it obscures you from ever pursuing who you really are or might be. You react blindly, stupidly. And we all do it.

 Now, if we apply that at a societal level, it leads to tragedy. 

Step 70: Scapegoating & Sacrifice

Part 2: The scapegoating machine 

“A scapegoat remains effective as long as we believe in its guilt. Having a scapegoat means not knowing that we have one.”

Rene Girard

In ancient times, there was always a dude named Judas, or Pontius Pilot, or Ralph, or a woman named Mary. Sometimes the crops didn’t come in or a disease ravaged the land and people were angry. Or say a dude named Jesus was upsetting the social order by preaching peace. That really pisses people off, telling them they should control their violence.

 René Girard, through Luke Burgis’s book, implies that “disease” may not have been a pathogen or virus (like COVID) but could have just been anger in the old days: an evil spirit plaguing the land was just rambunctious frustration pent up, about to boil over and burn down the town. 

So, what is the cure? 

Find a way to relieve the anger in a way that people would not necessarily blame themselves, but feel vindicated: give them a cathartic release that wouldn’t make them feel guilty later, so they could remain productive members of society. The best way to do this is to point out old Ralph, who was a social outcast, maybe with leprosy and maybe he liked licking frogs. Focus all your attention on Ralph (or perhaps accuse a woman who turned you down at prom of adultery… which, is of course why the crops are not growing, as we all know) and then just wait. The hardest part for someone to throw the first stone.

Bottled-up rage is present, but someone has to stand out from the crowd and create the model, light the match, for the rest of the crowd to follow. But some jackass will do it, and then mob mentality takes over.  The modeled action spreads, and everyone gets to hurl stones, purging anger in a social group, which provides the excuse “my stone didn’t kill him, we were all doing it.” This dissipates responsibility from the individual while allowing cathartic murder. A firing squad operates on the same principles, but with state-sanctioned violence that disperses the “hangman’s guilt.”

We just found a social outsider and killed them to release pressure. This scapegoat serves a brutal, dumb utilitarian function, which some would say is “necessary for the good of society.” 

In Ursula K LeGuin‘s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” there is a utopic, happy society. A perfect society of happy citizens. But the dark secret to everyone’s happiness is that to create happiness there is a dark bargain: a single child must suffer for everyone else’s happiness. This child is tortured every day: for thousands to be happy, we must violate and condemn one. This is an argument against mathematical utilitarianism, the Greatest Happiness principle by John Stuart Mill, where an aggregate of happiness trumps the rights of an individual. The scapegoat. 

Ancient civilizations were willing to make this deal. As Girard says

“Examine ancient sources, inquire everywhere, dig up corners of the planet, and you will not find anything anywhere that even remotely resembles our modern concern for victims,” 

 In ancient Greece it was common to single out and condemn, in religious cultures God or gods would have you sacrifice not only animals, but people, and we have more modern examples, such as the Holocaust in Germany, or Tutsi in Rwanda. 

There have been major changes that push back against scapegoating. 

One of these is Jesus, the ultimate scapegoat, sacrificed by his all-powerful father for our petty, vindictive sins. He flipped the script of the scapegoat into a martyr. The movement shifted a social dynamic from condemning the weak (burning and bludgeoning through their bodies as a release for societal rage or entertainment) into an accepted ideology where the victimized, and weak were to be helped, allowing access to heaven. 

From this standpoint, you side with the victim, not against them. But old habits are hard to break and once Christians came to power they killed a lot of people. Still, this is a type of progress, but as Girard says, we should note the modern concern for victims, which has never come into civilizations before. It doesn’t mean we stopped scapegoating, but we began to turn. As Girard says,

“We didn’t stop burning witches because we invented science; we invented science because we stopped burning witches”

Rene Girard

 When we stopped scapegoating, we had to look elsewhere for explanations. When we quit blaming people for droughts we considered weather patterns. Yet, many people are not comforted by this: scientific explanation for drought does not save their starving child. And so the rage remains, and in a cybernetic system, that positive energy demands release. 

Question: in our modern times, under and within capitalism or democracy, have we constrained the scapegoating mechanism or just shifted it into social media takedowns? And really is blaming social media a red herring for the entire system? On a national/state level, have we just hidden behind the law? We still take our vengeance in violence, carving out our pound of flesh, or imprisoning people, but we do it in a civilized and legal, justified professional manner. What is law but a way to regulate, and coercively correct outsiders? 

Step 70: Scapegoating & Sacrifice

Side note: Lacan and desire 

You might have heard of Lacan, who was this French philosopher, and psychoanalysis guy. I most often bump into the Lacanian concepts whenever I am reading Slavoj Zizek

Lacan talks about the big other and the little other. The [[objet A]] and the [[objet petit a]]. The big other is the large symbolic structures that surround us incentivizing us to work with others, while the little other is imaginary and these are our desires that drive us. These are our goals in front of us.

Lacan says our goal is not our aim. Our aim is subconscious drives to continue desiring. 

So we can have a goal in front of us: we can desire that thing or status or person, and yet to achieve that goal does not completely satisfy us. You do not look around and say I am now complete, and just sit there and rest, or maybe you do for a moment, and then you find a new desire to pursue. Why? Because, as Lacan says, the subject is constituted from their desire. (created or made from their desires).

I bring this up because, if Lacan is correct and our desire is what creates us as an individual, as a subject it is how we know ourselves, then we can never be non-desiring without disintegrating the subject/self. 

While Buddhist enlightenment involves no longer suffering by no longer desiring, in the West and most of the rest of the world the “big other” is the large symbolic structure of capitalism and commodification, pressuring us until the individual himself identifies with commodities. This is why Rene Girard’s ideas of mimesis, wanting what you see in others, or identifying yourself with small differences can lead to such large rivalries. Our current big other, even if as Lacan says… there is no big other and we create ‘the big other’ out of our ‘little other’, we are surrounded by a symbolic imperative of commodification.

Julian de Medeiros says, the Cartesian subject’s “I think therefore I am,” has evolved into “I commodify myself therefore I exist.” 

Step 70: Scapegoating & Sacrifice

Part 3: scapegoat and sacrifice 

One way to look at scapegoating is through Georges Bataille’s idea of the General Economy, which always produces excess and waste. This is odd to hear if you think of our economy in terms of efficiency and scarcity. In case you are unfamiliar, here is the idea in broad strokes: the natural economy only uses a small percentage of the sunlight that hits the Earth that transforms it into energy, each plant itself is very wasteful, and each animal in itself is very wasteful of the energy consumed and then harvested by eating other animals. Often animals have a lot of young and few of them survive. The way anything thrives or survives seems to be through excess, not moderation and limitation. 

There is some fairly common ground where Bataille and Girard meet. (Mostly, in the notion of socially sanctioned killing as a release valve.) Bataille, in Accursed Share Vol 1, talks about sacralizing the excess through sacrifice. When you have way too much, you have to kill it or burn it. This sacrifice levels back out the resources in a community by expending them in a type of debauchery, which is often a religiously mediated ritual.

The Aztecs, for instance, conquered all the surrounding villages and kept spreading, but the slaves captured were brought back and what do you do with so much excess wealth? If you just kill them you are a wasteful tyrant, but if you sacrifice them to your god on an altar, ripping out their beating heart, and letting gallons of blood spill down an expensive pyramid and run through the streets as praise: you are doing it for blessings for the people. 

War itself is excess: we have too much tension among ourselves and must turn it and release the aggression upon the outsider: scapegoat the neighboring village or country. Then, we ritualize (cough… rationalize) the wasteful expenditure. We waste our lives, take theirs, and accumulate more territory under patriotic fervor. The next time we are under tension society channels the excessive intensity outward again, accumulating more excess material… and on and on. 

Georges Bataille said the Aztecs would find a sacrificial victim, and for a year make them into a lavish celebrity, allowing them all carnal and gluttonous pleasures, but would make them vomit with salt water if they started to get fat. They needed the celebrity sacrifice to be beautiful. 

Beauty requires Sacrifice. Sacrifice requires Beauty.


They converted the chosen into a sacred vessel, even though a slave from an outside tribe, this person would embody their sacrifice as the ultimate scapegoat. Their largess foisted upon this youth was their excessive accumulation (material wealth) taking sacred religious form.  (This is a similar trick to our entertainment cycle, elevating and sacrificing stars.)

Bataille and Girard, dovetail together through the idea that our excesses create tensions that demand release. Violence is turned outward, almost always to the fringes, to some small group of outsiders, upon whom we will place the blame, drive them into the ground, and feel a cathartic release. Because we all share in the sin, we attempt to make it true, becoming more religious, patriotic, or ideological. To admit you killed an innocent because you could not control your petty emotions is a pill too large for most to swallow. 

All scapegoating, all religious or orgiastic festivals, riots, and even Black Friday, are the result of an inability to channel our will. It is a failure of individuals that manifests as societal terror. 

Step 70: Scapegoating & Sacrifice

Thank you!

 Up next we will look at camouflage, and how mimicry and hiding are both forms of protection and a means to attack.

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“Wanting: Memetic desire in everyday life” by Luke Burgis

Freud, Rene Girard, Shakespeare

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