Happy New Year! Are you ready to destroy a stranger's life today?
It's well known that social media can whip people into peculiar, angry frenzies and turn them into destructive mobs at the service of causes both worthy and ridiculous. Slate put together a compendium of online anger last year, calling 2014 "the year of outrage."
Make no mistake, online outrage can create real victims. Remember the IAC executive whose life was turned upside down for making a stupid joke?
Where does this outrage come from? And what can we do to stop it?
Obviously, the mysterious human urge to form mindless mobs predates the internet and has been widely remarked upon.
But one thinker, the French philosopher René Girard, nailed how it works more closely than anyone else.
Studying French literature, he noted an overriding theme, which he would later call mimetic desire: the tendency for human beings to desire something not because they want it but because other people want it.
If we are honest with ourselves, we realize how much we are shaped by mimetic desire. We want things — the "best" jobs, the "best" mates — not because we genuinely want them, but because other people view them as desirable.
This is how advertising works. Most ads do not directly sell a product; instead, they show us people we would like to be like — perfect-looking people in nice houses — and then show us those people liking the product. Or have you ever noticed how all hipsters dress the same? Funny how they all started liking plaid shirts, retro glasses, and long beards for totally idiosyncratic reasons at exactly the same time. Mimetic desire is also the source of that staple literary plot driver since the dawn of time: the love triangle.
Later on, Girard studied anthropology and ancient religious myths and noticed another theme. If someone desires something, there will soon be an imitator — then a second, and a third, and a fourth. The process quickly snowballs. But since mimetic desire is not about the object to begin with, the ostensible object of desire is soon forgotten, and desire transforms into antagonism. The imitation continues, only this time people imitate each other's envy and rage. They go from wanting to share the same object to wanting to destroy the same enemy. Soon, one is readily found to attract everybody's hate: the scapegoat.
In a paroxysm of violence, the hatred against the scapegoat is unanimous and he is destroyed. This brutal moment allows everyone to satisfy their appetite for violence, and calm suddenly breaks out mere moments after the group was consumed by rage.
To Girard, this scapegoating phenomenon lies at the origin of all religious myths. Once the crowd has killed the scapegoat, it sees the miracle of peace. It views the scapegoat as the origin of the crisis, but also possessed of the miraculous power to restore social order. Myths quickly arise to cover up the reality of mob violence, and to account for the dead scapegoat's surprisingly miraculous power. Religious rites of sacrifice, first human and later animal, are established to channel the collective's mimetic violence and thereby maintain some semblance of social peace.
Indeed, in most ancient myths there is a primordial murder that guarantees social order. In many creation myths, the creation is the product of some conflict between one god and another. In the story of Oedipus Rex, Oedipus commits incest with his mother and murders his father, and as a result the gods visit a plague on Thebes until he realizes his misdeed, blinds himself, and flees into exile. In Rome's founding myth, Romulus murders his brother Remus for breaking the charter of his new city.
If Girard is right, then, the urge to create scapegoats is at the root of all human culture. No wonder that when left to our own devices on social media, our outrage results in frothing mobs.
Is there any hope?
To Girard, there is only one way to defeat the scapegoating mechanism: to expose it.
The scapegoating mechanism is built on lies: that the scapegoat really is guilty; that the scapegoat is furthermore to blame for this frenzy of anger we find ourselves in; that the scapegoating is about the scapegoat, not about ourselves. No lynch mob ever proclaimed, "Hey, let's take a totally innocent person and project our own shortcomings on him to make ourselves feel better!"
The only ancient text Girard could find that contained a denunciation, rather than an endorsement, of scapegoating, is the Bible. The Bible also has its narrative of founding murder. But while Rome's myth states that Remus was guilty and needed to die, the Bible says that "Abel the Just" was innocent, and has its god character protect his murderer Cain from scapegoating vengeance.
The Bible also contains one of the most striking stories in all of human literature: the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery. The reason why the phrase "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" has resonated so deeply in every age and culture is precisely because it strikes at the core of the scapegoat mechanism. It really didn't matter to anyone whether the woman actually committed adultery, and the lynch mob was just as guilty, or just as innocent, as her. Once the reality of the scapegoat mechanism was exposed, the men could only realize the futility of what they were about to do.
The only way to defeat the scapegoat mechanism is to expose it. And so I'm doing my best here, and I hope you will, too.
Let he who is without sin cast the first outraged tweet.