The return of scapegoating in our times


Reference: Rene Girard, „Mimesis and Violence: Perspectives in Cultural Criticism,“ Berkshire Review 14 ( 1979): 9-19

By a scapegoat effect I mean that strange process through which two or more people are reconciled at the expense of a third party who appears guilty or responsible for whatever ails, disturbs, or frightens the scapegoaters. They feel relieved of their tensions and they coalesce into a more harmonious group. They now have a single purpose, which is to prevent the scapegoat from harming them, by expelling and destroying him.

Scapegoat effects are not limited to mobs, but they are most conspicuously effective in the case of mobs. The destruction of a victim can make a mob more furious, but it can also bring back tranquility. In a mob situation, tranquility does not return, as a rule, without some kind of victimage to assuage the desire for violence. That collective belief appears so absurd to the detached observer, if there is one, that he is tempted to believe the mob is not duped by its own identification of the scapegoat as a culprit. The mob appears insincere and hypocritical. In reality, the mob really believes. If we understand this, we also understand that a scapegoat effect is real; it is an unconscious phenomenon, but not in the sense of Freud.

How can the scapegoat effect involve real belief? How can such an effect be generated without an objective cause, especially with the lightning speed that can often be observed in the case of the scapegoating mobs? The answer is that scapegoat effects are mimetic effects; they are generated by mimetic rivalry itself, when it reaches a certain degree of intensity. As an object becomes the focus of mimetic rivalry between two or more antagonists, other members of the group tend to join in, mimetically attracted by the presence of mimetic desire.

Mimesis is mimetically attractive, and we can assume that at certain stages, at least in the evolution of human communities, mimetic rivalry can spread to an entire group. This is what is suggested by the acute disorder phase with which many rituals begin. The community turns into a mob under the effect of mimetic rivalry. The phenomena that take place when a human group turns into a mob are identical to those produced by mimetic rivalry, and they can be defined as that loss of differentiation which is described in mythology and reenacted in ritual.

We found earlier that mimetic rivalry tends toward reciprocity. The model is likely to be mimetically affected by the desire of his imitator. He becomes the imitator of his own imitator, just as the latter becomes the model of his own model. As this feedback process keeps reinforcing itself, each constitutes in the other’s path a more and more irritating obstacle and each tries to remove this obstacle more and more forcefully. Violence is thus generated. Violence is not originary; it is a by-product of mimetic rivalry. Violence is mimetic rivalry itself becoming violent as The antagonists are caught in an escalation of frustration. In their dual role of obstacle and model, they both become more and more fascinated by each other. Beyond a certain level of intensity they are totally absorbed and the disputed object becomes secondary, even irrelevant. judging from many rituals, their mutual fascination can reach the level of a hypnotic trance. That particular condition becomes the principal goal of certain religious practices under the name of possession.

At this paroxystic level of mimetic rivalry, the element of mimicry is still around, more intense than ever. It has to focus on the only entities left in the picture, which are the antagonists themselves. This means that the selection of an antagonist depends on the mimetic factor rather that on previous developments. Transfers of antagonism must take place, therefore, for purely mimetic reasons. Mimetic attraction is bound to increase with the number of those who converge on one and the same antagonist. Sooner or later a snowball effect must occur that involves the entire group minus, of course, the one individual, or the few against whom all hostility focuses and who become the „scapegoats,“ in a sense analogous to but more extreme than our everyday sense of the word „scapegoat.“ Whereas mimetic appropriation is inevitably divisive, causing the contestants to fight over an object they cannot all appropriate together, mimetic antagonism is ultimately unitive, or rather reunitive since it provides the antagonists with an object they can really share, in the sense that they can all rush against that victim in order to destroy it or drive it away.

If I am right, the contradiction between prohibitions and rituals is only apparent. The purpose of both is to spare the community another mimetic perturbation. In normal circumstances, this purpose is well served by the prohibitions. In abnormal circumstances, when a new crisis seems impending, the prohibitions are of no avail anymore. Once the contagion of mimetic violence is reintroduced into the community, it cannot be contained. The community, then, changes its tactic entirely. Instead of trying to roll back mimetic violence it tries to get rid of it by encouraging it and by bringing it to a climax that triggers the happy solution of ritual sacrifice with the help of a substitute victim. There is no difference of purpose between prohibitions and rituals. The behavior demanded by the first and the behavior demanded by the disorderly phase of ritual are in opposition, of course, but the mimetic reading makes this opposition intelligible. In the absence of this reading, anthropologists have either minimized the opposition or viewed it as an insoluble contradiction that ultimately confirmed their conception of religion as utter nonsense. Others, under the influence of psychoanalysis, have viewed the transgressive aspect of ritual, in regard to prohibitions as an end in itself, in keeping, of course, with the contemporary ethos and its predilection for disorder, at least among intellectuals who feel, perhaps, they do not have enough of it in their own lives.

Religion is different, and the purpose of ritual is reconciliation and reordering through sacrifice. The current views of ritual as essentially transgressive are given a semblance of credibility by the fact that long before anthropologists and psychoanalysts showed up on the scene, the religious believers themselves had often lost touch with the unity of purpose of their various religious practices and begun to perceive the opposition between prohibitions and ritual as an unintelligible contradiction. And they normally tried to cope with this contradiction either by minimizing it and making their prohibitions less stringent as well as their rituals less disorderly or on the contrary by emphasizing and „maximizing“ so to speak the opposition and turning their rites into the so-called festival that presents itself explicitly as a period of time in which the social rules and taboos of all kinds do not apply.


Mythology and religious cults form systems of representation necessarily untrue to their own genesis. The episode of mimetic violence and reconciliation is always recollected and narrated, as well as reenacted, from the perspective of its beneficiaries, who are also its puppets. From the standpoint of the scapegoaters and their inheritors — the religious community — there is no such thing as scapegoating in our sense. A scapegoat effect that can be acknowledged as such by the scapegoaters is no longer effective, it is no longer a scapegoat effect. The victim must be perceived as truly responsible for the troubles that come to an end when it is collectively put to death. The community could not be at peace with itself once more if it doubted the victim’s enormous capacity for evil. The belief in this same victim’s enormous capacity for doing good is a direct consequence of that first belief. The peace seems to be restored as well as destroyed by the scapegoat himself.

An arbitrary victim would not reconcile a disturbed community if its members realized they are the dupes of a mimetic effect. I must insist on this aspect because it is crucial and often misunderstood. The mythic systems of representation obliterate the scapegoating on which they are founded, and they remain dependent on this obliteration. Scapegoating has never been conceived by anyone as an activity in which he himself participates and may still be participating even as he denounces the scapegoating of others. Such denunciation can even become a precondition of successful scapegoating in a world like ours, where knowledge of the phenomenon is on the rise and makes its grossest and most violent forms obsolete.

⊃ Scapegoating can continue only if its victims are perceived primarily as scapegoaters.

Traces of an act of collective scapegoating that has effectively reconciled a community are elusive since the phenomenon is necessarily recollected from the deluded standpoint it generates. At first sight, this situation seems discouraging, but in reality it is highly favorable to the demonstration of my thesis: features that characterize the deluded standpoint of the scapegoaters are easily ascertainable. Once they are ascertained, we can verify that they are really present in primitive mythology; they constitute the constants or near constants of that mythology, in contradistinction to the variables, which are quite significant as well but demand lengthier analysis. The victim cannot be perceived as innocent and impotent; he (or she, as the case may be) must be perceived if not necessarily as a culprit in our sense, at least as a creature truly responsible for all the disorders and ailments of the community, in other words for the mimetic crisis that has triggered the mimetic mechanism of scapegoating. We can verify, indeed, that the victim is usually presented in that fashion. He is viewed as subversive of the communal order and as a threat to the well-being of the society. His continued presence is therefore undesirable and it must be destroyed or driven away by other gods, perhaps, or by the community itself.“

RENÉ GIRARD, THE GIRARD READER. Edited by James G. Williams, The Crossroad Publishing Company 370 Lexington Avenue, New York 2000, p. 11ff


And today? Ohhhhh……….



Modernity has two powerful characteristics that constantly produce redundant people, who can’t be accommodated—the people that don’t fit. The first is the order-building characteristic: modernity is obsessively ordering a chaotic reality. Inevitably this produces conflicting loyalties, diasporas and migration, since there are redundant people, who don’t fit the image of order prescribed by modernity. The second characteristic is economic progress, which makes human labor less and less valuable, so that people lose their skills and personal capital and need to move elsewhere.

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