What’s up with our Cultural obsession with victims?

By Maria

René Girard (1923-2015) was a great thinker who specialised in anthropological philosophy. He wrote, “Our society is the most preoccupied with victims of any that ever was.” Who could not agree with that? After all, it’s hard to avoid the concern for victims that dominates much of our cultural discourse.

About Girard, Robert Barron said, “There are academics who will beguile you with interesting ideas and other academics who will shake your world.’’ Barron credits Girard with belonging in that latter group because he reveals the victim mechanism and explains what it means today.

What is the Victim Mechanism?

The victim mechanism emerges as a mysterious cultural response to the threat of violence. All violence has its root in the universal human desire for imitation and Girard terms this desire ‘mimetic rivalry’. He argues that while our desire for imitation is intrinsically good, it can lead to violence because of our human propensity to want to have what others have and do what others do.

So, without thinking about it, societies worked out ways to control violence and halt the descent into all-out violence, and one consistent way was the victim scapegoating mechanism. Girard saw this victim mechanism everywhere, in archaic and primitive societies as well as ancient mythologies.

Within any human group, the victim scapegoating mechanism repeats the same pattern. We look for someone to blame and project our problems onto. In identifying and blaming the scapegoat victim we come together, united in a type of false peace, a sense of solidarity.

This mechanism is everywhere: the shared feeling we experience in gossip, the shared feeling two opposing experts experience when together they criticise another’s work, or even exploited to terrible effect as evidenced by Hitler’s blaming of the Jews for Germany’s crises. The scapegoating mechanism is so foundational to human behavior that it is at the origin of all religion which sacralises it.  

The religious sacralising form of the scapegoat mechanism is ritual sacrifice. The sacrificial victim is the scapegoat who bears the ritual act of violence on behalf of society and frees it from the threat of violence itself. Girard found that the gods smile upon that ritual violence, for they are always on the side of those who choose and sacrifice the victim.

But here is the important thing: Girard saw that the only accounts that departed from that consistent pattern of victim scapegoating occurred within the biblical text.

Throughout scripture, the biblical writers were well aware of the violent pattern of the scapegoat victim, it was everywhere. But they also unmasked it and revealed an entirely new truth: God is always on the side of the victim and is not on the side of those who seek out victims to accuse or sacrifice.

In the bible, God definitively subverts the archaic pattern of the scapegoating mechanism by illuminating it with the unique truth about the innocence of victims. In the biblical gospel accounts, this truth is fully revealed in God’s sacrificial self-offering manifest in the explanatory power of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

In sum, Girard has identified two victim mechanisms. Firstly, the universal pattern of the scapegoating mechanism that punishes victims and absolves the accusers. Secondly, the Judeo-Christian pattern that reveals the unique truth about the innocence of victims that subverts the scapegoating mechanism. Our current obsession with victimhood is grounded in these two patterns.

What does it all mean today?

It is commonly thought that secularism in western society has supplanted the influence of Christianity. But Girard rejects that view for he sees our society as ‘radicalised Christianity’.

The evidence provided is this: everyone agrees and stands by the one remaining Christian moral absolute about the innocence of victims. Even as all other Christian moral absolutes fall away, the intensity increases for the protection of victims.

Such is the success of the good Christian revelation about the innocence of victims, that it shapes our world through global efforts to protect them like never before. He argues that if our world was to escape the influence of Christianity it would have to renounce its concern for victims.   

Girard says, “The most powerful anti-Christian movement is the one that takes over and ‘radicalises’ the concern for victims in order to paganise it.” Here he evokes the language of antichrist because the archaic pattern of the scapegoat mechanism subverted by Christianity is like a parasite that now challenges the prevalent Christian absolute about the innocence of victims.

Girard writes that today we seem to climb over victims to get to other victims. This might begin with the Christian impulse of the crowd to gather and defend a victim, but the intensity of the crowd snowballs releasing the scapegoat mechanism, and now they proceed to unjustly condemn another victim within their sights. Without realising it we participate, and what is true and false is hard to detect.

It is paradoxical that the good concern for the innocence of victims today becomes the contagion that releases forces of persecution within our society.  

As Girard sees it, radicalised Christianity is revolutionary, and at its most powerful, “A totalitarianism that presents itself as the liberator of humanity.” While the concern for victims is a true good, with radicalised Christianity it is not Christianity that profits from that victory. Instead, Christianity is reproached for its hypocrisy and failure to defend and protect victims and the new revolutionary concern for victims presents itself as the liberator of humanity.

As a final word, Girard evokes symbolic biblical language, to say that in our world Satan, trying to make a new start and gain new triumphs, borrows the language of victims.

René Girard’s many texts are easily available. This article merely touches on aspects of his thought. I quoted from, I See Satan Fall Like Lightening.