The Road Less Travelled

I have lived all of my life – nearly half a century – in South Africa. And I cannot think of a time when the land I love has not been deeply divided and plagued by violence. My daily reality is – has always been – a confrontation with oppression. The colonial plunder of my country has left deep scars: deplorable economic inequality, devastation of languages and cultures, a legacy of corruption and entitlement that is careless of human life. Apartheid is still a vivid and traumatic memory in the national consciousness. These things left in their wake a toxic web of relationships that promote a colonial mindset of violent exploitation long after colonial rule was ended. As I write this, my beloved country finds itself rocked by xenophobia and gender-based violence. It is easy to feel helpless and hopeless.


But living in South Africa has afforded me an opportunity that I am not sure I would have recognised as readily had I lived in a country where these things were less overt. Because make no mistake, I do not think these problems are absent elsewhere; they simply play out differently. I think what is playing out in South Africa is the manifestation of a much broader, more generically human sociological phenomenon, rather than being simply a localised event. Living here has compelled me to interrogate the legitimacy of the world as presented to me, which is something we only tend to do when there is a crisis.


So what I want to offer here is a brief summation of how I understand the times we are living in, and how I think individuals can respond. I want to start what I think is an important conversation. I cannot guarantee that you will feel any less hopeless at the end of it, but hopefully as we begin to engage in dialogue around the mess we find ourselves in, we will start to understand it better, and so will be in a better position to take an active role in shifting the course society is taking.


From an evolutionary perspective, a primary human need is social cohesion. We are, all said and done, apes. And apes are not individually powerful creatures: their strength comes from their intelligence and from the strength of the group. We need the group to survive; a threat to the group is a threat to each individual. The greatest threat an ape can face is that which will cause the group to fragment.


Over time (long, long periods of time), we have developed mechanisms to help us protect the group from the threat of social fragmentation. Religion and culture find their roots in our efforts to meet this primary need. One of the mechanisms employed by religion (and by extension culture) to ensure social cohesion is scapegoating violence.


When there is competition for limited resources, relationships within the group become strained. Of course, resources are always limited, because desire is mimetic: we naturally desire something not because it is intrinsically desirable, but because others desire it. This means that even when there is plenty, the objects of desire are few (it is not good enough that I have a piece of meat, I want the piece you have – in my mind it is tastier, leaner, bigger etc). When this tension builds to dangerous levels, or is exacerbated by external factors like famine or disease or political instability, we relieve it through scapegoating violence. The threat to social cohesion is attributed to an arbitrarily selected third party. This victim is always an insider-outsider: somebody on the margins of society, whose insider status justifies their culpability for the fragmenting society but from whom the threat of reciprocal violence (which would destroy social cohesion) is minimal. The sacrifice of the scapegoat – in whatever form that sacrifice takes – has a pacific and unifying effect on the group.


In effect, we continue to resort to and participate in scapegoating violence because it works. It brings us together and restores peace. But here is the thing: it only works if we can successfully hide the victim. We recognise on some level that what we are doing is using a “lesser” violence to contain a “greater” one. To make it work, we have to blind ourselves to the injustice of the “lesser” violence. And so we mythologise the act of scapegoating. We make the victims either sacred or demonic; we shroud the act in a sacred narrative. This narrative may be an overtly religious one: God ordained the sacrifice. But it may also be very secular: we can perform the act under the banner of an ideology like democracy, or liberalism, or Marxism or capitalism, or justice.


For it to work, collective violence needs everybody’s buy-in. The narrative of sacred violence only serves to hide the victim if everyone believes the story to be true. The problem, which sociologist René Girard (whose theories these are) predicted, is that the more difficult it becomes to hide the victim, the greater the levels of violence needed to bring about the unifying and pacific effect the scapegoating mechanism brings. When everyone agrees that the volcano God needs a sacrifice, and even the traditionally selected victim agrees that this is the right way to proceed, practically leaping into the lava herself, then the violence can be minimised. When people start questioning the legitimacy of the tradition of sacrifice selection and she or her family start to protest, then ways need to be found to justify the selection and to dissuade future dissent. The possibility of reciprocal violence needs to be quelled. Things get messier.


That is, I think where we are now. Increasingly large sectors of society are voicing objections to the sacrifice. We know we cannot blame the tension on the arbitrarily selected victims; we protest that the sacrifice is not right. The stories that legitimate the “lesser” violence no longer ring true. We need more violence to drown out the doubt.


So where does that leave us? What can we do, those of us who refuse to accept this outcome, in the face of such monstrous sociology?


I would argue that there are two primary areas towards which we can direct our responses. The first is towards the “lesser” injustice. We can help combat scapegoating violence in the first instance by refusing to participate. Remember that collective violence gains legitimacy when everybody participates, since every member of the collective who refuses to become involved in it emphasises its fundamental injustice. By not participating, and by actively disrupting and challenging the mythologising that attempts to sacralise the act, we weaken its case. By opposing the act – even peacefully – we also strengthen the potential for reciprocal violence. Remember that the arbitrarily chosen scapegoat is selected (though not often consciously) because the threat of reciprocal violence is low. By increasing the potential threat (there has to be no actual threat of violence – I would argue there should not be), we make scapegoating less attractive because we increase the likelihood of inaugurating the very social fragmentation that the scapegoating act is attempting to keep at bay.


Secondly, we can help find ways to give the victims a voice. By exposing the injustice of the act against these victims, we help to deconstruct the mythologising narrative that legitimises the act and hides the victim. Since scapegoating violence relies for its justification on hiding the victim, we need to unhide the victim. Whoever the victims of scapegoating are, whether or not we sympathise with them, I believe that we owe it to society always to find ways to unmask the injustice of their scapegoating. It is the only way we can begin to evolve beyond this thing we have become.


Of course this leads to the second front in which we need to face this behemoth. It is imperative that we understand this: the mob that is baying for blood is not necessarily doing it out of hatred. They are driven by a sociological necessity to which they are completely oblivious. They are trying to ward off the potential fragmentation of the group. They are engaging in a “good” violence to avert a “bad” violence. Showing them that there is no distinction between these violences is not sufficient because it has done little to address the circumstances that have led to the escalation in tension to the extent that the group is unraveling.


If we are to fight this scourge of xenophobia and racism and gender-based violence and homophobia, we must become more earnest in practically addressing the issues that have led us to the mimetic conflict in the first place. And that is a trickier thing to advise on. But I will offer this: South Africa is the most unequal society in the world. If you clear R7000 (around $470) a month, you are in the top 10% of earners. The economy is struggling, jobs are scarce, state-owned enterprises that are supposed to meet people’s basic needs are riddled with inefficiency and corruption. And it is the poor majority who are feeling it the most. If you are reading this, you are not in that poor majority. Is there anything that it is within your power to do to speak to some aspect of that inequality?


Maybe, where-ever you are in the world you may be tonight, you feel completely overwhelmed in the face of the enormity of the injustice and the violence and the hatred that so relentlessly seem to consume us. Maybe, like me, you sometimes feel that hope is a fairytale, that humanity is beyond redemption. Sometimes I feel like that too. But that is not all I see. I also see that the trajectory of human culture seems to be shifting away from such horror. There was a time not so very long ago when the injustices we witness now would not only have gone unchallenged, but would have been met with unanimous approval. I do not believe that we are doomed to be forever trapped in these cycles of violence. Culture serves us; we do not serve culture. After all, what is culture but the collective expression of our relationships? We can change who we are, both collectively and individually, by choosing to relate differently.

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