Sunday, March 7, 2010


"The consumption society has become a system of exchange of signs, rather than an exchange of actual objects."
Rene Girard

Rene Girard has argued that primitive humans used sacrifice as a means of diminishing the rivalries that threatened to devolve into societal chaos.  The fear and violence associated with rivalries were blamed on a "scapegoat."  Sacrificing the scapegoat became a safety valve.  Blame and scorn were heaped on the scapegoat, unity and focus were restored  to the community and chaos and violence were diminished--for a time.  Eventually the ritual would need to be repeated to insure the survival of a given community.  

Scapegoats often came from already despised groups: enslaved enemies, ethnic minorities, deviants, and criminals.  At other times the choice of a scapegoat could be quite arbitrary.  Girard contends that Judaism and Christianity eroded the effectiveness of scapegoating.  In the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament the scapegoat mechanism is exposed.  Story after story, culminating in the crucifixion of Jesus, declares the scapegoats innocent, or, at least not guilty of the charges made against them.  Biblical figures like Joseph, Job, and Jonah illustrate this. 

Today scapegoating is still in use, but its effectiveness, at least in the west, is waning.  For all the critique of the so-called "victim mentality" it demonstrates western sensitivity to scapegoating.  Marginal groups refuse any longer to accept the role of societal whipping boy.  This is a fairly recent development.  In American society the time is not long past when it was acceptable to speak disparagingly of African Americans or Jews or Communists or sexual deviants.  Hatred of such marginal people underscored the goodness and  enhanced the cohesion of the majority.  Despising "those people" told me who I was and where I belonged.  Such scapegoating of persons at the margins, of course, continues.  But, as suggested, is much less effective and acceptable.

Scapegoating is about creating and sustaining group identity and cohesion.  It reduces rivalry and violence by attending to the alien other.  Girard suggests that today the consumer society is an attempt to accomplish this by another means.  Since limited resources are a source of rivalry, the consumer society provides a glut of cheap consumer goods.  It then assigns to these goods a transcendent meaning.  What you drive, what you wear, where you live, and where you went to school determine who you are.  Your identity is shaped and declared by goods you consume.  Advertising is quite explicit about this.  Consumerism is an exchange of "signs", not an exchange of goods.  The signs that one is "cool" or sophisticated or culturally savvy are always shifting.  Consumerist identity is constantly morphing and generating novel desires.  The consumer must remain constantly vigilant. 

Our wars and financial crises contribute to our crises of identity and unity.  We fear financial losses and limitations not just because we fear hunger and poverty.  We fear a loss of identity.  When we can no longer spend as freely as we like, we can no longer differentiate ourselves. In a consumerist society we are our desires. We find ourselves hollowed out when we can no longer fulfill them.  No wonder our leaders want to restore our economy at almost any cost.  They too fear the loss of identity and cohesion and the violence that is sure to follow.

1 comment:

  1. Scapegoating in Education means that public school students are expected to perform well on standardized tests; if they don't perform well, it is solely the responsibility of the teachers--not the student, parent or society. Teachers are the scapegoat. But it's not so simple. Do tests motivate learning? "Where is the joy in learning?" we ask as we all huddle around TV sets for our education.