Rene Girard - mimetics, scapegoating, and culture wars today

Luke Burgis is interviewed here by Bishop Barron about Luke’s new book: “Wanting: the Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life.”

I haven’t yet read the book, but this conversation itself was a treasure to me. In a world of continuing demonization of all “other”, this is water to a parched desert. I have questions around all this of course, mainly just one right now. But I’ll sit on it for the moment to see if any discussion here might be forthcoming.


I haven’t read (or heard of the book) yet or listened to the interview, but you seem to be reading my mind, Merv. Driving home today, I was thinking about this very matter applied to myself, and actually thought, “Yeah, I can hear Merv speaking wisdom in the back of my mind.”It’s so easy to be caught up in the rage and frustration.

It requires constant CONSTANT prayer and attention to pull my own mind back and examine the very way I am applying to other people all the same kind of binary thinking I hate so much.

I’m looking forward to observing the discussion.

@Mervin_Bitikofer, finally finished. Thanks so much for recommending this discussion. I particularly appreciated that they wrapped up with a focus on making it personal and also in relation to vocation.


our desires are disordered…

That has a familiar ring to it. Desiring God – all we need to want.

It also brings to mind the petitioner’s heart’s desire in the first request in the Lord’s Prayer, “Hallowed be thy name.” I want you to be famous, set apart, I am interested in your renown.

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(Still watching it) …interesting points about the great authors’ “literary conversions” and their going back and rewriting, and his own spiritual conversion.

One question I wish had been asked in that interview is … Given that there is such a thing as truth and falsehood, how can one distinguish between scapegoating and legitimate rebuke? I know the point was made that it is irrelevant whether the scapegoat is really guilty or not, but still. When we criticize YEC views around here as we often do, are we scapegoating?

The good bishop has himself often rebuked or chastized certain behaviors or classes of of people that might need some exhortation or rebuke. How does one distinguish between such needed, possibly even prophetic activity and scapegoating?


“It’s rumored that there’s a room found in The Zone that will grant your deepest, innermost desires. In this Room, you’ll get exactly what you want—your heart’s desire. The three finally make it to the threshold of the Room. But before venturing in, The Writer asks his guide, “What if I don’t know what I want?” The Room will decide for you. The Room reveals what you truly want in life—even if you yourself are unconscious of it. The Room reveals all. Not what you think you want, but what you actually want.”

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These types of fuzzy decisions is one way that I interpret that we are not under law, but under grace. It’s the grace or gift of God’s wisdom that is needed to make these kinds of decisions. Wisdom and patience as it’s often not immediately apparent what another person’s desire is. Hence the need to give the benefit of the doubt… yeah doubt :face_with_monocle:


It would seem (according to Girard) that “the room” is not hypothetical for us. Those around us in life (and those we choose to watch from a distance - celebrities or such) are our chosen room. They will choose our desires for us.

One of my own family challenged this thought at the supper table when I brought it up this evneing. His question: “how can I not have any desires of my own?” … or the implied question that I think is embedded in his: "without at least something of my own, how would I select from among all my possible peers (my internally mediated world manufacturing my desires), or potential celebrity favorites (my externally mediated world of desires)? All I know, is that (on Luke’s reading of Girard) even the people we choose to think are cool - we probably intially admired for some reason that had been mediated prior. All the way back to babies mimicking their mothers, practically out of the womb.

At the risk of opening up yet another question front here before any prior ones have been addressed, I think all this illuminates one reason I’m so suspicious of surveys or polls that ask a person if they are satisfied with some past decision they made. Do they have regrets? Three years after ___, xx% of those polled said they had little to no regret - or were happy with how things were.

All I know is that after I’ve invested a lot of my own labor, money, or myself in something, I’m very highly motivated to be happy with it. Nobody wants to feel like a fool after a purchase. It isn’t for nothing that Proverbs (I think) gives us the perceptive observation: “Too high, too high!” says the prospective buyer to the seller. And then after the transaction the buyer goes away and boasts of his purchase. Suddenly it was the best deal in the world. Or if something fell through and we were denied something we wanted … then suddenly “I never really wanted it anyway - a good thing I didn’t get it.” (sour grapes). It’s the way human psychology works. So I’m pretty sure that any polls asking people how satisfied they are about some decision they made three days or three years ago, there is approximately a 0% chance of getting any response beyond the response they think their favored sub-culture might be most impressed by.


How blessed is the one has been tried by the Lord.

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Indeed. And as is noted in the interview, our ultimate source of desires - the one we should have our eyes on to imitate, is Christ.

That’s a no-brainer for Christians, and yet very few (if any of us) could claim to have kept our gaze clear of any distractions in that regard.


Smith has an excellent chapter I’ve been meaning to return to in his book Letters to a Young Calvinist. In it he wonderfully takes John Piper’s thesis about enjoying God and relates it to how we may enjoy creation and glorify God in doing so.

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We’ve come across motivated reasoning before, reasoning that is not fully rational, or at least it is unconsciously biased:

I really liked my one exposure to James K.A. Smith (if that’s the same James Smith you speak of) when I heard him speak some years back about the importance of liturgy in our churches and lives. I haven’t read any of his books, though.

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Very true! And our awareness of it cuts in all directions - good and bad. We may have more tools to help motivate ourselves toward good things. But the same tools are also then available for bad actors to ply their trade against wide and vulnerable (fear-triggered) swaths of our population.

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Same guy. I was introduced to him awhile back through Letters and took him to be a Michael Horton type. Last year I discovered that he’s a really capable philosopher. Also found that he comes from a charismatic background, and is the same James Smith that commends Keener’s work in the introduction to Spirit Hermeneutics.

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The scape goating mechanism.
From a section of Luke’s book captioned: “Sacred Violence”

Girard saw a close connection between mimetic desire and violence. “People everywhere today are exposed to a contagion of violence that perpetuates cycles of vengeance,” he said in his book The One by Whom Scandal Comes. “These interlocking episodes resemble each other, quite obviously, because they all imitate each other.”2

How do these cycles of vengeance start? Mimetic desire. “More and more, it seems to me,” wrote Girard in the same book, “modern individualism assumes the form of a desperate denial of the fact that, through mimetic desire, each of us seeks to impose his will upon his fellow man, whom he professes to love but more often despises.”3 These small, interpersonal conflicts are a microcosm of the instability that threatens the entire world. And before the world: our families, cities, institutions.

The nineteenth-century Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote a book called On War, mandatory reading in many military schools. Girard credits him with having recognized the mimetic escalation of most conflicts. Early in On War, von Clausewitz wonders: “What is war?” His answer, which he takes the rest of the book to explain: “War is nothing but a duel on a larger scale.”4

War is the escalation of mimetic rivalry. Where does it end?

Throughout most of human history, there were clear winners and losers in war, recognized as such through formal processes. Conflicts came to an end when one side admitted defeat according to rituals such as the signing of a peace accord. Not so today, when terror cells can spring up from within a community and then grow like a hydra when any of their members are struck. How could there ever be a definitive conclusion to a war in which combatants masquerade as ordinary citizens? Girard thought we had entered a dangerous new phase of history, ripe for what von Clausewitz called “the escalation to extremes”—the desire of each side in a conflict to destroy the other, which reinforces and escalates the desire of the other for violence.

Burgis, Luke. Wanting (pp. 100-101). St. Martin’s Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The author makes reference to old testament rituals that embodied all this - a literal scape goat. The author also notes this is probably all an evolutionary mechanism for communities (mobs) to use a scape goat enemy in order to preserve their own unity.

Girard was seeing this on the tail of 20th century world wars. It would seem that nothing today would be taking him by surprise either. (He died in 2015). The scriptural take on all this is nothing more than foreshadowing for the Christian.


Here is one place were Rene Girard loses me a little bit …

“We didn’t stop burning witches because we invented science; we invented science because we stopped burning witches,” Girard said in a 2011 CBC interview with David Cayley. “We used to blame droughts on witches; once we stopped blaming witches, we looked for scientific explanations for drought.”

Burgis, Luke. Wanting (p. 123). St. Martin’s Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

I don’t follow how this is an example of scapegoating. Witches … yeah. Scapegoats obviously. But science? If it’s a “scapegoat” people are after, I’m sorry, but science doesn’t fill that bill (at least in Girard’s example). Science isn’t some moral agent that could be any very satisfying receptical for mob retribution. Now … we have figured out other ways to scapegoat “science” or rather its representatives in other ways since then, to be sure. But I still just don’t see Girard’s argument on this one.

Science give us an alternative for mechanical explanation, not an alternative for culpability - at least not directly, if all it’s doing is showing natural reasons why crops might fail.

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Merv, in the section you quoted here, it doesn’t seem like he’s talking about science being scapegoated, just the witches. Once the witches were not used as scapegoats, and the phenomena continued to occur, then scientific explanations could be sought.
That’s all I see going on here.

That makes sense. I guess I was just thinking about our supposed need for scapegoats. Which I don’t think he would say has gone away just because science is here.

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One of the conclusions about scapegoating:

“Each person must ask what his relationship is to the scapegoat,” wrote René Girard. “I am not aware of my own, and I am persuaded that the same holds true for my readers. We only have legitimate enmities. And yet the entire universe swarms with scapegoats.”44

Burgis, Luke. Wanting (p. 130). St. Martin’s Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

What a gently provocative observation! It reminds me of something a friend of mine said: “If you have trouble imagining that a rule might apply to you, then at least start by doing this: Observe how well it applies to everyone else.” (spoken with a twinkle in the eye of course.)

Scapegoating only ever works, Girard says, when the participants don’t know they’re doing it.

Yet it’s the impossible trap here. So I’m doing it? And yet … that means I’m not doing it, right?

The answer to my own query is probably in my own question asked earlier: “What if some person or group is actually in need of real rebuke because they really are guilty?” Perhaps they are.

My tribe’s enemies really are guilty. It’s everybody else’s that are scapegoats. :wink:


“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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