The hermeneutics of scapegoating: Oscar Pistorius amidst the wolves

The hermeneutics of scapegoating: Oscar Pistorius amidst the wolves

By Duncan Reyburn – – @duncanreyburn

It’s quite strange to be so close to the centre of the media storm that surrounds Oscar Pistorius’ murder trial. What is stranger still is the sense of proximity that I feel to the man accused. I’ve known of Oscar for years — he went to the same school that I went to, and as a result I’d heard of his incredible athletic talent and exuberant spirit long before he ever became famous. I also happen to be friends with a few people who are close to him. Then, I happen to work at the University that Oscar used to go to, on a campus just one block away from the prison where he has been held over the past couple of days.

All of this information may seem slightly irrelevant, but it has a clear point. In the prevailing clamour of discourse, I have noticed a very obvious and brutal disjunction between what the media has been saying about who Oscar is and what Oscar’s friends and acquaintances have been saying about who he is. There’s so much hype around this awful drama, where a tragedy has reached the status of that two-dimensional iconography that we call celebrity, that I thought it appropriate to offer a slightly more considered, albeit still impassioned philosophical reflection. Here I’m assuming the original meaning of philosophy to mean the love of wisdom. It may (I can only hope) be a helpful and timely antidote to the current idiocy of the prevailing barrage of gutter journalism that fills our newspapers and Google searches. I stubbornly refuse to give into the bias that choses sensational information over genuine thought and insight.

What follows are only a few key points. I could probably go on for a long while, and extrapolate what I say in more detail than I do, but I’ve chosen to focus on a few forms of confusion that seem to be dominating the current media frenzy:

1) The first is a great confusion over the difference between facts and truth. Facts, despite our best intentions, do not express the truth (the actual reality) of anything. Facts account for the details of a story, but do not reveal, in and of themselves, the truth of a story. By tremendously comprehensive and detailed forensic processes, for example, I can tell you the facts about the content of a MacDonald’s beef burger patty. This sort of scientific analysis may be highly accurate, but it is simply not enough to give you the truth about my desire to eat a MacDonald’s burger at lunchtime on a Thursday. Can science tell you how much of my desire for that burger is hunger, how much of it is owed to custom, how much of it is owed to spontaneous desire or anger or even the proximity of a MacDonald’s take-away? The answer is No. The truth of my burger eating is much more complex and nuanced than even I might be able to explain in simple terms. The fact of my eating that burger is one thing. The truth of my eating that burger, which will of course include the fact, is another.

2) The second confusion concerns the relationship between proximity and distance. A positivist bias that has come about particularly in wake of the Enlightenment has convinced a lot of people (who don’t know any better) that distance is preferable when it comes to understanding the truth of things. This, unfortunately, is quite far from the truth (pardon the pun). I can explain this by analogy: If I want to understand the nature of a person, the best way to do that would be to get close to that person, spend hours talking to them, asking them questions, observing their interactions with others. Reading reports about that person — second hand, removed interpretations — may give clues to the character of a person or even the nature of an event, but no one knows the story better than the person (or witnesses, if there are any) who was right there in the midst of it. This, I realise, makes Oscar’s case a very tricky one, because the only person who really knows what happened just happens to be the man on trial. Yes, we have other people from the outside claiming they heard a disturbance and gun fire. But, on Oscar’s character, which I think is a major question in the current situation, I would add that the people who know him best will also be the best judges of character. I know this because I’m married, and there is no one on this earth who knows my faults and failings more intimately than my own wife. But for anyone who has a family or very close friends, the same is true: Those who know you best will be clearest on what kinds of flaws seem to fit with your character or not.

And in the case of character witnesses, the people who will be the most truthful will also be the people who like you. I know sounds like an odd thing to say, but the reality is that any range of motivations — envy, distrust, anger, and so on — will distort a person’s interpretation of another. Remember that, to you, you are infinitely complex, but, to others, you are two-dimensional. Our negative perceptions of others always tend to make them appear in 2D. Resentment results in misrepresentation.

3) The third confusion relates to about how to interpret events. Reeva Steenkamp happened to die on the very same day the media was hyping some stuff about violence against women. I’m obviously absolutely, vehemently against violence against women, but I’m also against the narrative fallacy that we are all prone to that takes one piece of a puzzle and forces it to fit into another puzzle just because it happens to be there. It is possible that we are dealing with a case of deliberate violence against a woman, but it is even more probable that the media just happened to have a convenient hermeneutic framework to put their newfound truthless facts into. Every marketer or rhetorician knows that you can guide a person’s thoughts and interpretations just by creating a suitable context for those thoughts to take place in. The same is true for journalism. There is no such thing as a fact without a context. The trouble is, sometimes we put the facts into the wrong context.

4) There are other problems that I have noticed, but the most important one of all, I think, is the problem of what I call the hermeneutics of scapegoating. The theory, obviously, comes from Rene Girard, who points out that cultures form around points of connection or identification (A bit of Kenneth Burke there, for good measure). This is to say that people tend to connect around mimetic desire: the desire to imitate the other or others. Everyone imitates the other’s desire for a particular kind of clothing and a fashion is born. Everyone imitates the other’s desire for a particular set of creeds, and religion is born. Everyone imitates a particular behavior and culture is born. Imitation, mimicking the desires of others, is the key to understanding, well, pretty much everything.

But what happens when someone violates the desires of the group? Simple: they get killed, either literally or metaphorically. If you don’t give in to peer pressure, you get kicked out of the group. If you don’t conform to the standards of the team, you get dropped. If you don’t conform to a particular religious norm, you get excommunicated. Then, if you don’t conform to the media’s constructed expectations of you, you get your image smashed senselessly into the ground by people who know some facts but not the truth and who aren’t in close proximity to you. If you were deemed a hero of some kind, as Oscar was/is, the media will go to great lengths to dig up any dirt they can find on you (One bit of dirt that has been found concerns Oscar’s accident in 2009, an accident that left him in a coma — The media made him out to be reckless drunk, but I have it on solid authority that this bit of dirt is also quite certainly fictional. I’m told, and can easily believe, that Oscar has often noted how much he distrusts South African journalists. Apparently he has a little book in which he records all the names of journalists who have created distortions of what he has said).

But here’s the real trauma and trouble of mimetic desire and violence. The victim of this mimetic violence is often (although not always) innocent. But that doesn’t matter to the disgruntled group. The point is that everyone gets to unify around a new desire, living the strengths-in-numbers, follow-the-crowd mentality of the mindless mob: This new desire is the desire to see someone pay. The judicial system can be a form of systemic violence (that is, a form of controlled revenge), which is one reason I’m glad that we don’t have a jury system. Often, especially in murder trials, the accused gets convicted, not necessarily because they are guilty, but because there are external mimetic pressures that cause people to lose perspective.

Yes, there is this very rife and problematic thing called violence against women, and everyone wants the men of South Africa to pay. But it may just happen to be quite convenient to pick on someone famous, whose current circumstances fit the bill, and make them pay instead, even if the reality of their case may be different. If there’s anything that the hype around Oscar’s trial has reminded me of it is this: people — you, me, everyone — have issues: deep-seated personal abysses, un-dealt-with trauma, unannounced guilt, and unconfessed ignorance. And if we don’t find a healthy outlet for these issues — issues also including pent up anger against a troubled country, a myopic government, a world of problems, etc. — we will unfailingly find a violent outlet that will unfailingly turn someone, anyone who happens to be within our range, into a scapegoat. In short, if we don’t deal with our own messed up internal compass, we’re going to have to make someone else pay for our own evil.

One of the main problems with mimetic violence is that it incites people to action, not to reason. It tells people to stop just standing there and just do or say something. But I want to say that it seems the better option to say this: Don’t just do something; for God’s sake THINK!

I know that Oscar, whether he is guilty of murder or not, would have benefited from being the product of a culture that promotes thought over action. But, sadly, Oscar is the product of our culture. He is, whether we like it or not, a product of us — we reactive, terrified, wounded people. Whether intentional or not, we have all fallen short of the glory. We have all sinned and grown old. We have all participated in systemic violence, whether by words or by deeds. We have all crucified Christ, who is, even for those Christians who are joining the chorus demanding that the vengeance accounts be settled, the symbol of what we are all capable of doing.

I have no judgment yet on Oscar’s guilt. Having been the victim a few years ago of a violent attack in my own home, I completely and fully understand the possibility that Oscar could have acted the way he did because he was afraid, because he wanted to protect his girlfriend. And, in case you haven’t noticed already, for now I’m going to opt for judgment that I believe is right. It is the judgment we all speak about but seem to fail to act on all too often: Oscar must be deemed innocent until proven guilty. To those of you who have demanded his blood, demanded that he pay for the crime even before he has been fairly tried and convicted, I hope you notice that you are no better than the worst kind of murderer. You want the system to do violence on your behalf. And, yes, this will remain true even if he is found guilty.

My last thought, for now, on this sad state of affairs, is this: In the public eye, justice will not be done. The public eye is a vision of collective violence. It is the hermeneutics of scapegoating.

P.S. Everyone should read Girard’s books, especially Violence and the sacred and Things hidden from the foundation of the world for some additional insights on mimetic violence. Slavoy Zizek’s book Violence is also loaded with some very helpful perspectives. As usual, some of the thinking in this post is rooted in a Chestertonian outlook; there are few who understand human nature as well as he does.