Plagues require sacrificial victims. As a virus labelled after its crown-like shape wrecks havoc with societies, what can we learn from a King who lost his crown as the ultimate scapegoat?
We know that human societies require scapegoats to blame for the calamities that befall them. Scapegoats are made responsible not only for the wrong-doing of others but for the wrongs that could not possibly be attributed to any other.
Unsurprisingly, the Trumps, Bolsonaros or Orbans of this world and their followers have failed to resist the urge to find one, even in this war without a human enemy in Angela Merkel’s early words. The virus was bred by “a culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that," as Republican senator Cornyn elegantly explained at the outset. So Chinese (looking) persons anywhere are becoming the unfortunate targets of people’s prejudices. On alternate days, Trump preferred to designate Europeans the enemy or the World Health Organisation, while Orban blamed Iranian students, and Chinese officials stigmatize US army athletes who attended the 7th military world games in Wuhan in October 2019. Meanwhile, a senior Romanian priest compared fearing the killer virus to fearing Jews (who else!) in his Easter greetings.
But it is not just the usual suspects who point the finger. Already, foreigners in our midst and refugees at our doors have been anointed spreaders, including some foreign doctors in conflict zones. In India this is a ‘Muslim disease,’ while in other parts of the world some speak of a ‘white people disease.’ You can hear the breaking news around the world: Government steps up preparations by stockpiling people to blame, starting with their own civil servants.
Tomorrow, the old will start blaming the traitorous asymptomatic millennials who themselves are already churning out clips blaming the toxic boomer generation – good riddance! At some point, governments will decide that it is time to sacrifice the most vulnerable on the altar of our economy. And ‘patient zero’ will be hunted down everywhere. Everyone will find a favourite target to blame.
The sacrificial urge
What happens next? Will those targets somehow be sacrificed on the altar of expediency?
For sure, there is many a slip from the cup of blame to the lip of scapegoating and the blood of sacrifice. We start from the legitimate scientific need to identify the chain of cause and effect that may have led to where we are, in order to prevent the next pandemic. Indeed, it is right and proper to ask why disaster and pain befalls us. The problem arises with the urge to skip directly to the last stage, pointing the finger at one’s favourite target. From science to public opinion, we move from a complex array of factors (say viral patterns, eating habits, over-crowdedness, demographics, land-use or global trade) to zooming in on a single guilty agent that must be made to change: guilt to those who eat wild animals! And in the process we have changed the game from prevention to punishment. Sometimes scapegoating stops at popular vindictiveness. But targeted anger can alas go farther. And in all cases the scapegoat ends up, metaphorically or physically, as sacrificial victim.
How do we resist those who cannot resist the urge to find scapegoats?
First, by grappling with acknowledging the janus-faced character of sacrifice: the best of humanity when it is about the sacrifice of self, the worst of humanity when it is about the urge to sacrifice others.
We are witnessing the best, self-sacrifice, every day during this pandemic, as scores of medical staff, social care, supermarket or transport workers, in the underworld and in the careworld, give their lives to save others. “We are not Essential. We are Sacrificial’' they cry out yet again. As I wrote in 2012 during hurricane Sandy in New York, we owe them and we know it.
It should not come as a surprise that alongside the best, we find the worst of humanity, the urge to sacrifice others. For this idea seems to be the mark of our superior species. No other animal does such a thing. It took the arrival of Homo Sapiens on earth to come up with the idea that we could take back control of what seems to fall from the sky, the weather, say, through the sacrifice of something precious, but weaker than us, an ox, or a virgin, or a daughter.
The trade-off is always in our favour: we trade another being’s pain for our own gain – food, a cure, the right weather, the mercy of the Gods.
Today, we, Homo Deus, may lull our consciences into believing that the age-old practice belongs to the past. We may look for the guilty, but we no longer burn them at the stake, do we?
Actually, every new plague reminds us otherwise. The rhetorical blame game inexorably claims its sacrificial victims. In writing my last book, I found that there is still much to learn from how our forefathers managed to resist the sacrificial urge.
From Maimonides to René Girard
Eight hundred years ago, the Sephardic philosopher Maimonides argued in his great wisdom that God’s decision to allow sacrifices was a concession to the psychological limitations of humanity: the sense of powerlessness, superstition, pettiness, stupidity, envy, fear… all these nasty affects that we cannot manage and that make us look for manageable victims. For him, striving to overcome these limitations meant getting rid of the sacrificial mindset.
Many Jewish and Muslim commentators see Abraham and Isaac’s story as a tirade against human sacrifice. Thou shall not sacrifice your son. The whole of Homer’s Odyssey can be read as a story of payback for how pseudo-civilized Greeks sacrificed countless victims to their cause, starting with King Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia, who was taken to the pyre at the beginning of the Iliad so that the troops might sail for Troyes. Thou shall not sacrifice your daughter.
These ancient stories did not only call for replacing humans with animals in sacrificial rituals, but more profoundly, for banning sacrifice altogether, from our minds as well as our mores.
We owe the archetypal story to end all sacrifice to a young Athenian, Theseus, who confronted the terrible Minotaur guarding the maze of the Cretan King in Knossos, a maze where every seven years, seven young Athenian women and seven young Athenian men were sent as ritual offerings to commemorate their city’s defeat. When he managed to slay the beast, Theseus freed not only his young compatriots but the entire ancient world from the sacrificial grip. And when the king’s daughter Ariadne provided our hero with a thread to retrace his route, a logical thread against our nebulous fears, she offered all generations to come a way out of the labyrinths of our minds, the mazes that entrap us in the urge to find scapegoats for whatever our current predicament may be.
But it seems that we must forever learn the lessons anew bequeathed by Abraham, Iphigenia, Theseus, or Ariadne. For alas we do need scapegoats. Many great ancient texts, from the Aegean to the Middle East to China, place sacrifice at the very core of social order. Why?
Writing after world war II, the French philosopher René Girard explained how all societies are driven by what he called mimetic desire, a powerful force pitting people against one another, as the drive to imitate each other erases the differences among human beings, and as each desires what the other has, whether it is wealth, security or a mate. Mimetic rivalry ultimately leads to a Hobbesian war of all against all, unless or until communities find a way out.
The way out? In this whirlwind, collective relief does not necessarily call for a full-blown rewriting of the social contract. Instead, Girard tells us, the unassailable collective violence which always lurks beneath our civilizing schemes can be channeled through victims of substitution, the expelling or killing of a person or a group in the hope of restoring social order. The term ‘scapegoating’ alludes to the ancient religious ritual where collective sins were metaphorically imposed upon a he-goat sacrificed to the gods to regenerate communal peace.
If we believe this view of the world, the fear which drives societies collectively to conjure up scapegoats is that of contagious animosity, of the kind which explodes during pandemics. If we cannot identify the initial microbe that started it, we can identify the perfect substitute and transfer our animosity onto it. But for this function to be fulfilled, it is preferable that these substitutes are not clearly innocent, as were Isaac or Iphigenia, but somehow connected to what has gone wrong. Blame thus becomes the midwife of sacrifice.
Crucially, it is the wilful ignorance of this phenomenon of transfer that is the secret of our survival as a species. We would be unable to live with the knowledge of our past endemic violence if we could not expel it unwittingly into a uniquely guilty body. Anathema, shunning and excommunication serve to this day to ensure that we forget or at least remain indifferent to the performative function of scapegoating.
But we do know, don’t we? Girard tells us that Christ was the ultimate scapegoat as the story of his resurrection offered humanity the first collective awareness of its urge to scapegoat. This is when we first learn to think: ‘scapegoating will not do,’ ‘there are no convenient, cheap, substitutes for our suffering.’ Indeed, the Bible may be full of sound and fury but it also distances itself radically from Sacrifice – Cain may kill Abel but the reader knows that Abel is innocent. It was Christ himself who was crucified, not Magdalena or a goat that would conveniently take his place. Humanity assumes responsibility for its deeds and its destiny.
Whatever the biblical case may be, or our own inclination to atheistic readings, we are supposed to understand that we have become self-aware secular societies. Only when it is made visible does ritualism end and politics starts. Politics as the capacity to manage conflict without scapegoats turned sacrificial victims.
Enter Oedipus Rex
Thankfully, our clever scapegoating mechanisms lose their power when they are acknowledged and their main ingredients recognized.
In my book, I try to extract these ingredients and extrapolate lessons for our times from a paradigmatic ancient tragedy that has probably exerted more influence than any other drama, ancient or modern, on the history of ideas and on theater, namely Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex alias Tyrannus.
True, Oedipus is most famous for unknowingly marrying his mum, queen Jocasta, for twenty years, after having killed his dad, king Laius, at a cross-road, equally unknowingly. But Freud only scratched the surface when he teased out from the story his famous theory of parricide and incest which lurks in all of us, the irresistibility and monstrosity of it all. It is wrong to reduce Oedipus’ fate to a psychoanalytical metaphor, as if the story centered on a timeless message about sexual urges. Nor is he just another powerful man punished for hubris and overconfident leadership. For, in Sophocles’ tragic vision, Oedipus is the quintessential story of social scapegoating a la René Girard.
The story starts with a city, Thebes, awash with fake news and controversy about who to blame for a plague that has spread violence in every street, a city obsessed with one question: who started it? The culprit is the one who killed Laius twenty years hence. The investigation dresses up the scapegoating process. Oedipus is unmasked by his own investigation. But in fact, given his oblivious state, he does not need to be guilty, only responsible, for the crisis. A true scapegoat candidate. He is responsible for the crisis not because of his specific deeds per se, but for the more general fact of indiscriminate and reciprocal mayhem – as if somehow, by fathering his grandchildren, he had done away with predictable rules about who does what in our society – in other words, done away with difference itself and thus become himself monstrously different. Transgression as the main marker of scapegoats.
Yet, Oedipus Rex seemed at first sight an unlikely scapegoat. After all, he was the exceptional man who confronted the Sphinx and solved his riddle (‘tell me, who walks with four legs in the morning, two midday and three in the evening?’) twenty years before the plague which occupies us here. And since the Sphinx was a monster which itself required young citizens as sacrificial victims, Oedipus the monster-slayer had become King for saving his city from an indiscriminate scapegoating urge. If he can become a scapegoat, perhaps anybody can.
Our societies do not need an Oedipus to serve as scapegoats. They only need to find a reliable key to distinguish between categories of people – or countries – apt or not for sacrifice. For a category to serve properly as sacrificial it must resemble as closely as possible those for whose benefit it is being sacrificed, in order to allow the transference of responsibility and thus the purging of the guilt. At the same time, it needs to be distinct enough to avoid some dangerous confusion between the scapegoat and the rest of the group, the very same group seeking to deflect violence. Even if it’s invisible, its malevolent influence must be fleshed out.
Moreover, the scapegoat must be dispensable enough to be sacrificed, yet precious enough to be sacrificed meaningfully, precious all the more because the crisis is acute. She must serve as a dumping ground for all our rivalries, petty blames and jealousies, yet remain capable of protecting the whole community from its own violence. It might be a crime to get rid of her because she is sacred, but she would not be sacred if she was not meant to be got rid of.
Whatever the moment may require, something exceptional must designate the scapegoat, be he (too) familiar or foreign, strong or humble, famous or obscure, boastful or humble.
Often, those people who are marginal within the community offer prime material – groups that have lived amongst us but have not woven the same ties as the rest. Better still a minority of the tainted sort – the lepers, heretics, suspected witches or sodomites who with the Jews were accused of starting the great plague of the 1300s. Or it can be that the person or the group have long been perceived as the Trojan horse, surreptitiously undermining us from within: the Jews who poisoned the well, the Brits who brought the US inside the EU, the EU who brought neoliberalism to the continent, the migrant who clings to her habits from home.
In this spirit, the perfect scapegoat is far from alien. Biblical and Greek myths tend not to be about solitary heroes, but about brothers – not loving siblings to be sure, but frères ennemis, fraternal, intimate enemies or brothers at war, symbiotic antagonists. These are siblings who have found it impossible to channel their reciprocal violence onto third parties for the sake of peace between them. According to some Midrashic interpretations of the Torah, Cain’s tragedy starts not with his jealousy of his brother Abel, but with the fact that they both yearned for the same sister, before God chose between them.
Alas for Cain, he will have no other sacrificial outlet for his mighty resentment than Abel. The first man to be born kills the first man to die, fount of all scapegoating stories. We are meant to understand how wrong this is. This is how the bible introduces us to self-reflexive sacrifice. Let it go. You both had the same taste in women, big deal.
Unanimity, the crucial ingredient
Crucially, sacrifice can only fulfil its function thanks to a critical ingredient in the collective brew: unanimity. Each against each becomes all against one. Thebans, like our countries or our continents, may be divided on all fronts – easterners vs westerners, old vs young, educated vs not, urban vs suburban, strong vs weak, creditors vs debtors – but, with the sacrificial ritual of Oedipus their king, only one single division remains: “us” vs our sacrificial victim. Trying to woo anyone away from the unanimous verdict is futile. Animosity is no longer interchangeable. It has found its target. The myth gives us a community united in its culprit.
For Oedipus’ subjects there will be no resolution to their crisis, the plague, without unity. The city must demonstrate to itself that the verdict is unanimous, that the verdict is believed by all. There will be no resolution without universal faith in the scapegoat’s guilt. Ritual disposing of the scapegoat, with everyone joining in the deed, must ensure no one will later break ranks, support its cause or seek revenge.
Yet no one in particular need be responsible for designating the scapegoat. Better to let it designate itself, elect to climb the pyre all on its own. Or in Oedipus’ case, let him stab his eyes for having seen the truth. But once the scapegoat is identified one way or another, the sacrificial safety valve is all the more effective when the whole process appears dictated from above, through eternal laws of some kind, dictated by gods or by some secular acquis communautaire. This does it take away the agency of our protagonists. But for scapegoating to do its work at times of crisis, the ritual requires an authoritative voice to say the last word.
Oedipus plays the scapegoat part to perfection.
Oedipus plays the scapegoat part to perfection. He reassures the inhabitants of Thebes that he alone will bear the consequences, that the whole city will be freed through this transfer. As a scapegoat at a time of plague, he serves as the pivot between a generalized paroxysm of reciprocal violence and peaceful consensus by providing a single magnet for all the aggression and rivalry in his world. The road from chaos to peace is painted with the blood from his eyes. He leaves the city with his daughter Antigone, forever an anonymous nomad. And indeed, with Oedipus gone, the city recovers – although, unsurprisingly, only until the next crisis. That is another story (hint: Antigone will be back).
There is always an upstream in the river of time
The story does not stop here. There may be three acts in the old Greek play, from Oedipus’ curse at birth, to triumph against the Sphinx in Thebes twenty years later, to reckoning with the truth during the plague another twenty years later. But the deeper message lies with the before and after, with the mysterious chain of cause and effect which escapes our present moment. Indeed, the two questions that frame his story can be the most precious key to collectively resisting the scapegoating urge.
Question one: ‘When did it really start?’
In Soderbergh’s prescient 2011 film Contagion, we only learn what happened on ‘Day 1’ at the very end. From the bat’s berry to the pig’s mouth to the chef’s hand to Gwyneth Paltrow’s. But was that really ground zero? We know that we need to look back to the farmers who encroached on wild life’s domain in the first place, to big agribusiness behind them, fueling in turn our own insatiable appetites, and so on.
There is always an upstream in the river of time.
Why had Oedipus been cursed at birth in the first place? Funny how we tend to accept that Oedipus’ terrible fate originates in a prophecy, an old wives’ tale that he would kill his dad and marry his mum. As if ancient Greeks were a superstitious bunch who simply believed in destiny. Yet, if you dig deep enough in Greek mythology, you will find that the Sphinx had been punishing Thebes for another antecedent reason, an ancient all-but-forgotten crime, one which explains Oedipus’ original curse. In some versions of the story – for the myth-tree gives us many – Oedipus owes his fate to a curse uttered against his father Laius by Laius’ adoptive father Pelops, who had brought him up like his own son, only to see the ungrateful lad fall in love with his adoptive brother Chrysippus, kidnap and rape him and lead him to commit suicide. This is where the curse originates: if Laius ever has a son, let this son kill him and Thebes be destroyed (Note that Pelops himself was cursed for the deeds of his father Tantalus, who had terribly annoyed the gods by trying to feed them bits of his boiled son, and was punished forever under a ‘tantalizing’ tree).
There is always an upstream in the river of time.
It may be unjust both to bear the burden of our ancestors’ sins and to escape from redemptive justice for their deeds. With the likes of Jean-Pierre Vernant and Bernard Williams let us imagine Sophocles’ Oedipus in light of this crucial democratic dawn where men are learning to become citizens, agents autonomous from gods, gauging their control over their personal and political destiny. Prompted by playwrights and street philosophers, they are learning to see their own will intertwined with the bigger context in a tragic embrace. Two thousand five hundred years later, the tragic question – where does my fate come from and to what extent do I deserve it – continues to nag at our collective soul.
How often do humans actually deserve the disasters that befall them? Why should invisible forces, antique gods or otherwise, dictate our destiny or be appeasable by some sacrifice or other? Neither Oedipus nor the inhabitants of Thebes are guilty in the usual sense of the word. After all, the brilliant Oedipus is a justice-loving man, passionately committed to seeking his father’s killer. He has not intentionally done anything wrong.
Why then such a tragic punishment? Perhaps because the gods, like our own societies, cannot withstand a crime unpunished even if the deed was committed upstream, as it were. This is the price of social order. Perhaps this is why Oedipus did not seek someone else to blame. As a true hero, he assumes responsibility without guilt by not passing the buck. Reckoning is about acknowledging that your own actions may have helped to precipitate events – even if you never intended to marry your mother. In this perfect scapegoat story provided by Oedipus, unanimity is such that even the accused shares in the accusations. But what happens if (s)he says no? In a similar story, Job, a kind of Jewish Oedipus tested by a terrible fate, refuses to accuse himself, and thus breaks the scapegoating cycle.
Oedipus’ story reminds us that we can break the scapegoating cycle if we start by acknowledging that there are no fixed beginnings in history, only an arbitrary freezing of the dial to deflect the other side’s truth and pin blame on someone, somewhere. Depending on whose side we are on, we each initiate the cause-and-effect chain of events where it suits us, 12121212 vs 21212121. So we can say: they started it! Oedipus, the Chinese, the young (or is it pigs, or bats or snakes) can only serve as scapegoat if the river of cause and effect is truncated to a single point of blame: all the trouble started when…. As if there was no ‘before’, no prior causes that have consequences, no upstream in the river of time.
How far back will we have to go to find the "real culprit? Can we instead, turn the dial back in turn, and listen to each other’s story? Or better still, turn our gaze towards the future?
Depending on whose side we are on, we each initiate the cause-and-effect chain of events where it suits us, 12121212 vs 21212121. So we can say: they started it!
How does it all end?
We can also learn from the other end of the story. What do we make of the fact that, in mythical stories, scapegoats often do not die? What happens next? Are they exonerated, rehabilitated, forgotten? In his exile in Colonus after twenty years of meandering, Oedipus learns that after his death his body will bless his hosts with great powers – from beneficent to malevolent and back to beneficent, the circle is complete. This does not mean that he will be forgiven. Beneficent Oedipus can succeed but not annul malevolent Oedipus. It only means that one can be redeemed for having faced inadmissible truths. In spite of the prophecy, Oedipus the righteous does become the author of his own destiny.
The circle is complete in the greater scheme of things, too, for it is Theseus, King of Athens, the Minotaur-and-Sacrifice-slayer we met earlier, who welcomes Oedipus at the end of his long journey and gives him the redemptive death he so craves. And in the end, the inhabitants of Thebes will have to face each other, without the mediation of a willing scapegoat.
But sacrifice does not always end with redemption. In Wilfred Owen’s War Poems, Abraham fails to heed the angel calling for mercy (‘But the old man would not so, but slew his son/And half the seed of Europe, one by one’). Fear the fate of those who become the world’s favourite scapegoats the day after this pandemic.
Some believe that we have travelled well on the road of progress since Sophocles’ time, including by replacing shame – where you may acquiesce to playing the scapegoat part – with guilt. Shame is done to you, guilt you do to yourself. Enlightenment has heralded human agency and moral autonomy – we may sometimes feel guilty but we now resist being shamed into self-flagellation. And where the rule of law reigns, guilt has to do only with intention, some sort of ownership. In a modern court, Oedipus, who did not know, would certainly be acquitted on account of extenuating circumstances. Indeed, no one has suggested that patient 31, responsible for the first epidemic spike in South Korea should bear the burden of her compatriots’ plight.
We are supposed to know that scapegoating is simply an ancient deluded way for societies to take back control without assuming responsibility. But while we may believe that ancients and moderns think differently, our moral compasses blur into one another. We want to claim individual authorship of our destinies, but who can deny that what your family or your group or your country has done in the past will undeniably affect others as well as yourself, for better or worse. You can only accept the inheritance whole, even if unaware of the streams of sweat and blood that have fed it. If you do it in full awareness and humility, there is no reason for you or anyone else to become a scapegoat for the sins of others. Instead, you can do your best to mitigate the echoes of these past injustices.
Yet scapegoating remains a central feature of European politics, even if no one can beat the occupant of the White House at this game these days. The EU is used by unscrupulous national politicians as a scapegoat for their own ineptitude or by populists as a scapegoat for whatever has gone admittedly too far: neoliberalism, market logic, globalisation, corporate greed. Small hapless countries like Greece were used as scapegoats for the flaws of the Eurozone to which they themselves contributed. The Brexit story (remember?) featured Britain as an alternative scapegoat sacrificed on the altar of European unity to deflect the mutual animosity that had re-erupted among Europeans since the beginning of the crisis cascade – even as many Brits blamed the EU for the betrayal of their own elites. And throughout, accusatory fingers have continued to castigate all those with the privilege of featuring as somebody’s favourite ‘other.’
It is not too late for today’s pandemic to buck the trend. After all, this is different, right?
 I would like to thank Anthony Barnett and Rosemary Bechler for their feedback.