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What has human sacrifice got to do with Twitter? Ask René Girard

Rene Girard (1923-2015)

July 21, 2020 - 3:29pm

What has human sacrifice got to do with Twitter? Quite a lot, in fact. As Geoff Shullenberger explains in a fascinating article in The Tablet this week, the social mechanisms that informed human sacrifice are remarkably similar to those that are being used on social media platforms like Twitter.

Ok, on Twitter no curly dagger is pressed into the breast of an innocent victim. But, as Shullenberger explains, in theoretical terms, the biggest difference is that whereas ancient sacrifice had the social purpose of establishing human solidarity, on Twitter the collective digital pile-on is a part of the very business model of the platform.

Several people have already and quite rightly suggested that human behaviour on social media, especially on Twitter, can be profitably illuminated through the work of French cultural theorist and theologian, René Girard. But Shullenberger adds layers of fascinating and highly persuasive analysis. Of Twitter, he writes:

It is an arena for perpetual conflict driven by an accumulation of grievances collected in a mass program of decentralized surveillance. We are incentivized, by the coded logic of the social media platforms where public engagement now takes place, to find reasons to hate each other.
- Geoff Shullenberger, The Tablet

In this highly vituperative context, where pile-ons are incentivised with ‘likes’, “attacks upon individuals is a feature of the platforms, not a bug.”

Girard is useful here not just because of his theory of mimetic desire — that so much of our behaviour and desire is copied — maps extremely well onto Twitter. But also his story that in non-policed (ancient) societies, the collective blame that comes to be focused on some individuals has the social purpose of uniting a society around a kind of mob viciousness, with mob attacks culminating in an ordered sacrificial climax, the priest who does the sacrificing both ordering/formatting the social viciousness and bringing it to a close.

This is the core idea of Girard’s understanding of sacrifice. It unites society by refocusing all its pent-up discontent on an innocent victim. And Twitter is the perfect breeding ground for pent up discontent.

As a Roman Catholic theologian, what is always at the back of Girard’s mind is the crucifixion of Jesus. Having had the privilege to meet René Girard a couple of times before he died, I have argued with him about this. And theologically, I think there is a real problem with the way his theory works — not least, the role that his analysis ascribes to Jews in the crucifixion story. Because in Girard’s analysis, it’s just too easy to cast Jews as the one’s shouting “crucify”, whilst Jesus stands as the innocent victim. It’s a very ancient and very nasty trope.

But back on Twitter, the Girardian analysis works much better:

The more of us that are transfixed by spectacles of victimization, the greater the revenue the platform brings in. Like a bloodthirsty god, the platform business feeds off of sacrifice.
- Geoff Shullenberger, The Tablet

Brilliantly explored in this article, this is the basic theology of cancel culture.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.


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David Jones
David Jones
3 years ago

The social media platforms are definitely at fault. They’ve been created by thoughtless and careless young men who don’t seem to give two hoots about the social consequences. But I don’t think it’s even necessary to invoke ideas of “human sacrifice”. The platforms (and their algorithms) incentivise extremism, polarisation, bad faith and attention-seeking in general, and disincentivise truthfulness, thought and nuance, all while building an enormous surveillance apparatus. “Pile-ons” are only one part of the problem. It’s much bigger than that.

Go Away Please
Go Away Please
3 years ago

I’m a bit of a Girardian. I think he describes mob mentality and herd behaviour in a way that makes perfect sense to me.

In an obituary for Girard the following was stated:

Mr. Thiel, of PayPal, said that he was a student at Stanford when he first encountered Professor Girard’s work, and that it later inspired him to quit an unfulfilling law career in New York and go to Silicon Valley. He gave Facebook its first $100,000 investment because he saw Professor Girard’s theories being validated in the concept of social media.

“Facebook first spread by word of mouth, and it’s about word of mouth, so it’s doubly mimetic,” he said. “Social media proved to be more important than it looked, because it’s about our natures.”

The investment made Mr. Thiel a billionaire.

Well, that sort of sums it up really!

Diane Coleman
Diane Coleman
3 years ago

I think it helps to understand Girard’s work to remember that, although he did a great deal of work based upon Biblical study, he was not a theologian. He began as a literary critic and his interest expanded into other areas; his principal interest was the study of human nature and its hidden agenda, especially in seeking and establishing a peace that is not really peace at all. It is also important to remember that although Girard was a Catholic, Jesus was not. Jesus was a Jew. Although later generations of Christians (pursuing hidden psychological agendas) focused hostility upon “the Jews” in a Girardian way, the story of the crucifixion is principally a story of a man whose own people, including his disciples, abandoned him in his hour of need.

Gerald gwarcuri
Gerald gwarcuri
3 years ago
Reply to  Diane Coleman

Having read ( and studied ) the New Testament scores of times ( as well as Girard ), I concur that Jesus should be viewed through a first-century CE Jewish lens. That being said, the story of the crucifixion is the culmination of a much larger Jewish story regarding the Messiah. It is most emphatically not merely the “story of a man whose own people, including his disciples, abandoned him in his hour of need”, at least not according to the four gospel accounts, the Old Testament prophets, and the epistles.

The crucifixion is, in truth, an explicit scapegoat story, whether or not it conforms precisely to Girard’s mimetic theory. It is the story of the rejection – not abandonment – by the Jews of a man who claimed to be both God, and their awaited Messiah. His Jewish disciples temporarily abandoned him, because they did not fully grasp the enormity of these claims, and would not until after the resurrection. They were caught between two worlds – the world of the Pharisees, and the coming world of believers. Time and events would move them from the one to the other.

Jesus was, according to his own words in the gospels, not in “his hour of need” by suffering and dying on the cross. Quite the opposite. He was consciously fulfilling his mission, a mission he could have chosen to abort at any time, but one for which he refused any intervention. He was not expecting rescue. He was in control of events which only appeared to have taken on a life of their own.
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Let’s at least get the story straight before trying to decide if Girard’s analysis works or doesn’t work for the crucifixion. As for whether or not it applies to Twitter, that is a different story. I see the parallels, but I am not sure Girard would endorse this use of mimetic envy as the best explanation of how Twitter works socially.

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
3 years ago

I was going to write a similar response to Mary’s current disenchantment with social media internet platforms.

I think the reality is that on these platforms, normal rules of conversation etiquette often don’t apply and this has always been a feature of this augmented cyber reality. Hence sociopaths are essentially allowed to roam free and flame and troll others without much restraint.

Certainly for me, since the early days of message boards and online forums, dealing with sociopathic behaviour has been an incorporated part of the experience which has meant learning to be able to flame as a form of defence.

However, because there isn’t really a way to deal with online sociopathic behaviour other than blocking and reporting which is easily bypassed by sociopaths by setting up a new profile account, social media platforms have come to be centred around the lowest common denominator which is akin to being on a virtual battlefield.

Sacrifice in this respect, is just another facet of the battlefield logic that has been instrumentalised by the greater freedoms enjoyed by sociopaths.

Consequently, I would tend to view, like Girard, that one of the main functions of the battlefield politics of social media platforms is cathartic and so the opportunity for pent up people to project and displace the feelings they feel unable to own within their real world experiences.

However, I would add, if a participant of these social media platforms isn’t able to deal with flaming and trolling, which isn’t necessarily easy, and more importantly be willing to flame in defence themselves, then the experience will be more akin to being slaughtered on a battlefield.

Similarly, I doubt if it is in everyone’s disposition to be able and willing to be cold blooded and vicious enough to learn the online battlefield skill of flaming.

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
3 years ago
Reply to  Steve Gwynne

The problem with social media warriors is that many believe they are fighting the ‘good fight’ by arguing their opinions and ‘defeating’ their opponents. However, while they waste energy proving some nebulous political point, many of us are studying or working hard at our careers. I was recently part of a search committee for a new CEO at my company. The first thing we did was check potential candidates’ social media postings. If they said anything the slightest bit controversial they were immediately dismissed from the hiring process.

The best thing to do is to ignore social media altogether and/or refrain from posting heated responses. In the words of Cardinal Richelieu: ‘Give an honest man a pen and make him write four sentences, I will have enough evidence to hang him’. I’m afraid much of Twitter is going this way. It’s also good to take into account that many opinions that are currently en vogue may be considered wrong-headed and stupid in the future.

3 years ago

I can understand your concern regarding anything that leads to a trope against the Jewish people. I abhor anything that smacks of this wherever it raises its ugly head and especially within Christian circles. However, I think that tropes like this existed long before René Girard formulated his thinking.
Before going further I should probably declare that I am a permanent deacon in the RC Church, hence most of my references come from this particular perspective.
Personally I am not much of a fan of most atonement theories. I prefer the approach proposed by Franciscans like Fr Richard Rohr (https://cac.org/at-one-ment…. The incarnation is God revealing himself fully to us in Jesus, as the source of all love in the universe, as he intended to do from the beginning not some plan B. To borrow from Fr Rohr,
“Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity. It did not need changing. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God! God is not someone to be afraid of but is the Ground of Being and on our side.” Certainly I do not think that he was some ransom payment to the devil or a means of appeasing an angry God. If we hold an orthodox view of the Holy Trinity, in which Jesus is true God and true man then how does God appease the wrath of God by means of a blood sacrifice? But maybe this is a digression from Girard.
I think that Girard’s thinking has much to commend it. He sets the crucifixion in a much broader anthropological context of violence and scapegoating, which has taken place since humans first emerged from other primates. A condition which sadly we see all too often continuing today in terms of xenophobia, jingoism, racial prejudice and even recent attempts at genocide. I think that a really interesting read on this can be found in “René Girard and Atonement: A Dialogue”, by J Alberg, S Belangia, M Taylor, 2018, The Bulletin of Christian Culture Studies, Kinjo Gakuin University,
As I understand it, Judaism as described in the Hebrew scriptures provides us with a very different point of view to that found elsewhere in the classical world, in that it provides us with the victims perspective. Tragically this is something which has continued to be the case throughout Jewish history culminating in the tragedy of the Holocaust. May God forgive the Christian Church for everything it has ever done in the past to promote, or not stamp out, anti-Semitic tropes based upon a misinterpretation of Holy scriptures.
Even if the gospel accounts are early examples of Christian social media, containing a good measure of Christian propaganda, written at a time of struggle between the Jewish authorities and the emerging Christian movement. It would seem from their account of events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion that the authorities of the day (religious and political) roused up the rabble, probably out of fear in response to a powerful preacher who carried out signs and wonders that scared the daylights out of them. Personally I don’t find this hard to believe, just from looking across the Atlantic Ocean today. I also do not think that the response of the crowd is any way exceptional or particular to the Jewish people. Most reputable biblical scholars today would be very cautious about translating and using the passion accounts in an anti-Semitic fashion, see for example
Introduction to the Gospel of John, by Raymond E. Brown. p 171. Many would prefer to use the term Judeans to describe the crowd, see the following article by Nicholas King SJ (https://www.thinkingfaith.o
It seems to me that, regardless of any claims to divinity for Jesus, which I would strongly support, frequently when incredibly good and peaceful people emerge as leaders the reaction of the establishment is to attempt to quash them and often individuals arise with guns to assassinate them (e.g. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr etc). Again this seems to me to fit with Gerard’s thinking.
So to conclude, and sorry for going on too long, I believe that Girard’s thinking on mimetic theory and scapegoating are very helpful in understanding human behaviour in general and that properly interpreted they should not lead to any promotion of anti-Semitic tropes. However, the Christian churches today have much to work to do in their teaching, in order to overcome and reverse centuries of anti-Semitic culture and thinking.