The French philosopher warned of the spiralling nature of psychosocial violence
On Monday, as I watched Dominic Cummings’ very own ‘agony in the garden’, I kept thinking about the French philosopher René Girard.
Girard crossed the boundaries of disciplines ranging from anthropology and history to economics and theology. His major contribution was to the study of the human person and human violence — why do we appear so ready to commit violent acts? His answer was ‘mimetic desire’; the idea that by imitating the desires of others we learn to desire the very same things. The catch is that coveting objects so intensely leads to rivalry and, eventually, violence.
The process, of course, is a spiral. Once begun, rivalry and violence can only grow, eventually threatening to destroy the community. Something must be done to prevent a total collapse.
That something, in nearly all cultures, is the destruction of the scapegoat; a single individual who acts as the focus of all aggression, uniting former rivals in the project of his or her obliteration. If the sanctity of the community is at risk — as in the plague-ravaged Thebes of Oedipus Rex or lockdown Britain — the scapegoat must be eliminated. Only then will peace return.
The Cummings scandal is a Girardian moment in its fullest sense; a confluence of extraordinary pressures and circumstances, fuelled by indignation, rising tension, and the need to exorcise communal aggression. Crucially, the analysis holds regardless of whether or not we think Cummings guilty of the infractions he is accused of committing.
Were Girard still with us (he died in 2015), he might firstly have noted that freedom during lockdown is a dangerously finite good. The more someone else breaks the rules, meeting up with friends or travelling outside their home, the longer lockdown lasts for the rest of us. Your desire for freedom competes directly with mine. The fact that Cummings was himself partly the originator of these rules only exacerbates the dynamic.
Secondly, he might have pointed out that most political debate is conducted on Twitter, the archetypal imitative medium. Competition for likes drives a brutal, unforgiving, and well-documented polarisation. After four years of political division and months into a pandemic, tensions are high.
I was personally unmoved by Cummings’ infraction of the rules, and it certainly didn’t seem like anything anyone should be sacked over. Clearly I am profoundly in the minority. Instead, as he spoke for over an hour in the Downing Street rose garden, the country was turning against him. Now a majority of voters — Labour, Conservative, Leave, Remain — think he should go.
But Cummings was, in the eyes of much of the media, already a monstrous transgressor. The sacred lines in the sand of civilised politics had been crossed with his Brexit victory and the Conservative election win late last year. Once the enemy of a small politically engaged faction, he has been transformed into the enemy of all. Without his resignation, who can restore the sacred order at the heart of British political life?
Girard himself had an answer. He considered the New Testament’s radical message of forgiveness unique in human history. Breaking the cycle of psychosocial violence, in our time, would require turning the other cheek. Only absolution, rather than aggression, could make for lasting peace. Scrolling through my Twitter feed, I say good luck with that.