Miscellany: stereotypes, statistics, scapegoats and so on

It occurs to me, as I think it occured to you, that you have hit upon an extremely timely difficulty. I am thinking of the problem of stereotype. One the one hand, generalizations often neglect important individual differences and they can, moreover, serve to foster unwarranted discriminatory behavior, which is a topic you have broached on a prior occasion. On the other hand, generalizations are an essential conceptual tool that allow us to make sense of the world. Moreover, they are basically correct insofar as they allow us to do this with success. I think the crux of this issue is to achieve clarity over the fact that a generalization operates at a level of abstraction that is removed from any individual. Consider that even if my race or gender or anything else about me were able to indicate that I were inferior or inferior in some way, it would still remain inconclusive whether or not this was actually true about me. That is because nobody is identical with his or her race or gender or any other predicate. Statistics operate according to the same usefulness and also limitations as generalizations; they say a great deal about populations and nothing at all about any actual person within that population. Many people, it seems, fail to understand the difference between the abstract (i.e. generalizations and statistics) and the concrete (i.e. actual persons) and this confusion is at the root of more strife than it might at first appear. 

***

Thank you for submitting your reflection. I agree with you that scapegoating is immoral, but some people see it as a necessary evil and argue that the ends justify the means. In fact, as a rule, anyone who thought the trolley-problem’s solution lay in sacrificing the individual for the sake of the group will be inclined to regard scapegoating with general acceptance. What would you say to someone who argued in this way?

You noted that scapegoating just conceals problems, or delays their crisis, but does not solve them. I see what you mean but I would like to give the devil his due here because this is such a critical issue. Suppose the problem is not what it seems to be. Suppose what seems to be the problem is actually just a pretext for the problem to manifest. The problem is actually precisely the latent discord or animosity that stemming from the mimetic desire inherent in human nature now become actual. To recapitulate: we model our desires on people we wish to emulate. As a result, our collective desires eventually converge on a single object. This fact alone transforms our models into rivals. Rivals create animosity and threaten violence. This is the basic problem and scapegoating is a solution, albeit a provisional one since the ritual must be periodically renewed. René Girard argued that, in fact, this periodic renewal was one of the bases for the traditional view of time as cyclic rather than linear. So in regard to scapegoating: can you see what I am saying and can you see any way out of it?

In general, it is a deceptively challenging topic to comprehend so I appreciate your willingness to persist. As a psychological and anthropological fact, people model their desires on other people whom they wish to emulate. Only our most basic physiological desires are innate in us and the majority of the others are conditioned through mimesis. Recognition of this phenomenon is at the basis of successful marketing campaigns. Advertisers know that to make something desirable, all that is necessary is that it appear to be desired. It is the same with restaurants (i.e. before Corona): a wait list is very useful because it shows that the restaurant is desired and hence desirable. This also reveals the inner logic behind the seeming arbitrariness of trends in fashion. Perhaps the most poignant example of all is toilet paper. Nothing is inherently desirable about amassing stockpiles of this amenity except that others appear to desire having it.

When everybody models their desires on everyone else or on specific persons, inevitable conflict will arise as everyone becomes a rival for that object. This is a perpetual source of discord and animosity in a culture, community, or society. As a way to “siphon away” this discord, many communities have had recourse to the scapegoat mechanism. Out of a condition of turbulence and chaos in which everyone is at each others’ throats, if a single minority can be successfully construed as the one who is to blame for the discord, then in an instant, the condition of the community can be transformed: general animosity becomes unanimity against the victim.

Now to attempt an answer to your question about “the true problem.” Take the situation of toilet paper: it is not difficult to imagine how it could have led to violence. It would be a mistake to suppose that the toilet paper itself was the fundamental cause of the violence. Instead, the basic psycho-social nature of human interaction is the cause and the toilet paper is only a pretext for it to manifest. Given that the true problem, then, is the strife that inevitably follows from structures of mimetic desire amongst communities, the scapegoat mechanism reveals itself as an expedient device to quell the eventual violence. As you noted, however, it comes at a moral and spiritual cost.

I hope that what I wrote can help you to think through this. It is a dangerous topic, in some sense, and once the scapegoat mechanism is seen (i.e. we see through our eyes but with our intelligence), it cannot be unseen.

 ***

We all take part in exploring these questions together so if the discussions are engaging, then it means you are also doing a good job by being engaged.

I am left with a number of questions about what you wrote and I hope you can clarify them for me.

You started off by citing the dictionary. That is of course an acceptable place to begin critical thinking but not a place to end. So I hope that as you reflect on the concept of “scapegoating,” you have the sense that your understanding of it is deeper and more comprehensive than it was before you reflected on it. Do you think you achieved that with your reflection this week?

A scapegoat, by definition, is accused of something of which he or she is innocent. Otherwise we would not call him or her a scapegoat and instead we would just call it “karma,” or “getting what is deserved.” Because of this, I was confused when, for instance, you wrote that the blame may be placed on the wrong scapegoat. What did you mean by “the wrong scapegoat”? Which would be the right one? 

***

Thank you for submitting your reflection. I think you have grasped the gist of the scapegoat mechanism even though the topic is so profound, ubiquitous, and multifaceted that there remains a great deal that could be said. I am especially curious about your concluding statement on the morality of scapegoating. I wonder if you could expand on the concept of “ownership” in this vein. Do you mean to indicate the way in which people are refusing to take responsibility and accountability for their own actions and instead project them on someone else? If so, what about this makes it immoral (just to play the devil’s advocate)?

Finally, I appreciated your identification of the Passion of Christ as an example of the scapegoat phenomenon. Indeed, the theorist who deserves the most credit for articulating the scapegoat mechanism, René Girard, saw the Crucifixion of Jesus as the quintessential scapegoat phenomenon because (1) the story itself stipulates that the sacrificial victim is entirely free from wrongdoing and (2) the story is told from the standpoint of the victim and not the majority. This is perhaps a historical precedent and certainly a historical anomaly. Moreover, (3) Jesus does not engage in even a hint of reciprocal scapegoating by retaliating against his persecutors. It is really extraordinary the way in which Jesus, who never had a problem raising his voice against the authorities before this and speaking truth to power, remains utterly silent on his own behalf during the entire sequence of the Passion. Instead, he merely bears witness to the scapegoat phenomenon. In fact, the Greek word for “witness” is martys (μάρτυς) or martyrion, hence the English “martyr.” I wonder what you think of this.

***

I really appreciated your reflection. I agree with you that we are going through a challenging time in our nation’s development—a rite of passage, perhaps? That is the most optimistic way I can frame our present situation. It makes me wonder what you and I and others living through this time can do to contribute in a positive way. Always the first thing that comes up for me is what we are trying to practice: thinking, speaking, listening, attempting to cultivate in ourselves a love of and concern for truth that will fortify us against temptations to evil. 

I wish to be sure I have grasped what you meant when you asserted the importance of “looking at the facts.” Do you mean to suggest that “we should be looking at facts” but that scapegoating allows us to ignore them under a pretense of presenting a real solution? Also, I agree with you that it is immoral but not everyone does. Some people regard it as a situation in which the ends justify the means. So, what makes it immoral to scapegoat? If you have trouble answering this, perhaps this week’s lecture can give you some tools to think with.

***

Thank you for submitting your reflection. I think you did a very good job in critically considering this question. I am left with one specific question as to what you meant that perhaps you can clarify for me. You suggested that cyber-bullying and fake news have replaced traditional forms of the scapegoat ritual in modern times, and the number of scapegoats has only increased. I think this is a very insightful observation about the way in which the same impulse to scapegoat has merely undergone a metamorphosis in modern times but by no means disappeared. I understand your view that it is not morally justified to scapegoat in any form. However, you seem to come to the opposite conclusion in the very next paragraph when you observe that the community must be strengthened at any cost and that you can only pray that you are not the one it selects to be its scapegoat. Perhaps you can reconcile these two views, which seem to be at odds with one another.

***

I share your interest in what would happen if more of our political leaders were to experience something like the astronauts described. I myself was especially moved by an image of the Earth from the rings of Saturn that was taken by the Voyager spacecraft in 2017. The Earth occupied just a single pixel against the vast backdrop of cosmic space. This leads me to something I have wondered about. Today, as a result of artificial lighting and light pollution, people rarely experience the majestic sight of infinite stars spangled in the night sky. For Pre-Modern people, by contrast, the Milky Way would have been a nightly presence. I have thought of us as “cosmic orphans” but I wonder how different the experience of the stars from below would be from the experience of the Earth from above. Both seem to shift, and perhaps even shatter, the myopic frame that mundane activities can often establish in us. What do you think of this connection? Maybe the answer is closer at hand than the ISS after all. 

Finally, this is a reminder to everyone to look for Saturn and Jupiter to the south in the evening sky. They are inching closer by the day in preparation for their grand conjunction on the winter solstice of this year. Traditionally, these celestial alignments were correlated to terrestrial events. That was the basis for astrology and it is one interpretation of the so-called Hermetic maxim: quod est superius, est sicut quod est inferius, or “as above, so below.” 

***

Thank you for placing this topic before us. Needless to say, I think it is as complicated as it is fraught. You brought up a very important element that I would like to expand on. Our natural inclination is almost certainly in favor of discriminating against anyone from outside of our tribe. I think is it was correct to suggest that it has evolutionary underpinnings and it is not at all difficult to come up with a likely story as to why xenophobic traits would have conferred selective advantage to individuals who possessed them and who were our ancestors. If someone doesn’t understand this, please ask about it. 

Having established the near certainty of this premise, perhaps the question we should be asking is not “why do people discriminate?” (since they have done this all along) but rather, “why does anyone not discriminate?” I wish to emphasise what a historical anomaly it is that we have achieved a general consensus that discrimination is immoral. This conviction is fundamentally related to the question of “inalienable rights” that we confronted several weeks ago, and also with the question of scapegoating that we have more recently considered. Again, it is by no means a given that people think this way. Instead, if we think this way, it is a testament to our cultural-intellectual-philosophical inheritance. Do we think it is worth defending? If so, how do we go about this beyond merely expressing our assent to the proposition that “all human beings are created equal”? 

I believe—in a spirit consistent with the theme of this course—that we cannot really grasp the proposition that “discrimination is wrong” without comprehending the philosophy and worldview of which it is an expression any more than any one of the blindmen could understand the Elephant beginning from his specific perception. The strength of a preposition depends on its philosophical basis and if the foundation is neglected, the conviction that discrimination is wrong will not stand for long. In fact, I am concerned that I already see signs of it being distorted today.

***

Thank you for placing this uniquely pertinent issue before us. We are living in a time in which we receive the majority of the information we use to make sense of the social and political world by way of the internet. Recent revelations have exposed the immense degree of influence that media platforms have to shape the view of their users. This goes somewhat beyond the scope of “influencers” and even social media itself but it is related in that agents that we do not know about are exerting massive power over our beliefs. There have recently been hearings in the Senate over this issue. 

To give an example of how it might work: if you search for a specific phrase in Google, you receive a list of hits. The method and algorithm used to generate these hits is totally opaque to us and as a result, it is easily susceptible to manipulation by any employee of this company behind the scenes. This is very dangerous because Big Tech can easily incline viewers to vote for candidates who have promised not to regulate these same companies by subtly curating the results that show up in a search. They can easily be made to represent one candidate in a positive light and the other in a negative one. That this is happening has been demonstrated in a number of cases. The danger of this situation is that the election process depends on a transparent process by which voters can learn about the candidates and that is obviously being compromised. The result is a fascist structure in which government and industry have become a single entity which manufactures its own consent of the governed. 

As a side note: it will be obvious that these same companies will be inclined to scapegoat foreign actors in our elections in order to divert our attention from the fact that they have their own thumbs on the scales.

***

Thank you for drawing our attention to the question of time, which has left great artists and thinkers both inspired and perplexed, and sometimes horror-stricken for millennia. Saturn-Chronos (who lent his name to our words “chronic” and “chronology” among others), for instance, was thought of by the ancient Greeks as a personification of time and experienced as a tyrannical ruler who devoured his own children. Nobody escapes the reign of Saturn. Hence the alchemical symbol of Saturn is a reaper’s scythe ♄. Francisco Goya’s 19th century depiction of this titan is among the most memorable: 

Francisco de Goya, Saturno devorando a su hijo (1819-1823).jpg

According to Hesiod’s famous account, Rhea tricked her husband and fed him a rock instead of baby Jupiter-Zeus. Ultimately, Zeus led an insurrection in which the Olympians overthrew the titans and Zeus became the new regent.

The Greeks had at least two words for time: chronos (χρόνος), or “clock-time,” and kairos (καιρός) or “qualitative time” or “timeliness.” I think your presentation is especially oriented toward the latter.

St. Augustine, reflecting on time, famously observed that “I know what it is, but when you ask me, I don’t.” When we say “time,” do we mean what the clock says, or to our inner sense of the flow of experience? Do we pass through time or does time pass through us? Or is time not something that passes or does not pass but rather just the passage as such? Does the past cease to exist once it is past? Can time be thought of independently from change or motion, or are they inseparable and perhaps expressions of the same thing?

***

I think you made a good case for why it might not be so virtuous to tell white lies even under the ostensible noble pretext of protecting someone. If I understood your comment, you suggested it is somewhat presumptuous and paternalistic to assume you know what is best. I wonder how far you believe this. For instance, should a father lie to his young child and say there are no such thing as elves or fairies? A somewhat stereotypical thought experiment involves the question of whether a person who is harboring Jews in Germany during the holocaust who have escaped from a concentration camp should lie to the Gestapo officer at his door who demands the fugitives be delivered. Some people say “no” because, in essence, just because the Gestapo officer may have an evil intent, that doesn’t give someone license to contribute towards the corruption of speech (i.e. every time we lie, we erode the foundations of trust upon which meaningful speech is predicated). Needless to say, your presentation raises many important questions.

***

I agree with you about the trolley-problem and I am happy we have put that discussion behind us. As I said, I invariably feel like I was run over by the trolley after discussing those scenarios for any length of time. As I also mentioned, I have found “trolley-problem memes” to be very therapeutic by transforming the moral panic that the hypothetical scenario can evoke into absurdity. Of course, this would not be an appropriate to actual moral dilemmas in real life, but there is no reason to allow a thought experiment to continue to effect one beyond the time that is necessary to bring a given issue to light.

I would like to add one comment to your observation that even someone who is passionate about a given viewpoint or opinion can benefit from hearing alternative positions. I agree with you that there is a different form of dialogue than what we are used to and I would emphasise that it does indeed require both intention and practice to achieve it, and I would add that it is precisely those issues that are most significant to us that we should be the least inclined to dig in our heals and defend forgone points-of-views. Ideally, my care for a subject would incline me to continually seek to enrich my understanding of it by seeking to encounter other viewpoints. This is an unusual disposition, to say the least, and there is a sad irony in this fact, given the contradiction that I indicated. But perhaps we can all inspire one another to do better.

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