(This essay is the final installment of a series. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 3.5).
The purpose of this essay series is to illuminate a path toward the transcendence of the ancient pattern that Rene Girard called sacrificial violence, in which society discharges its rage, its anxiety, and its rivalries upon a dehumanized victim class. This latent force swells in times of social stress as in an economic crisis, famine, plague, or political upheaval. Then elite powers can hijack it toward fascistic ends.
In Part 3 of this series, I looked at the stigmatization and ostracism of the unvaccinated as a conspicuous current example of mob dynamics in action. Yet mob dynamics far transcend the vaccine issue, and in fact operate among vaccine dissidents as well, whose thought patterns sometimes mirror those of the orthodoxy: We are the good guys, they are the bad guys. We are rational, they are irrational. We are conscious, they are asleep. We are ethical, they are corrupt. Neither this nor any dissident movement is exempt from the systemic poison of incivility that now pervades the body politic.
Self-righteousness, ridicule, name-calling, and contempt are necessary precedents to Girardian scapegoating. They are also powerful rhetorical and psychological tools to create solidarity among the troops. They imply: deviate from our beliefs and we will ridicule you too. Humans know as if instinctively the danger that follows ridicule and ritual humiliation by the group. It’s an ancient pattern. First the crowd jeers and mocks the victim, then smears her with shit. She is made contemptible, disgusting. Then the stones fly.
Such tactics may discipline the ranks and intimidate a portion of the fence-sitters into cooperation. I remember, before I became conscious of this tactic, feeling superior when I read something contemptuous of the wrong (i.e., those the author disagreed with). Beneath the superiority were feelings of inclusion and safety. In fact I might even agree in order to feel superior, included, and safe. The tactic amounts to: “Do you want to be a good person and not contemptible ? Then agree with me!”
The tactic is counterproductive when addressing those who hold firm opposing opinions. The contempt, rightly seen as an attack, drives them to circle the wagons and counterattack with the same weapon. Many of the undecided are repelled too, as they see that something operating besides reason and a genuine desire to seek truth through dialog. It is a fight; more broadly, it is a war. In war both sides serve victory, not truth, however they may pretend otherwise.
A saying goes, “Truth is the first casualty of war.” And the primal lie of war is the same as that of mob violence, the pogrom, and the witch hunt: that certain people are not fully human. As long as we perpetuate that lie, humanity will continue the tragic historical pattern. We will also remain befuddled in our personal and collective sense-making.
This last point may not be obvious. So, at the risk of provoking the censor, I will use the vaccine controversy to illustrate how dehumanization blinds us to truth. On the vaccine skeptic side, the idea that virologists and other researchers are clueless, corrupt, delusional, or incompetent prevents skeptics from engaging the substance of mainstream scientific knowledge. They may credulously accept as fact speculative or easily debunked theories, failing to distinguish them from more robust claims. This sows confusion in the ranks.
Here is an example: the canard, common in some quarters of the vaccine skeptic community, that “No virus for Covid has been isolated and proven to exist according to Koch’s postulates.” While technically true, this represents an impossible demand. Koch’s postulates were formulated for bacteria, which can (often) be grown on a nonliving medium and therefore “purified.” Viruses can be grown only in living cells; therefore any sample with viral particles will also contain cell debris, including non-viral DNA and RNA. That is why combinatoric methods are used to establish the viral genome. To believe that hundreds of thousands of virologists have spent the last fifty years studying a hallucination, one must think they are corrupt fools unable to see the obvious. Viewing them that way prevents communication, learning, and a mutual quest for truth. It also draws attention away from more legitimate, more nuanced challenges to conventional paradigms of virology and vaccine science. Orthodox scientists, fed up with ignorant challenges, harden their paradigms against more legitimate ones.
Tarring the whole skeptic movement with the wide brush proffered by its most unreasonable members, the pro-vaccine side often assumes the vaccine skeptics are a bunch of rabid zealots who care only about their own “freedom” at the expense of public health. How much attention will they give, then, to the whistle-blowers, dissenting scientists, and horrifying vaccine damage stories that may not make it onto official databases?
I saw graphic illustration of this deafness today as I perused some Instagram and Tik Tok channels by people who claim to be injured by vaccines. They report things like weeks of tremors that began shortly after vaccination, paralysis from the waist down, strokes, speech loss, and other debilitating misery. Often they report that their doctors say it is coincidence and has nothing to do with the vaccine. They seem sincere to me—but certainly not to many. The comment threads are profuse with hate. “Fake,” “clown,” and “liar” are some of the more mild comments. “Nut job.” Threats to have CPS take their kids away. Misogynistic slurs (the majority of the posters are women). Yes, it is conceivable that these people are faking it, but how are the commentators so sure? How is Instagram so sure these posts are “harmful false information” when it takes them down? Furthermore, since this suppression is institutionalized, how can we as a collective know if vaccine harm is indeed widespread? The failure of communication keeps us in the dark.
Censorship, disinformation, and propaganda have a crucial ally without which they would never be effective. The ally is mob psychology and the social habit of dehumanization. These tactics work only when we are ready to see others as the propaganda says we should, and don’t try to find out for ourselves by actually listening to them.
The Enemy in our Midst
It is unsurprising that the tendency to dehumanize others makes us vulnerable to propaganda. When we dehumanize, we are not in truth (since the truth is that each human being is a divine soul, is life itself, is a feeling, thinking subject with a unique experience of the world). When we are not in truth, we are vulnerable to lies.
We also become vulnerable to internal division and paranoia. Those attuned to villains and crooks everywhere are quick to see them in their own ranks. Then, all it takes to destroy a dissident movement is to start accusing certain members of being infiltrators, quislings, or “controlled opposition.” These accusations exploit existing rivalries—“Ah ha! You disagree with me because you are a ________.” Any movement that sees the world through a polarizing lens is prone to schisms itself.
None of this is to deny the existence of infiltrators and informants. The intelligence services have a long, documented history of infiltrating and attempting to destroy dissident movements (such as the civil rights, environmental, and anti-globalization movements). Doubtless they are doing the same today with Covid policy dissenters. My message here is not to automatically trust everyone. Trust can come from a new foundation: I trust those who demonstrate a willingness to release their identity as good and right.
Let us also not deny that there is such a thing as corruption, as unconsciousness, ignorance, and irrationality. However, no human being can be reduced to any of those traits without obliterating their humanity and thus doing violence to the truth. Ultimately, violence to the truth leads to other forms of violence. To reduce someone to a degrading label short-circuits the question that is the sole deliverance of humanity at the present juncture: What is it like to be you?
The biggest crisis facing humanity today is not vaccines or their resistors; it is not infectious disease, chronic disease, overpopulation, or nuclear weapons. It is not even climate change. The biggest crisis today is a crisis of the word. It is a crisis of agreement. It is a Babelian crisis of communication. With coherency among us, no other problem would be hard to solve. As it stands, the prodigious powers of human creativity cancel each other out. The crystalline matrix of our co-creation has burst into shards. Why? It is not from lack of skill in communicating. It is from a habit of perception, a way of seeing each other that makes us less than what we are.
Before I proceed, let me make it clear that compassion does not equal capitulation. Communication does not equal compromise. Pacifism does not equal passivity. Seeing another person’s divinity does not equal letting them have their way. Listening to other views does not equal keeping silent about one’s own.
Contrary to what the partisan fears, humanizing the opponent makes us more effective, not less, in serving goals that must ultimately unite us all: healing, justice, and peace. Even if it comes to a fight, one will fight better free of delusions about the enemy.
To take a totally random example, ahem, let’s say I want to stop the technocratic plan, spearheaded by Bill Gates, to monitor, inject, track, and control every human on earth and feed their biometric data, movement data, and real time physiological data into a centralized database that can then issue privileges and restrictions that keep everyone safe. To stop this from happening, I’d better understand why it is happening. If I tell myself it is because Bill Gates & Co. are gibbering fiends bent on making others suffer, there is a lot I will not see. I will be blind to the reasons why such people are so enamored of technology to begin with. I won’t look at the implicit mythology that equates progress with control. I won’t look at cultural patterns of domination. All the while, I will be fighting a caricature and not the enemy himself.
For all I know, Bill Gates fervently believes he is working for the good of humanity. He is convinced of his public identity as a philanthropist—a lover of humanity. His heart swells with righteous certitude. He has ready justifications for certain things he’s done that even he knows were wrong. Some things, maybe he just prefers not to think about. In short, maybe he isn’t that different from you or me. I can and do reject utterly his vision of the future; therefore I think he is a dangerous individual. But an evil one? I cannot know that. Why would I be so sure? Conditioned by the Hollywood myth of the Villain, I might be tempted to see him that way. But won’t I oppose him more effectively if I am aware of his real psychology, or at least willing to look for it? To do that, though, I have to be willing to see him as fully human. This does not mean to be soft and let him have his way. Quite the opposite. We will be more effective, not less, in standing up to oppression of any kind when we understand the nature of our oppressors and stop misattributing their actions to “evil.” In so doing, we open the possibility that they will rehumanize us as well, and that something other than the victory of one group over another will determine the future.
This still applies even if some people are evil. Surely there are some truly psychopathic individuals among the elites, but even normal people, under the intoxication of ideology and power, can carry out heinous policies. Conversely, one cannot assume that just because most scientists and policymakers are decent people that they are immune to the contagion of mob psychology. Mob psychology organizes beliefs and actions around its dictates, generating endless rationalizations, justifications, and pretexts. Good people can do evil things, all the while firmly convinced of their righteousness. In order to speak to such people, we have to learn to question the subject of their righteousness without denying their decency.
Now is not the time to demur and keep our heads down. It is time to stand up and speak out, and our words will be more powerful if we speak to the real human beings underneath our assumptions about them.
Transcendence from the West
Girard argues that the arc of reciprocal violence relieved by violent unanimity spawned human ritual, culture, and religion. Yet, it is in religion that we may find our deliverance from the pattern, from the diversion of revolutionary energy into round after round of scapegoating.
I’ll offer an example from East and West. First, West. The Christ story at first glance seems to fit the mold of the sacrificial victim, but in fact it breaks it. Scapegoating depends on associating the victim with pollution of some kind, so that the pollution can then be removed. Christian teaching insists on the sinlessness of Jesus, his purity and divinity. Faced with an unruly crowd and ruling a land riven by social tensions, Pontius Pilate knew what to do: offer a victim to the mob. The peace that would follow would prove the righteousness of the slaughter. But the Jesus story doesn’t play out as usual. Unlike in most myths (Batman subdues Joker and saves Gotham; Superman kills Lex Luthor and saves the world; the Avengers kill Thanos and save the universe, politicians save us from terrorists and the uneducated), in this story, the victim is the epitome of innocence. His innocence proclaims guilt to be irrelevant to the appetites of the mob. Therefore, Jesus’s innocence bespeaks the innocence of everyone, even the guilty, who has ever been its victim. For as Heim puts it, “Any human being can be plausibly scapegoated and no human can prevail when the collective community turns against her.”
Forgiveness is the defining teaching of Christianity. Properly understood, forgiveness is not a kind of indulgence—you are bad but I forgive you anyway. Forgiveness comes from the flash of understanding: “If I were in the totality of your situation, I may well have done what you did.” In other words, it comes from a felt recognition of our common humanity. This same understanding is what obviates judgment. Some of the most potent images in the Gospels are about forgiveness and judgment. Jesus on the cross says of his tormenters, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” It isn’t “Forgive them Father because you’re a nice God and believe in second chances, so please go easy on them.”
The horrors of the human condition cannot be blamed on a scattering of psychopaths on earth. The sum total of millions of perfectly good intentions also ends in tragedy. Why? Because they know not what they do. In the crucifixion scene, what they do not know is that they are crucifying an innocent man. So it is always, when we victimize someone. Even if they are guilty of a crime, usually they are not guilty of all the dehumanized attributes affixed to them in the sacrificial process.
It is in the nature of organized religion that its institutions tend to enact the very opposite of its core esoteric principles. Thus it is that Christianity has no rival in judging, condemning, dehumanizing, and scapegoating. That history is plain to see: the Inquisition, the witch hunts, the enslavement of Africans, the genocide of indigenous people, and the subjugation of women all happened under official church sanction. Nonetheless, the original teachings still call us toward the transcendence of such things. Mark Heim says:
Redemptive violence—the sort of violence that claims to be for the good of many, to be sacred, to be the mysterious ground of human life itself—always purports to be the means of overcoming sin (removing pollution, punishing the transgressor who has brought disaster on the community). The sin it characteristically claims to overcome is the offense of the scapegoat, the crime the victim has committed. But in the passion accounts the sin in view is that of the persecutors. It is not the sin of the one which jeopardizes the many, but the sin of the many against the one. In the passion narratives, redemptive violence stands forth plainly and unequivocally as itself the sin that needs to be overcome.
Once the buildup to redemptive violence is complete, mere restraint is unlikely to stop it. We must start earlier and undo its underpinnings. We must interrupt habits of contempt, poisonous gossip, condemnation, psychological pathologizing, name-calling, and other forms of dehumanization. And we must stop seeing the world in terms of a fight. The fight, the war, is a lens that reveals little and obscures much. It casts reality into familiar tones—the tones of black and white, us and them, good and evil. That picture is familiar, addictive even. But for many of us it is no longer comfortable and feels no longer true. Partly it is futility, partly it is exhaustion that moves us to disengage from the debate, the campaign, the crusade. From that exhaustion and burnout and surrender, new possibilities are born.
Surrender does not mean capitulation to the other side. It is to surrender seeing in terms of sides and framing issues in terms of who wins. It is to serve truth rather than victory. The lie behind judgment is “If I were you in the totality of your situation, I would have done differently.” Do you ever really know that though? Or is that judgment based on a lie to yourself about what you know?
Transcendence from the East
The religious traditions of the East bear similar fruit from a different tree. The tree is the dissolving of rigid binary distinctions, especially that between self and other. The Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching), for example, starts with a statement on the inexpressibility of absolute truth and, in its second verse, describes the mutual dependency and co-arising of opposites. But here I will invoke the Buddhist principle of interbeing.
Interbeing says that existence is relationship. It isn’t just that we depend on each other, on the rainforests, on the sun, water, and soil to survive. It is that they are part of our very being. Accordingly, if a rainforest is cut down, or the small copse of trees near your home, something of you dies as well. That is why the events happening on earth today hurt so much. They are happening to each of us.
Interbeing says that outside and inside reflect and contain each other. A country that visits violence on the world will suffer domestic violence. A nation that locks up millions of its citizens cannot be free. No person can be fully healthy on a sick world. And the things we condemn the most in others live in some form within ourselves. The revered teacher Thich Nhat Hanh conveys this principle eloquently in his poem, “Call Me by My True Names.” Here are a few stanzas:
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay his "debt of blood" to my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life.
My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.
If we are ever to transcend the human condition as we’ve known it, we have to start actually following the pleas of great teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh. The “true names” by which he wants to be called include my name and your name. Locating evil in others, then destroying them in hopes of destroying evil, we banish to the unconscious the parts of ourselves projected onto our enemies. There these shadows multiply, infiltrating life from within until the day when they seize command in a fit of violence.
The “door of compassion” is the dissolving of the barriers that separate. There is truth in “I am the girl. I am the pirate. I am the arms merchant.” There is truth also in “I am not any of them,” but while the latter truth is continually reinforced by modern ideology, systems, and economy, the truth of nonseparation gets lost. It is time to reclaim it. Does that mean we let pirates and arms merchants continue to ply their trade? Of course not. But we do not load onto them all the various evils we can imagine and hope to cleanse the world of evil by cleansing the world of pirates.
I would like to ask the partisans on all sides of the issues of our time to switch their allegiance. Not to the other side, but from victory to love. You may believe that your cause, for example the pro-vaccine cause or the anti-vaccine cause, is precisely love in action. And maybe it is. However, if ever you notice your side putting hate in service of the cause, you know that the primary allegiance is to winning.
One side may indeed win the battle by arousing disgust at the villains on the other side and casting them as demons, but they will have upped the level of disgust in the world, and society will be all the more vulnerable to manipulation and violence.
Do you hold healing above victory? Are you willing to accept a resolution in which society heals, but the evildoers are never punished and you are never vindicated? Where you never get the satisfaction of having been proved right all along? Where none of your opponents are ever sorry for what they did? Where you yourself might have to countenance your own error in something you held dear?
The Ring of Power
I was recently listening to a marvelous reading of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings with my son Cary. In the book, Boromir suggests using the power of the One Ring against the dark lord Sauron. No, counsels Gandalf. If we do that and win, whoever wields the Ring becomes the new dark lord, because it is wholly evil. Someone then suggests hiding the ring, but Gandalf says no, it will be found again, and we are seeking victory over evil not just in our own age, but for the future too.
Indulge me in this analogy. The One Ring is dehumanization. It is how dark powers rule this earth: they induce us to dehumanize each other. It is indeed a mighty weapon, and we might indeed turn it against our rulers and overthrow them. But it isn’t hard to imagine what the new rulers would be like, so sure they are in the right, so sure of the evil of those who oppose them, so practiced in the arts of ridicule and mockery, laughing at degrading caricatures of their opponents.
The wielder of the One Ring says, “Join me in the humiliation of the bad people.” She invokes the power of the mob and unleashes it on her opponents. All for a good cause, the cause of freedom, the cause of justice, only to be used until good prevails at last. Unfortunately, she has fed the very monster she seeks to overthrow. She will always fear it. She will seek not to disband the mob but to direct it, lest she become its next sacrificial victim. The ring devours its wearer.
Let us instead cast the One Ring back into the fires whence it came. How? Through billions of everyday interactions, in private and public discourse. There is another instrument we can wield that is greater than dehumanization. We might call it love. Taking many forms, it draws on the truth of each other’s divine humanness (the Christ) and our fundamental inseparability (Interbeing). It can take the form of courtesy, of humor, or of reason. It can express anger without hate, responsibility without blame, and truth without self-righteousness. It opens others up to listen: sensing they are not under attack, they feel less need to defend. By putting connecting ahead of convincing, it has the uncanny power to change minds far more effectively than any frontal assault of evidence and logic. To wield this instrument, we must be willing to be changed ourselves—that willingness is itself a powerful invitation. Without it, what reason have you to expect that anyone’s mind will change? This is the kind of humility that results from seeing others in their full humanity. Through it we can reclaim the power of the word, the power of agreement, the power of coherency. Holding each other sacred, we will make a temple of this earth.