Lynching and catharsis

The FT is the only UK national newspaper today not to feature a gruesome image of a wounded or dead Gaddafi on its front page.

Why have all the other newspapers chosen to run those photos? A generous-spirited argument which someone suggested to me yesterday is: “people in Libya need to know he’s really dead”. The reality is that the papers are doing so because they know most of their readers (however much they may tut and utter words such as “gruesome” or “unnecessary”) will enjoy it, or at least find it cathartic.

The FT hits the nail on the head, probably unintentionally, with their headline “Death boosts chances of unifying nation” (£/reg). The article proceeds to give a number of political arguments to back up this claim (lack of a continuing focus for resistance, etc.), but there is a deeper reason why the statement made in the headline is probably true; one that goes to the roots of what makes (and mars) our humanity. This is René Girard’s understanding of what drives human societies and human behaviour.

I’ve blogged about Girard quite frequently in the past, but the two main elements of his anthropology can be summarised as follows:

  • mimetic desire: human desire is not innate, but learnt from our neighbour, whom we observe and imitate. This in turn leads to mimetic rivalry, because if I am imitating my neighbour’s desires, then this means we end up desiring the same thing. Girard argues that mimetic rivalry can escalate through a process of “mimetic contagion” until a society is almost torn apart by rivalry, leading to…
  • the single-victim mechanism: a society torn by mimetic rivalry is brought back into unanimity by identifying a single, arbitrary individual against whom the group unites in an act of violent expulsion, restoring order and calm for the group as a whole.

In the classic Girardian single-victim (or “scapegoat”) mechanism, the victim is innocent – which no-one is going to claim for Gaddafi. But the point remains that human beings frequently find unanimity through the cathartic lynching of a single individual.

Properly speaking, it would have been “more just” for Gaddafi to go on trial for his crimes. In practice, though, any trial for Gaddafi would have been nothing more than an excruciatingly drawn-out version of what happened yesterday – see the trial and execution of Saddam Hussein for details. A Girardian view is that Gaddafi’s lynching will do more than a trial would have to unify Libya and enable it to “move on”. Or to go back to the FT: “Death boosts chances of unifying nation”.

That doesn’t justify what happened to Gaddafi, or the gore-fest on the front pages of the papers. It just means we have to be honest about how human beings work – and about what the only true remedy is for that blood-lust.

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