In times of financial and economic crisis people seem more susceptible to unrealistic promises of immediate wealth. Indeed, more people play the lottery, losing more money while desperately trying to get rich. Tragic.

advertising on tv and mimesis cartoonBut even when people do win the lottery, chances of a happier and more fulfilling life are not guaranteed. This becomes clear in a documentary, made by the Belgian television network RTBF (from the French speaking part of the country). Lottery winners fall in between because of myriad mimetic interplays. People dream of living the good life like the jetset. When they are finally able to imitate that kind of life, they are not at ease with the culture of the rich and famous. At the same time they often fall victim to the jealousy of their peers. It’s easier to admire those who do not belong to your own social environment than those who are close to you. It’s – as René Girard would have it – a mimetic law, which Plato already refers to in his dialogue Lysis (215d) when Socrates says:

“By a universal and infallible law the nearer any two things resemble each other, the fuller do they become of envy, strife and hatred…”

Or, as Jesus puts it in the Gospel (Mark 6:4):

“A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.”

I thought of these insights while watching the documentary Les millionnaires de hasard-lotto. Watch it here.

But I also thought of it when I heard one of my friends complain about the fact that Muslim girls apparently could wear a veil in a photograph for some official banking documents, while at the same time and place “ordinary Flemish girls” could not wear a headband… Well, that’s a major problem, isn’t it? Anyway, it’s true after all that the biblical story of Cain and Abel keeps on reflecting a very basic aspect of this world order…

Reading tip: Les Millionnaires de la chance. Rêve et réalité, Michel Pinçon et Monique Pinçon-Charlot.

In the inaugural René Girard Lecture, Timothy Snyder presents his latest research, placing the Holocaust in global perspective. “We have scarcely begun to comprehend the Holocaust,” he says. “This is not just an intellectual problem, but a deep danger if we wrongly assume that simply acknowledging the catastrophe is enough to prevent something similar from happening again.”

Timothy Snyder is Professor of History at Yale University. He is the author of The Reconstruction of Nations, Sketches from a Secret War, and The Red Prince. He’s probably best known for his book Bloodlands (click the title for more information), and for collaborating with the great and late historian Tony Judt on the latter’s intellectual testament Thinking the Twentieth Century.

For further context on this lecture, click here to read what a fellow blogger has to say.

Click here for more information on Timothy Snyder’s BloodlandsBloedlanden – in Dutch.

Bloodlands (Timothy Snyder) Cover

From the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) comes this lecture on René Girard’s mimetic theory in relation to economics and ecology. Excellent panelists include Edward Fullbrook, Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Mark Anspach, Paul Dumouchel, and André Orléan (click the names of these people for more information on their work).

Be inspired!


An interesting and funny experiment is the now well-known fairness study by Dutch ethologist Frans de Waal and his colleagues.


The Age of Empathy (by Frans de Waal)It once again confirms some basic intuitions of mimetic theory. Frans de Waal seems to treat the tendency to be competitive and aggressive on the one hand, and the tendency to be empathic on the other, as two different faculties. Seen from René Girard’s mimetic theory both competition and empathy can be attributed to one and the same source: mimesis (imitation).

  1. The ability to imitate another (see: mirror neurons or mirror neuron system!) opens up the possibility to imagine what the other is experiencing – as an “alter ego”. This is the foundation for the development of empathy and compassion.
  2. René Girard also points to mimesis as a potentially divisive force in the context of desire: when two individuals imitate each other’s desire for acquiring one and the same object, they can become each other’s rival. Mimetic desire thus threatens the stability of relationships.

In the words of Vittorio Gallese, one of the discoverers of mirror neurons, in conclusion to his paper The Two Sides of Mimesis (click title to read the whole paper): “We have examined empirical results showing how interpersonal relations are made possible — in the first place — by resonance mechanisms that provide the common ground upon which the I–Thou relation can be established. It could be tempting to use such evidence to assert the neurobiological basis of the supposed natural proclivity of mankind to sympathy, fellow feelings, good will and altruism. I think we must resist such temptation, and look at human nature as it really is and not as we would like it to be. In this respect, Girard’s Mimetic Theory is illuminating, because it shows that mimesis when declined as mimetic desire has the intrinsic potentiality of driving humans to aggression and violence. Mimesis, as I have been trying to show throughout this paper, is neither intrinsically good nor bad. It is a basic functional mechanism at the core of our diversified social competencies and activities. Nevertheless, mimesis has two sides. Any serious neuroscientific attempt to shed light on the truest and deepest nature of human condition cannot neglect either side. I posit that the empirical evidence here briefly summarized and future research stimulated and driven by the currently available evidence have the potentiality to shed further light on both sides of mimesis.”

Both above mentioned points can be observed in many of de Waal’s experiments and observations. The second point becomes very clear in this fairness study. Consider the following remark by de Waal:

“Note that the first piece of cucumber is perfectly fine. The first piece she eats. Then she sees the other one getting grape, and you will see what happens…”

The Gift (by Marcel Mauss)In other words, the frustration and anger for not receiving grapes is aroused by comparison with the other monkey. Potential conflict does not arise from inequality as such, but from the tendency to imitate someone else and therefore desire what he receives, desires or possesses. The monkey is perfectly willing to eat cucumber instead of the better tasting grapes as long as her neighbor is in the same position. But would you still be happy with a little Toyota if everyone else in the neighborhood is driving a big Mercedes? We have to keep up with the Joneses, don’t we? Indeed, beyond basic needs, our and the monkey’s desires are structured by imitating others and comparing ourselves to them.

Primitive societies are well aware of the potential destructive outcomes of sharing gifts. That’s why gift exchange is highly regulated in archaic contexts. Besides establishing an acceptable hierarchy (which implies differences and inequalities), the rules of gift exchange also aim to undermine feelings of frustration and envy. To keep the peace! Essai sur le don  (The Gift), the groundbreaking study by Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) [PDF], to this day is very revealing in this regard (e.g. p.11: “To refuse to give, or to fail to invite, is – like refusing to accept – the equivalent of a declaration of war; it is a refusal of friendship and intercourse.”).

The ethical question remains whether the ties and bonds between humans that arise from mimetic interplays (manifested in empathy, fear of violence, but also lust for power and prestige) are a good basis for morality. I guess, as mimetic creatures, we have no choice but to rely on imitation. But this can be tricky. It’s very common to empathize with a friend or a clique and to imitate their hostility towards an enemy. But this kind of loyalty is not necessarily just or righteous. It’s the blind loyalty of the mafia or the mob. What if your friends or your clan is wrong? The big challenge, as put forward among others by Christ, is to include the ones that are considered “enemies” as “members of the community” – as “neighbors”, fellow human beings.

Chimpanzee Politics (Frans de Waal)René Girard claims that an imitation of Christ could guide our mimetic faculties in such a way that they would enable us to “love our enemies”. This is not to be understood in a masochistic way. To protect the victim of bullies doesn’t mean that you want to get bullied yourself. To put it differently: to speak in favor of the socially deprived or “crucified” doesn’t mean that you want to get crucified yourself, although of course you always run the risk that “bullies” don’t “show mercy” but keep on “crucifying”. Nevertheless Christ “turns the other cheek”, not because he wants another blow, but because he hopes that merciful, non-vengeful conduct will eventually be imitated.

So, empathy as the basis for morality? It depends on the examples one imitates and empathizes with. Will you follow the idol of yourself – the important person you imagine yourself to be in a certain group (that structures itself partly by excluding its “enemies”)? Or will you follow the Voice of the one who questions the image of yourself that exists at the expense of excluded others – in order to find yourself in relationship to those others?

“As you get older you will learn that loyalty is a virtue too important to be lavished on individual personalities.”

(From That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis).

When I was a child, back in the eighties, my friends and I used to play this hero or superman game. We would identify with some action figure we considered super-dooper and, well, “fight” each other. Or at least we would mimic a fight from an action movie we secretly watched behind our parents back. Most of us were allowed to watch some violence in cartoons, but weren’t allowed to see the real deal – or so we thought… So Rambo and Rocky were out of the question. This prohibition only added to the mystique of these films and ignited our desire to watch them at all costs. It also made the movie characters larger than life, still, if that was even possible.

I remember that we weren’t quite fully aware of the fictitious nature of most heroes. So Sylvester Stallone was different from Rambo and Rocky, as Arnold Schwarzenegger differed from, say, Conan the BarbarianMr. T and B.A. Baracus likewise might have had the same look, but were not to be mistaken for each other. Besides, for some strange reason still unknown to us, we could watch the A-Team. Other cardboard characters in our “realm of the gods” were real cartoon (hmm, “real cartoon”) characters like He-Man or G.I. Joe. And Bruce Lee was the ultimate legend, of course.

It was a simpler world then, for me and my friends. There were good guys and bad guys. Heroes and villains. The Cold War hadn’t quite finished, and as children from Europe’s West we would team up with the valiant knights of the USA against the evil empire of the USSR. For instance, together with Rocky we would fight the Russian monstrous man-machine Drago in Rocky IV. Or we would cheer Rambo to outsmart the Soviets with aid of the Taliban in Rambo III (imagine that – how policies change according to newly found “common enemies”!). We had yet to learn that “the Russians love their children too”, although Sting already sang this as far back as 1985.

Growing up, I learned that the battle between good and evil is not really a battle of “us” (the good guys) versus “them” (the bad guys), but should actually be located in the individual.The battle of the handsome He-Man versus the atrocious Skeletor became understandable as a metaphor for an inner struggle in every man’s heart or soul. After all, “we all have our demons to fight”, don’t we? Freudian psycho-analysis would call this battle the source of an ever fragile equilibrium the Ich has to maintain between Es and Über-Ich.

All of a sudden, the world wasn’t that simple anymore. We couldn’t just locate evil outside of ourselves anymore and banish it, like some scapegoat in the desert. Moreover, the heroes we identified with as children turned out to posses some bad character traits as well. It all boils down to your point of view. I once read a testimony from a Jewish woman who survived the Holocaust wherein she states that the most scandalous experience she had back then, was the realization that her tormentor was a human being, just like herself – after seeing him in a gentle mood with his family. Or, to put things slightly different, Superman only appears beneficial among his own kin. From the perspective of his opponents and victims, he is the devil. So to follow some kind of Superman in all circumstances – even if it’s the Superman you imagine yourself to be – is a shady affair. You could become a monster in trying to turn yourself into a hero…

“Yesterday he was a god; today he is a devil; tomorrow he’ll be a man again; that’s all.”

(From The Three Clerks, by Anthony Trollope).

The challenge that arises from this identity crisis is to accept that you yourself and the people you look up to are not the noble heroes you imagined, nor is your opponent or enemy the monster you always thought. Mercy and forgiveness can only come from this kind of acceptance, from the realization that it is okay to be “mere men”. For the longest time humanity has convinced itself that people should strife for perfection no matter what, that people should resemble some godly ideal.

The ancient Greek philosophers basically defended the idea that it’s nature’s law that “man becomes god.” Christianity tells the shocking story that “God becomes man.” Meaning that it’s not even necessary to participate in a battle between “angels and demons” to sustain some sense of identity. Beyond psycho-analytical identity constructions, you are loved just the same. The paradoxical miracle of accepting yourself as “not being a hero”, is that you can truly become a saving grace for others. For it is when we keep on believing the illusion that we can somehow heroically protect ourselves and our own from all harm and that “evil does not happen but far from our quarters”, that we remain blind for the evil that happens on our very doorstep.

When pedophilia scandals came to light in the Catholic Church of Belgium as well, following reports from child abuse by churchmen from around the world and with the infamous case of Bishop Roger Vangheluwe serving as a trigger, one of my colleagues was scandalized because I claimed that we all bear some sort of responsibility in these cases. Let’s face it, when push comes to shove, we often do have the tendency to look the other way and to let others – you know, “professionals” – deal with “sensitive cases”. But even psychiatrists and health care workers, it seems, aren’t to be trusted. The Netherlands were recently shocked by Rieke Samson’s report on child abuse in youth care. And in Belgium there was psychiatrist Walter Vandereycken’s case. He allegedly abused some of his adult female patients.

It’s very easy to express disgust for criminals and wrongdoers, and to feel some relief for “not being part of the corrupt group” that let them have their way. But I think, considering the spread of child abuse cases, that the Gospel is right for revealing the painful truth that we are all, more often than not, like the apostle Peter whose loyalty is refuted by Jesus (Matthew 26:34): “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” Indeed, when Jesus becomes a victim of the authorities, Peter looks the other way in order to keep himself from getting contaminated with the troubles of his friend.

So it comes as no surprise then that it was easier for the BBC to run a documentary about child abuse in the Catholic Church (The Shame of the Catholic Church), than to give green light for a documentary about the systematic child abuse of one of its celebrity TV-personalities, the late Jimmy Savile. It’s all too human, sadly. But evil is and can be everywhere, also in our own quarters. We might be tempted again to exorcize that evil and restore our sense of identity by “sending a scapegoat into the desert” or by executing large scale witch hunts, but that won’t heal the damage done. It will only increase people’s solicitude to be “on the right side of the line” between good and evil. It will create further mistrust between people and complicate relationships, especially between educators and children. Educators might start to promote a culture of distance between themselves and children, which will again allow malicious minds to gain an aura of inaccessibility and power – and the problem of child abuse might continue by the very measures that tried to avoid it.

As long as we are more preoccupied to safeguard our own “goodness” by blaming each other for all the “badness”, we won’t be able to help any one victim.

To give up on an easy manicheistic duality between good and evil is very difficult. Make no mistake, many of the people who were on Lance Armstrong’s side when he provided the Tour de France with himself as a new legend in cycling publicly loathe him now. He’s gained money for lots of people, and we just love heroic athletes. But ever since he was revealed as a cheat, we’re on the search for new, “real” heroes. And the vicious circle goes on, for no mere man is capable of being that legendary. Maybe he’ll be remembered more positively when he passes away as a tragic old man and long forgotten sports hero. It’s what happened to Michael Jackson and so many other celebrities. Before he died, the general public didn’t care about Jackson’s music anymore, focusing instead on allegations of child abuse and other scandals Jackson was involved in. Dead, he again became the attractive idol he once was. René Girard’s mimetic theory explains parts of our awe for (and idolization of) the dead from deeply embedded and culturally transmitted experiences surrounding victims of mob violence, whose death formerly brought peace and unity to communities.

Mimetic mechanisms time and again trick us into participating in the creation of “heroes” and “monsters” (who are often our former heroes). We constitute the crowd that applauds the emperor’s new clothes, until a child tells us that he really has no clothes. And then Lance walks on, proud as we have taught him to be, and we, doing everything not to lose face, convince ourselves that we somehow knew or didn’t know (depending on our position) of his deception all along…

One can only pray that people like football coach Jerry Sandusky, who abused several boys, are also taken care of by relatives. Else fallen heroes mainly serve as markers to identify and to judge what and who is “good” and what and who is “bad”. To forget that our “heroes” or “zeros” are mostly “mere men”, is to forget our own humanity. It means that we will imitate the crowd that claims to be “righteous”. It means that we will identify with the hero we imagine ourselves to be to destroy “the bad guys” outside ourselves. It means that we will unwittingly become monsters ourselves, equal to the monster we were trying to destroy – its double. Shouldn’t we be preoccupied with Sandusky’s victims instead of Sandusky himself? To listen to the voice of the Victim in our midst, instead of the thousands of godly heroes in our head that put “us” against “them”, well… that’ll be the day…

For insofar as there is jealousy, strife, and factions among you, aren’t you fleshly, and don’t you walk in the ways of men? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” aren’t you fleshly? […] Therefore let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come. All are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.

(1 Corinthians 3:3-4 & 3:21-23).


Sofie Peeters made quite an impression when she launched her student film Femme de la Rue. Not only in her native country Belgium, but also across the borders. Her autobiographical, short documentary film addresses a certain kind of sexism in the streets of Brussels. Peeters is seen walking around the neighborhood that used to be her home while attending film-school. Soon she is yelled at and approached by men of different ages, mainly from North African origin. One moment some guy brutally asks her if she wants to accompany him to his apartment, the next she’s called a “bitch” or a “slut”.


Allegedly, this isn’t just a problem in Brussels. French feminist groups seized on the film to trigger debates on similar problems in France. And a May 2012 poll found that four in ten young women had been sexually harassed in London over the past year (according to The Guardian, August 3, 2012).


Of course sexism isn’t tied to any one culture. It should be clear that Sofie Peeters is not targeting Islam, for instance, or African men. Her film aims at unraveling the logic of male sexism, which can be found across cultures and in different types. My pupils, for instance, nod affirmatively when I present them with the names a flirty guy often gets on the one hand, and a flirty girl on the other: the former is sometimes rather positively called “playa”, while the latter is more easily referred to in degrading terms as “slut” or “whore”. Most of my pupils are not Muslim or African. Most of them are native, privileged Belgians, and they readily acknowledge that this kind of double-standard sexist speech exists in their social environment as well. It seems that more difficult social and economic circumstances only enhance this ever lurking presence of the male machismo. Michael Eric Dyson very clearly shows this while explaining the roots of men’s ambiguous treatment of women in hip-hop culture. Another book addressing the same issue, and well worth mentioning, is Tracy Denean Sharpley-Whiting’s Pimps Up, Ho’s Down – Hip Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women (New York University Press, 2007). Here are some thought-provoking quotes on the subject from Dyson’s book Holler If You Hear Me – Searching For Tupac Shakur (Plexus Publishing, London, 2001) – which balance a more positive assessment of hip-hop’s liberating potentials in this previous post.

p. 184-185: If social empathy for young black males is largely absent in public opinion and public policies, the lack of understanding and compassion for the difficulties faced by poor young black females is even more deplorable. There exists within quarters of black life a range of justifications for black male behavior. Even if they are not wholly accepted by other blacks or by the larger culture, such justifications have a history and possess social resonance. Young black males hustle because they are poor. They become pimps and playas because the only role models they had are pimps and playas. Black males rob because they are hungry. They have babies because they seek to prove their masculinity in desultory paternity. They rap about violence because they came to maturity in enclaves of civic horror where violence is the norm. Black males do poorly in school because they are deprived of opportunity and ambition. Yet there are few comparable justifications for the black female’s beleaguered status.

p. 186: In its punishing hypocrisy, hip-hop at once deplores and craves the exuded, paraded sexuality of the “ho.” As it is with most masculine cultures, many of the males in hip-hop seek promiscuous sex while resenting the women with whom they share it. This variety of femiphobia turns on the stylish dishonesty that is transmuted into masculine wisdom: Never love or partner with the women you sleep with. Such logic imbues the male psyche with a toleration of split affinities that keep it from being fatally (as opposed to usefully) divided – the male can enjoy the very thing he despises, as long as it assumes its “proper” place. In order for “it” – promiscuous sex – to assume its proper place in male lives, women must assume their proper places. They must occupy their assigned roles with an eye to fulfilling their function as determined by men. If they are “hos,” they are to give unlimited, uncontested sex. If they are girlfriends or wives, they are to provide a stable domestic environment where sex is dutiful and proper. The entire arrangement is meant to maximize male sexual autonomy while limiting female sexuality, even if by dividing it into acceptable and unacceptable categories. The thought that a girlfriend or wife might be an ex-ho is a painful thought in such circles. The hip-hop credo can be summed up in this way: I want to chase women, but I want my woman to be chaste.

p. 188-189: Human sexuality is a complex amalgam of competing interests that claim space in our evolving erotic identities. If human beings are to test the integrity and strength of their sexual identity, they must experiment with a variety of partners and circumstances to define their erotic temperament. At different points in life, different identities emerge, different priorities surface. […] If Tupac’s position – and by extension, hip-hop’s views – can be said to be hypocritical, it is because it reserved that prerogative exclusively for the male gender. When women exercise that prerogative, they are scathingly attacked. When men do so, they are seen as normal and healthy. What may be even more hypocritical – since many rappers claim to stand against white dominance – is hip-hop’s broad endorsement of conservative beliefs about female sexuality. When rappers express femiphobic stances, they often recycle stereotypes of poor black women promoted by right-wing hacks [becoming the “double” of their supposed enemies]: All they want is welfare, more babies, no work, and the freedom to party as they destroy the family and drive the men away.

Another feature of femiphobic culture is the simplistic division of women into angels and demons, both of which are problematic. If women are viewed as angels, the moment they depart from prescribed behavior they’re made into whores or bitches. If they are viewed as demons, it denies the complex sexual personae that all human beings express… Tupac’s femiphobia was certainly of this Manichean variety. “He definitely believed there were two kinds of women,” Jada Pinkett Smith says. “Which was a danger for Pac, because he had a way of putting you on a pedestal, and if there was one thing you did wrong, he would swear you were the devil.”

The male psyche indeed often suspects there’s a demonic old witch lurking beneath the surface of angelic princesses and queens...


Canadian author Jane Billinghurst assembled a “lusciously illustrated exploration of the temptress”, describing how this male and ambiguously valorized image of women has been ever present in human culture – through myth, historical accounts, film and art in general. Her book is aptly entitled Temptress (Greystone Books, Douglas & McIntyre Publishing Group, Vancouver/Toronto/Berkeley/New York, 2003). It gives a delightful overview of the contradictory meanings the image of the temptress is associated with, especially when adopted by women themselves.

First woman to come to the fore in Billinghurst’s book is Lilith, a female demon, a “monster woman”, mostly known because of the medieval Jewish text The Alphabet of Ben Sira, although her origins can be traced back to far more ancient times.

Here’s Billinghurst’s version of the Lilith story – p. 16-17:

Male painters of Victorian England were fascinated by the independent sexuality of Eve’s predecessor and Adam’s first wife, the mysterious Lilith. Created Adam’s equal, according to medieval Jewish folklore, Lilith was appalled when her husband insisted on the missionary position for sex. She knew she had been made from the same clay that he had, and she wanted an equal say in how their love life unfolded. She wanted to experiment with this new flesh, to explore the range of pleasures it could provide.

Adam, in contrast, was rather prude. The idea of creating a sexual dialogue, of reacting to the signs fed back to his body from Lilith’s, of following an impulse not knowing where it might lead, was foreign to him. He did not yet know enough about his own urges to feel comfortable abandoning himself to Lilith’s. He refused to listen to his wife, and Lilith submitted to night after night of missionary sex – her mind, no doubt, on other things, like the wide expanse of the night sky, the rustling of creatures in the bushes… and the possibilities of life without Adam.

Resentment built in Lilith until she could stand it no longer. Undaunted by the fact that she knew nothing about the world outside paradise, according to the text of The Alphabet of Ben Sira, she “uttered the ineffable name of God,” the gates of Eden swung open, and off she went to make her own way in the world, unencumbered by her sexually unimaginative husband.

Lilith’s life from then on has been portrayed as one long party. She went to the Red Sea, where she cavorted with all manner of hideous demons, indulging in whatever sexual positions she wanted and producing hundreds of demon children. When Adam complained to God that his supposed helpmeet had left him, God sent three angels to bring Lilith back to where she belonged. But she refused to return: she had found a place where she could indulge her sexuality, and she had no regrets.

Despite her new lifestyle, Lilith never completely severed her ties with the uptight male to whom she had once been married. After Adam lost his immortality and begat humankind, Lilith started taking the lives of young children, creeping in at night through open windows and snatching their breath away. When unsuspecting parents tried to wake their offspring, they found that their previously healthy babies had died in the night. The three angels were horrified by such heartless, vindictive behavior. They could not force Lilith to return to Eden, but they did strike a bargain with her. Her window of opportunity for such malicious behavior was restricted to eight days after birth for baby boys and twenty days for baby girls. In addition, if amulets were hung inscribed with the angel’s names – Senoy, Sansenoy, and Semangelof – Lilith agreed to stay away.

Strangling babies while they slept was not Lilith’s only revenge against the man who had denied her pleasure. She also wafted into the dreams of men who slept alone. A slight rub of skin on skin or skin on sheet, and the men could not help but react physically to the thoughts she conjured up. The wet dream was her gift to the sons of Adam. A slight morning stickiness, proof of the nocturnal emission, was often the only sign of her visit – and a yearning to remember just what pleasure it was that she had promised as she passed by.

Lilith lingers in the thoughts of men as a reminder of sexual opportunities lost or not yet found. Here was a woman who was not afraid to take charge, who could imagine delights of which Adam could not conceive. To abandon oneself to the charms of such a woman – who knows where that might lead? Men have been wondering ever since.

Although this story could be interpreted as a story about an emancipated woman in some contexts – as Billinghurst suggests at the end of her account –, it should first be considered as a typically male and actually sexist depiction of female sexuality. Moreover, the question remains how women can truly emancipate themselves from male imagination if they simply imitate the images they’re presented with, while arguing – in a spirit of rivalry between the sexes – that they have every right to claim those images as their own. For the time being, I let this question to be answered by the pop diva’s of this world, like Madonna. Let’s take a closer look at how female sexuality and the relationship between the sexes is portrayed in the story of Lilith:

  1. A woman who desires sexual freedom and who wants to have a say in her own destiny transgresses a sacred order of things, disrespecting important taboos that try to avoid chaos in human life. Lilith “uttered the ineffable name of God…”
  2. A woman who desires sexual freedom and who wants to have a say in her own destiny is responsible for all kinds of evil in the world and the loss of what could be “paradise”. How could such a woman be a good mother to her children? She’s a deadly disruption of family life, as she is unable to provide a sustainable environment for children. Undaunted by the fact that she knew nothing about the world outside paradise, Lilith uttered the ineffable name of God, the gates of Eden swung open, and off she went to make her own way in the world… After Adam lost his immortality and begat humankind, Lilith started taking the lives of young children, creeping in at night through open windows and snatching their breath away. When unsuspecting parents tried to wake their offspring, they found that their previously healthy babies had died in the night…
  3. Men are merely helpless victims of a woman who desires sexual freedom and who wants to have a say in her own destiny. Unfortunately, men cannot always be on guard against the seductive powers of the demonic woman. The wet dream was Lilith’s gift to the sons of Adam. A slight morning stickiness, proof of the nocturnal emission, was often the only sign of her visit…

A main challenge for humankind has always been how to restore “paradise” in times of crisis. As the story of Lilith and many other myths make clear, sexuality – especially from the female side – has always been experienced as one of the main sources of turmoil. That’s why sexuality is regulated culturally. It’s often considered taboo because of the possible destructive outcomes it’s associated with. On the other hand, however, fertile sexuality is also needed to secure the survival and stability of communities. Ritualistic “arrangements” – from (temple) prostitution to the institution of marriage – try to give sexuality a proper place in society, so it can be experienced in its beneficial aspects.

No wonder then that certain individuals, who don’t seem to respect a community’s peculiar cultural arrangement of taboos and rituals, are often perceived as provocative and dangerous. They are easily sacrificed, allegedly in order to protect the community from more or imminent chaos. The social mind (male as well as female) actually always suspects sexually independent women who don’t seem to care about our long and diverse traditions of patriarchal taboos and rituals.

Sexually independent women are fascinating and threatening at the same time, revered and loathed, loved and hated. They are mysterious, seemingly beyond any control, evoking the numinous experience of the sacred – Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) speaks of “the holy”. Other women jealously admire them, while men desire them, resenting the destructive power they seem to posses. As Michael Eric Dyson pointed out, hip-hop culture is one clear example where these dynamics come to the fore. Desired and despised “hos” or “whores” are often the first to fall victim to the hidden fears of men and women whose sense of identity feels threatened.

The image of sexually independent, “adulterous” women who are sacrificed – mostly stoned to death – in order to “cleanse” a community, is, however sadly, deeply embedded in our social consciousness. Adulterous men are spared because they are perceived as poor victims of “evil” and “dangerous” temptresses. Men are said not to be responsible for their own words or actions towards sexually independent women. They justify themselves by making these women entirely responsible for what happens to them, saying that these women “provoked” them. The case of Sarah Tobias, who was gang raped, is but one well-known example where this kind of sick reasoning was applied. Her story provided the subject for The Accused, a 1988 Jonathan Kaplan movie with an Oscar winning Jodie Foster portraying Tobias. The men who raped Sarah Tobias tried to defend themselves by insinuating that they fell victim to the seductive and promiscuous attitude of the woman. The reaction of Sharia4Belgium against Sofie Peeters’ Femme de la Rue is analogous. According to this group of Muslims, Peeters was sexually harassed because she “provoked” men by “dressing like a whore”.

Poor, helpless men! Whether men abuse the name of God as an addition in the justification of their own (verbal or physical) violence or not, the bottom line remains: the harassed, raped or stoned victim is a scapegoat – held responsible for the violence she has to endure and accused of the turmoil men experience in their desires, while in fact being innocent. Let’s face it: are men really that weak that they cannot master their own desires, words or actions? And let’s face something else: who’s the real victim, the – seemingly – sexually independent and dangerously powerful seductive woman who’s stoned to death, or the men who stone her? Is she able to defend herself against those so-called “weak”, but nevertheless so-called “heroic” men? Being stoned is passive. To stone is active. For once our language doesn’t lie in presenting the natural order of things.


In order to explain a variety of religious and cultural phenomena and the often contradictory things they’re associated with, René Girard proposes to look for the way these phenomena can be traced back to violent situations and the attempts to cope with this violence. So, to understand the different cultural interpretations of sexuality, and female sexuality in particular – in its demonic as well as in its divine “sacred” aspects –, we should ask ourselves: what could be the basic connection between heterosexuality – since this is what interests us at the moment – and violence? The answer from Girard’s so-called “mimetic theory” is quite obvious: women are often objects of “mimetic desire”, and this desire leads to “mimetic rivalry” or violence.

Mimetic or imitative desire emerges when two or more individuals more or less unwittingly take each other as a model for their own desire. Imitating someone else in desiring a certain object always complicates my relationship with the other. Taking the other as a model for my desire also means that he becomes an obstacle in the pursuit for the object we simultaneously desire. In this way the other appears as someone I admire (whereby I take him as a model), while at the same time he appears as someone I envy (as he becomes an obstacle who tries to posses what I consider rightfully mine). The other, in short, becomes my partner in a mutual love/hate relationship. Since he possesses a similar capacity for imitation, the other will in turn take me as a model, thereby reinforcing his own desire. This process makes me, again, an obstacle for him – his “double” – and this dynamic indeed all too often ends up in an inextricable “mimetic rivalry” (a rivalry based on imitation). And indeed: a classic, archetypal example of this kind of competition is the rivalry between two (or more) men desiring the same woman.

Mimetic rivals remain blind for their interdependency. They are both convinced of the “originality” of their own desire and perceive the other as wrongfully laying claim to something that’s not his or hers. In the end it’s not about obtaining certain objects anymore, but about obtaining a kind of prestige, image or status. More specifically, both rivals desire the other to acknowledge them as autonomously desiring individuals. However, the more they desire to convince themselves and the other of their own glamorous autonomy, the more this desire is mutually imitated and the more this autonomy remains an object(ive) that is not obtained – and so remains desired. Mimesis or imitation stays the hidden source of a tragic competition wherein rivals more and more become each other’s equals as they try to distinguish themselves from each other. Mimesis stays the hidden source of an ever increasing desire for “uniqueness” and “independency”, and an ever increasing failure of reaching these goals.

So what did ancient men do, men who had to fear the competition and violence of fellow men – a violence which could destroy the stability and eventual survival of their community? What did they do to enforce and secure their own status and prestige? Well, apparently they set up different systems of taboos, rituals, plays and games to prevent mimetic competitive tendencies from becoming destructive to community life. But in coping with violence associated with heterosexuality, men failed to take into account their own share and responsibility in that violence, unable to fully acknowledge the mimetic nature of their desires. Instead, women had to take responsibility for the behavior of men: in one culture they had to wear a veil in public “to protect the honor of their husband”, while in another they had to act as mesmerizing and beautiful temptresses – trophies to show off a man’s success and status. Female sexuality was regulated to fulfill men’s expectations and to keep them from fighting each other: prostitutes were considered no one man and every man’s possession – often hailed, in the case of temple prostitution, as allowing the potentially violent nature of “sacred” sexuality in a beneficiary way, while in other cultural contexts also despised as a kind of “necessary evil”.

But enough with this past tense! If one thing becomes clear from the above mentioned examples of certain tendencies in today’s hip-hop culture, Sofie Peeters’ Femme de la Rue, the “gang rape” case of Sarah Tobias, and Sharia4Belgium’s reaction against Peeters, it’s this: we, men, still very often fail to realize how we turn women into scapegoats – victims accused of things they’re not (or certainly not fully – where’s the adulterous husband while adulterous women are stoned to death?) responsible for.

Girard’s mimetic theory explains how sexist tendencies originate in men’s inability to locate the real source of instability and violence in the context of heterosexuality. Instead of acknowledging that anger and rivalry emerge because of the mimetic nature of their desire, men mistakenly locate the source of their anger and rivalry in the object of their desire: the woman. She thus has to pay the price to fulfill men’s lust for status, honor, power and prestige. From the sexist point of view, women are to be respected if they “honor” men’s status, and only then! A sexist man’s love for status is worth more to him than the love for the well-being and happiness of his closest “other” and neighbor – his wife. That’s why a sexist man can be called idolatrous: kneeling to the “divine” image he has created of himself, while failing to love the “other” who does not necessarily answer his needs (which precisely makes the other “other”).


In my book Vrouwen, Jezus en rock-‘n-roll (Altiora Averbode, 2009) – “Women, Jesus and rock ‘n’ roll” , I suggested a feminist reading of the story of the Fall in Genesis. Like Pandora in Greek mythology, Eve is portrayed as being mainly responsible for the evils humankind has to suffer. So the sexist element is clearly present in the Hebrew Bible as well. No doubt about that. It’s no wonder that Michelangelo (1475-1564) even depicted the seductive and “dangerous” serpent as a woman in his paintings at the Sistine Chappell. Eve is an “Eve of destruction”.

A more contextual reading, however, delivers different results. In short, Eve is not condemned because she is a woman, but because she is unable to resist a destructive kind of envy (or, more generally, “mimetic desire”). Consider this analogy with a story a few chapters further on in the book of Genesis: Cain is not condemned because he is the oldest of two sons, but because he is unable to resist a destructive kind of jealousy – he kills his brother Abel.

So amidst sexist tendencies there are also texts in the Bible which criticize the mechanisms that turn women into scapegoats. I tried to make this clear in a further contextual reading of the Song of Songs, taking the story of Jesus’ forgiveness of an adulterous woman in John 8:1-11 and his consideration of prostitutes in Matthew 21:28-32 as interpretive keys. But it would go too far to explain this here. Suffice to say that some important biblical texts are surprisingly subversive – “rock ‘n’ roll” indeed – towards the mechanisms that turn women into scapegoats.

This is in line with Girard’s claim that the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament gradually attack the core of scapegoat mechanisms as the cornerstones of human relationships. Christ, in entering that core by offering to become the forgiving substitute victim of all scapegoats, transforms human relationships from within in a way that no other human being seems to have done. But to grasp this more fully I advise the reader to delve into the work of James Alison.

Anyway, Christ – as others have done – challenges us to build our relationships on “love for our neighbor” instead of on “love for our status or our prestige”. So if a woman wears a veil, the question should not be whether and on what grounds she is obligated to wear a veil. The question should be what motivates her to wear a veil: is it fear of losing her status in the eyes of her husband and other men if she doesn’t, or is it a freely chosen way of expressing the unique type of love she feels for her husband? In the latter case, she won’t be offended or feel threatened if other women don’t follow her example. Because she has freely chosen to wear a veil, she will not be jealous or resentful towards women without a veil. If, on the other hand, she chooses to wear a veil out of fear, she might develop resentment towards women who seem to “get away” with not wearing a veil. The only thing she can do then is to convince herself that her masochistic and “heroic” self-sacrifice is a way to attain a “sacred” (or “holy”) status – which is a way of self-glorification by submitting to a supposedly admirable (self-) image or idol. This kind of perverse, masochistic and often violent martyrdom is all too familiar. Which brings me to the heart of modern fundamentalism and its continuation of sexist tendencies.


In his book, Religion Explained – The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (Basic Books, New York, 2001), French anthropologist Pascal Boyer explains how fundamentalist religious communities have the tendency to “check for cheaters or defectors” as a means to (re)structure themselves and strengthen their coalitions. The public and “spectacular” punishment of defectors – i.e. individuals who are perceived as being not loyal or a threat to a community’s traditionally informed identity –, is a powerful signal to discourage further infidelity, especially in times of crisis.

Guomundur Ingi Markusson pointed out some very interesting connections between Boyer’s evolutionary psychology and René Girard’s mimetic theory in an article for Contagion (number 11; Violent Memes and Suspicious Minds: Girard’s Scapegoat Mechanism in the Light of Evolution and Memetics). Markusson rightly quotes the following passage from Boyer’s Religion Explained, wherein Boyer explains how fundamentalism originated as a modern religious phenomenon (more specifically as an attempt to “restructure traditional coalitions” in the face of secular society’s indifference towards religious demands that are considered necessary) – p. 294:

The message from the modern world is not just that other ways of living are possible, that some people may not believe, or believe differently, or feel unconstrained by religious morality, or (in the case of women) make their own decisions without male supervision. The message is also that people can do that without paying a heavy price. Nonbelievers or believers in another faith are not ostracized; those who break free of religious morality, as long as they abide by the laws, still have a normal social position; and women who dispense with male chaperons do not visibly suffer as a consequence. This “message” may seem so obvious to us that we fail to realize how seriously it threatens social interaction that is based on coalitional thinking. Seen from the point of view of a religious coalition, the fact that many choices can be made in modern conditions without paying a heavy price means that defection is not costly and is therefore very likely.

So, also in the case of modern fundamentalism, independent women not only pose a challenge to male dominance, authority and self-esteem, but also to the very basis of community life and cultural identity. That’s why the fundamentalist reflex consists in treating sexually independent women as “whores”. They are allowed to carry out a relative independency only if they are willing to pay the price of being “public property” – belonging to no one man and to all men. Because of their outspoken indifference towards cultural taboos and ritualistic arrangements (such as marriage), these women are “defectors”. They are perceived as suspicious threats to “the normal state of affairs”, and shouldn’t go totally “unpunished”.  They could receive some form of respect if they played along with male expectations, but, as I mentioned earlier, they are easily victimized in times of crisis. Even if they have nothing to do with the crisis itself. In this sense we could compare these women with ancient Greek pharmakoi – scapegoat victims that were sacrificed in times of social turmoil or ecological disasters.


A famous example of a (seemingly) sexually independent and seductive woman who was sacrificed in uncertain times is Dutch-born beauty Mata Hari (1876-1917), an exotic dancer. I’d like to end this post by citing the story of her untimely death, as Jane Billinghurst describes it in the aforementioned book Temptress. Mata Hari wanted to work as a spy for the French during the First World War. Unfortunately for her, things got out of hand. It should be clear, from these and other already mentioned cases, that sexism is not a unique characteristic of a certain type of Islam, or of certain passages in the Bible, or of certain tendencies in African (American) culture, or of white male conservatives. It’s a cross-cultural, all too present reality with a long history in many (often contradictory) guises. Here’s the quote from Billinghurst’s book – p. 88-91:

Mata Hari [eager to earn her reward from the French, working as a spy] set her sights on the conquest of the German envoy in Madrid, Major Arnold von Kalle. The investigative work that led her to him was simple: she looked up his name in the phone book, requested an appointment, and set to work. She coyly described her technique: “I did what a woman does in such circumstances where she wants to make a conquest of a gentleman, and I soon realized that von Kalle was mine.”

Unfortunately for Mata Hari, von Kalle suspected her motives and decided to send messages to Germany about her in a code he knew the Allies had broken. If she was working for the French, these messages would make them believe she was working for him as well. The ploy worked. The French, anxious to crack down on spies to boost morale in their ravaged country, hauled Mata Hari in. The dancer-cum-courtesan-cum-amateur spy could not believe it. She protested vehemently that the only spying she had done had been for France. The French authorities needed a scapegoat, however, and Mata Hari fit the bill perfectly.

Sexy and unnervingly independent, she was definitely the kind of woman it was dangerous to have around. The stage had proved to be a place of liberation for many women in the early twentieth century, but when the war came, actresses and dancers, who often supplemented their incomes as mistresses and courtesans, were looked down on as subversive forces likely to upset the order of the world. Women feted for their performances when all was right with the world were now highly suspect. They not only ignored the rules but were privy to the most intimate thoughts and most unguarded moments of powerful men. If they slept with men for money, these self-centered, subversive creatures were also likely to sleep with them for secrets. The more erotic the woman, the more havoc she could wreak. And Mata Hari, a woman to whom borders meant nothing, was eroticism personified. She had to be stopped.

On 13 February 1917, Mata Hari was arrested on charges of espionage and taken to the Saint-Lazare prison for women. When Mata Hari had choreographed her dance performances, she had skillfully woven into her persona hints of temptresses past, such as the forbidden Oriental delights of Cleopatra. When times were good, such associations had served to heighten her appeal, but in the atmosphere of suspicion and intrigue of the war, associations with the exotic “other” now conjured up images of treachery rather than pleasure. Mata Hari’s dark complexion, which previously had intrigued, now disgusted. Given the kind of woman she was, Lieutenant André Mornet, the prosecuting attorney for the Third Council of War in France, explained why she had to be guilty:

“The Zelle lady appeared to us as one of those international women – the word is her own – who have become so dangerous since the hostilities. The ease with which she expresses herself in several languages, especially French, her numerous relations, her subtle ways, her aplomb, her remarkable intelligence, her immortality, congenital or acquired, all contributed to make her a suspect.”

The media quickly made the connection between Mata Hari and the images of evil women that had been hanging in galleries and fleshed out in literature over the past fifty years just waiting for a moment such as this. She was described as “a sinister Salome, who played with the heads of our soldiers in front of the German Herod.” She was compared to Delilah, another expert in getting men to spill deadly secrets. Her frank sexuality was cited as proof of her capacity for betrayal.

Gustave Steinhauer, a German spymaster, wrote that women became spies because of their lust for excitement Whereas the male spy worked for the good of his country, the female spy was focused on self-gratification. And because of their inherently treacherous natures, women who turned to espionage were “far more cunning, far more adroit… than the most accomplished masculine spy.” A novel based on Mata Hari’s story emphasizes the intense personal satisfaction a woman derives from betrayal when the central character exclaims: “How I would fasten my mouth against their hearts! And I would suck them – I would suck them until there wasn’t a drop of blood left, tossing away their empty carcasses.” Appalled, those responsible for keeping order in times of mass destruction closed ranks against the independent international woman and had her shot.

Mata Hari was a sexual adventuress who had the temerity to assert herself in areas of male privilege. She herself had sketched the details that would ensure her destruction. She had portrayed herself as a woman without borders, a woman with an exotic past who reveled in the delights of sex. As long as peace reigned in Europe, such a woman drew crowds anxious to experience a vicarious thrill. When war broke out, however, men knew from all they had read and heard that a woman of Mata Hari’s type was deadly.

The French prosecutors in Mata Hari’s case rushed through the formalities to ensure that justice was done. The jury was swept along on the coattails of their conviction, even though, as the prosecutors later admitted, there was not enough evidence against Mata Hari “to whip a cat.” The temptress mantle she had draped so coquettishly around her shoulders proved to be too effective a costume. The French firing squad believed it was doing its God-given duty when it reduced this vital and proud woman, who had brought so much pleasure to so many men, to nothing more than a “crumpled heap of petticoats,” stripped of all their menacing power.

The storytellers warn that when men are enraptured by women such as Salome and Delilah, they make wild promises and whisper secrets that contain the seeds of their undoing. Subversive temptresses of this ilk are so firmly entrenched in the collective male imagination that the image is easily transferred to real-life women who may – or may not – harbor the destructive, chaotic tendencies men are so quick to ascribe to them. An unfortunate few, like Mata Hari, find that the wave of male desires that sweeps them to success when the future looks bright turns into an undertow of male suspicion that drags them down when the tide turns.

The common view in Antiquity on people who fell victim to sickness, suffering and “bad fortune” was that “they had it coming” because of certain transgressions they (or their ancestors) committed against the sacred order of things. In other words, because of sin. It is clear, for instance, that Job’s friends and relatives follow this logic in the Old Testament book of Job. They keep on suggesting that Job somehow deserves the suffering he has to endure. Jesus radically challenges this way of thinking. A prime example of this can be found in John 9:1-12, the story of Jesus healing a young man who had been blind from birth. Given the common understanding of sickness in their pre-modern society, it comes as no surprise that the disciples of Jesus pose the following question:

His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2)

The answer of Jesus must have come as a complete and shocking surprise:

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3)

This story reveals some important aspects of Jesus’ understanding of God and man. Apparently, according to Jesus, God blesses those who are sick, those who suffer – in short: the victims. Not because they are victims per se, but because they are in fact fellow human beings and their suffering is regarded as unjust. This belief in a God who regards victims as human beings who suffer unjustly is exemplified by the healing activity of Jesus, which consists in opening up the possibility for these victims to become part of the (human) community again. Since Jesus reverses the idea that victims are condemned (or “chosen”) by some divine command to suffer, but insists that God actually blesses and “chooses” them as human beings, he takes away the reasons for their marginalization, or persecution and expulsion. Moreover, he takes away, at the same time, the traditional means by which communities structure themselves, and challenges them to include those they experience as a threat, a disgrace or even as an enemy.

As the story turns out, the blind man saw something that the people of his community and Jesus’ disciples remained blind to. Jesus paradoxically accomplishes that the actual sinfulness is no longer located in the blind man, but rather in what had been the (rather unwitting) complicity of the individual members of an entire community to take part in mechanisms of expulsion.

Ever since the traditions of the Gospel spread in western culture, being a victim was gradually no longer experienced as an inevitable and sacred “state of affairs”, nor as a disgrace or something to be ashamed of. Western civilizations developed a growing active and moral concern for victims in the course of their history. Sadly, however, the search for victims all too often became a perversion of Christ’s healing activity. Sometimes we use the claim of being a victim to victimize others and to perpetuate mechanisms of exclusion. Not surprisingly, René Girard and Gil Bailie have some very insightful thoughts on the matter.

René Girard in Evolution and Conversion – Dialogues on the Origins of Culture, Continuum, London, New York, 2007, p. 236:

“We have experienced various forms of totalitarianism that openly denied Christian principles. There has been the totalitarianism of the Left, which tried to outflank Christianity; and there has been totalitarianism of the Right, like Nazism, which found Christianity too soft on victims. This kind of totalitarianism is not only alive but it also has a great future. There will probably be some thinkers in the future who will reformulate this principle in a politically correct fashion, in more virulent forms, which will be more anti-Christian, albeit in an ultra-Christian caricature. When I say more Christian and more anti-Christian, I imply the figure of the Anti-Christ. The Anti-Christ is nothing but that: it is the ideology that attempts to outchristianize Christianity, that imitates Christianity in a spirit of rivalry.


You can foresee the shape of what the Anti-Christ is going to be in the future: a super-victimary machine that will keep on sacrificing in the name of the victim.”

Gil Bailie in Violence Unveiled – Humanity at the Crossroads, The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 1995, p. 20:

“There’s plenty of truth in the revised picture of Western history that the young are now routinely taught, the picture of the West’s swashbuckling appetite for power, wealth, and dominion. What’s to be noted is that it is we, and not our cultural adversaries, who are teaching it to them. It is we, the spiritual beneficiaries of that less than always edifying history, who automatically empathize more with our ancestors’ victims than with our ancestors themselves. If we are tempted to think that this amazing shift is the product of our own moral achievement, all we have to do is look around at how shamelessly we exploit it for a little power, wealth, and dominion of our own.

The fact is that the concern for victims has gradually become the principal gyroscope in the Western world. Even the most vicious campaigns of victimization – including, astonishingly, even Hitler’s – have found it necessary to base their assertion of moral legitimacy on the claim that their goal was the protection or vindication of victims. However savagely we behave, and however wickedly and selectively we wield this moral gavel, protecting or rescuing innocent victims has become the cultural imperative everywhere the biblical influence has been felt.”

Just a few days ago I came across an example of this dynamic, i.e. the dynamic of proclaiming oneself as a victim and of having certain rights to persecute “evil others” because of it. Extreme right wing and nationalist parties, among others, often use the tactic of presenting themselves and their followers as victims to make certain political and social claims. In Belgium and in the Netherlands this is called the “Calimero-complex”. The cartoon character Calimero is a hapless chick, fresh out of the egg, whose famous line is: “This is not  fair; they are big and I am small.” Hence the “Calimero-complex” is used to denote persons who think the world is against them, and who revel in an underdog role.

So, what happened? Well, a few days ago I visited some friends in Antwerp, one of the big cities in Belgium, in Flanders. That’s where I saw this poster of the extreme right wing and Flemish nationalist party “Vlaams Belang” (“Flemish Interest”). It portrayed a caricature of “Lamb of God”, the beautiful 15th century painting by the Van Eyck brothers (conserved at Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent). The lamb was depicted in a black color, instead of white, thereby reinforcing the stereotypical connotation that “blacks are bad”. The poster was accompanied with slogans to warn certain people to “stay away from our country”, namely “impostors [abusing the system to seek asylum], illegal immigrants, Islamists, criminal foreigners”. The poster suggests that the people mentioned defile our cultural identity and heritage, and that they are no innocent lambs or wrongfully accused scapegoats.

Filip Dewinter, leading figure of Vlaams Belang, claims that the posters were in no way issued by his party and is filing a complaint. According to him, the unknowns who did issue the poster are trying to blackguard his party, presenting illegal immigrants and others as people who are targeted as “black sheep” by Vlaams Belang. Filip Dewinter suggests that his party falls victim to a campaign that reverses what is actually happening. According to him, Vlaams Belang indeed has every right, even a duty, to defend the country against illegal immigrants and the like, and these people shouldn’t be depicted as “black sheep” or victims.

I guess the real victims of these quarrels stay out of sight. The ones who have to flee their home-country, who have no real options, but are labeled as “illegal immigrants” all the same. Just the beginning of this month, Parwais Sangari, a young promising Afghan and in no way a criminal, had to leave our country to return to Kabul – you know, the place where you wouldn’t send your children on a holiday these days… Twenty year old Sangari had foster parents here. Nevertheless he was sent away to walk around aimlessly, without any real home, in the Afghan capital – after four years in Belgium.

Still there’s hope. As it turns out, we’re not completely blinded by “the atmosphere of fear” we’re creating in our politics. Some people have started campaigns in favor of people like Sangari, demanding to reconsider our general asylum and migration policies.

How blinded are we? Are we capable of noticing the Victim? Can we stand the light that shines in our darkness? Can we allow ourselves to be blinded by its splendor, to see with new eyes and new hearts?

[on two types of “rewards” – goals or consequences of one’s actions? – and the implications for human interactions]

“If there is no God, everything is permitted…”

This is basically the challenging idea of Ivan Karamazov, one of the main characters in The Brothers Karamazov, the famous novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881). Could this be true in any way?

At the beginning of a new year, I always ask my students the following questions:

Suppose there is no principal’s office, suppose you could never be punished for any of your actions – would you still respect your fellow students and your teacher?

Suppose there are no grades to win, and you didn’t receive any reward for studying your courses and reading your books – would you still listen to your teachers and study?

What would you do if you are not watched, if you live outside “the empire of the watchmen”?

Consider Matthew 6:1-2 & 6:5: Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. […] So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. […] And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.

To put things slightly differently:

Suppose there is no hell, no punishment in any way, would you still respect your fellow man?

Suppose there is no heaven, no reward in any way, would you still respect your fellow man?

Actually, this is the kind of challenge Christianity puts us to. Christ teaches us that there isn’t something like a heaven as an established “world” for which we should bring all kinds of sacrifices in order to obtain it. As if heaven would be the ultimate goal and justification of our existence. That’s exactly like the reasoning of a student who is prepared to work hard at his courses and to obey his teachers, not because he’s intrinsically interested in his courses or respectful of his teachers, but because he considers getting good grades as his ticket to success, power and happiness – “paradise”.

Christ subverts this sacrificial logic. Rather than being an ultimate goal that justifies, explains and gives meaning to our life, “heaven” is the potential consequence of our actions. By taking up responsibility for ourselves and one another, by loving our neighbor (which is “the righteousness of God’s Kingdom”), we co-create “heaven”. To use the student-analogy again: the student who learns to be genuinely interested in his courses will get good grades as a logical consequence of his love for studying. And he will have learned something!

Consider Matthew 6:25-34: Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

On the other hand, those students who are focused only on getting good grades and who fear failure will tend to forget what they have learned from the moment they have their grades and no longer “need” the information from their courses. Or they will stop being friendly to their former teachers once they have graduated.

In short, Christ doesn’t want us to respect our neighbor because we fear hellish punishment or long for some heavenly reward. He wants us to respect our neighbor because of our neighbor. He liberates us from a system of fear and anxiety based on punishments and rewards, creates the possibility of responsibility (because only a free man can be responsible) and genuine love – without ulterior motives -, and transforms the nature of sacrifice. In Christ’s view, sacrifice is not a gift to receive something from someone you need, nor is it a necessary obligation to protect some kind of “honor gone mad” (see the tragedy of Japanese kamikaze pilots during the Second World War),  but it is a gift from people who are thankful for what they already received by living up to the possibilities of their freedom.

Consider Matthew 5:23-24: So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Of course, there’s a dark side as well to this liberation. Let’s go to the classroom once more. If a teacher tells his students that he will not punish them or, on the other hand, reward them with good grades, there are two possibilities: there will either be an atmosphere of cooperation guided by a genuine motivation to study, or… total mayhem – “hell”!

In Battling to the End, a book in which René Girard reconsiders the treatise On War by Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), the apocalyptic dimensions of Christ’s teachings are related to Christ’s deconstruction of “the god(s) of sacrifice” and of sacrificial systems in general. Girard makes clear that the biblical revelation indeed has two possible outcomes: either a world of ever more rivalry and violence, or a world of ever more Love.

Reading Battling to the End a while ago, I couldn’t stop thinking about two stories in the shadow of a potential apocalypse: Empire of the Sun and Watchmen. In both these stories further mayhem and violence is avoided – at least for the time being – by the restoration of a sacrificial system of fear. Empire of the Sun reminds us how the Second World War came to an end in Japan: by sacrificing tens of thousands of innocent people, victims of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Watchmen also displays this kind of sacrificial logic. In the fictional story of this graphic novel, the tensions between the US and the USSR during the Cold War are released after an alleged nuclear attack from outer space. Once again the death of millions of civilians provides a “peaceful world”, some sort of “paradise” – however precarious.

In Empire of the Sun, the way the Second World War unfolds in the Far East creates the setting for a boy’s coming of age story. Empire of the Sun actually is an autobiographical novel by J.G. Ballard, and tells the story of an aristocratic British boy, James (“Jim”) Graham. In 1987, Steven Spielberg made a film based on Ballard’s novel, with a young and astonishing Christian Bale taking the lead role. In the film, Jim’s privileged life is upturned by the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, December 8, 1941. Separated from his parents, he is eventually captured, and taken to Soo Chow confinement camp, next to a former Chinese airfield. Amidst the sickness and food shortages in the camp, Jim manages to survive and becomes a token of spirit and dignity to those around him, all the while hoping to get back “home” again. Jim eventually finds comfort in the arms of his mother, after losing his Japanese kamikaze-friend among many others… The scene of Jim reunited with his mother sheds a little light of hope in a world which seems condemned to the sacrificial peace of the atomic bomb – and a seemingly never ending story of fear and worries, with no peace of mind…

I made a compilation using scenes from both Empire of the Sun and Zack Snyder’s 2009 movie adaptation of the graphic novel Watchmen. The two stories raise powerful questions regarding humanity’s possibility to cope with freedom and responsibility. I think they’re opening up a lot of issues that are also discussed at the COV&R Conference in Tokyo, Japan (July 5-8, 2012). As Jim learns towards the end of the film: there are no clear-cut, magical solutions to overcome the devastations of a world at war… But to follow Christ’s footsteps, one step at a time, might take us to unexpected and new dimensions. Watch out!


(this essay already appeared at The Raven Foundation and the Dutch Girard Society)



“It seems profoundly damaging to the dignity of the human being, and for this reason morally illicit, to support a prevention of AIDS that is based on a recourse to means and remedies that violate an authentically human sense of sexuality, and which are a palliative to the deeper suffering which involve the responsibility of individuals and of society.” (John Paul II, November 15, 1989 – addressing the 4th International Conference of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Health Care Workers).


The United Nations’ (UN) World AIDS Day is held on December 1 each year to honor the victims of the AIDS pandemic and focus attention on the prevention and treatment of HIV and AIDS related conditions. The Catholic Church is often depicted as an obstacle in the struggle against this terrifying disease. In reality, however, the Church’s assessment of the pandemic makes more sense than we might expect. The Christian season of Advent seems a suitable time to reflect on these issues a little more, especially one week after World Aids Day. Those familiar with mimetic theory will once again notice how the insights of René Girard shine through, and how MT once again proves to be a poignant framework for analysing our ongoing ‘human affairs’.


Edward C. Green (senior research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health) and Michael Cook (editor of BioEdge and MercatorNet) both wrote interesting articles on the massive problem of HIV and AIDS in Africa, questioning the assumption of some media that the Catholic Church and John Paul II in particular are responsible for millions of African AIDS victims. Cook’s article is aptly entitled In search of a scapegoat. He asks whether John Paul II was indeed the greatest mass murderer of the 20th century. To answer this question, he presents some data which ought to make us westerners reflect on the way we usually construct our perception of different African problems.

Recent empirical evidence seems to support the Church’s claim that the problem of AIDS in Africa won’t be solved by a one-sided promotion of condom-use. Edward C. Green’s contribution in the Washington Post (March 29, 2009), Condoms, HIV-AIDS and Africa – The Pope Was Right, points to a very paternalistic, even patronizing tendency in the way we present solutions to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa. We all too often seem to project the social context wherein we make use of condoms, onto radically different African situations. In the words of Green: “The condom has become a symbol of freedom and – along with contraception – female emancipation, so those who question condom orthodoxy are accused of being against these causes.” The reality, of course, is that the use of condoms in Africa – and the Third World in general – is often promoted to protect more or less suppressed young women and sex workers against imprudent and excessive sexual demands. This reality itself often remains ‘untouched’ by the promotion of condom-use. Green again, from the same article: “… liberals and conservatives agree that condoms cannot address challenges that remain critical in Africa such as cross-generational sex, gender inequality and an end to domestic violence, rape and sexual coercion.”

So, instead of becoming a symbol of emancipation and freedom, the condom in the Third World seems well on its way to transform into a fig leaf behind which systems of social inequality are hidden. In some instances, the success of condom-use suggests a relapse in the urgency to fundamentally tackle social issues. The promotion of condom-use to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic did work in some Asian countries. However, perhaps not surprisingly, this happened in the context of an exploitative sex-industry, which is supported in large by western sex tourists and (therefore?) remains insufficiently criticized. Green, once more: “Let me quickly add that condom promotion has worked in countries such as Thailand and Cambodia, where most HIV is transmitted through commercial sex and where it has been possible to enforce a 100 percent condom use policy in brothels (but not outside of them).”

Should this kind of ‘success’ become the example of how to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa? Apart from revealing some sort of perverse cynicism towards the abilities of developing countries to really take matters into their own hands and change the ways of their ‘corrupted worlds’ (and the West’s share in that corruption), this idea of ‘choosing the lesser evil’ is doomed to fail in African countries, as is shown by recent history. Edward C. Green points out two important reasons for this failure: “One reason is ‘risk compensation.’ That is, when people think they’re made safe by using condoms at least some of the time, they actually engage in riskier sex. Another factor is that people seldom use condoms in steady relationships because doing so would imply a lack of trust. (And if condom use rates go up, it’s possible we are seeing an increase of casual or commercial sex.) However, it’s those ongoing relationships that drive Africa’s worst epidemics. In these, most HIV infections are found in general populations, not in high-risk groups such as sex workers, gay men or persons who inject drugs. And in significant proportions of African populations, people have two or more regular sex partners who overlap in time. In Botswana, which has one of the world’s highest HIV rates, 43 percent of men and 17 percent of women surveyed had two or more regular sex partners in the previous year. These ongoing multiple concurrent sex partnerships resemble a giant, invisible web of relationships through which HIV/AIDS spreads. A study in Malawi showed that even though the average number of sexual partners was only slightly over two, fully two-thirds of this population was interconnected through such networks of overlapping, ongoing relationships.”

To put it more bluntly, in developing countries condoms seem consistently used by professional (often exploited) sex workers, but fail to have any lasting impact on people’s promiscuous behavior outside the context of commercial sex. It is noteworthy that in both instances the use of condoms doesn’t affect the way in which people, especially women, are treated. Michael Cook remains ‘grounded’ as he refers to the seemingly far more fundamental social causes of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa: “The… assumption is that condoms are essential for preventing AIDS in Africa. In the words of researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, ‘The condom is a life-saving device: it is highly effective in preventing HIV transmission if used correctly and consistently, and is the best current method of HIV prevention for those who are sexually active and at risk’. However, notice that this dogma is limited by two significant qualifications: ‘if used correctly and consistently’. How often can we expect this to happen in southern Africa? If the experts haven’t been able to end AIDS in San Francisco and Sydney by promoting condoms, what makes them think that they will succeed in Africa? […] In the chaotic social environment of many African countries, where poverty is endemic, women are regularly abused and polygamy is widespread, men are unlikely to use condoms consistently. As President Museveni of Uganda has observed, ‘In countries like ours, where a mother often has to walk 20 miles to get an aspirin for her sick child or five miles to get any water at all, the question of getting a constant supply of condoms may never be resolved’. A recent study of condom use in the developing world in the journal Studies in Family Planning summed up the situation with these damning words: ‘no clear examples have emerged yet of a country that has turned back a generalised epidemic primarily by means of condom promotion’. This is most clearly seen in southern Africa. High HIV transmission rates have continued despite high rates of condom use. In Botswana, says Professor Norman Hearst, of the University of California at San Francisco, condom sales rose from one million in 1993 to 3 million in 2001 while HIV prevalence amongst urban pregnant women rose from 27 per cent to 45 percent. In Cameroon condom sales rose from 6 million to 15 million while HIV prevalence rose from 3 per cent to 9 per cent.”


The Church, and John Paul II in particular, has always – consistently and stubbornly – focused on the social realities behind the problem of HIV/AIDS in Africa. That’s why, besides also sometimes distributing condoms as a ‘last resort’, Catholic field workers keep on engaging in educational programs to empower women and to humanize sexual relationships. Michael Cook: “About 27 per cent of health care for HIV/AIDS victims is provided by Church organisations and Catholic NGOs… They form a vast network of clinics which reach the poorest, most remote and most neglected people in Africa.” More and more, and contrary to popular opinion in the so-called First World, the assumptions and strategies of these Church organizations are – though somewhat stealthily – adopted by experts, especially following some recent studies concerning the effectiveness of condom-use promotion. Edward C. Green: “In 2003, Norman Hearst and Sanny Chen of the University of California conducted a condom effectiveness study for the United Nations’ AIDS program and found no evidence of condoms working as a primary HIV-prevention measure in Africa. UNAIDS quietly disowned the study. (The authors eventually managed to publish their findings in the quarterly Studies in Family Planning.) Since then, major articles in other peer-reviewed journals such as the Lancet, Science and BMJ have confirmed that condoms have not worked as a primary intervention in the population-wide epidemics of Africa. In a 2008 article in Science called ‘Reassessing HIV Prevention’ 10 AIDS experts concluded that ‘consistent condom use has not reached a sufficiently high level, even after many years of widespread and often aggressive promotion, to produce a measurable slowing of new infections in the generalized epidemics of Sub-Saharan Africa.'”

We should carefully pay attention to what’s actually being said here. Condom-use is not condemned, it’s just presented – in accordance to ‘the facts on the ground’ – as not being the real and morally desirable solution to the problem of HIV/AIDS in Africa. At the end of his article, Green once again stresses what experts nowadays perceive as ‘the first priority’ to assess the epidemic – and indeed seems to show that ‘The Pope Was Right’: “Don’t misunderstand me; I am not anti-condom. All people should have full access to condoms, and condoms should always be a backup strategy for those who will not or cannot remain in a mutually faithful relationship. This was a key point in a 2004 ‘consensus statement’ published and endorsed by some 150 global AIDS experts, including representatives of the United Nations, World Health Organization and World Bank. These experts also affirmed that for sexually active adults, the first priority should be to promote mutual fidelity.”

In a 2010 interview with German journalist Peter Seewald, pope Benedict XVI responded to the statement that “It is madness to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms” by the following reflection (which is very much in line with the recent conclusions of experts in the field): “There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality. [The Church] of course does not regard [the use of condoms] as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”

The promotion of relationships based on mutual respect and, if possible, mutual fidelity, indeed has proven to be more effective than a one-sided promotion of condoms without addressing social issues. This is shown by the example of Uganda. Edward C. Green: “So what has worked in Africa? Strategies that break up… multiple and concurrent sexual networks – or, in plain language, faithful mutual monogamy or at least reduction in numbers of partners, especially concurrent ones. ‘Closed’ or faithful polygamy can work as well. In Uganda’s early, largely home-grown AIDS program, which began in 1986, the focus was on ‘Sticking to One Partner’ or ‘Zero Grazing’ (which meant remaining faithful within a polygamous marriage) and ‘Loving Faithfully.’ These simple messages worked. More recently, the two countries with the highest HIV infection rates, Swaziland and Botswana, have both launched campaigns that discourage people from having multiple and concurrent sexual partners.” Michael Cook, on the same example of Uganda, which deserves to be imitated and improved upon: “In fact, the history of AIDS in Uganda supports the Church’s belief that abstinence and fidelity within marriage are actually the best ways to fight AIDS. In 1991, the infection rate in Uganda was 21 per cent. Now, after years of a simple, low-cost program called ABC, it has dropped to about 6 per cent. ABC stands for Abstain, Be faithful, or use Condoms if A and B are not practiced. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni preaches the ABC of AIDS with the fervour of an evangelist. ‘I am not in favour of condoms in primary and even secondary schools… Let condoms be a last resort,’ he said recently at an international AIDS conference in his capital, Kampala. ‘I have grown-up children and my policy was to frighten them out of undisciplined sex. I started talking to them from the age of 13, telling them to concentrate on their studies, that the time would come for sex’. Ms Toynbee contended in [a] diatribe in the Guardian that ‘abstinence and celibacy are not the human condition’. But Museveni – no innocent about the human condition – thinks that they are. ‘We made it our highest priority to convince our people to return to their traditional values of chastity and faithfulness or, failing that, to use condoms,’ he told American pharmaceutical executives a couple of years ago. ‘The alternative was decimation’.”


Considering all these facts, I cannot escape the impression that the outrage of our western mass media over the millions of AIDS victims in Africa, is often but a pretext to scorn the Catholic Church. It has become one more outlet for the hollow and howling crowds of ‘Pharisees’ in the West who vainly try to boast of some moral superiority. In other words, some media exploit the way in which the Church addresses the HIV/AIDS epidemic (especially in Africa) to serve their own ends, adding absolutely nothing to the solution of this scourge (as John Paul II called it). Moreover, these media actually keep on perceiving African people in a patronizing way. Africans are – at least implicitly – said to be incapable of educating themselves and to be highly dependent of our western ways of life as models we present them to live by. In a sense, popular opinion in the West concerning Africa only mimics a spirit of earlier ‘Catholic’ colonialism it desperately seeks to differ itself from.

We often fail to raise the question whether our ways of life are actually worth imitating, and at the same time we exaggerate our (and, for that matter, the pope’s) influence on the minds and the behavior of ‘the African people’. Michael Cook reveals the underlying paternalism, simplistic reasoning and contradictions in the way some of our media abuse the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa to demonize the late John Paul II and the Catholic Church in general: “… there is something absurdly medieval about making the Pope a scapegoat, as if the clouds would break and the sun shine if we thrust enough pins through a JP2 voodoo doll. Pinning the blame for the tragedy of African AIDS on one man is one of those ideas that are, in the words of George Orwell, ‘so stupid that only intellectuals could believe them.’ Two such ideas run through all these criticisms. The first is basically this: African Catholics are so devout that if they have sex outside of marriage, dally with prostitutes or take a third wife, they will piously refrain from using condoms because the Great White Father told them not to. Ms Toynbee [in an already mentioned article in the Guardian] darkly invokes ‘the Vatican’s deeper power… its personal authority over 1.3 billion worshippers, which is strongest over the poorest, most helpless devotees.’ But she can’t have it both ways: these benighted dark-skinned Catholics can’t be both too goody-two-shoes to use condoms and too wicked to resist temptation. Journalist Brendan O’Neill – who describes himself as an ex-Catholic who has jettisoned Catholic teaching on sexual morality – sums up this patronising argument in the on-line journal Spiked: ‘The only reason you could believe the fantastically simplistic idea that Vatican edict = AIDS in Africa is if you consider Africans to be little more than automatons… who do as they are told’. Superimposing maps of prevalence of AIDS on prevalence of Catholicism is enough to sink the link between the Catholic Church and AIDS. In the hospice which is Swaziland nowadays, only about 5 per cent of the population is Catholic. In Botswana, where 37 per cent of the adult population is HIV infected, only 4 per cent of the population is Catholic. In South Africa, 22 per cent of the population is HIV infected, and only 6 per cent is Catholic. But in Uganda, with 43 per cent of the population Catholic, the proportion of HIV infected adults is 4 per cent.”


We should learn from what happens in Uganda. We should be aware of the precarious and fragile situation countries like these find themselves in. But we should also be aware of the living hope in the hearts of their inhabitants. What message are we directing to the world if we convince ourselves that we ‘should be realistic’, and that the promotion of condom-use is often but the only thing we can do to ‘educate’ the ‘socially deprived’? Are we, once again, promoting our own ‘freedom’ at the cost of impoverished sex workers – victims we can exploit to answer the demands for a despicable kind of ‘tourism’? Who are we to impose our (self-)destructive ways?

What message are we directing to the world if we convince ourselves – looking at the misery of millions around the globe from our cosy and luxurious homes – that ‘there are lots of worse things than never being born’? Are we actually implying that we ‘need’ the suffering of the world to make death a hero?! A world wherein death is welcomed as a ‘hero’ is a morally perverse world. Throughout history human beings have found the strength to transform the struggle for survival into a token of life and dignity, refusing to slavishly undergo the whims of fate. The Hebrew Bible is one of those testimonies of hope against despair, of dignity in the midst of suffering, of life against death, written by a people of ‘losers’ or ‘victims’. Maybe its message will never be fully understood by the so-called influential and powerful – they might abuse it to suppress others even more – , while it is being lived by the so-called fragile and powerless people…

The ‘First World’ is experiencing a deep crisis, hiding its spiritual wasteland behind an unavoidable economic depression of a materialist, empty and self-consuming culture of death. It’s in this world, our world, that the AIDS orphan is born. This child seems to have ‘no home’, but his coming is the real, often uninvited and unaccepted ‘Advent’ and Promise of Life, despite everything. For God’s sake, who could not notice his splendor, glory and might? His birth is a reminder that our world can be healed, as he blesses our sick cynicism before we even realize we threaten to contaminate the physically sick and dying with our messages of desperation. For, unto us a Child is born… and maybe, in order to receive Him properly, we should alter ‘the world we created…’


My usually sedate hometown was startled last week by the discovery of a ‘celebrity sex tape’: our female mayor allegedly had been secretly videotaped by some Polish tourists during a vacation in Spain four years ago. She was caught having sex with her then boyfriend, in a public area, more specifically on a tower. The passersby filmed from a distance, zooming in on the two lovebirds. Although there is no nudity involved, every adult can suspect the couple is doing something more than merely enjoying the view from a high building. All the ingredients were there for a typical tabloid character assassination.

The tape already circulated on the internet, but only last week some people from our small city stumbled upon it. What was to be expected, happened: immediately our mayor became the laughing stock of specially created Facebook groups, she got a new, not really flattering nickname, and a carnival song was made about the event. Of course some people, including politicians and some media, demanded her resignation. I was (and actually still am) in doubt about the whole situation. I’ve been asking myself whether the reactions towards our mayor are in proportion to her misbehavior. The bottom line is that she could be charged with public indecency. However, this doesn’t happen. I guess Spain has got more important things to spend its tax money on. Hence people somewhat take the law into their own hands. They take matters ‘to the streets’, the virtual ones of the internet, and the real ones of their hometown – whose carnival festivities are UNESCO World Heritage, and are known for their mockery of all kinds of people, especially of local politicians.

As I tried to make clear in a previous post, carnival festivities have all the features of old rituals which are eventually rooted in scapegoat phenomena. I have some reasons to believe that what happens to our mayor is exactly that: a scapegoat phenomenon. People who use their time and energy to publicly make fun of her, blame their own actions entirely on the way their victim, our mayor, behaved. In other words, they make our mayor a scapegoat, unwittingly transforming themselves into persecutors. They say She had it coming, she asked for it”, while technically, in purely juridical terms, that’s not exactly the case. There is no proof whatsoever that she asked to be videotaped and to be put ‘online’. The passersby are still responsible for their own actions. They were not obliged to film her, as we are not obliged to mock her.

I must admit I find the situation somewhat hilarious myself, but I think we shouldn’t exploit it to the point of ‘public shame’. I can imagine myself, or someone else for that matter, telling some anecdote about an embarrassing moment in my life (at the doctor’s office, anyone?), as I can imagine our mayor joking about something awkward that happened in her life. It all makes a good laugh. But to use the kind of mistake our mayor made to demand someone’s resignation, seems out of proportion to me. Even more so because she is only partly responsible for what happened. She didn’t steal anything, nor committed adultery, nor killed anyone. She was caught in an act many lovers could have been caught in.

There was a time (indeed, “was”) when lovebirds drove to an abandoned public area to make love to each other. It’s one of the more recognizable moments in American Graffiti, a movie by George Lucas. When a couple makes love in a car, near a river, two people pass by, but they leave the couple to itself.

This scene is contrasted by yet another early movie of George Lucas, THX 1138, which seems to be a perfect reflection of our current situation. Like 1984, the famous novel by George Orwell, THX 1138 portrays a future society where people are constantly watched by each other and by cameras. The film shows a totalitarian regime, a world without freedom, where people constantly have to fear their neighbor might give away their ‘mistakes’. In THX 1138, a couple is making love while being watched by a band of ‘Big Brothers’, who eventually convict the couple.

The troubling thing is we don’t need a war to end up in a situation like the one described in George Orwell’s 1984, or portrayed in THX 1138, although the atrocities of war facilitate certain social reflexes. For example, after the second world war people publicly shamed women who were known to have a German, Nazi boyfriend. These women were accused of ‘collaboration’, and since official, legal charges take a lot of time to be followed through, impatient crowds took the matter into their own hands. As said, apparently you don’t need stores of rage and vengefulness, built by a traumatizing war, to seduce people to mock someone. You just need a person who ‘stands out from the crowd’ a bit, a ‘public figure’. A mayor, or some other ‘celebrity’. Kurt Cobain, late front-man of grunge pioneers Nirvana, describes it well when he reflects on how the media constantly try to find sensational stories about him and his lover, Courtney Love: “I think we’re just easy scapegoats… We turn into cartoon characters.” Being an easy scapegoat is one of the burdens of being a celebrity, which allegedly made Kurt Cobain commit suicide at the age of 27. But you don’t have to be a celebrity to be harassed, mocked and bullied. Tyler Clementi, a promising young man, was secretly videotaped by his classmates while having a sexual encounter with another man. The video was posted on the internet, as a ‘joke’. Eventually Tyler jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge, September 22, 2010. He was only eighteen years old.

There’s no place in this world for over-sensitive people. So it seems. To quote Charlie Chaplin from his magnificent speech in his equally magnificent film The Great Dictator: “Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness hard and unkind.” Indeed, we seem to use our knowledge to gain power over others and to “turn them into cartoon characters”. Yet I still believe we have a choice, as ‘free’ individuals, not to give in to processes of victimization and of scapegoating. We can give in to the power of a Love that wants to know the person ‘behind the cartoon’, that is concerned with personalities ‘beyond labels’. To ‘murder’ a person is to ‘steal’ his or her ‘nakedness’, his or her soul… We have a choice not to do that…

Alice Nahon, a Flemish poet from Antwerp, puts it this way (free translation):

“Before you go to sleep,

Look into your own heart,

And ask yourself:

Did I hurt someone’s heart

In the time between dawn and dusk?”


In Dutch:

‘t Is goed in ‘t eigen hert te kijken

Nog even voor het slapen gaan

Of ik van dageraad tot avond

Geen enkel hert heb zeer gedaan.

I’m a weak person and a coward in many ways, and I need this advice every day. I once met a drunk man on a bus who made racist remarks to a black woman. He asked me to hold his bottle of whiskey for him, while he kept harassing the lady. I remember the rage in his eyes, and the way he asked my approval of his behavior. I was too afraid to stand up against what he was doing. I forced myself to laugh. At the next stop, I got off the bus, 4 miles from home (around 6 kilometers), and continued walking. To this day I feel ashamed and sad about what happened then. From this experience I learned that it is necessary to question the deeper motivations of our actions at any time, in order not to commit evil where we see ‘no harm’, and where we think we are entitled to ‘defend ourselves’ or even ‘assert ourselves’… ‘creatively’. Not all of our actions are as innocent as they might seem. I don’t want to point fingers. I just made the next video compilation to reflect on what we are capable of as human beings – and I need this reflection as much, or even more so, as you do, dear reader.

Please click the following image to watch the video, and feel free to post comments (the quote on ‘common people’ is by alternative rock band Pulp, from their song by the same name)