THE POINT YUVAL NOAH HARARI MISSES OF MYTH
BRINGING RENÉ GIRARD TO THE TABLE
A FAMILIAR SCENE BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION
“Why don’t you girls get along with June anymore?” Regina’s mother asked. Regina and her two friends, Gretchen and Eve, stared at her in bewilderment. They were about to go on a shopping spree. For weeks they had gone out without June. “She has changed so much,” Regina answered. “Yes, she spoils the whole atmosphere of the group,” Eve added. “Quite frankly, mother, June has become this ordinary slut,” Regina concluded. Now it was her mother’s turn to stare at the three girls in bewilderment. And off they went.
About a month later, Gretchen accidently ended up next to June in the bus to school. The silence between them was awkward enough to make them talk to each other. Gretchen learned that her pretty companion had been going steady with Lysander for several months. And then it dawned on her: Regina had been gossiping about June being a slut because June had run away with Regina’s big crush, Lysander!
As soon as she had the chance Gretchen confronted Regina. “I talked to June and she is still the same old friend I knew!” she exclaimed. “You’re just jealous of her, that is the truth! You two are the same, you want that Lysander guy as much as she does! June in no way is a slut!” At that moment Eve stepped in to defend Regina and claimed both of them would turn their back on Gretchen if the latter didn’t change her opinion on June.
All of a sudden the clique of three were arguing about who betrayed who and they accused each other of being delusional. Their internal peace at the expense of an outcast had been broken. One of them had shown love for their external enemy, and had thus created internal enmity, within their own household. A new expulsion seemed imminent. Or would they all eventually be able to reconcile themselves with their former enemy?
YUVAL NOAH HARARI VS RENÉ GIRARD ON MYTH
In his bestseller Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind (London, Vintage, 2015), Yuval Noah Harari points out the consequences of the so-called Cognitive Revolution in human evolution. Between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago new ways of thinking and communicating allowed our ancestors to share more information with each other, not in the least about dangerous animals. Predators regularly threatened bands of humans from the outside. On the other hand, members of the same group of humans could also threaten each other. Hence, as we are primarily social animals depending on cooperation for our survival, we need even more information about each other and about potential threats from the inside.
Our language evolved as a way of gossiping,” Harari concludes (p. 25). “Gossip usually focuses on wrongdoings. Rumour-mongers are the original fourth estate, journalists who inform society about and thus protect it from cheats and freeloaders (pp. 26-27).
Harari paints a rather positive picture of gossip. He even refers to it as providing “reliable information about who [can] be trusted,” which allowed our ancestors to “develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation (p. 26).” René Girard (1923-2015) would agree that gossip is a way to unite people. As the story of the introduction makes clear, the bond between Regina and her friends is indeed strengthened by their exclusion of June. However, Girard would also include the more common understanding of gossip as providing questionable or untruthful information. According to this scenario, June can be characterized as a scapegoat. She is accused of things she is not responsible for and seems to be the victim of Regina’s own misjudged desires. It is a type of misjudgment that is already at play very early on in human life.
When a child notices a playmate’s interest in a toy that the child had forgotten about, the child’s desire for the toy will very often be re-awakened. Instead of enjoying whatever he was doing, the child most likely will reclaim the toy as being his and insist that he was “the first” to want it. More often than not the playmate will mirror the child’s behavior and will also claim being the first. In other words, both the child and his playmate imitate and thus reinforce each other’s desire for an object until they forget about it and end up fighting about their very “being”. The more they try to distinguish themselves from each other by pretending that their own desire is not mimetic (i.e. imitative), the more they do imitate each other and become doubles. That is the tragic comic paradox of mimetic rivalry.
While the fighting children both deny the mimetic nature of their desire and claim that their desire is primary, they also both claim that their own violence is secondary. Both children will justify their own violence as a “necessary defense” against a so-called “first aggression” of the other child. Peace is restored when one of the parties either surrenders, is banned, or is somehow eliminated. Of course, the one with the most allies often has a better chance at winning a fight.
Research has shown that we more easily commit violence in groups than on our own, and this is one way by which a sense of personal responsibility for violence evaporates. After all, we are social, mimetic creatures. The well-known bystander effect is but one example of the consequences of our imitative behavior. At the same time, we tend to understand our own violence as “acts of self-defense” against potential threats and rivals, like the above mentioned two fighting children. It allows us to interpret the victim of our violence as the primary cause of that violence. This is yet another way by which a feeling of personal responsibility for violence disappears.
History knows many examples of violence that is justified by the myth of self-defense, which often gives rise to a mimetic dynamic of revenge over different generations. Al-Qaeda, for instance, justified its attacks on 9/11 as acts of self-defense. On April 24, 2002, the Islamist organization released a document about the matter, which also contained the following statement regarding the attackers:
The only motive these young men had was to defend the religion of Allah, their dignity, and their honor. […] It was a service to Islam in defense of its people, a pure act of their will, done submissively, not grudgingly.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the US eventually decided to invade Iraq in 2003 and presented its move as a preemptive strike. The violence was justified as an act of self-defense against a regime that, according to the US, possessed weapons of mass destruction. The weapons were never found, but the aftermath of the war did create the conditions for the rise of ISIL… Violence begets violence.
The myth of self-defense indicates the flaws in Harari’s understanding of myth. Harari characterizes myths as merely fictional products of collective imagination, which allow people to develop complex networks of cooperation (pp. 30-31):
Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.
Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. […] States are rooted in common national myths. […] Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. […]
Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.
The myth of self-defense partly agrees with Harari’s line of thought. It is indeed a story that allows people to develop a large-scale cooperation towards a common goal: the establishment of a peaceful world by eliminating the (so-called) potential sources of violence. What Harari misses, however, is that myths are not merely interchangeable products of collective fiction which create new “imagined” realities, but that they are also interpretations of an already existing reality. As such, myths can be wrong, deceptive and mendacious.
The introductory story of this article already points this out. Regina and her friends justify their own behavior against June by believing the myth of their collective imagination: “June is a slut and we have to defend the group atmosphere by excluding her.” Although this kind of gossip tightens the bonds between Regina and her friends, it also turns out to perpetuate some blatant lies and unacknowledged desires: June is not the slutty girl she is accused of being, and as Regina fancies June’s boyfriend Lysander she is more like June than she likes to admit.
It is striking that Harari presents gossip as a means to provide “reliable information” about other people. It is even more striking that he separates myths – “imagined realities” – from lies (p. 35):
An imagined reality is not a lie. […]
Unlike lying, an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world.
Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations.
René Girard is heir to a tradition that tries to understand the human mind, and its imaginative and rational powers, from within the context of the fears and the desires of the human animal. Our imagination, whether individual or collective, is often a distorted reflection of those dynamics, not just an innocent expression thereof.
Girard more generally understands myths as stories that cover up the complete picture of violent situations. Myths allow people to deny their own responsibility for violence. Hence, for instance, managers can say “it is the economic reality which forces the company to fire half of the employees.” The economic reality is, of course, a myth or – in the words of Harari – “an imagined reality”. From Girard’s point of view, Harari’s story about myths as mere products of collective imagination is itself a myth: his story once again obscures the violent reality (or, better still, the “violence against reality”) behind the cultural imagination.
In the case of the introductory story of this article, Gretchen’s final assessment of June could still be dishonestly presented as “a matter of opinion” equally valid to Eve’s and Regina’s assessment. In the context of, say, the Oedipus myth, it is unequivocally clear that the mythical interpretation of reality does contain lies.
Myths are, apart from fictions, also lies about reality that people believe in, used to justify sacrificial violence.
The Oedipus myth presents the plague in Thebes as the consequence of the behavior of Oedipus. The citizens of Thebes believe that they are violently punished with the plague by disgruntled gods because they tolerate Oedipus as their king – a man who killed his father and married his mother. They as well as Oedipus also believe that the plague will end if Oedipus is expelled from the city.
Just like other myths, the Oedipus myth deceptively deals with the reality of violence. There is no causal relationship between killing your father and marrying your mother on the one hand, and the eruption of the plague on the other. There also is no causal relationship between the expulsion of Oedipus and the potential ending of the plague. In reality Oedipus is a scapegoat, wrongfully held responsible for a disorder and an order he is not responsible for. Nevertheless, the community of Thebes justifies the sacrifice of Oedipus as a divine commandment to finish off the disaster of the plague. The violence of the plague is interpreted as a divine punishment.
In short, the Oedipus myth reveals the two faces of the sacred in archaic religious communities. On the one hand, everything that is considered sacred is taboo because it is associated with potentially uncontrollable chaotic violence. On the other hand, if the sacred is made present in a controlled, structured way through ritual, it is believed to have beneficial peaceful outcomes. Hence destructive epidemic violence is taboo, while the violence of ritual sacrifice is allowed. The latter is the vaccine of controlled violence that should defend communities from the wildfire of violent disasters.
It is no coincidence that Oedipus pays for the wrath of the gods. After all, he is perceived as an embodiment of violence whose presence threatens the stability within the community. He did not honor the hierarchical position of the king. He violated the taboo against killing the king in an unlawful way. He also violated the taboo against desiring the wife of another. Moreover, he violated the taboo against sexuality in a ritually inappropriate way by unlawfully marrying his mother. By violating these sacred taboos, however unwittingly, Oedipus is perceived as having unleashed the violent wrath of the gods and as someone who needs to be sacrificed.
The justification of sacrificial violence is an essential component of mythic storytelling, which is not just “a figment of the imagination” but a deceptive interpretation of reality. The gossip of Regina and her friends reflects a deceptive understanding of themselves and June, which is used to justify the expulsion of June. The fighting child and his playmate have a deceptive understanding of themselves and each other, which is at work in their attempts to expel each other. The religious myth of Al-Qaeda reflects a deceptive understanding of itself and the US, which is used to justify the suicide of its members and the killing of US citizens on 9/11. The nationalist myth of the US reflects a deceptive understanding of itself and wrongfully accuses the former Iraqi regime of having weapons of mass destruction, which is used in 2003 to justify the destruction of that regime. The myth of a so-called inevitable economic reality is used to justify social and ecological sacrifices. The religious myth of the Theban community reflects a deceptive understanding of natural disasters, which is used to justify the expulsion of Oedipus. And so on. The list of stories that represent the deceptive myth of redemptive sacrificial violence is endless.
And yet Yuval Harari separates myths from lies and barely mentions sacrifice in his exploration of the religious and cultural imagination. He refers to sacrifice explicitly only twice. René Girard, on the other hand, remains much closer to today’s common parlance about myth as a story that is basically not true. His mimetic theory explains how our religious and cultural imaginations continue to develop from mimetic origins which are easily misjudged and which lead to the justification of sacrificial institutions.
It is not difficult to imagine how distorted perceptions of mimetic mechanisms underly the mythical imagination of the human animal, from the very beginning until now. Already in early human communities, mimetic rivalry over food, women, social status, power or territory could easily escalate until one of the fighting parties was overwhelmed by a group of opposing allies.
The transformation of a chaotic fight of “all against all” into an orderly unity of “all against one” has an astounding restorative effect, which is not only observable in bands of fellow humans but also in our ape cousins.
As illustrated earlier by the fight between a child and his playmate over a toy, mimetic doubles tend to blame their rival for the violence they experience. When one rival overcomes his enemy by banding together with some allies, his sense of responsibility for the violence will disappear even more. After all, humans feel less personally responsible when they are part of a group whose members imitate each other.
Hence, the phenomenon of victim blaming must have occurred regularly in early human communities as the result of restorative group violence. The rival who becomes the victim of collective deadly violence is perceived as the troublemaker. As long as he was alive, the community experienced violence. After killing him, the community experiences a renewed peace.
Instead of acknowledging its own share in the violence, the community will consider its victim as the exclusive cause of the violence, according to the two mechanisms described above. At the same time, the victim is perceived as the one who restores order in his presence as a dead creature. In other words, the victim is a scapegoat. He is exclusively held responsible for a disorder and an order he is not exclusively responsible for. He is at once villain and hero, horrifying monster and admirable savior (“mysterium tremendum et fascinans”).
On the basis of that deceitful scapegoat mechanism, violence and its victim get an ambiguous meaning. An outbreak of violence is perceived as a return of the “troublemaker” in the community. However, that victim is not visible anymore (in reality, he is dead). Nevertheless, violence more and more becomes associated with those kinds of “invisible persons” – later called ghosts, gods or forces.
Gradually, human communities will consider sacred everything they associate with violence. Insofar as sacred phenomena are associated with destructive violence resulting in disorder, they are taboo. On the other hand, insofar as sacred phenomena are associated with order, ritual allows for a controlled violation of taboos.
René Girard accurately characterizes myths as representing the taboos and the deceptive idea of “redemptive violence” by which communities maintain themselves. Myths are essentially stories that make a distinction between so-called “good” and “bad” violence in any given community.
The so-called good violence of ritual sacrifice is presented as a necessary, often sacred demand that preserves the taboo on uncontrollable violence (of sacred wrath). In terms of the introductory story, the “ritual” expulsion of June is deemed necessary to preserve the peaceful atmosphere within Regina’s group of friends. In terms of the Oedipus myth, the “ritual” expulsion of Oedipus is deemed a necessary divine commandment to restore peace and order. What these myths obscure, time and again, is the community’s own responsibility for violence. In this sense, the cultural order, in whatever guise it appears, continues to imitate the lie concerning the first victims of collective violence: every sacrificial expulsion that is justified by a myth of redemptive violence is actually a “re-presentation” of the scapegoat mechanism at the origin of human culture.
Some stories, however, challenge the ever-present myth of redemptive violence in the world of the human animal. The Gospel in particular tells the story of a man, Jesus of Nazareth, who consciously runs the risk of being sacrificed. After all, he constantly sides with the ones who are sacrificed (expelled or eliminated) on the basis of the myths of redemptive violence by their respective communities. This makes him suspect. Jesus is subversive to the extent that he reveals the lies behind every sacrificial structure. He thus challenges the core of the cultural order, as that order relies on sacrifice time and again.
Jesus of Nazareth calls people to love the external enemy of their particular groups and thus creates animosity in one’s own “household”. In this sense, he brings an end to the violent peace of the sacrificial order and creates the peace of non-violent conflict – internal debates, for instance.
To come back to the introductory story, Gretchen is a type of Jesus. She reveals that June is not that different from Regina. She reveals that June is not the monster she is called out to be. She reveals the sameness between June and Regina, which is a scandal in the context of the myth about June that Regina tries to defend.
The outcome of this revelation is not sure. Regina and Eve might restore their sacrificial order by expelling Gretchen as well, or they eventually might have a conversion and acknowledge the sameness between themselves and their former enemies.
The latter choice, acknowledging that sameness, paradoxically creates the possibility of accepting the other as other… and not just as a figment of one’s own imagination.
P.S. Find highly recommended further reading here (pdf): Evolution and Conversion, by René Girard.