Let's start with my Plenary talk. Toward the end of my talk I compared Axe Body Spray to scapegoating.
That comparison might need some unpacking.
As I wrote about a few weeks ago, René Girard has argued that prior to the gospels religious myth--the sacred--obscured the scapegoating mechanism. That is, rather than seeing victims being murdered the ancients saw sacralized violence, violence backed by the decree, plan, and will of the gods. According to Girard, the gospels desacralized violence, exposing scapegoating for what it is: murder. As Mark Heim describes it, the gospels function as an anti-myth. The gospels accomplish this by reading the scapegoating story from the inside out, from the perspective of the victim. As readers follow Jesus through the Passion narrative they see that he is innocent. And yet, Jesus is killed so that powerful constituencies can maintain their status quo. The mechanism has been unmasked.
So telling the story from the victim's perspective desacralizes violence, it exposes the powerplays and violence at work when we scapegoat. And because the gospels do this, because they provide us with an anti-myth, we've come to see scapegoating as a bad thing.
And yet we continue to engage in scapegoating. Even though we know it's wrong.
Well, because scapegoating is like Axe body spray.
You're familiar with Axe body spray, right? Axe body spray is famous because it is the product behind one of the most successful marketing campaigns in advertisement history. Its commercials are both iconic and infamous. The basic plotline is always the same. A geeky and skinny guy sprays Axe on and the scent becomes a pheromone for hot women who begin to aggressively and lustful throw themselves at the guy.
Because of the success of the campaign Axe quickly became the top selling male antiperspirant/deodorant brand. Axe outsold its closest rival by tens of millions.
And then it all began to go wrong.
I'll let Martin Lindstrom tell what happened:
[T]he brand's early success soon began to backﬁre. The problem was, the ads had worked too well in persuading the Insecure Novices and Enthusiastic Novices to buy the product. Geeks and dorks everywhere were now buying Axe by the caseload, and it was hurting the brand's image. Eventually (in the United States, at least), to most high-school and college-age males, Axe had essentially become the brand for pathetic losers and, not surprisingly, sales took a huge hit.The Axe marketing campaign worked too well. It targeted a certain demographic--insecure men--and moved a lot of product. But Axe became too closely associated with the target demographic causing many other men to avoid the product. Only dorks and pimply kids were believed to use Axe.
Axe was hurt by its own success. The point I argued at the Theology and Peace conference was that something similar has happened to the unmasking of scapegoating.
Specifically, once scapegoating became widely recognized as a bad thing, once we started to place the moral power on the side of the victim, it soon became natural to identify oneself as the scapegoat. Everyone, it seems, now wants to be the victim. Everyone wants to be the scapegoat.
Why? Because in the wake of the gospels we see a moral power residing with the scapegoat, we want to side with the victim and the underdog. Thus, if you can be identified as the victim you can win people to your cause. It's like what happened with Axe spray. The gospels so thoroughly unmasked scapegoating that everyone now wants to be the victim. Everyone wants to be at the center of the story as the innocent martyr. Nowadays being the scapegoat is the quickest way to demonize your enemies.
This is the argument made by James Davison Hunter in his book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. According to Hunter political discourse in American today is characterized by "narratives of injury" where people on both the Left and the Right rush to characterize themselves as victims. Each group feels harmed by the other. And the great irony here is that this sense of injury creates the justification to scapegoat the other group.
The psychological reversal here is quite startling: Claiming to be the scapegoat so that you can scapegoat others: Claiming to be harmed so that you can harm others: Claiming to be injured so that you can injure others: Claiming to be the victim of violence so that you can inflict violence upon others.
Here is Hunter describing all this, the psychology of victimhood that now describes American political discourse:
The sense of injury is the key. Over time, the perceived injustice becomes central to the person's and the group's identity. Understanding themselves to be victimized is not a passive acknowledgement but a belief that can be cultivated. Accounts of atrocity become a crucial subplot of the narrative, evidence that reinforces the sense that they have been or will be wronged or victimized. Cultivating the fear of further injury becomes a strategy for generating solidarity within the group and mobilizing the group to action. It is often useful at such times to exaggerate or magnify the threat. The injury or threat thereof is so central to the identity and dynamics of the group that to give it up is to give up a critical part of whom they understand themselves to be. Thus, instead of letting go, the sense of injury continues to get deeper.And that's why the unmasking of scapegoating is like Axe body spray. Scapegoating has been so successfully exposed that everyone now wants to be the scapegoat to justify their efforts to injure and harm others.
In this logic, it is only natural that wrongs need to be righted. And so it is, then, that the injury--real or perceived--leads the aggrieved to accuse, blame, vilify, and then seek revenge on those whom they see as responsible. The adversary has to be shown for who they are, exposed for their corruption, and put in their place. [This] ressentiment, then, is expressed as a discourse of negation; the condemnation and denigration of enemies in the effort to subjugate and dominate those who are culpable.
Jesus said to look out for wolves in sheep's clothing.
He was right. In more ways than one.