Theology and Peace: Part 1, Why Scapegoating is Like Axe Body Spray

I had a blast at the recent Theology and Peace conference. I thought I'd devote the week to posts about stuff I said, learned, or thought about at the conference.

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.

How so?

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.

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.
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.

Jesus said to look out for wolves in sheep's clothing.

He was right. In more ways than one.

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21 thoughts on “Theology and Peace: Part 1, Why Scapegoating is Like Axe Body Spray”

  1. Brilliant! Does Hunter acknowledge his Nietzschian lineage? And I never thought of the "wolves in sheep's clothing" warning as presaging Nietzsche. But I believe it does--and am off to my NT to check it out.

    Thank you!

  2. It appears that the unmasking of scapegoating necessitates an ethic characterized as follows: "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."  Simply a great post.

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  4. "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."

    But that is not what you said.  You said that many fewer men now want to use Axe Spray ("the spray of choice for losers").  So....which is it?

    There are plenty of mentally healthy and responsible people who do not scapegoat.  They are the people who, taking the set of circumstances into which they were born (i.e., disabled, poor, lacking a parent, minority) and instead of scapegoating accept personal responsibility for their own lives and fate, and overcome their status without either scapegoating or harming others.  I may fit into a certain demographic which politicians use to make "victims" and "scapegoat", but that does not make me responsible as an individual for that behavior. 

    I can only be a "victim" if I allow myself that choice.  And if I refuse to see myself thusly, I have no need to scapegoat.

  5. The nonviolence of Jesus and Dr. King is thus demonstrated to be of critical importance: without that commitment, you will become "the new boss: same as the old boss."

  6. Hi Tracy

    For your interest, I came across the following reference in an online review to:

    "...the second essay in which Hunter, according to CT reviewer Benson, lumps James Dobson, Jim Wallis and Stanley Hauerwas (!!!) together as "'functional Nietzsheans' insofar as their resentment fuels a will to power, which perpetuates rather than heals 'the dark nihilisms of the modern age'[p.33]."

  7. Thanks, Andrew. Nietzsche's view that morality is typically deployed as a disguised power play is not even disguised any more in American politics--and in the name of Christianity. What is amazing to me is that it's as if "Christianity" has gone through the looking glass and given us a view of "Christ" with about as much in common with the NT Jesus as with Nietzsche's Antichrist. (This is not hyperbole.) Perhaps things aren't quite so nutty on your side of the Atlantic?

  8. Similar to Tracey and Andrew's 
    Nietzschian dynamics, I often wonder if many of our soap box speeches, blog, etc. on behalf of the poor and oppressed are merely using the predicament of the underdog as leverage for own own ends? Do you ever see this sort of thing being played out, whether in Christian conversations or perhaps in political discourse? I think this also begs another question about how are we to advocate for the poor and oppressed. My sense is that we once our soap box is detached from a particular context of intimate service, the advocacy is merely victimized-leverage. It basically goes back to the fact that there is still far more discussion and talk about helping the poor and oppressed that doesn't translate into any sort of action, so a lot of it is a sort of whistle-blowing and aligning oneself with the underdog for the sake of sympathy. And for all of the discourse nowadays about helping those who really need it, I wonder if it is actually causing greater damage being more of a fad political/social/spiritual maneuver that,in terms of sheer voluminous advocacy creates a numbing reaction rather than simply being a humble, behind the scenes service of hospitality and grace to real people right in front of us. 

    Great post, Dr. Beck!

  9. I think I'm too far away to comment, but I'm still haunted by the memory of switching over to the "700 Club" on satellite TV and hearing the newsreader report the praise accorded then President Bush Jnr for his "moral clarity" over Iraq.  I have to confess that in my naivety, I was deeply shocked by this blatant propaganda dressed up as impartial news on a Christian channel.  For me, the phrase "moral clarity" has rung with spiritual corruption disguising seething ambition and moral cowardice ever since.  I think the best I can offer from our humble nation is dear old Maggie's "Sermon on the Mound".  For example:

    'I believe that by taking together these key elements from the Old and New Testaments, we gain: a view of the universe, a proper attitude to work, and principles to shape economic and social life. We are told we must work and use our talents to create wealth. "If a man will not work he shall not eat" wrote St. Paul to the Thessalonians. Indeed, abundance rather than poverty has a legitimacy which derives from the very nature of Creation.'

    Happy days...

  10. I think you shape words eloquently around an important thought here, Stephen.  I get a similar feeling when films open with a five minute flashback to Oswiecim (aka Auschwitz) in order to "establish character" (and when the England football team visit for a photo opportunity as they did last week).

  11. Richard,
    It seems to me that the "psychology of victimhood" is only superficially related to Girard's understanding of scapegoating.  The Hebrew prophets' and Christ's "demythologizing" mythological denial reveals scapegoating for what it is: violence as sugar-coated ideological judgmentalism--in short, the same old blame game as ideological piety and sacrament.  Because the violence has been revealed to be what it is, we can choose mercy, however haltingly and because of God's grace.  Not:  Caedite eos.  Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius. (Roughly: Kill them all.  Let God sort them out.)  But rather:  Amate eos.  Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius.  (Love them all.  Let God sort them out.)   Jeff and Sam are on to something.

  12. Please find a shocking reference which points out that all of human culture, both in its secular and so called "religious" forms is a dramatization of the scape goat ritual/drama. This is especially so with Western so called "culture" which has now effectively encircled everyone and everything, and is thus now effectively destroying everything
    Also a description of the how the destructive process is now being dramatized all over the planet.

    Additional references
    Necessary tools for a profound Reality Consideration

  13. Thank you, George.  Do you not see the glaring contradictions in Richard's post?  Why it seems so obvious to me, is, I suppose a function of my status as a member of a "victim group" (the disabled).  Would that the do-gooders of this world just ASKED US FIRST before "helping".  Everyone's humanity and personal dignity would be spared.

  14. I loved this at the conference, Richard. Thanks for posting the text -- I can share this instead of trying to explain it in my own words, which aren't nearly as funny or revelatory as yours.

  15. And so now we refuse to associate with victims, in the same way that men began to reject Axe so as to refuse to associate with the losers who used it. 

    I've had to think about this one a lot, but I simply reached an age where I was too tired to refuse to be a victim anymore. It's too much work, for no reward whatsoever except to make people think I'm some kind of supercrip. Above all, I do not want to turn the flat-out good luck I've had into an excuse for people to pull the rug out from those like me who didn't have that luck, justifying it by saying the people need to take responsibility for their lives whatever their circumstances, and hey, look at Ann! If she can do it, so can they!

    Wrong. I can't attribute my improved fortunes to personal virtue any more than I can attribute my disability to punishment for vice. I look around at what good is in my life and I know I have not earned any of it. To take credit for it would be like an abusive parent taking credit for whatever good comes into their child's life, using it as proof that their abuse was nothing but good discipline. My condition does not make me a better person, my supposed success against adversity doesn't make me a better person, and what didn't kill me didn't make me stronger, either. It just hasn't killed me, not yet anyway.

    We need to reach a point where sales pitches like Axe's don't work and don't backfire, when we don't go rushing onto the next bandwagon in order to make ourselves look better than others. Then we'll be free. Until then, we'll continue to scapegoat.

  16. "I can only be a victim if I allow myself that choice"
    We can be victimized in something that happens in our lives, we choose whether we will live as victims.

  17. This comment bothers me:  "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."

    What bothers me is the implication that Jesus' death was not sacred, not the result of a divine plan. I believe, as Paul stated it, "Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3), which means His death was not merely murder of an innocent, but more importantly it was God's rightful punishment of sin meted out on One who "became sin" for all mankind (2 Corinthians 5:21).  Even in the gospels Jesus teaches that His death is a sacrifice for others ("I lay down my life for the sheep") and part of a larger plan that transcends death ("I lay down my life that I may take it up again") (John 10:15 & 17).

    It just seems that I have had a "mythic" view of the sacrifice of Christ -- that He died because sin deserves death and He had become sin for me and all mankind -- rather than a view that he died a murder victim who nevertheless forgave his murderers (which, of course He did, but not merely that). I may not be articulating this quite as well as I would wish, but I hope you can see my viewpoint.

  18. Jesus's death was according to divine plan and according to the Scriptures. The only way to unmask and decisively end the sacrificial system was for God to send the Son into the world, into Jerusalem, and into the maelstrom of violence that lead to the cross.

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