Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Falling on your own sword

I remember with interest a book I once read detailing a common theme in myths from around the world. These would be myths characteristic of an agrarian society with a dawning consciousness of how its myths work. These myths tell us about a society that, in times of trouble, hears the words of a wise man, or, alternatively, someone who is not usually heard from, telling the people to look for a special sign of something or someone - say, someone whose pants have a horizontal, not vertical, seam - someone who, it is implied, is somehow connected to the cause of the crisis. The person who speaks intuitively grasps that the community needs a victim, someone to point to and cast out, not that they know exactly what it is to scapegoat; what the person does not realize, until too late, is that in speaking out he or she becomes marked as a potential victim him or herself.

Such a myth is mark of a world still somewhat primitive, not yet fully in the light of the Judeo-Christian unveiling of myth's role of transfiguring sacrificial violence by making victims into myth's tragic heroes or gods, a world not yet troubled by myth's inability to explain itself, its own history and relationship to human violence and to the rituals that represent and obscure originary violent events.

I'm really not sure if I am being facetious in suggesting that such a mythic consciousness would be roughly the equivalent in religious consciousness of today's Archbishop of Canterbury:
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has called for new laws to protect religious sensibilities that would punish “thoughtless and cruel” styles of speaking.

Dr Williams, who has seen his own Anglican Communion riven by fierce invective over homosexuality, said the current blasphemy law was “unworkable” and he had no objection to its repeal.

But whatever replaces it should “send a signal” about what was acceptable.

This should be done by “stigmatising and punishing extreme behaviours” that have the effect of silencing argument.

The Archbishop, delivering the James Callaghan Memorial Lecture in London this afternoon, said it should not just be a few forms of extreme behaviour that were deemed unacceptable, leaving everything else as fair game.

“The legal provision should keep before our eyes the general risks of debasing public controversy by thoughtless and, even if unintentionally, cruel styles of speaking and acting,” he said.
In 2006, Parliament passed the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, which creates an offence of inciting or “stirring up” hatred against a person on the grounds of their religion. But the act was so watered down during its passage through Parliament that its critics fear it will be almost useless.

Dr Williams said: “It is clear that the old blasphemy law is unworkable and that its assumptions are not those of contemporary lawmakers and citizens overall. But as we think about the adequacy of what is coming to replace it, we should not, I believe, miss the opportunity of asking the larger questions about what is just and good for individuals and groups in our society who hold religious beliefs.”

Dr Williams was criticised by the National Secular Society who accused him of promoting “self-serving and dangerous" ideas.

Terry Sanderson, president, said that the Archbishop’s speech was a “blatant pitch for new legislation to replace the blasphemy laws that the Government are planning to scrap.”
Thoughtless and, even if unintentionally, cruel styles of speaking and acting? Self-serving indeed. I mean what could be more thoughtlessly sacrificial than pointing the finger at someone and labelling them with highly emotional and subjective labels like "thoughtless" and "unintentionally cruel", and then casting them out of society as the bad guy? Sure the lawyers would develop all kinds of standards and protocols for such charges; still, at the end of the day, what kind of law can judge "unintentional thoughts" without making the traditional English ideal of a univerally-applied law into a plaything of arbitrary judicial interpretation? How could a society with such a law not corrupt its judiciary and their aspirations to disinterestedness, given that a judge would have to rely on political correctness to know when someone was being criminally thoughtless and unintentionally cruel?

A society that became so irrational as to cast out all that Christianity has taught us about the irrationality of scapegoating and depending on victimization for creating social order - a society whose present erosion is in part tied to its religious and political refusal to name and contest the primitive religious sensiblity that is growing in its midst (as anything other than "anti-Islamic" and "cruel") - is a society that could easily turn on the Archbishop and say that he is the one being thoughtless and unintentionally cruel, and cast him out.

Where do they find these people, these half-witted readers of Rene Girard (I have read that Dr. Rowan Williams is among their number) who never seem to appreciate what Girard is really telling us about our cruel addiction to casting out the bad guy, "Mr. cruelty"? The British Isles that gave us the greatest lessons in the rule of law and free speech, are now home to many high officials and sacrificers who need to go back to school and relearn those lessons.

As usual, the work of Eric Gans is to the point:
The claim that what Robert Sheaffer--an interesting "amateur" theoretician of resentment to whom I shall return in a future column--calls "envy control" is the founding principle of human society strikes me as more valid by every reasonable intellectual criterion than, for example, Richard Rorty's popular idea, borrowed from Judith Shklar, that the good society is one that avoids cruelty. The idea of avoiding cruelty is so sanctimoniously self-serving, in a word, so sacrificial--Cruelty as the black-hatted Bad Guy--that it makes me nostalgic for the Aztecs who supplied themselves with protein by slaughtering their neighbors; no mealy-mouthed hypocrites there! But this Nietzschean reaction, however natural, only plays into the hands of the "institutional middle class," with its "empathic" notions of compassion and cruelty-avoidance. As proof, Nietzsche himself has become a hero of this class, which is to say, of the Left, which he execrated. His revaluation of all values is now, with fitting irony, put to just the opposite use to that for which it was intended: the conscration of the victimary. This should be a warning to all thinkers who dare speak of resentment.

1 comment:

Rob Misek said...

How will we describe negative behaviors when all words with negative meaning are banned?

Banning words is not the answer to conflict.

Accepting the truth from wherever it comes is.