Escape 21: Scapegoating 101: “Hell is other people.”
This is going to be a shorter post than the last few…which have been way too long. I fear I’m getting pedantic in my old age. Say it ain’t so. I’ll carry on now, pedantry or not. One positive thing I’m getting out of this is that my typing skills are improving, if nothing else.
So, in the last post we looked at Becker’s use of the term ‘sacrifice’. This post is about a related term, scapegoating. Scapegoating is a form of sacrifice…in the early days using a real goat. Now we do it with people, mostly people we blame, realistically or not, for all of our troubles. Becker opens this part of Chapter 8 with a quote from Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist, who said “Hell is other people.” I need to put that on a T-shirt, damn it!
From the beginning, men have served the appetites of one another in the most varying ways, but these were always reducible to a single theme: the need for fuel for one’s own aggrandizement and immunity. Men use one another to assure their personal victory over death…In one of the most logical formulas on the human condition Rank observed: ‘The death fear of the ego is lessened by the killing, the sacrifice, of the other; through the death of the other, one buys oneself free from the penalty of dying, of being killed. No wonder men are addicted to war…war is a ritual for the emergence of heroes.
What about heroes? This is where Becker introduces the concept of heroism as a major element in his whole thought. Heroes are not like the rest of us. Most of us would be willing to sacrifice just about anyone who stands in our way, friend or foe, because inevitably people offend us. A wife or husband ‘cheats’, another driver cuts us off in traffic then gives us the finger. As Becker notes, this is the price of our natural narcissism. We would like to kill people, or at least maim them, almost every day, but our fear of death prevents us. Heroes are different. They take the bullet, they take on the bad guys, they put themselves in harms way instead of throwing others in the way. So “war IS a ritual for the emergence of heroes.”
The logic of scapegoating, then, is based on animal narcissism and hidden fear. If luck, as Aristotle said, is when the arrow hits the fellow next to you, then scapegoating is pushing the fellow into its path – with special alacrity if he is a stranger to you.
Freud was right; in the narcissism of earthly bodies, where each is imprisoned fatally in his own finite integument, everyone is alien to oneself and subject to the status of scapegoating for one’s own life.
We kill others, literally or socially, in order to affirm our own life. Then killing others in mass rituals like war is spectacularly affirming. To bring it closer to home and in a bit of a less dramatic fashion, consider the way we treat the homeless and the poor and how desperately they try to hide their condition. We kill them socially; it’s almost better than killing them physically because we prolong their suffering and see their distress and immobility as it slowly unfolds before our very eyes. That affirms our life.
As we watch the Sochi Olympic Games, the victory celebration is a way of
…experiencing the power of our lives and the visible decrease of the enemy: it is a sort of staging of the whole meaning of a war, the demonstration of the essence of it – which is why the public display, humiliation, and execution of prisoners is so important. ‘They are weak and die: we are strong and live.’
We are disgusted by what is happening in North Korea but we turn a blind eye to the humiliation and degradation prisoners experience in our own prisons every day.
The U.S. is always keen to keep the torches lit and the electric chair warmed up. Guantanamo Bay is a celebration of American power.
It is obvious that man kills to cleanse the earth of tainted ones, and that is what victory means and how it commemorates life and power: man is bloodthirsty to ward off the flow of his own blood.
Other things that we have found hard to understand have been hatreds and feuds between tribes and families, and continual butchery practiced for what seemed petty, prideful motives of personal honor and revenge.
Nothing has changed much. We all think that we are the chosen people and if we don’t try literally to exterminate those who don’t agree with us or who aren’t like us therefore we can’t possibly ‘like’, we ostracize them, marginalize them, ignore them.
Here I would quote a passage that Becker uses from Alan Harrington, but it’s too long and I’m too tired. Suffice it to say, that that guy over there with the funny beard and strange looking clothes and hat, what if that guy is right in his beliefs. Can he be my equal? “All I know is if he’s right I’m wrong.” (p. 113)
In times of peace, without an external enemy, the fear that feeds war tends to find its outlet within the society, in the hatred between classes and races, in the everyday violence of crime, of automobile accidents, and even the self-violence of suicide.
Enough for today, don’t you think? Is anybody really reading this stuff anyway?
3 thoughts on “Escape 21: Scapegoating 101: “Hell is other people.””
Reblogged this on Roger Albert – Always a Sociologist and commented:
Yup, for most of us hell is other people, but not just any other people. Read on.
Yes I am reading or more accurately, re-reading these posts. Sartre’s famous quote illuminates the relationships we all have with the “other” and our attempts to resist their gaze which objectifies us. Our individual freedom demands that we are subjects, not objects. This alone allows us to live the so-called “authentic life”.
Sartre needed to read Elias and Rank. I don’t think Becker understood Sartre’s quote in the way you explain here. I’ll have a look at the context again in Escape From Evil. Do I need to go back and re-read Sartre? Sounds too much like a chore to me.
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