Christianity invented the concept of defending the victim. In pre-Christian societies, collective violence against innocent scapegoats was commonplace. With the revelation that humans would kill God himself if given the chance, Christianity reveals the dignity of the victim (Girard 2001).
Though religious faith is not necessary to grasp the long-term social value of assigning dignity to victims, faith is necessary to respect potential victims in contexts where rationality dictates the abuse of victims. In the context of modern individualism, abusing victims is often a rational decision, especially if refusal to abuse a victim increases the probability of becoming a victim. The dignity of victims is an essentially extra-rational and extra-logical concept, philosophically and historically rooted in the tradition of Christian revelation.
Western civilization is inconceivable without this dignity assigned to victims. Over time, a pro-victim posture becomes a necessary condition for public claims to gain moral legibility at all, let alone sympathy or support.
The overarching gambit of modern secular progressivism is that one can do away with the revelation of God, while remaining invested in the defense of victims. The result is pre-Christian dynamics of collective violence—sublimated with keyboards—fueled with a missionary zeal and moral confidence that only two thousand years of Christianity could generate.
Modern, secular progressivism is therefore a kind of Satanism squared: The conscious drive to reject God, combined with the exploitation of the Christian inheritance for moral cover.
Our saving grace today is that, currently, dynamics of collective violence play out mostly over keyboards, in a kind of live-action role-playing of ancient collective murder. An open question is whether digital pacification is a sustainable sublimation or an unsustainable suppression.
It is possible that the current digitalization of mob violence leads to physical violence. Digital networks would then convert the once slow and clunky formations of physical violence into instantaneous, non-linear formations of physical violence. Remember the short-lived trend known as the “flash mob?” Imagine woke crusaders —or paranoid nativists—reviving the flash mob, leveraging fully encrypted messaging and anti-surveillance clothing. From there, it would only take one person throwing one stone for mob murders to rediscover their historical normalcy. I’m not saying this is imminent, I’m only pointing out that it’s surprisingly feasible technically and conceivable culturally: Apollonius of Tyana (3 BC - 97 AD), a widely admired sage often compared to Jesus, advised the Ephesians to stone a blind beggar in order to end a local plague (Girard 2001).
Adding insult to injury, the poor man’s natural reactions to the stoning were adduced as evidence against him:
“And as soon as some of them began to take shots and hit him with their stones, the beggar... gave them all a sudden glance and showed that his eyes were full of fire. Then the Ephesians recognised that he was a demon, and they stoned him so thoroughly that their stones were heaped into a great cairn around him.” —Philostraus, Life of Apollonius
Before Christianity, this is what social justice looked like.
It’s also possible that digital technologies have so completely pacified modern man that pre-Christian collective violence is no longer possible in the West. In some way, this might be worse: If we want to kill each other but we don’t because we are too weak, we accumulate all the bile of murderous resentment without the pro-social consequences of collective physical violence. As Girard frequently reminds us, the temptation of murdering a scapegoat is that it works, at least in the short term, to alleviate social frustrations and restore harmony among the murderers.
There is a third option, a combination of the two above. Perhaps the digital sphere is like a rubber band, currently being stretched further and further, invisibly accumulating potential energy in the form of escalating paranoia and bloodlust. In this scenario, modern individuals in the West are indeed too weak to kill each other, until the bile reaches its boiling point. When released, such a rubber band would snap with unprecedented social force, revealing itself to be not a pacifying impediment but a grand incubator of collective violence.
I believe the third model is most likely, and yet my outlook is overwhelmingly optimistic. Why?
There are other players in the game.
The public mainstreaming of runaway social psychosis may turn out to be the greatest gift ever given to those who trust in the straight and narrow path.
In the long run, groups that coordinate on the truth always beat groups that coordinate on collective delusion.
Before the technological acceleration of Satanism, all the straight-and-narrow pathwalkers who would prefer to coordinate on the truth could live fairly well amidst those who preferred to coordinate on delusions. Maybe such people were unlikely to be best friends, but they could enjoy each other at the bowling club and share niceties about the nightly news. This made truth-seekers a little dumber and weaker, but it made the delusional smarter and stronger.
Now that the patients run the asylum, generous pathwalkers cannot even donate their wisdom to the delusional if they wish to. It's either prohibited as offensive or rejected as false. I am baffled by those who continue to burn precious cognition on crying about patently dumber people who insist they know best. One should be rather grateful to these lost souls who give others ethical license to leave them behind.
The divide between those who coordinate on truth and those who coordinate on delusion will inevitably pull the rest of society into its vortex. Most people do not care much whether they coordinate on truth or delusion, as long as it's easy and they are able to carry on with their lives. But now, if you don't have a missionary zeal to coordinate on increasingly implausible collective delusions that change by the week, you will be forced to coordinate on the truth. It's the only other Schelling point available.
The political situation could not better for those who believe that the truth is what sets one free.
PS: We’re launching an 8-week course on René Girard starting in mid-June. Download our beautiful 20-page study guide and we’ll send you an email when we open enrollment. GirardCourse.com.