Charges of Genocide and the Current Scapegoat Mechanism

We hear conflicting accounts of who instigated violence in South Ossetia. While the situation has not yet sparked the constellation of interested parties to multiply the violence to a flurry of chaos, the charged language employed here is informative.

The rhetoric on the pro-Georgian side, mostly what is heard in US reports, identifies Russian military actions with Hitler’s expansionism (Czech. or Poland) or the much despised old Soviet regime (generally toward its neighbors or Hungary ’56, Prague ’68). “New Cold War” is a term bandied about among commentators. Several values underly this view — military expansionism is unjustifiable violence; sovereignty of former Soviet republics is sacrosanct, violence against such aggressors is justified. Below I use Rene Girard’s mimetic theory to explore further.

(We could investigate the growth of the institutions to uphold these These leads us to many tracts, treaties and revolutions in the 16th and 17th century slowly brought these principles into current incarnations. See Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, “A Defence of Liberty Against Tyrants”, 1579, and Treaty of Wesphalia, 1648, among others. Also relevent to the Ossteia-Georgia situation is the principle of national integrity and suppression of secessionist written in blood from the US Civil War.)

On the other side, the charge by Russians and Ossetians that Georgians were initiating a genocide against South Ossetians stands out. From this perspective, Russians are peacekeepers not aggressors. The rhetoric from this side emanates very combustible elements. “They [Georgians] are not people, they are worse than Nazis,” stated one South Ossetian woman living in a makeshift refugee camp in Russia. “They surround us with guns and we have done nothing to them.”

I am not competent to assess the accuracy of recent news or evaluate the more aggrieved party over the centuries. However, from a Girardian perspective, it is noteworthy that one major way to justify aggression in our world today, one dehumanizes another group through appeal to international human rights law. Institutional standards deriving from post-WW II consensus, say, against genocide or other Covenants and Conventions, are not in themselves avenues to create peace by verbally invoking them. The scapegoating mechanism operates perversely in this era by claiming to find violations of rights — a clear accusatory gesture. Gil Baile addresses this current dynamic by noting our era is soaked in anti-scapegoating values due to the penetration of the Cross. Yet scapegoating continues and takes novel forms, threatening to suck in even pacifists.

There is an institutional element to this. Madison viewed the guarantees of the rights which Anti-Federalists demanded prior to the Constitution’s adoption with great skepticism. He reminded colleagues that any list of rights would be merely “parchment barriers.” In a similar way, one could argue reams of international human rights law books fail to save a single life. However, for our situation “rights” are not merely “parchment barriers” unable to implement themselves. Rather, claims of rights violations become daggers to stab or bugles that call armies to arms. World peace, then, is not mainly an institutional problem such as world court or empowered peacekeepers. This is not to say that one must accept such violations when they occur. We must be vigilant, however. Appreciating these operations of the scapegoat mechanism may be more effective, in the end, than all other efforts for peace.

(Note: Madison was wrong. The listing of rights has been a great source of expanding rights-consciousness even when the institutions are not yet capable of defending those rights. Constitutional reform depends on this rights consciousness becoming institutionalized through the pressure on and action within various levels and branches of government. So the impact of the list of rights aligns with Madison’s original insight that multiple sovereignty would lessen tyranny and provide multiple avenues to address grievances. So the institutional is important. But the massive spread of post-WWII rights talk as typified by the inclusion of abstract guarantees in most new constitutions main text is also a source of mimetic instability.)

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