In the news this week was a confrontation on the National Mall between an elderly Native American and a teenager and his fellow students from a school in the Kentucky suburbs of Cincinnati. This incident, and how it was later explained, offer a striking example of the nature of WEIRD societies through the Mimetic Lens.
You may recall (or can review) from this post on the “Mimetic Weirding Way” the following background material:
WEIRD stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic. (Yes, that’s us.) WEIRD societies differ from traditional societies in that they focus on autonomy and individuality, whereas traditional societies are focused on community. At bottom, traditional societies create most of their rules based on the ROLES their members are supposed to play in the community. WEIRD societies create their rules based on the RIGHTS that are accorded largely to individuals.
WEIRD societies are based essentially on a secularized version of Christianity, handed down through John Locke and enshrined in various modern Constitutions, Declarations of Human Rights and similar documents. As Nietzsche first observed in the 19th Century, WEIRD societies are obsessed with victims and victimhood. In the late 20th Century, Rene Girard observed that the obsession had become the basis for how our society conducts almost all of its debates and politics:
When our intellectuals, after the Second World War, and later with the collapse of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe, thought we were through with absolutes, they were simply wrong. Because the victimary principle or the defence of victims has become holy: it is the absolute. One will never see anyone attacking it. They do not even have to mention it. So we can say we are all believers in the innocence of the victims, which is at the core of Christianity. Nietzsche aimed at a deconstruction of Christianity, which he understood correctly as the defence of victims. . . .
Of course, very often Christian principles are prevailing in a caricaturist form, whereby the defence of the victim entails new persecutions! One can persecute today only in the name of being against persecution. One can only persecute persecutors. You have to prove that your opponent is a persecutor in order to justify your own desire to persecute.”
Many people decry the new “Culture of Victimhood.” But in fact, as we discussed in this post about Microagressions, it is not new, and nobody should be surprised about it. It is, in fact, the lingua franca of debate in a WEIRD society. But it has intensified, as Rene Girard predicted it would.
In fact, sacred victimhood is really just the flip side of the concept of individual rights. Anyone who has a right that is violated gets to claim victimhood. And then claim to be on “the good side,” who may require vindication by some action against legitimate persecutors or illegitimate scapegoats.
The pattern of argument is thus always the same: the proponent claims a right; then claims victimhood; then demands justice. The defense is the mimetic opposite: the opponent claims he or she was exercising a right, which should absolve them of any alleged wrongdoing and allow them to claim victimhood for themselves; and then demand justice. Either or both sides may identify perpetrators or scapegoats along the way.
Now let’s turn to the incident between the elder Native American and the teenage boy and his friends.
First, let’s consider how this would have been viewed and resolved in a traditional roles-based society. Such societies usually had two types of rules that would cover this situation. One ancient rule says that elders should always be given respect and superior treatment over younger people. Another traditional rule says that persons of designated higher classes should be given respect and superior treatment over designated people of lower classes. This applied to masters and slaves, lords and vassals or peons, Indian castes, men and women, and in colonial systems where a dominant culture ruled over conquered or subservient cultures.
As an aside and as discussed in the post about the work of Ian Morris, these kinds of rules are fairly universal in all agrarian societies – including Western-based ones– but have broken down or been eliminated in Western societies as they have Industrialized. The hierarchies necessary to build and sustain the economies of agrarian societies, largely through human labor, become anathema and counter-productive in industrial societies where most heavy work is done by machines. Mobility and flexibility yield much better results in industrialized economies, which must change and adapt relatively quickly to keep up with competing societies.
Getting back to the National Mall, the traditional resolution here would have been simple. If the elder rule is applied, the elder would have been in the right and the teenagers should always yield. The teenagers would be at fault, regardless of what was said. If the dominant culture rule is applied, the Native American should have yielded to the teenagers, who would have been in the right, regardless of what was said.
While the elder rule still exists in a WEIRD society, it has been watered down to a vestigial form, such that it is not an imperative or something that could ordinarily result in punishment; rather, it’s just good manners. By contrast, the dominant culture rule is now held to be repulsive to most of WEIRD society. The reason this is the case is that all people are held to have similar or equal rights, such that the idea of a “subservient culture” or "second class citizens" invariably creates a victim and a need for a remedy.
But the application of traditional rules is not how the debates over this incident have unfolded. Rather, it’s been the lingua franca of the WEIRDing way – it’s all about who was exercising a right and therefore is “the real victim.”
In interviews following the incident, the elder man, Nathan Phillips, says he was exercising his rights in connection with an Indigenous People’s March and was subsequently surrounded by a group of about 200 teenagers chanting racist slogans and mocking him. And that the teenager was blocking his way. The school that sponsored the students recognized him as a victim at the outset and issued a statement: "We extend our deepest apologies to Mr. Phillips. This behavior is opposed to the Church's teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person. The matter is being investigated and we will take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion.”
This is, in fact, the usual mode of discourse in a WEIRD society. A victim is identified as a person whose rights have been violated and some form of justice – here, an apology with a promise of potentially additional action – is rendered.
But the response from the student is also the typical opposition in a WEIRD society, which is to oppose by claiming his own right and victimhood. In an interview a few days later, the student, Nick Sandmann, told NBC that he had “every right” to do what he was doing. Supporters now claim that the students are the real victims who did nothing wrong. And the opposing media gets to be the scapegoat, per the usual rhetoric about the media one disagrees with.
What is critical here anthropologically is the mimetic pattern of our WEIRD societies that repeats itself – over and over again. One side claims rights and victimhood. The other side counters with other rights and claims to be the “real victim.” The pattern is endemic and so ingrained that the proponents don’t even realize they are repeating it.
As Girard noted, sometimes the claims are well-supported and sometimes they are caricatures, designed merely to advance an agenda or to permit a persecution. I’ll leave you to decide which one is which here. Or you can choose both or neither.
But the next time you are looking at a debate of politics or policy in a WEIRD society or a story like this one, ask yourself: Who is being identified as the victim? What rights of the victim have allegedly been violated? Who are the alleged persecutors or scapegoats as the case may be? And what is the remedy sought?
You will find that virtually all arguments you will ever here about politics or policy in a WEIRD society contain all of these elements. And you will be enlightened by looking through the Mimetic Lens.
I have always been curious about the way the world works and the most elegant ideas for describing and explaining it. I think I have found three of them.
I was very fond of James Burke's Connections series that explored interesting intersections between ideas, and hope to create some of that magic here.