Too conscious an awareness of all that the "scapegoat" connotes in modern usage eliminates the essential point that the persecutors believe in the guilt of their victim; they are imprisoned in the illusion of persecution that is no simple idea but a full system.
- Rene Girard, The Scapegoat
Mel Gibson is back in the spotlight again - not that he ever left.
News broke earlier this month that Gibson will be producing (and possibly directing) a film about Jewish warrior Judah Maccabee written by Joe Eszterhas (screenwriter of Basic Instinct and Showgirls and Catholic convert). Some Jewish leaders are understandably upset about this.
There's plenty negative to say about Mel Gibson and his outlandish anti-Semitic, racist, and sexist remarks in recent years - but, as one Jewish writer notes, "you can love the art...and believe that the creator might be in need of psychiatric help or even that he might just be a bad guy."
In that spirit, I'll focus this article not on Gibson's merits as a man, but as a director. In particular, I want to show that there is a universal and noble theme uniting his four films (Apocalypto, The Passion of the Christ, Braveheart, and The Man Without a Face): the concept of the scapegoat.
|William Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat|
But anthropologist Rene Girard notes that the scapegoating mechanism has even deeper roots. It arose in early homo sapiens as a resolution to the most basic source of conflict: imitation. A primal human community, whipped up in a frenzy over imitated desires for common objects, rallied around a single victim who, through unique weakness or strength, was blamed for the conflict. The victim was then killed - and later remembered and praised for resolving the conflict. The death of the victim (or "scapegoat") was a sort of release valve that restored peace and order in the primal community.
Girard argues that this mechanism was a reality hundreds of thousands of years ago before being ritualized in myth, religion, and civilization, both western and eastern. In fact, the entire history of collective persecution - including persecution of the Jews - has its roots in this brutal social mechanism.
Out of Gibson's four films, we get closest to the violent origin of scapegoating in Apocalypto:
(WARNING: contains graphic violence)
This scene (unfortunately) is not embellished, but historically accurate (though more reminiscent of Aztec than Mayan rituals of human sacrifice). Moreover, it helps illustrate the social reality of violent scapegoating in cloistered, pre-modern societies. The bloodthirsty Mayan crowd cheers and rallies around the execution of a weak group (slaves) in order to restore order and prosperity to the community. In dying, these slaves are exalted by the priest as "renewing the world," because the guilt and suffering of the crowd has been transferred onto the still-beating heart of their sacrificial victim. All of this behavior is characteristic of collective persecution and scapegoating. (And it's not to pick on Mayans; human sacrifice, we should remember, has a long and ugly history in all corners of the world.)
In the final scene, we see a fleet of Spanish soldiers and priests, holding high a symbol of their own sacrificial victim 1500 years prior. There was a scapegoat, they claim, that has ended the need for all scapegoating; a supreme victim that not only has taken the place of all victims, but bore the weight of all wrongdoing and suffering.
Many have missed the historical seriousness of Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, which was obscured by three things: 1) Gibson's outlandish public persona, 2) a lack of attention to its thematic connection to his other three films, and 3) a misperception of the violence depicted. (John Laughland is one of the few that have noted the achievement.)
Gibson's The Passion deftly portrays two of Girard's anthropological insights: first, that at the heart of Christianity is a violent, bloody sacrifice, much like the myths and rituals that came before it. (Notorious atheist Christopher Hitchens is right on this point, saying that the heart of Christianity is a kind of scapegoating, or "vicarious redemption.") Second, Gibson shows there is something very different about this scapegoat and his community.
As Girard has noted, ancient communities always believed in the guilt of the scapegoat - they knew what they were doing, and why. But with Christ, just the opposite happens: for the first time, the victim is declared by the persecutors as innocent; a mirror is held up to the violence and indignity of all scapegoating and all evil; and the entire world community gathers around this one man, proclaiming and reenacting his death with bread (linking to the mythical past) - but also maintaining their scapegoat's innocence.
This was such a radical moment, and had such a profound effect on human history, that reflecting on it, H.G. Wells said: "I am not a believer, but I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very center of history."
Braveheart is the chronological link between Apocalypto and The Passion, and only enriches our understanding of scapegoating by blending the insights of both films - perhaps Gibson had yet to separate them. We see the community-driven violence of Apocalypto; but the light of The Passion penetrates every shadowy corner that collective persecution tries to hide.
This collision of forces appears in the clip below: the crowd, hungry to see the death of Scottish warrior William Wallace, suddenly turns against itself, and sees him as undeserving of the disproportionate blame the state has assigned him.
(WARNING: contains violence)
Of course, William Wallace really was a violent and dangerous man. But Girard reminds us that scapegoats don't have to be innocent for scapegoating to occur: "It is possible that the crimes of which they are accused are real." Scapegoating doesn't connote innocence or guilt necessarily, but a massive and distorted blame - the despair and frenzy of a collective problem thrown onto the head of a single individual or minority.
This idea of the "guilty scapegoat" also rings true in the book version of Mel Gibson's first directorial effort, The Man Without a Face.
In it, Justin McLeod (played by Gibson) is not only severely disfigured - many neighbors also suspect he is a pedophile. For Girard, this makes McLeod the ideal scapegoat; the pairing of perceived physical and moral monstrosity make one very noticeable and very suspect to the crowd (think of a classic scene in The Elephant Man).
McLeod lives a cloistered and quiet existence, bothering nobody and asking for nothing; and though many in town are happy to live and let live, it's clear that they are united against him, and invigorated and even "cleansed" by their consensus that he is singularly guilty and strange. Moreover, they are a hair's breadth away from driving him out should he prove to be a problem. Of course, they don't hurt McLeod or even drive him out - but they do quietly and calmly sacrifice their scapegoat with jokes, threats, and civilized meetings.
The Man Without a Face shows us the dark corner where scapegoating hides today - not on bloody altars, but on haughty whispers; not in public executions, but in the public sphere. Whenever the public rallies and rages against an Anthony Weiner, Lindsay Lohan, Tiger Woods, Casey Anthony, Chris Brown, Steve Bartman, and yes, a Mel Gibson - you're witnessing the vestiges of violent scapegoating. That's not to condone their behavior - but to question ours.
Scapegoating doesn't stop there, and never stops, not so long as we deem that one person or group infinitely lower, baser, uglier, and guiltier than ourselves and other "healthy," "normal" people. When we do, we forget our own shortcomings, shirk our duty to love, and unjustly assign all the scorn in the world onto heads that weren't built to bear it. In Girard's words:
"Each person must ask what his relationship is to the scapegoat. I am not aware of my own, and I am persuaded that the same holds true of my readers. We only have legitimate enmities. And yet the entire universe swarms with scapegoats. The illusion of persecution is as rampant as ever, less tragically, but more cunningly."