Madness is Catching

Post written by Susan Connelly
26 August, 2018

On 23 August 2018 Malcolm Turnbull described the turmoil in the Liberal Party as “madness”. The word perfectly describes the situation which saw his term as Prime Minister brought to an early end. According to the insights of the great philosopher René Girard, “madness” describes the contagion of violence, by which someone, or some group, is punished for the perceived welfare of a dominant group – in other words, the concerted effort to find and punish a scapegoat. The bringing down of yet another sitting Prime Minister is an example of “scapegoating”.

Girard presents certain features of the scapegoating process which have operated in humanity from the beginning, and which can be detected in the Liberal Party’s latest woes.

The first feature is the existence of a crisis. Then it is assumed that something blameworthy must have been done to cause the crisis: a crime. Naturally, there must be someone to blame for the crime, and that one becomes the scapegoat.

Girard identifies certain criteria which mark out the scapegoat. The person or group is different, even slightly. Perhaps they have some weakness, some perceived lack which marks them as on the outer. The scapegoat has few friends – or not quite enough – who could mount a defence. Girard also describes the curious fact that the scapegoat is not always some down-and-out. Indeed, a leader can become the scapegoat in the right circumstances.

Then there is the aspect of the violence done to the scapegoat – often expulsion, or the stab in the back, real or metaphorical. Once the process is in motion the violence becomes contagious. A certain “madness” sets in, which draws in even the most unlikely. Erstwhile supporters throw stones, even sorrowfully. They see no other way out than to help push the victim off the cliff.

Girard points out that the victim is actually innocent of causing the crisis, and the mob’s fury is misplaced. However the scapegoat does not necessarily have to be innocent of everything. For example, Malcolm Turnbull made notable errors of judgement, but like all scapegoats, he cannot truthfully be blamed for the crisis. That crisis was referred to by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard in an interview aired on the same day, where she described the problems of the Liberals to be similar to those of right-wings parties world-wide. They include the tendency for some to believe that harder and more insular policies will protect, conserve, and shore up defences against a variety of perceived threats.

It is not politics which is broken, as some have claimed. We are so fortunate in this nation to have structures and systems which serve us fairly well in comparison to weaker democracies.

The problem is violence itself. And it is violence which was played out in this latest episode of Prime Ministerial assassinations. According to Girard, it is not that violence is part of politics, but that politics is part of violence. We exist within the institution of violence.

And where does this violence come from? It comes from where it always has come – from rivalry. In this case, thwarted rivalry for power has descended into a revenge so intense that for the main protagonists it has become all-consuming. Jumping onto the back of this revenge – whipping it up and egging it on – are powerful sections of the media. Rivalry operates there too, for profit and prestige – in other words, money and ratings. The Liberal Party has not been served well by people who are eaten by revenge and their media jockeys.

It will be difficult for Scott Morrison to unify and restore faith in the party. Like Peter Dutton, the man who challenged for the leadership and lost, he has already scapegoated and victimised many other people when immigration minister. That victimisation contributes to the predicament of both the Coalition and Labour. Under their succeeding governments, innocent people have been used as scapegoats, victims dispatched violently, arbitrarily and cruelly as a way of dealing with a perceived crisis. Violence breeds violence.

However, it is not only violence which is contagious, but goodness. In Girard’s view, this must be expressed in withdrawal from rivalry, in the refusal to retaliate. The cycle of revenge is endless until someone has the stature to say “enough”. That capacity involves turning from self-absorption – either personal or national – and looking upon the other with fairness, compassion and respect. In Girard’s terms, this is the content of “conversion”, an anthropological necessity, which requires a large dose of self-knowledge.






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