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Luke Burgis

Luke Burgis is a veteran entrepreneur and author. He’s the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship in Washington, DC, and the founder of Fourth Wall Ventures, an incubator[…]
  • Did you know that our desires are not entirely our own? Desires are imitated from the first moment we are born. Our desires form from what our parents, friends, and significant others want in life. Now placed in a group, large or small, these imitative desires are even more powerful. These transferred desires within a group do create cohesion, but they’re also the heart of where scapegoats are born.
  • A scapegoat is someone outside of your group who also stands out from the social norm. The group then uses these scapegoats to transfer blame and negative emotions because they do not share the desires of the group. This blame, negative emotion, or fundamental truth is something the group does not want to acknowledge internally, so the blame is transferred to the scapegoat. 
  • In an instant, the problems of the group are gone because of the transfer of blame onto the scapegoat. Since scapegoats are identified as the root cause of the problem, they create a sense of relief, healing, and even protection for the group.

LUKE BURGIS: Each of us thinks of ourselves as kind of a little god. It's very uncomfortable for us to think that our desires might not be entirely our own. There's a certain humility needed to understand that I'm the product of other people's desires, starting with my parents. Humans tends to group people on the inside and on the outside. In order to maintain group identity and social cohesion, it's a never-ending process. And that can bring us into a dangerous vicious cycle because as humans, we have a natural tendency to transfer blame. Which means, scapegoats are all around us. All it takes is somebody to stand out a little bit and that starts this process of scapegoating. Once one person has identified a person or a group as problematic, it makes it a lot easier for the second and third and fourth person to believe in the guilt of the scapegoat.

I'm Luke Burgis, founder of Fourth Wall Ventures, and author of the book "Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life." Rene Girard was one of the great interdisciplinary minds of the 20th century. He was a French thinker who spent 15 years of his life at Stanford University. He was a genius of human nature. He had this keen power of observation to see what was at the root of human behavior. And one of the observations that he had was that desire is mimetic. To say that desire is mimetic is to say that it's imitative. We imitate the desires of others, really from the first moment that we're born. And as groups, it's even more powerful. This gets to the heart of the scapegoat mechanism. The more people begin to engage in this mimetic process, the easier it is to convince ourselves of the guilt of the scapegoat.

A scapegoat is someone or some group that is used to achieve a very specific purpose. People make scapegoats when there's some fundamental truth that they don't want to acknowledge. A person or a society can transfer the blame onto them and expel or eliminate them and imagine that the cause of all of their problems is gone. People do it because it produces a sense of catharsis or relief or healing. Scapegoating feels good because it's a way of protecting ourselves from having to suffer. Somebody else has to pay the price for our sins, for our weakness. Scapegoating also forms group identity.

Throughout history, when there's absolute social disorder is the time when there's most likely to be a scapegoat. And the scapegoat brings a moment of peace and relief. "Ah, we finally identified the root of the problem. We dealt with that." But the scapegoat mechanism never happens intentionally. It's always subconscious. If we thought that we were scapegoating, it wouldn't produce the catharsis. It wouldn't produce the desired effect. So, scapegoats are selected through an entirely unconscious process. It could be totally random. They could just be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But it can also be people or groups that deviated a little bit from the societal norm. They broke some taboo. They said something that was threatening to the social order. And the interesting thing is, the guilt or innocence at the end of the day doesn't really matter.

Picking up Simpson's trial as he and another man rode along a Los Angeles freeway in that white Ford Bronco that you see. Many scapegoats are innocent, but a scapegoat doesn't have to be innocent to make an effective scapegoat. And Bonds hits one high.

A scapegoat can be guilty and still provide that same catharsis to the people. One of the ways that I think this plays out in our culture is with the death penalty. We certainly don't have to put anybody to death in order to stay safe. What if there was a mimetic process involved with capital punishment that was totally separate, an independent variable, from the guilt or innocence of the person on death row? There's more going on here than just criminal justice. Think about all of the ritual elements of the death penalty. There's the back and forth in the media. I just wish that there could've been more suffering, so to speak. In many states, there's a last meal. Timothy McVeigh's last meal consisted of two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream. There seems to be something deeper, almost religious and sacred and sacrificial, about capital punishment. Hearse carrying Bundy moved from the prison, past a group of cheering spectators who had waited for Bundy to die and some said Bundy should've suffered more than he did.

It's worth asking where that's coming from. And I think Girard and mimetic theory provides some insight into this sacred function of the scapegoating ritual. Where people have to die in order for our society to feel that something good has been done and that we're able to move on. We see these big scapegoats throughout history, Jesus, the Holocaust, but scapegoats happen on a micro level all the time. Steve Bartman, the Cubs fan who was scapegoated for causing the Cubs to lose. Sports teams that have a bad year, what's the go-to method to make everything better? You fire the coach. We look around in our workplace and we see people being scapegoated and fired. Scapegoats are made in the news media and in politics practically every day. You make a scapegoat and 24 hours later, we need a new one.

The universe is swarming with scapegoats, yet, none of us actually think that we have any of our own. So, the question to ask is, who's your scapegoat? Pull back and look at the systems of desire that we're in. Who are those people that are on the outside of the economy, that are on the outside of political processes, who are the people that are bearing the weight for the rest of us?

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