Thursday, January 23, 2020

Huawei as ritual scapegoat

Thinking about the mythological resonances of two recent op-eds about US posturing regarding 5G (h/t Dale Hatfield) took me to an ancient ritual: scapegoating.

The articles

This ancient ritual is found around the Eastern Mediterranean, dating back to at least 2,500 BCE (see e.g.* A common pattern is that the problems of a community are transferred to a victim that is expelled, taking the troubles with it and restoring the status quo ante. As both Bruce Schneider and Anthony Rutkowski document, the US’s problems with 5G – not least in security – are far broader than China, let alone Huawei. However, Huawei is a powerful symbol and (conveniently) an outsider – the perfect scapegoat.

Once you start looking, scapegoat rituals are everywhere. To pick one from each side of the US partisan divide: dismantling Obamacare, and impeaching Donald Trump. In both cases, the hope seems to be that expunging the symbol will restore utopia. Another example that’s active on both sides of the Atlantic: refugees and immigrants.

One should distinguish between scapegoating and blaming, I think. Finding someone to blame for misfortune is certainly a deep-seated human habit, but scapegoating has the additional element of purification: the goat carries shared sins away.

I’ve wondered whether Facebook’s PR travails (worse than any of its peers’) are an example of scapegoating, but I don’t think so. It’s so powerful that it cannot be "expelled," so I think the Cambridge Analytical hearings were just plain old blaming, and didn’t result in – and weren’t intended to be –a completed scapegoat ritual. Arguably, those advocating the breakup of les GAFA are seeking to perform  the scapegoat ritual, in the sense that the dismantling of Big Tech will be sufficient as a pharmakon to restore health to the body socio-economic.

What’s the point of such speculations (other than my enjoyment)? Mythical patterns are so strong that they will keep reappearing, and they thus allow one to make predictions, or at least minimize surprise, about what society will do in the face of adversity. It’s not unlikely, for example, that a scapegoat will be found if/when adverse impacts of automation on employment become evident.**

A last thought: scapegoating seems to be the dual of Jewett & Lawrence’s “American monomyth”:
"A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity."
In the scapegoat case, paradise is restored by the expulsion of the sacrificial victim, rather than the labors of a superhero. In terms of pattern predictions, then, it’s also possible that evils (like big tech or automation) are to be vanquished by the appearance of a hero – Elizabeth Warren, anyone? The dual narrative played well four years ago: MAGA.


* I’m focusing here on ritual rather than mythology, but they’re closely linked. There’s an old academic chicken-or-egg argument about whether myth or ritual came first; at the very least, they’re related.

** As I read Bob Shiller's arguments ("Robert Shiller on Infectious Narratives in Economics: Excerpt" in Bloomberg), unemployment in the late 1920s and 30s was blamed on automation, “labor-saving machines” connected to an underconsumption or overproduction theory. I didn’t get a sense of whether taking action against these machines – i.e. scapegoating rather than just blaming – was seen as a remedy.

No comments: