Scapegoating in American Beauty

Scapegoat Mechanism – Type 3 (SMT3): ressentiment

[see previous post “Types of the Scapegoat Mechanism”]

 

an example

 

 

THE CHARACTER OF COLONEL FRANK FITTS

IN THE Movie

american beauty

(DIRECTOR: SAM MENDES)

 

 

American Beauty Ricky Fitts FilmingAlan Ball, who wrote the story, said the following about the main theme of the movie:

“I think I was writing about … how it’s becoming harder and harder to live an authentic life when we live in a world that seems to focus on appearance … For all the differences between now and the [1950s], in a lot of ways this is just as oppressively conformist a time … You see so many people who strive to live the unauthentic life and then they get there and they wonder why they’re not happy … I didn’t realize it when I sat down to write [American Beauty], but these ideas are important to me.”

– Alan Ball in Chumo II, Peter N. (January 2000). “American Beauty: An Interview with Alan Ball”. Creative Screenwriting Magazine (Los Angeles: Creative Screenwriters Group) 7 (1): 26–35 (p.32).

 

The character of “Colonel Frank Fitts, US Marine Corps” certainly is one poignant example of someone who is “keeping up appearances” at a very high price. His situation can be summarized as follows:

CLICK TO SEE THE SCHEME (PDF)

Frank Fitts

American Beauty Rose Plastic BagThroughout the film it becomes clear that Frank Fitts is secretly gay and that he is jealous of gay people who “came out of the closet.” He dares not reveal himself as a homosexual, though, for fear of being cast out by the social environment whose recognition he has mimetically learned to desire. Frank Fitts always presents himself as “Colonel Frank Fitts, US Marine Corps” and apparently this self-concept considers homosexuality as “something to be ashamed of.” He can’t stand being around openly gay people, like his two neighbors Jim and Jim, because they awaken his hidden homosexual desires. Frank Fitts resents and hates what he actually desires. When he thinks that his son Ricky is in a gay relationship with his neighbor Lester Burnham, he threatens to throw him out of the house and to banish him forever. Frank Fitts constantly justifies his acts of terror by making his victims responsible for the violence they have to endure. He constantly applies some sort of scapegoat mechanism, his victims “should be ashamed!” They should feel guilty about something they actually shouldn’t feel guilty about…

Frank Fitts is willing to do anything to protect his socially mediated (self-)image. His scapegoating of openly gay people helps him to be somewhat  at peace with his own life, although he is a bitter man. Finally, he reveals himself as a homosexual to his neighbor Lester Burnham, whom he wrongfully considers gay. Frank tries to kiss Lester, but Lester turns him down. Afraid of what might happen, Frank ends up murdering Lester in order to prevent the loss of his so-called acceptable (self-)image. In other words, the sacrifice of Lester – in no ways responsible for what happened to Frank, hence a scapegoat – seems necessary for Frank to fulfill his desire for recognition. In still other words, eros – a mimetically ignited love for some image or social status – leads to thanatos (death) to put an end to some identity crisis.

BE SURE TO WATCH THE EXCERPTS FROM AMERICAN BEAUTY WITH ADDITIONAL NOTES TO SEE HOW THE DIFFERENT CHARACTERS DEAL WITH

“THE LOSS OF APPEARANCES”

 

– CLICK TO WATCH:

Types of the Scapegoat Mechanism

Click here to read Mimetic Theory in High School.

In this post I’d like to present three types of the scapegoat mechanism as it evolves out of mimetic interactions, in a formulaic way. The following weeks I’ll post examples of these types (rap song Stan by Eminem, the biblical story of Cain and Abel and one storyline from the movie American Beauty – I already worked on these examples in my book, published in Dutch: Vrouwen, Jezus en rock-‘n-roll). This will show how these types or ‘formulas’ can be used to analyze inter/intrapersonal and social situations.

CLICK HERE FOR A PDF VERSION OF THE THREE TYPES OF THE SCAPEGOAT MECHANISM

metaphysical mimetic desire

THREE TYPES OF THE SCAPEGOAT MECHANISM

Scapegoat Mechanism Type 1 AUTO-AGGRESSIONScapegoat Mechanism Type 2 HETERO-AGGRESSIONScapegoat Mechanism Type 3 RESSENTIMENT OR SHAMEShame (explanation)

Mimetic Theory in High School

Some of us working on mimetic theory would like to develop some material that could be useful in high school curricula, in different disciplines. I’ll be posting some ideas and present some possible content in the months to come. This is how an introduction to a high school course on mimetic theory could look like. Any suggestions are welcome!

CLICK HERE TO READ A PDF VERSION

A.      HUMAN BEINGS AS CRISIS MANAGERS

We all have to deal with crisis situations. A crisis happens when we are challenged to renew or change the order of things as we know it. Therefore it is always a threat, big or small, to the systems that bring stability to our lives. A crisis is a time to make decisions in order to preserve a given system of stability or to create a new one. As such it is not just an event which forces us to adjust to its course, but also an opportunity to imagine other ways of being in the world. A crisis is violent when it is primarily experienced as an assault on our personal integrity and our socially defined identity. On the other hand, a crisis might contain the promise of a better protected personal integrity and an enhanced social identity when it is experienced as an assault on systems of stability that actually suppress us. In short, the crisis situations that befall us and subvert the world as we know it are experienced either as a curse or a blessing, either as doom or chance.

crisis is danger and opportunity

Confronted with crisis situations, every human being is able to ask three clusters of questions, one scientific and two philosophical. Here’s what the crisis manager named human might think about:

  • SCIENTIFIC QUESTIONS:

How can a crisis situation be explained? What are its causes and consequences? How do we, people, deal with it and what explains our behavior?

To use a business analogy:

How do people behave within the company and what problems arise out of this behavior?

  • A FIRST SET OF PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS (MEANING):

Where do we want to go from here, confronted with this crisis? What is the ultimate goal of what we are trying to do? What are we hoping for?

To use the business analogy:

What does this company stand for? What goals does it hope to accomplish?

  • A SECOND SET OF PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS (ETHICS):

How should we behave ourselves if we want to accomplish our goal, dealing with this crisis? Should we deal with the crisis situation like we normally do, or should we change our behavior?

To use the business analogy:

How should people behave within the company in order to accomplish its goals?

Once the two sets of philosophical questions are answered, science of course functions as a means to make the fulfillment possible of thought-through goals which transcend (and therefore guide) the merely scientific endeavor.

B.      MIMETIC THEORY – INSPIRATIONAL THINKING IN TIMES OF CRISIS

I.                    CONSIDERING “CRISIS MANAGEMENT” QUESTIONS

As long as we are alive and well as human beings, we are mimetically connected to each other. It is because of our mimetic (i.e. imitative) ability that we are social creatures. Mimetic theory, as it was initially developed by René Girard, tries to understand and explain the possibilities and pitfalls of human social behavior by studying its mimetic interactions. It attempts to answer the three clusters of questions, identified previously, concerning “crisis management” as the condition humaine:

  • SCIENTIFIC QUESTIONS:

How do crisis situations in human life arise out of mimetic interactions? How are these mimetic interactions influenced by conditions of the natural environment? Or, on the other hand, how do mimetic interactions construct patterns of human behavior that influence the natural environment in negative or positive ways? How do we normally deal with crisis situations arising out of mimetic interactions?

  • PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS (MEANING):

What goals are desirable for human life, considering the mimetic nature of human beings? What are we trying to accomplish by studying mimetic interactions?

  • PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS (ETHICS):

How should we behave if we want to accomplish our goals? Should we deal with crisis situations, arising out of mimetic interactions, like we normally do – like our ancestors did, for instance? Should we accept certain morals (of which the origins can be scientifically explained)? Or should we try to change our behavior?

II.                  OUTLINE FOR A COURSE USING MIMETIC THEORY

  • MIMESIS AND EMPATHY

Any course using mimetic theory starts with a simple observation: the way we think about ourselves and the way we develop a sense of identity is always mediated by our social environment. And that which makes something like a social environment possible precisely is our – indeed mimetic – ability to put ourselves in each other’s shoes.

Man as Social Being (Wolfgang Palaver)

Neuroscientists have discovered that so-called mirror neurons in our brains play a very important role in this regard. These brain cells allow us to imitate others. They allow us to pretend that we’re someone else and to take another person’s point of view. And this allows us to imagine what others are experiencing, thinking, expecting or even desiring. In short, our mimetic ability is the conditio sine qua non to empathize and bond with others, and to develop a sense of self.

double mediation

Of course our imaginative projections about others can be wrong. That’s why we, rather unwittingly, constantly look for the confirmation of mutually established social expectations. The question “Am I doing this right?” seems to be the ever present subtext to our behavior. It really structures the interaction between ourselves and others. As it happens though, the recognition we get from one social group might be of more importance to us than that of another. We might empathize more with the members of the San Francisco symphony orchestra we’re part of than with the homeless of that same city. Or we might feel so close to our favorite football team that we become really hostile to its adversaries.

So our ability to empathize with others turns out to be a two-edged sword. It connects us with and disconnects us from others at the same time. It can connect us to the members of a group we want to be part of against a common enemy. Even more so, it can stir rivalry between members of the same group or the same social environment. That might be surprising, but on second view it will turn out to be quite logical. Our mimetic ability allows us to take other people as models for our behavior. It allows us to learn from them in all sorts of ways, but it also plays a significant role in structuring our desires and ambitions. For instance, there’s more than one twelve year old soccer player walking around with a shirt of Lionel Messi or some other soccer idol, secretly dreaming of being the next soccer sensation.

  • MIMESIS AND RIVALRY – THE PROBLEM OF MIMETIC DESIRE

There seems to be no harm in identifying with someone you admire and take as an inspiration for your own desires and ambitions in life. At first glance, that is. As long as the model you imitate belongs to quite another world than your own, as long as there is a significant distance between yourself and your model – in space, in time, or both –, chances of a conflictual relationship with the model are reduced. On the other hand, when that distance is no longer experienced, things might turn ugly, both for yourself and your model. As a twelve year old forward in a soccer team, it’s fairly easy to admire Lionel Messi, but it might be a hell of a lot harder to appreciate the talents of the new teammate who comes in and takes your spot. Identifying yourself as being the forward (or even “the Messi of the team”) immediately complicates your relationship with this newcomer, as he arouses the desire for your former status and the recognition it is supposed to bring. You might, for instance, try to get rid of the new guy by locking him out. Good coaches, though, know how to deal with these types of situations, even strengthening their team in the process. When two or more forwards imitate and thereby reinforce each other’s desire to be the best player on their position, it indeed can make them all better players in a consequently better team.

Mimetic Rivalry

Good coaches and managers are able to use mimetic rivalry in constructive ways, allowing their employees to recognize and respect that “the best has won.” However, all management efforts aside, mimetic rivalry remains a tricky thing. It is literally rivalry based on the imitation of desires for certain material and/or immaterial objects (e.g. a trophy, some sort of social recognition or status, power within a company, wealth, etc.).

Envy Pride Mimetic Desire

Human desire is, beyond instinctive needs and wants, highly mimetic (i.e. based on imitation). True, we’re all born with certain physical needs (for food, water, oxygen, etc.). But no one is born with the desire to become, say, a culinary chef. That is a socially (and therefore mimetically) mediated ambition that gets different cultural expressions. Mimetic desire and mimetically mediated ambition can easily lead to frustrations and destructive conflicts between people who take each other as model.

Mimetic Desire

When two or more people, consciously or more often rather unwittingly, imitate each other’s desire, they become each other’s annoying obstacle when they cannot or do not want to share the object of their desire. In short, they become antagonists because of mimetic desire. Paradoxically, it is because people are close to each other and can imagine what it is like to be in the other’s shoes, that they can become each other’s archrivals in the context of a mutually shared desire. As said, our mimetic ability connects and disconnects.

Mimetic Desire (The Raven Foundation)

  • THE SCAPEGOAT MECHANISM AS RESPONSE TO MIMETIC CRISES

The mimetic building blocks of our psychosocial fabric are at once responsible for the preservation and disintegration of that very same fabric. One of the well-tried means to restore a social order that is in crisis because of escalating mimetic rivalry, is the so-called scapegoat mechanism. This restoration again rests on mimetic processes. Let’s turn to the example of the soccer team once more. When a team loses time and again, that’s normally no favorable factor for the group atmosphere. Teammates start blaming each other for bad results, maybe even sabotaging each other. There also might be ill-will towards the coach by players who feel they’re not given enough opportunities to play matches. And when the coach becomes part of the rivalry and frustrations within the team, that’s usually the end of his career there. As more players imitate the ill-will of some teammates towards their coach, the latter becomes the one held responsible for all the major problems within the team, and he’ll be fired by the board in the end. Instead of recognizing the mimetic origins of social disorder, people tend to blame one outsider or a group of outsiders. This scenario is well-known. Coaches indeed often function as convenient scapegoats, unjustly blamed for a crisis they’re not or only partly responsible for. Like other scapegoats they’re interpreted in a twofold manner by the group they’re expelled from: perceived as the main cause for the tensions, divisions and disorder within the group, and experienced as the main cure while being sacrificed (expelled, or worse) to restore unity and order within that same group. Scapegoats are at once villain and hero, monster and savior, hated and loved, unwanted and wanted, scorned yet needed. Think, for example, of dictatorial regimes who blame all their domestic problems on foreign enemies. As long as a dictator can unite his citizens against some outside enemy, he can at least prevent them from uniting against himself and remain in the saddle. This means that he cannot completely destroy the enemy he publicly loathes. Dictators need the periodic sacrifice of their scapegoat in order to preserve the social fabric on a very large scale, but human beings in general tend to use the scapegoat mechanism on a day-to-day basis, albeit often in smaller ways.

Scapegoat Team Building

  • GOALS OF THIS COURSE

Because of the widespread presence of the scapegoat mechanism and the sacrifices that go along with it in the preservation of social order and peace, it is a real challenge to imagine other ways of building human communities. The question is how to create communities where differences between people don’t lead to escalating rivalries that tend to leave no difference at all – except for the violently established difference between a group and its scapegoat or sacrificial victim. In other words, are there ways to create a social order and peace that leaves room for non-violent, creative conflicts that originate in the irreducible yet fascinating differences between ourselves and other human beings?

The goal of this course is, first, to become more aware of the psychological and social mechanisms this introduction already briefly touched upon. Among others, it will present three ways by which mimetic connections between ourselves and other human beings might become mentally and/or physically violent and destructive. Some stories, old and new and from different media, will function as mirrors that reveal some of those important aspects of who we are as human beings. It will allow participants to analyze actual events and to reflect upon their own life. For those interested, extracurricular background information is given, including some scientific and philosophical material. Secondly, this course invites participants to actively grow into a way of being that prospers non-sacrificial peace and a way of life that is giving and joyous.

Turn the other cheek

Once there was this girl, having the time of her life in a happy relationship. Until her boyfriend cheated on her. After that, she couldn’t go on with him. So they broke up.

A year later, she met this other guy. Love at first sight. They started dating. A few months down the road of this new romantic affair, a little fear started creeping into her mind: “What if I’ll be cheated on, again?” The fear grew bigger, as did her desire to safeguard her relationship. So she started controlling her new boyfriend, pressing him to inform her about his whereabouts. He didn’t do anything wrong, but he nevertheless had to suffer from her anxieties. Until he couldn’t stand it any longer, and her worst fear came true: he broke up with her. Tragic. Ironic. All she had done to avoid the destruction of the relationship brought about the relationship’s downfall. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it… (Matthew 16:25a).

What happened? Well, the girl was hurt, and she had been sad and angry because of it. Instead of letting go of her sadness and frustration, she started focusing on these emotions again while being in a new relationship. And she started hurting a guy who hadn’t done anything to cause her pain, insinuating he was not trustworthy and accusing him of being a liar and a cheater. In other words, she imitated the blows inflicted on her persona by inflicting similar blows on someone else. It was her way of taking revenge. Her new boyfriend turned out to be her scapegoat: someone who had to answer for her anger, although he was innocent. There is indeed, as René Girard and so many other Christian thinkers rightly point out, a nearly inextricable connection between the mimetic principle of vengeance and the scapegoating impulse.

In order to break the vicious cycle of hurt inflicting hurt – the cycle of original sin -, Christ invites us to take part in an act of creation. This is a creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing), meaning that our actions are no longer defined by the lesser and greater evil we endured in the past. To return to the situation of the girl: Christ invites her to “turn the other cheek” as she begins a new relationship. To turn the other cheek indeed means that you refuse to let your relationships and yourself be defined by the hurtful mechanisms that eventually destroy relationships. Christ invites the girl to trust being vulnerable again. He invites her to keep faith over fear – for “fear leads to anger, to hate, to suffering” as some famous wise man summarized Christ’s advice…

Forgiveness is at the heart of creation, destabilizing the balance of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” – for, as some other wise man allegedly said: “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”. Coming from outside the cycle of bad deeds or “bad karma“, the grace of forgiveness opens up the possibility of a new kind of imitation or mimesis. Instead of imitating each other in trying to assert ourselves over against one another – as theologian James Alison would say –, “turning the other cheek” is an invitation to begin an imitation of recognizing and accepting each other’s vulnerability. Recognizing that “no one is without sin”, in order to end “casting the first stone”. It’s an invitation to shy away from self-assertion over against one another – which would be called a movement of kenosis (“self-emptying”) in theological terms. The imitatio Christi would thus lead to the recovery of human beings, for “being human” means “being in relationships”, and the act of grace Christ invites us to take part in is precisely aimed at restoring those relationships. Therefore: Whoever loses his life for me will find it… (Matthew 16:25b).

So Matthew 5:38-39 is not an invitation to be masochistic. It’s quite the opposite. It’s a radical refusal to surrender to the evil that we experience from time to time. It’s an invitation to obey the creative call of Love (click here to read more) – which is, paradoxically, truly liberating:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…”

The Church of David LaChapelle

Let me start off with a short introduction to the spiritual life of David LaChapelle – click to watch the following interview (online version October 15, 2008)

– CLICK TO WATCH:

A lot of Christians might feel shocked when they first encounter the work of David LaChapelle. A renowned photographer and film-maker, LaChapelle is equally ranked among The Top Ten Most Important People in Photography in the World by American Photo as he is sometimes scornfully called the king of ‘kitsch’ or, bluntly, of ‘bad taste’ by his adversaries. The artist isn’t too proud to answer his critics:

“I use pop imagery – that’s my vocabulary; glamour and beauty is my vocabulary. They get angry when you use pop imagery (the things that are accessible) to talk about anything other than the completely superficial. And you know what? Let ’em be angry … I’m into narrative and clarity. I’m not into obscurity. I’m not into people having to read and research – I’m just into the title, and the image, and the image being the language. If people don’t want to take ten seconds to look at a picture and put it together, I can’t help that, but I stand by it and I love it. And I will keep doing it. And I ain’t going away.” (Taken from an interview for Dazed and Confused, March 2010, by Anna Carnick).

LaChapelle’s work displays a tremendous knowledge and admiration of western art’s history, and is peppered with Christian symbolism and imagery, as is shown especially by the ‘Jesus is My Homeboy’ and ‘American Jesus’ series.

The American Jesus series revolves around images of Michael Jackson (a lookalike that is), depicted in various Biblical and even typically Catholic scenes. If some Christians already find these questionable or offensive, they will really get irritated by the image entitled ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, which features a papal figure sitting on a throne before a pile of dead, naked men. The photographer seems to easily condemn the Catholic Church. However, when asked about his intentions behind his particular treatment of forms of corruption within the Church, LaChapelle answers with wit and nuance:

“I’m not condemning the Catholic Church — it’s too big, it’s like condemning a nation and that would be prejudiced. But what I’m doing here is pointing out an irony: Here you have an institution that has systematically protected pedophile priests and then you have an innocent Michael Jackson, who California spent millions of dollars trying to prosecute and could not do it because it was complete bulls–t.” (Taken from an interview for WWD, issue 07/13/2010, by Amanda Fitzsimons).

Moreover, LaChapelle has no problems whatsoever referring to his Catholic upbringing (the quote is taken from the same interview for WWD):

“I still go to church occasionally. I went the other day and found peace. I had this duality growing up with my dad being a strict Catholic and his brother being a priest and my mother finding God in nature, so I’ve taken a little from both [traditions].”

From the point of view of his Christian background, it’s no coincidence that LaChapelle has developed a special interest for two groups of people in particular: rich and famous celebrities on the one hand, and economically deprived young people on the other. His preoccupation with the Christ figure has led him to some enthralling insights. Those familiar with mimetic theory will find them fascinating as well.

I’m glad to share David LaChapelle’s views in the following two sections.

1. The sacrificial celebrity cults as producers of modern day ‘scapegoat-gods’

The biblical writings unanimously reject phenomena like gossip and the spread of false rumors about other people. Already one of the ten commandments forbids ‘to give false testimony against a neighbor’ (Exodus 20:16).

Those who gossip – and we are all tempted to do so from time to time – create alliances based on the exclusion of the one who is gossiped about. The Book of Proverbs warns for the seductive nature of voyeurism, and its destructive, dehumanizing consequences. People shouldn’t deliver themselves too easily to the delights of gossip:

Remove perverse speech from your mouth;  keep devious talk far from your lips. (Proverbs 4:24).

The north wind brings forth rain, and a gossiping tongue brings forth an angry look. (Proverbs 25:23).

Where there is no wood, a fire goes out, and where there is no gossip, contention ceases. Like charcoal is to burning coals, and wood to fire, so is a contentious person to kindle strife. The words of a gossip are like delicious morsels; they go down into a person’s innermost being. Like a coating of glaze over earthenware are fervent lips with an evil heart. The one who hates others disguises it with his lips, but he stores up deceit within him. When he speaks graciously, do not believe him, for there are seven  abominations  within him. Though his hatred may be concealed by deceit, his evil will be uncovered in the assembly. The one who digs a pit will fall into it; the one who rolls a stone – it will come back on him. A lying tongue hates those crushed by it, and a flattering mouth works ruin. (Proverbs 26:20-28). 

A gossiped-about person is either spoken of in unrealistically praiseful terms, or, on the contrary, in a non-proportional degrading way. In other words, gossiped-about persons become the ‘sacred’ glue that hold certain communities together. The gossiped-about persons become divinized idols or equally deceitfully presented demonized ‘monsters’. David LaChapelle, inspired by his Christian background, clearly understands these mechanisms, as is demonstrated in an interview with digital magazine Nowness:

It is definitely true that celebrities are our modern day gods and goddesses, and we build them up and tear them down.

Madonna has been torn down. Michael Jordan has been torn down. Michael Jackson was destroyed. Like no other person in our times. You have to remember that Michael Jackson was innocent. He was proved innocent in our courts. If you read the transcripts of the trial it is insanity, it should never have gone to court. We spent tens of millions of dollars to prosecute him when we don’t have money for schools in California.

Why is that?

Not because he was a celebrity but because he looked different. He was obsessive about privacy and it made him “other,” it made him different, and he went from being the most famous, most beloved singer to the most reviled, joked about—he couldn’t open a newspaper without reading horror stories about himself.

Judeo Christian Scripture unveils and denounces the mechanisms by which a human being’s true, imperfect ‘black-and-white’ nature is sacrificed for the sake of an unreal ‘image’. David LaChapelle saw this happening to Michael Jackson (in the aforementioned interview with WWD):

WWD: Why did you choose to photograph Michael in a variety of religious scenes?

David LaChapelle: Michael had paintings of himself at Neverland depicting himself as a knight and surrounded by cherubs and angels. People might think he’s an egomaniac, but he’s not. It’s because the world turned against him. I mean, Michael couldn’t even get B-listers to show up for the second trial. [With these pictures he’s saying] “I’m not the joke and the horror the media is making me out to be.”

WWD: Michael stars in the show’s title piece “American Jesus.” Do you believe him to be a modern-day Jesus?

D.L.: I believe Michael in a sense is an American martyr. Martyrs are persecuted and Michael was persecuted. Michael was innocent and martyrs are innocent. If you go on YouTube and watch interviews with Michael, you don’t see a crack in the facade. There’s this purity and this innocence that continued [throughout his life]. If it had been an act, he couldn’t have kept it up. If you watch his [1992] concerts from Budapest and compare it to a Madonna concert of today, you’ll see such uplifting beauty and a message that you won’t see in any other artist of our time.

In the interview with the aforementioned Nowness LaChapelle goes even further and states:

We persecuted Michael Jackson. Every person who ever bought a tabloid or watched the news, we all contributed to his death by taking in that form of gossip.

The Bible is concerned with ‘truth’ and takes sides with the wrongfully presented and the wrongfully accused persons – the scapegoats! The prophet Isaiah calls out to the people of Israel:

“You must remove the burdensome yoke from among you and stop pointing fingers and speaking sinfully.” (Isaiah 58:9b).

 Jesus, the one who is called the Christ, even goes so far as to bless the victims of gossip and false rumors:

 “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things about you falsely on account of me.” (Matthew 5:11).

It is no coincidence then that the easily gossiped-about persons in the Jewish community at the time of the New Testament, like prostitutes or the infamous tax collectors, are among Christ’s favorites. He shares meals with these ‘sinners’, like with the tax collector Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). Even one of his apostles – Levi or ‘Matthew’ – is known to be a former tax collector (Luke 5:27-39).

The apostle Paul asks us to transform our imitative, mimetic abilities in order to become ‘children of God’. Instead of reinforcing processes of victimization by imitating the ones who gossip and ‘point fingers’, he asks us to become ‘imitators of Christ’. Christ is the One who was eventually sacrificed, because he completely delivered himself to Compassion:

Be imitators of God as dearly loved children and live in love, just as Christ also loved us and gave himself for us, a sacrificial and fragrant offering  to God. […] There should be no vulgar speech, foolish talk, or coarse jesting – all of which are out of character – but rather thanksgiving. For you can be confident of this one thing: that no person who is immoral, impure, or greedy (such a person is an idolater) has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. (Ephesians 5:1-5).

Christ completely imitated and ‘incarnated’ his ‘Father’ – a Love which ‘refuses sacrifice and desires mercy’ – see for instance Matthew 9:13. Therefore Christ could not defend himself by starting some sort of ‘civil war’, because that would imply sacrifices of others. In any case, Christ doesn’t want us to be suicidal, but he is very much aware of the risks in taking sides with the excluded and the outcasts. It might mean that these become members of the community again, but it might also have as a consequence that the outcast’s defender is excluded oneself and that he ‘has to take up his cross’ to be ‘crucified’. Christ’s preference for the victims of gossip and rumors indeed often meant he himself became gossiped-about. Nevertheless, he kept approaching people like tax collectors in liberating ways. Many a victim of gossip, like these tax collectors at the time of Jesus, imitates the reasoning of his attackers and thinks it’s ‘part of the deal’ of being a ‘celebrity’. Jesus points out that people shouldn’t accept being gossiped about by the self-declared ‘righteous’ and ‘elected’:

Jesus told this parable to some who were confident that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else. “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself like this: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: extortionists, unrighteous people, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’ The tax collector, however, stood far off and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am!’ I tell you that this man went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14).

2. The ‘richness’ of ‘poor’ people and the ‘poverty’ of the ‘rich’

Jesus distinguishes two kinds of motivations to give (of) oneself: there are those who give and sacrifice in order to receive some kind of ‘reward’, and there are those who give in order to let others come to life. The first are the real ‘poor people’ in the eyes of Jesus because they worryingly adhere and enslave themselves to ‘material’, ‘worldly’ things like ‘wealth’ or ‘social status’. They also have the ‘mimetic’ (i.e. imitative) tendency to enviously compare themselves to others and to compete with their thus conceived ‘enemies’ in order to ‘rise above’ them. In the above mentioned parable, Jesus denounces this mechanism wherein people not only sacrifice themselves to a deceitful self-image, but also sacrifice others in presenting them in an equally deceitful and degrading way. Real richness, according to Jesus, comes with those who develop a realistic, ‘truthful’ view about themselves and who are able to give whatever they received:

Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box. He also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all offered their gifts out of their wealth. But she, out of her poverty, put in everything she had to live on.” (Luke 21:1-4).

David LaChapelle pays particular attention to this kind of unconditional life bringing and therefore community enhancing way of ‘giving’ in his film Rize. Therein socially and economically deprived youngsters aren’t reduced to their situation, but are shown as talented people who are able to rebuild their communities in new, joyful and colorful ways. They really are ‘Church builders’, able to ‘give back’ inspired by the love they experience from each other. From the point of view of mimetic theory, their dancing not only ritualizes mimetic rivalry and restrains violence, but it also celebrates the grateful experience of life itself. Here’s what the synopsis of the film has to say:

“Rize” reveals a groundbreaking dance phenomenon that’s exploding on the streets of South Central, Los Angeles. Taking advantage of unprecedented access, this documentary film brings to first light a revolutionary form of artistic expression borne from oppression. The aggressive and visually stunning dance modernizes moves indigenous to African tribal rituals and features mind-blowing, athletic movement sped up to impossible speeds. “Rize” tracks the fascinating evolution of the dance: we meet Tommy Johnson (Tommy the Clown), who first created the style as a response to the 1992 Rodney King riots and named it “Clowning”, as well as the kids who developed the movement into what they now call Krumping. The kids use dance as an alternative to gangs and hustling: they form their own troupes and paint their faces like warriors, meeting to outperform rival gangs of dancers or just to hone their skills. For the dancers, Krumping becomes a way of life – and, because it’s authentic expression (in complete opposition to the bling-bling hip-hop culture), the dance becomes a vital part of who they are.

Like “Paris is Burning” or “Style Wars” before it, “Rize” illuminates an entire community by focusing on an artform as a movement that the disenfranchised have created. But the true stars of the film are the dancers themselves: surrounded by drug addiction, gang activity, and impoverishment, they have managed to somehow rise above. The film offers an intimate, completely fresh portrayal of kids in South Central as they reveal their spirit and creativity. These kids have created art – and often family – where before there was none.

It is evident that the young dancers are able to found communities in non-exclusive ways. In this way, they really are building the Church – the Community – Jesus dreamt of:

Realizing THOMAS “TOMMY THE CLOWN” JOHNSON had become a positive role model for the kids in South Central, he created the Battle Zone to provide an alternative outlet for the kids in the community to battle it out on the dance floor instead of on the streets. In 2003, Tommy the Clown’s Battle Zone hosted a sold-out performance at the Los Angeles Forum. Tommy continues the battles every third Saturday of every month at Debbie Allen Dance Academy – a non-profit dance studio where kids from the community can learn all forms of dance training. Tommy the Clown emerged as a community icon and was asked to be a spokesperson for Governor Gray Davis’ Census Campaign which involved outreach to schools, neighborhood questionnaire assistance centers and statewide agencies which succeeded with the highest mail-in response rates in four decades. He formed strategic partnerships with counties and cities, all while delivering smiles and laughter. […] Truly an entertainer for all ages, Tommy the Clown’s mission is to reach out to communities across the world that are in need of a positive alternative lifestyle.

DRAGON was born Jason Green in Frankfurt on November 2, 1981. A military baby, he spent his initial years living throughout Germany, his very first in a hospital, the result of being born prematurely. His family eventually moved to California and settled in Compton. Dragon first crossed paths with Tommy the Clown while dancing for Platinum Clowns, a rival clown group, in competition. Dancing since the age of 19, Dragon has appeared in such music videos as Blink 182’s “I’m Feelin’ It,” and in various awards shows including the Choreographer Awards and the 2005 NAACP Awards. Outside of the Clowning world, Dragon is also an accomplished artist whose experience spans across fashion design, the graphic arts, multi-media, airbrushing, and comic book art. Now residing in Carson, CA, Dragon is currently studying to be a minister. He rediscovered the church after years of distancing himself from it, only to realize how truly unhappy he was with his life. Dragon now believes that the principles our nation was established upon – religion, principle, respect – have been compromised by our drive for material things which have no true value. Through the church, he hopes to someday help others find their own spiritual foundation for a happy life.

 TIGHT EYEZ, real name Ceasare Willis, is one of the founders of Krumping. He created the Krump movement in 2000 with his brothers and Lil C and Mijo. While living in New York, Tight Eyez dreamed of launching a dance that would get everyone “hyped up.” He soon moved to Los Angeles and founded Clown dancing, which thereafter evolved into Krumping. He went on to perform with many clown groups before finally meeting and joining creative forces with Tommy the Clown. Tight Eyez has turned his life over to God and changed his life through Jesus. He uses the Krump movement to help young people in faith to change their lives. His goal is to establish his own Krump Organization, of which he would be the CEO, and hopes to open schools for youth to dance, exercise their talent and utilize their inner gifts. Hopefully, by the age of 23…

Christian Jones, a/k/a BABY TIGHT EYEZ, was born and raised in the Church. His grandfather was the founder of the Christian Tabernacle of Love, Faith and Deliverance, and his Aunt is now Pastor of Christian Tabernacle Ministries. After his grandfather passed on in 1998, he took up the organ, which he plays at services. Baby Tight Eyez learned how to Krump dance at the heels of Tight Eyez, Lil C, Mijo, and Dragon, and considers them among his closest friends in the Krump movement. When he is not dancing, he loves to hang with his homies. His goal is to launch a big dance studio where everyone could Krump for free. He would also like to buy his pastors a new church. He hopes to give back to those who do not have, to give back to his neighborhood, to give those who are as he once was.

I compiled a film with some of the documentary’s testimonies, and combined them with fragments of pop diva Madonna‘s 2006 Confessions Tour. I know that her allusion to the crucifixion of Christ – as shown at the ending of this compilation – stirred a lot of controversy, but I hope people are able to see it as an artistic commentary on what happens when deprived people are given voice and rediscover their dignity: it means that the love of Christ, Christ himself, is in our midst. Although some of the youngsters explain their life story in a sacrificial way (in the sense of ‘I had to endure what happened to me to receive a rewarding insight or gift’ – the Nietzschean ‘What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger’ type of explanation), above all they try to ‘enlighten’ the world with their dance talents. These are really ‘tales of resurrection’ wherein the gift of life is passed on to others. Watch my video compilation right here

– CLICK TO WATCH:

On a personal note, I’d like to end this post by thanking Mr. LaChapelle for allowing me the use of his Intervention picture for the cover of my book (click the title for more information) Vrouwen, Jezus en rock-‘n-roll – Met René Girard naar een dialoog tussen het christelijk verhaal en de populaire cultuur. I truly consider it an honor.

David LaChapelle & Erik Buys