Objections to Mimetic Theory?

From time to time I’m confronted with objections to mimetic theory that, looked at more closely, are based on some misconceptions. Here are some clarifications, hopefully. (For more on scientific research concerning imitation, click here: Mimesis and Science).


Already in 1961, publishing Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, René Girard made the world familiar with his concept of mimetic desire. Mimetic desire is literally desire based on imitation. Like so many others before and after him, Girard observes that human beings are highly mimetic creatures. Humans imitate each other in all sorts of ways and thereby learn from each other – they learn good as well as bad behavior… To name but one example, people imitate the sounds of their environment and learn to speak, for instance, with a Texan accent. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing :).

By introducing the concept of mimetic desire, Girard stresses that our desire is structured by imitating others who function as models for our desire. It is important to distinguish this type of desire from our basic biological or physical needs. When you’re walking in the desert alone and your body is yearning for water, your desire for water is, of course, not based on the imitation of someone else’s desire. True, nature has its impact on human life. However, when our basic physical needs are met, our desire goes beyond them. Our basic need for water is transformed in what eventually became a supermarket world that asks us to choose between different types of water, juices and soft drinks. Growing up, we develop a certain taste, transmitted to us by our social and cultural surroundings. We might even develop desires that not only go further than our physical needs, but also against them (anorexia being one example).

coca cola thirst asks nothing moreSo, it’s not just nature that defines human life, nurture has its way too… We all have the biological need for food, but if we were born in another part of the world we would probably have developed different eating habits. It’s as simple as that. We imitate others. We mimetically learn to quench our natural thirst and to satisfy our natural hunger in a certain, culturally dependent way. No one is born with the desire for the newest soft drink produced by The Coca-Cola Company (indeed, Thou Shalt Covet What Thy Neighbor Covets – click to read this article by famous marketeer Martin Lindstrom), as no one is born with the desire to become a police officer. Our identities are not ahistorically determined from birth, they’re co-created with others.

We always write our personal history together with others, and we mutually influence each other. Since we’re social creatures we cannot escape this influence. Relationships precede and shape our (sense of) identity. Even if we go against our tendency to imitate an immediate social environment that seems indifferent towards the victim of some crime or accident (see “Bystander Effect” – click for more), we probably still imitate heroic examples from stories we grew up with (“The Good Samaritan” may be one of them).

Two questions often appear after these considerations, which show just how hard it is to let go of any type of Ego Illusion:

  1. We often imitate others to adjust to our social environment. We imitate others because we desire social recognition. So, our desire for social recognition must be more fundamental than our mimetic tendencies, no?
  2. If we imitate each other’s desire for something, someone still has to be the first to desire that something. Surely, the latter’s desire cannot be based on imitation, can it?

I’ve answered the first question before, but I’ll repeat it here. Of course we often imitate others to ‘fit in’. However, we could not develop a desire to fit in if it weren’t for our mimetic abilities. Our mimetic abilities allow us to put ourselves in each other’s shoes. They allow us to pretend that we are someone else. For instance, a little girl playing with her dolls pretends being a mother by imitating real mothers. Our mimetic abilities allow us, thereby, to imagine – however preliminary – what others are experiencing, expecting and desiring. So our ability to empathize and to adjust to the expectations of others (maybe to gain their recognition) rests on mimetic ability.

The second question seems very logical. Confronted with real life cases, the quest for ‘the first model’ is not that easy to answer though. Even simple situations show it might be the wrong question. Think, for instance, about two babies in a room full of toys. Let’s name the two Bobby and Johnny. Bobby starts playing with a little ball. Note that he didn’t necessarily wake up with the desire to play with a ball. Already in this sense his desire isn’t his own. It is awakened by people who left him the ball to play with. After just ten seconds, Bobby gets tired of the ball. He doesn’t really enjoy playing with it. So he starts playing with some other toy. He has no desire to play with the ball whatsoever. In comes Johnny. He saw Bobby playing with the ball and this raised Johnny’s attention. Now that the ball is left, Johnny takes the opportunity to start playing with it himself. In this situation Johnny is the imitator. However, when Bobby notices Johnny playing with the ball, he immediately leaves the toy that was more fun to him and tries to lay his hands on the ball Johnny is playing with now. In this situation Bobby is the imitator. In short, Johnny’s desire rests on the imitation of Bobby as model for his desire, while Bobby’s desire rests on the imitation of Johnny as model for his desire. It’s no use asking “Who’s first?” Johnny and Bobby mutually reinforce each other’s desire by becoming each other’s model and imitator. Thereby they become each other’s rival. René Girard speaks of the rivalry between mimetic doubles. More generally, we become each other’s rival if we cannot or do not want to share the object of our mimetic desire. Here’s an example – it could have been Bobby and Johnny 🙂 – CLICK TO WATCH:


Some consider René Girard’s explanations on the origin and maintenance of human cultures far-fetched. Well, are they?

René Girard considers the very first sacrificial rituals as imitations of a scapegoat mechanism in groups of primitive humans whose internal (mimetic) rivalry threatened to destroy the group itself. Primitive human societies experienced the killing of one member of their group by a significant part of the community as something which restored calm and order. This must have happened so much in primitive human societies that they started making certain associations.

On the one hand primitive societies experience turmoil as long as ‘the common enemy’ is alive, while on the other hand they experience peace after he is beaten to death. Gradually they will associate new situations of disorder with the resurgence of a former victim of group violence. In other words, they experience a person who is not visibly present anymore, but whose presence is ‘felt’ in situations of turmoil. In other words still, one of the former victims of group violence has become a ‘ghost’ or a ‘god’. At the same time, primitive human societies also ‘learn’ that killing someone apparently restores order. So together with the belief in ghosts and gods considered responsible for all kinds of possible violent disasters, the belief originates concerning the effectiveness of sacrifices to restore, renew and/or keep order, life and stability in human society. If primitive societies would have seen that the victims of group violence are no more responsible for violence than other members of the group, they would not have developed these beliefs. Violence became something sacred because the victims of group violence were considered exclusively responsible for the violence they were associated with. Those victims were scapegoats.

ancient human sacrificeGirard argues that all other associations regarding ‘the sacred’ rest on this first association between violence and divinized victims of group violence. Everything that can be associated with violence had the potential to become sacred or divinized as well. Sexuality became sacred. Indeed, sometimes males fight over females. Food became sacred. Indeed, people fight over food sometimes. Territory  became sacred. Indeed, people go to war sometimes because of territory. Nature as a whole became sacred. Indeed, natural disasters are ‘violent’ and provoke violence if they cause lack of food and water… And so the world and the experience of man became sacred.

Religions came and went, but the age-old associations regarding the sacred were transmitted down the generations. The Greeks still had Ares, god of war, as they had their goddess of love, Aphrodite. The Romans copied (indeed, ‘imitated’) the Greeks and spoke of Mars and Venus.

Asked why they perform their rituals and sacrifices and why they respect their taboos, primitive societies always answer: “Because our ancestors did it, and because we have to respect the ghosts and the gods in order to sustain our community…”

Could it really be true that the structure of ancient human sacrifice goes back to a mechanism that can still be observed in our ape cousins? And that this mechanism provides the foundation of the archaic sacred? Is it far-fetched to suspect that the former fact (the structure of ancient human sacrifice, which begins with a fight!) has something to do with the latter fact (the scapegoat mechanism)?

Pavlov DogGirard has argued that the dividing line between human and ape lies in the way mimetic quarrels became a threat to the survival of primitive human communities. Precisely because the mimetic ability of humans grew, their tendency towards near uncontrollable mimetic rivalry increased likewise. Hence it became possible that humans began to make associations that their ape cousins could not make regarding the communal killing of a group member. Compare to Pavlov’s dog: a dog who has only arbitrarily or sporadically heard a signal while getting food will not drool if he hears the signal, while Pavlov’s dog who has systematically heard the signal while getting food will at some point start to drool from the moment he merely hears the signal… Apes won’t associate turmoil with a victim, while primitive humans will start to do exactly that at some point. The consequences can be suspected: primitive humans will start to consciously ritualize the scapegoat mechanism, while apes only experience this mechanism sporadically. Here’s a powerful example of the mechanism, nonetheless, observed in a group of monkeys. We can almost observe how it must have been like that ‘a loathed enemy’ became ‘a revered god’. This also explains why gods have a ‘dual’, ‘ambiguous’ quality.They’re good and bad…


To This Day

Shane Koyczan is a spiritual man. A man of poetry and gentle madness. A man of stories, a man of truth. A man of beauty. His poem To This Day would be a great way to end a first part of a journey with mimetic theory in high school, especially regarding what I’ve written so far on the film American Beauty. It could follow these posts:

  1. Mimetic Theory in High School (click to read)
  2. Types of the Scapegoat Mechanism (click to read)
  3. Scapegoating in American Beauty (click to read)
  4. Philosophy in American Beauty (click to read)
  5. Real Life Cases of Ressentiment (click to read)

quote A weed is but an unloved flower Ella Wheeler WilcoxTo This Day and Shane’s TED-talk contain many themes I’ve written about before, for instance in a post entitled Atheism: a lack of unbelief?:

A person’s worth cannot be determined solely by human perception and judgment. Man is not simply the child of a “social other”, i.e. the product of a man-made social environment in which he gains or loses a sense of (self-) worth. He’s also, following the thoughts of people like James Alison and Emmanuel Levinas, a child of “the other Other”, and we should postpone any final judgment on other people and ourselves.

It also reminded me of this famous quote: “Every finite spirit believes either in a God or in an idol” (Max Scheler, 1874-1928). I wrote about this in several posts before, for instance in a post entitled That is (not) the question, about rap star Diam’s conversion to Islam – it talks about how we have the tendency to sacrifice ourselves and others to the demands of a so-called admirable (self-)image that seeks confirmation and recognition:

quote Shane Koyczan Be the weedDiam’s discovered how she tried to live up to the expectations of her fans, and how this enslaved her. She was kneeling to an image of herself as the admirable idol her fans wanted her to be. Kneeling to Allah, on the other hand, apparently meant that Diam’s no longer bowed to the demands of the music and entertainment industry. It was a turning point in her life. It enabled her to free herself, and to criticize the priorities in her life. From now on, she would seek and explore another source of motivations for her life.

Finally, Shane Koyczan’s story is reminiscent of Peter Howson’s story in a post entitled Desert Moments with Peter Howson:

“I used to be very badly bullied at school and when I was a bouncer in a nightclub for quite a few years I changed in a false sense then, and became a bully myself.” In other words: Howson became the imitator of his persecutors… He followed the mimetic principle of vengeance.

CLICK TO WATCH the video To This Day (click here to read the lyrics in pdf):

I’d like to give some quotes from his TED-talk as well, because they illustrate some key insights from René Girard’s mimetic theory and they reminded me of those previous posts:

quote do not be conformed by this world RomansWe were expected to define ourselves at such an early age, and if we didn’t do it, others did it for us. Geek. Fatty. Slut. Fag. And at the same time we were being told what we were, we were being asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I always thought that was an unfair question. It presupposes that we can’t be what we already are.

See, they asked me what I wanted to be, then told me what not to be. And I wasn’t the only one. We were being told that we somehow must become what we are not, sacrificing what we are to inherit the masquerade of what we will be. I was being told to accept the identity that others will give me.

quote be this guyOne of the first lines of poetry I can remember writing was in response to a world that demanded I hate myself. From age 15 to 18, I hated myself for becoming the thing that I loathed: a bully. When I was 19, I wrote, “I will love myself despite the ease with which I lean toward the opposite.

CLICK TO WATCH Shane’s TED-talk:

between zero and hero: mere men

“As you get older you will learn that loyalty is a virtue too important to be lavished on individual personalities.”

(From That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis).

When I was a child, back in the eighties, my friends and I used to play this hero or superman game. We would identify with some action figure we considered super-dooper and, well, “fight” each other. Or at least we would mimic a fight from an action movie we secretly watched behind our parents back. Most of us were allowed to watch some violence in cartoons, but weren’t allowed to see the real deal – or so we thought… So Rambo and Rocky were out of the question. This prohibition only added to the mystique of these films and ignited our desire to watch them at all costs. It also made the movie characters larger than life, still, if that was even possible.

I remember that we weren’t quite fully aware of the fictitious nature of most heroes. So Sylvester Stallone was different from Rambo and Rocky, as Arnold Schwarzenegger differed from, say, Conan the BarbarianMr. T and B.A. Baracus likewise might have had the same look, but were not to be mistaken for each other. Besides, for some strange reason still unknown to us, we could watch the A-Team. Other cardboard characters in our “realm of the gods” were real cartoon (hmm, “real cartoon”) characters like He-Man or G.I. Joe. And Bruce Lee was the ultimate legend, of course.

It was a simpler world then, for me and my friends. There were good guys and bad guys. Heroes and villains. The Cold War hadn’t quite finished, and as children from Europe’s West we would team up with the valiant knights of the USA against the evil empire of the USSR. For instance, together with Rocky we would fight the Russian monstrous man-machine Drago in Rocky IV. Or we would cheer Rambo to outsmart the Soviets with aid of the Taliban in Rambo III (imagine that – how policies change according to newly found “common enemies”!). We had yet to learn that “the Russians love their children too”, although Sting already sang this as far back as 1985.

Growing up, I learned that the battle between good and evil is not really a battle of “us” (the good guys) versus “them” (the bad guys), but should actually be located in the individual.The battle of the handsome He-Man versus the atrocious Skeletor became understandable as a metaphor for an inner struggle in every man’s heart or soul. After all, “we all have our demons to fight”, don’t we? Freudian psycho-analysis would call this battle the source of an ever fragile equilibrium the Ich has to maintain between Es and Über-Ich.

All of a sudden, the world wasn’t that simple anymore. We couldn’t just locate evil outside of ourselves anymore and banish it, like some scapegoat in the desert. Moreover, the heroes we identified with as children turned out to posses some bad character traits as well. It all boils down to your point of view. I once read a testimony from a Jewish woman who survived the Holocaust wherein she states that the most scandalous experience she had back then, was the realization that her tormentor was a human being, just like herself – after seeing him in a gentle mood with his family. Or, to put things slightly different, Superman only appears beneficial among his own kin. From the perspective of his opponents and victims, he is the devil. So to follow some kind of Superman in all circumstances – even if it’s the Superman you imagine yourself to be – is a shady affair. You could become a monster in trying to turn yourself into a hero…

“Yesterday he was a god; today he is a devil; tomorrow he’ll be a man again; that’s all.”

(From The Three Clerks, by Anthony Trollope).

The challenge that arises from this identity crisis is to accept that you yourself and the people you look up to are not the noble heroes you imagined, nor is your opponent or enemy the monster you always thought. Mercy and forgiveness can only come from this kind of acceptance, from the realization that it is okay to be “mere men”. For the longest time humanity has convinced itself that people should strife for perfection no matter what, that people should resemble some godly ideal.

The ancient Greek philosophers basically defended the idea that it’s nature’s law that “man becomes god.” Christianity tells the shocking story that “God becomes man.” Meaning that it’s not even necessary to participate in a battle between “angels and demons” to sustain some sense of identity. Beyond psycho-analytical identity constructions, you are loved just the same. The paradoxical miracle of accepting yourself as “not being a hero”, is that you can truly become a saving grace for others. For it is when we keep on believing the illusion that we can somehow heroically protect ourselves and our own from all harm and that “evil does not happen but far from our quarters”, that we remain blind for the evil that happens on our very doorstep.

When pedophilia scandals came to light in the Catholic Church of Belgium as well, following reports from child abuse by churchmen from around the world and with the infamous case of Bishop Roger Vangheluwe serving as a trigger, one of my colleagues was scandalized because I claimed that we all bear some sort of responsibility in these cases. Let’s face it, when push comes to shove, we often do have the tendency to look the other way and to let others – you know, “professionals” – deal with “sensitive cases”. But even psychiatrists and health care workers, it seems, aren’t to be trusted. The Netherlands were recently shocked by Rieke Samson’s report on child abuse in youth care. And in Belgium there was psychiatrist Walter Vandereycken’s case. He allegedly abused some of his adult female patients.

It’s very easy to express disgust for criminals and wrongdoers, and to feel some relief for “not being part of the corrupt group” that let them have their way. But I think, considering the spread of child abuse cases, that the Gospel is right for revealing the painful truth that we are all, more often than not, like the apostle Peter whose loyalty is refuted by Jesus (Matthew 26:34): “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” Indeed, when Jesus becomes a victim of the authorities, Peter looks the other way in order to keep himself from getting contaminated with the troubles of his friend.

So it comes as no surprise then that it was easier for the BBC to run a documentary about child abuse in the Catholic Church (The Shame of the Catholic Church), than to give green light for a documentary about the systematic child abuse of one of its celebrity TV-personalities, the late Jimmy Savile. It’s all too human, sadly. But evil is and can be everywhere, also in our own quarters. We might be tempted again to exorcize that evil and restore our sense of identity by “sending a scapegoat into the desert” or by executing large scale witch hunts, but that won’t heal the damage done. It will only increase people’s solicitude to be “on the right side of the line” between good and evil. It will create further mistrust between people and complicate relationships, especially between educators and children. Educators might start to promote a culture of distance between themselves and children, which will again allow malicious minds to gain an aura of inaccessibility and power – and the problem of child abuse might continue by the very measures that tried to avoid it.

As long as we are more preoccupied to safeguard our own “goodness” by blaming each other for all the “badness”, we won’t be able to help any one victim.

To give up on an easy manicheistic duality between good and evil is very difficult. Make no mistake, many of the people who were on Lance Armstrong’s side when he provided the Tour de France with himself as a new legend in cycling publicly loathe him now. He’s gained money for lots of people, and we just love heroic athletes. But ever since he was revealed as a cheat, we’re on the search for new, “real” heroes. And the vicious circle goes on, for no mere man is capable of being that legendary. Maybe he’ll be remembered more positively when he passes away as a tragic old man and long forgotten sports hero. It’s what happened to Michael Jackson and so many other celebrities. Before he died, the general public didn’t care about Jackson’s music anymore, focusing instead on allegations of child abuse and other scandals Jackson was involved in. Dead, he again became the attractive idol he once was. René Girard’s mimetic theory explains parts of our awe for (and idolization of) the dead from deeply embedded and culturally transmitted experiences surrounding victims of mob violence, whose death formerly brought peace and unity to communities.

Mimetic mechanisms time and again trick us into participating in the creation of “heroes” and “monsters” (who are often our former heroes). We constitute the crowd that applauds the emperor’s new clothes, until a child tells us that he really has no clothes. And then Lance walks on, proud as we have taught him to be, and we, doing everything not to lose face, convince ourselves that we somehow knew or didn’t know (depending on our position) of his deception all along…

One can only pray that people like football coach Jerry Sandusky, who abused several boys, are also taken care of by relatives. Else fallen heroes mainly serve as markers to identify and to judge what and who is “good” and what and who is “bad”. To forget that our “heroes” or “zeros” are mostly “mere men”, is to forget our own humanity. It means that we will imitate the crowd that claims to be “righteous”. It means that we will identify with the hero we imagine ourselves to be to destroy “the bad guys” outside ourselves. It means that we will unwittingly become monsters ourselves, equal to the monster we were trying to destroy – its double. Shouldn’t we be preoccupied with Sandusky’s victims instead of Sandusky himself? To listen to the voice of the Victim in our midst, instead of the thousands of godly heroes in our head that put “us” against “them”, well… that’ll be the day…

For insofar as there is jealousy, strife, and factions among you, aren’t you fleshly, and don’t you walk in the ways of men? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” aren’t you fleshly? […] Therefore let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come. All are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.

(1 Corinthians 3:3-4 & 3:21-23).

On blaming the Church for AIDS

“It seems profoundly damaging to the dignity of the human being, and for this reason morally illicit, to support a prevention of AIDS that is based on a recourse to means and remedies that violate an authentically human sense of sexuality, and which are a palliative to the deeper suffering which involve the responsibility of individuals and of society.” (John Paul II, November 15, 1989 – addressing the 4th International Conference of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Health Care Workers).


The United Nations’ (UN) World AIDS Day is held on December 1 each year to honor the victims of the AIDS pandemic and focus attention on the prevention and treatment of HIV and AIDS related conditions. The Catholic Church is often depicted as an obstacle in the struggle against this terrifying disease. In reality, however, the Church’s assessment of the pandemic makes more sense than we might expect. The Christian season of Advent seems a suitable time to reflect on these issues a little more, especially one week after World Aids Day. Those familiar with mimetic theory will once again notice how the insights of René Girard shine through, and how MT once again proves to be a poignant framework for analysing our ongoing ‘human affairs’.


Edward C. Green (senior research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health) and Michael Cook (editor of BioEdge and MercatorNet) both wrote interesting articles on the massive problem of HIV and AIDS in Africa, questioning the assumption of some media that the Catholic Church and John Paul II in particular are responsible for millions of African AIDS victims. Cook’s article is aptly entitled In search of a scapegoat. He asks whether John Paul II was indeed the greatest mass murderer of the 20th century. To answer this question, he presents some data which ought to make us westerners reflect on the way we usually construct our perception of different African problems.

Recent empirical evidence seems to support the Church’s claim that the problem of AIDS in Africa won’t be solved by a one-sided promotion of condom-use. Edward C. Green’s contribution in the Washington Post (March 29, 2009), Condoms, HIV-AIDS and Africa – The Pope Was Right, points to a very paternalistic, even patronizing tendency in the way we present solutions to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa. We all too often seem to project the social context wherein we make use of condoms, onto radically different African situations. In the words of Green: “The condom has become a symbol of freedom and – along with contraception – female emancipation, so those who question condom orthodoxy are accused of being against these causes.” The reality, of course, is that the use of condoms in Africa – and the Third World in general – is often promoted to protect more or less suppressed young women and sex workers against imprudent and excessive sexual demands. This reality itself often remains ‘untouched’ by the promotion of condom-use. Green again, from the same article: “… liberals and conservatives agree that condoms cannot address challenges that remain critical in Africa such as cross-generational sex, gender inequality and an end to domestic violence, rape and sexual coercion.”

So, instead of becoming a symbol of emancipation and freedom, the condom in the Third World seems well on its way to transform into a fig leaf behind which systems of social inequality are hidden. In some instances, the success of condom-use suggests a relapse in the urgency to fundamentally tackle social issues. The promotion of condom-use to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic did work in some Asian countries. However, perhaps not surprisingly, this happened in the context of an exploitative sex-industry, which is supported in large by western sex tourists and (therefore?) remains insufficiently criticized. Green, once more: “Let me quickly add that condom promotion has worked in countries such as Thailand and Cambodia, where most HIV is transmitted through commercial sex and where it has been possible to enforce a 100 percent condom use policy in brothels (but not outside of them).”

Should this kind of ‘success’ become the example of how to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa? Apart from revealing some sort of perverse cynicism towards the abilities of developing countries to really take matters into their own hands and change the ways of their ‘corrupted worlds’ (and the West’s share in that corruption), this idea of ‘choosing the lesser evil’ is doomed to fail in African countries, as is shown by recent history. Edward C. Green points out two important reasons for this failure: “One reason is ‘risk compensation.’ That is, when people think they’re made safe by using condoms at least some of the time, they actually engage in riskier sex. Another factor is that people seldom use condoms in steady relationships because doing so would imply a lack of trust. (And if condom use rates go up, it’s possible we are seeing an increase of casual or commercial sex.) However, it’s those ongoing relationships that drive Africa’s worst epidemics. In these, most HIV infections are found in general populations, not in high-risk groups such as sex workers, gay men or persons who inject drugs. And in significant proportions of African populations, people have two or more regular sex partners who overlap in time. In Botswana, which has one of the world’s highest HIV rates, 43 percent of men and 17 percent of women surveyed had two or more regular sex partners in the previous year. These ongoing multiple concurrent sex partnerships resemble a giant, invisible web of relationships through which HIV/AIDS spreads. A study in Malawi showed that even though the average number of sexual partners was only slightly over two, fully two-thirds of this population was interconnected through such networks of overlapping, ongoing relationships.”

To put it more bluntly, in developing countries condoms seem consistently used by professional (often exploited) sex workers, but fail to have any lasting impact on people’s promiscuous behavior outside the context of commercial sex. It is noteworthy that in both instances the use of condoms doesn’t affect the way in which people, especially women, are treated. Michael Cook remains ‘grounded’ as he refers to the seemingly far more fundamental social causes of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa: “The… assumption is that condoms are essential for preventing AIDS in Africa. In the words of researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, ‘The condom is a life-saving device: it is highly effective in preventing HIV transmission if used correctly and consistently, and is the best current method of HIV prevention for those who are sexually active and at risk’. However, notice that this dogma is limited by two significant qualifications: ‘if used correctly and consistently’. How often can we expect this to happen in southern Africa? If the experts haven’t been able to end AIDS in San Francisco and Sydney by promoting condoms, what makes them think that they will succeed in Africa? […] In the chaotic social environment of many African countries, where poverty is endemic, women are regularly abused and polygamy is widespread, men are unlikely to use condoms consistently. As President Museveni of Uganda has observed, ‘In countries like ours, where a mother often has to walk 20 miles to get an aspirin for her sick child or five miles to get any water at all, the question of getting a constant supply of condoms may never be resolved’. A recent study of condom use in the developing world in the journal Studies in Family Planning summed up the situation with these damning words: ‘no clear examples have emerged yet of a country that has turned back a generalised epidemic primarily by means of condom promotion’. This is most clearly seen in southern Africa. High HIV transmission rates have continued despite high rates of condom use. In Botswana, says Professor Norman Hearst, of the University of California at San Francisco, condom sales rose from one million in 1993 to 3 million in 2001 while HIV prevalence amongst urban pregnant women rose from 27 per cent to 45 percent. In Cameroon condom sales rose from 6 million to 15 million while HIV prevalence rose from 3 per cent to 9 per cent.”


The Church, and John Paul II in particular, has always – consistently and stubbornly – focused on the social realities behind the problem of HIV/AIDS in Africa. That’s why, besides also sometimes distributing condoms as a ‘last resort’, Catholic field workers keep on engaging in educational programs to empower women and to humanize sexual relationships. Michael Cook: “About 27 per cent of health care for HIV/AIDS victims is provided by Church organisations and Catholic NGOs… They form a vast network of clinics which reach the poorest, most remote and most neglected people in Africa.” More and more, and contrary to popular opinion in the so-called First World, the assumptions and strategies of these Church organizations are – though somewhat stealthily – adopted by experts, especially following some recent studies concerning the effectiveness of condom-use promotion. Edward C. Green: “In 2003, Norman Hearst and Sanny Chen of the University of California conducted a condom effectiveness study for the United Nations’ AIDS program and found no evidence of condoms working as a primary HIV-prevention measure in Africa. UNAIDS quietly disowned the study. (The authors eventually managed to publish their findings in the quarterly Studies in Family Planning.) Since then, major articles in other peer-reviewed journals such as the Lancet, Science and BMJ have confirmed that condoms have not worked as a primary intervention in the population-wide epidemics of Africa. In a 2008 article in Science called ‘Reassessing HIV Prevention’ 10 AIDS experts concluded that ‘consistent condom use has not reached a sufficiently high level, even after many years of widespread and often aggressive promotion, to produce a measurable slowing of new infections in the generalized epidemics of Sub-Saharan Africa.'”

We should carefully pay attention to what’s actually being said here. Condom-use is not condemned, it’s just presented – in accordance to ‘the facts on the ground’ – as not being the real and morally desirable solution to the problem of HIV/AIDS in Africa. At the end of his article, Green once again stresses what experts nowadays perceive as ‘the first priority’ to assess the epidemic – and indeed seems to show that ‘The Pope Was Right’: “Don’t misunderstand me; I am not anti-condom. All people should have full access to condoms, and condoms should always be a backup strategy for those who will not or cannot remain in a mutually faithful relationship. This was a key point in a 2004 ‘consensus statement’ published and endorsed by some 150 global AIDS experts, including representatives of the United Nations, World Health Organization and World Bank. These experts also affirmed that for sexually active adults, the first priority should be to promote mutual fidelity.”

In a 2010 interview with German journalist Peter Seewald, pope Benedict XVI responded to the statement that “It is madness to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms” by the following reflection (which is very much in line with the recent conclusions of experts in the field): “There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality. [The Church] of course does not regard [the use of condoms] as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”

The promotion of relationships based on mutual respect and, if possible, mutual fidelity, indeed has proven to be more effective than a one-sided promotion of condoms without addressing social issues. This is shown by the example of Uganda. Edward C. Green: “So what has worked in Africa? Strategies that break up… multiple and concurrent sexual networks – or, in plain language, faithful mutual monogamy or at least reduction in numbers of partners, especially concurrent ones. ‘Closed’ or faithful polygamy can work as well. In Uganda’s early, largely home-grown AIDS program, which began in 1986, the focus was on ‘Sticking to One Partner’ or ‘Zero Grazing’ (which meant remaining faithful within a polygamous marriage) and ‘Loving Faithfully.’ These simple messages worked. More recently, the two countries with the highest HIV infection rates, Swaziland and Botswana, have both launched campaigns that discourage people from having multiple and concurrent sexual partners.” Michael Cook, on the same example of Uganda, which deserves to be imitated and improved upon: “In fact, the history of AIDS in Uganda supports the Church’s belief that abstinence and fidelity within marriage are actually the best ways to fight AIDS. In 1991, the infection rate in Uganda was 21 per cent. Now, after years of a simple, low-cost program called ABC, it has dropped to about 6 per cent. ABC stands for Abstain, Be faithful, or use Condoms if A and B are not practiced. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni preaches the ABC of AIDS with the fervour of an evangelist. ‘I am not in favour of condoms in primary and even secondary schools… Let condoms be a last resort,’ he said recently at an international AIDS conference in his capital, Kampala. ‘I have grown-up children and my policy was to frighten them out of undisciplined sex. I started talking to them from the age of 13, telling them to concentrate on their studies, that the time would come for sex’. Ms Toynbee contended in [a] diatribe in the Guardian that ‘abstinence and celibacy are not the human condition’. But Museveni – no innocent about the human condition – thinks that they are. ‘We made it our highest priority to convince our people to return to their traditional values of chastity and faithfulness or, failing that, to use condoms,’ he told American pharmaceutical executives a couple of years ago. ‘The alternative was decimation’.”


Considering all these facts, I cannot escape the impression that the outrage of our western mass media over the millions of AIDS victims in Africa, is often but a pretext to scorn the Catholic Church. It has become one more outlet for the hollow and howling crowds of ‘Pharisees’ in the West who vainly try to boast of some moral superiority. In other words, some media exploit the way in which the Church addresses the HIV/AIDS epidemic (especially in Africa) to serve their own ends, adding absolutely nothing to the solution of this scourge (as John Paul II called it). Moreover, these media actually keep on perceiving African people in a patronizing way. Africans are – at least implicitly – said to be incapable of educating themselves and to be highly dependent of our western ways of life as models we present them to live by. In a sense, popular opinion in the West concerning Africa only mimics a spirit of earlier ‘Catholic’ colonialism it desperately seeks to differ itself from.

We often fail to raise the question whether our ways of life are actually worth imitating, and at the same time we exaggerate our (and, for that matter, the pope’s) influence on the minds and the behavior of ‘the African people’. Michael Cook reveals the underlying paternalism, simplistic reasoning and contradictions in the way some of our media abuse the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa to demonize the late John Paul II and the Catholic Church in general: “… there is something absurdly medieval about making the Pope a scapegoat, as if the clouds would break and the sun shine if we thrust enough pins through a JP2 voodoo doll. Pinning the blame for the tragedy of African AIDS on one man is one of those ideas that are, in the words of George Orwell, ‘so stupid that only intellectuals could believe them.’ Two such ideas run through all these criticisms. The first is basically this: African Catholics are so devout that if they have sex outside of marriage, dally with prostitutes or take a third wife, they will piously refrain from using condoms because the Great White Father told them not to. Ms Toynbee [in an already mentioned article in the Guardian] darkly invokes ‘the Vatican’s deeper power… its personal authority over 1.3 billion worshippers, which is strongest over the poorest, most helpless devotees.’ But she can’t have it both ways: these benighted dark-skinned Catholics can’t be both too goody-two-shoes to use condoms and too wicked to resist temptation. Journalist Brendan O’Neill – who describes himself as an ex-Catholic who has jettisoned Catholic teaching on sexual morality – sums up this patronising argument in the on-line journal Spiked: ‘The only reason you could believe the fantastically simplistic idea that Vatican edict = AIDS in Africa is if you consider Africans to be little more than automatons… who do as they are told’. Superimposing maps of prevalence of AIDS on prevalence of Catholicism is enough to sink the link between the Catholic Church and AIDS. In the hospice which is Swaziland nowadays, only about 5 per cent of the population is Catholic. In Botswana, where 37 per cent of the adult population is HIV infected, only 4 per cent of the population is Catholic. In South Africa, 22 per cent of the population is HIV infected, and only 6 per cent is Catholic. But in Uganda, with 43 per cent of the population Catholic, the proportion of HIV infected adults is 4 per cent.”


We should learn from what happens in Uganda. We should be aware of the precarious and fragile situation countries like these find themselves in. But we should also be aware of the living hope in the hearts of their inhabitants. What message are we directing to the world if we convince ourselves that we ‘should be realistic’, and that the promotion of condom-use is often but the only thing we can do to ‘educate’ the ‘socially deprived’? Are we, once again, promoting our own ‘freedom’ at the cost of impoverished sex workers – victims we can exploit to answer the demands for a despicable kind of ‘tourism’? Who are we to impose our (self-)destructive ways?

What message are we directing to the world if we convince ourselves – looking at the misery of millions around the globe from our cosy and luxurious homes – that ‘there are lots of worse things than never being born’? Are we actually implying that we ‘need’ the suffering of the world to make death a hero?! A world wherein death is welcomed as a ‘hero’ is a morally perverse world. Throughout history human beings have found the strength to transform the struggle for survival into a token of life and dignity, refusing to slavishly undergo the whims of fate. The Hebrew Bible is one of those testimonies of hope against despair, of dignity in the midst of suffering, of life against death, written by a people of ‘losers’ or ‘victims’. Maybe its message will never be fully understood by the so-called influential and powerful – they might abuse it to suppress others even more – , while it is being lived by the so-called fragile and powerless people…

The ‘First World’ is experiencing a deep crisis, hiding its spiritual wasteland behind an unavoidable economic depression of a materialist, empty and self-consuming culture of death. It’s in this world, our world, that the AIDS orphan is born. This child seems to have ‘no home’, but his coming is the real, often uninvited and unaccepted ‘Advent’ and Promise of Life, despite everything. For God’s sake, who could not notice his splendor, glory and might? His birth is a reminder that our world can be healed, as he blesses our sick cynicism before we even realize we threaten to contaminate the physically sick and dying with our messages of desperation. For, unto us a Child is born… and maybe, in order to receive Him properly, we should alter ‘the world we created…’

Big Brother is watching you


My usually sedate hometown was startled last week by the discovery of a ‘celebrity sex tape’: our female mayor allegedly had been secretly videotaped by some Polish tourists during a vacation in Spain four years ago. She was caught having sex with her then boyfriend, in a public area, more specifically on a tower. The passersby filmed from a distance, zooming in on the two lovebirds. Although there is no nudity involved, every adult can suspect the couple is doing something more than merely enjoying the view from a high building. All the ingredients were there for a typical tabloid character assassination.

The tape already circulated on the internet, but only last week some people from our small city stumbled upon it. What was to be expected, happened: immediately our mayor became the laughing stock of specially created Facebook groups, she got a new, not really flattering nickname, and a carnival song was made about the event. Of course some people, including politicians and some media, demanded her resignation. I was (and actually still am) in doubt about the whole situation. I’ve been asking myself whether the reactions towards our mayor are in proportion to her misbehavior. The bottom line is that she could be charged with public indecency. However, this doesn’t happen. I guess Spain has got more important things to spend its tax money on. Hence people somewhat take the law into their own hands. They take matters ‘to the streets’, the virtual ones of the internet, and the real ones of their hometown – whose carnival festivities are UNESCO World Heritage, and are known for their mockery of all kinds of people, especially of local politicians.

As I tried to make clear in a previous post, carnival festivities have all the features of old rituals which are eventually rooted in scapegoat phenomena. I have some reasons to believe that what happens to our mayor is exactly that: a scapegoat phenomenon. People who use their time and energy to publicly make fun of her, blame their own actions entirely on the way their victim, our mayor, behaved. In other words, they make our mayor a scapegoat, unwittingly transforming themselves into persecutors. They say She had it coming, she asked for it”, while technically, in purely juridical terms, that’s not exactly the case. There is no proof whatsoever that she asked to be videotaped and to be put ‘online’. The passersby are still responsible for their own actions. They were not obliged to film her, as we are not obliged to mock her.

I must admit I find the situation somewhat hilarious myself, but I think we shouldn’t exploit it to the point of ‘public shame’. I can imagine myself, or someone else for that matter, telling some anecdote about an embarrassing moment in my life (at the doctor’s office, anyone?), as I can imagine our mayor joking about something awkward that happened in her life. It all makes a good laugh. But to use the kind of mistake our mayor made to demand someone’s resignation, seems out of proportion to me. Even more so because she is only partly responsible for what happened. She didn’t steal anything, nor committed adultery, nor killed anyone. She was caught in an act many lovers could have been caught in.

There was a time (indeed, “was”) when lovebirds drove to an abandoned public area to make love to each other. It’s one of the more recognizable moments in American Graffiti, a movie by George Lucas. When a couple makes love in a car, near a river, two people pass by, but they leave the couple to itself.

This scene is contrasted by yet another early movie of George Lucas, THX 1138, which seems to be a perfect reflection of our current situation. Like 1984, the famous novel by George Orwell, THX 1138 portrays a future society where people are constantly watched by each other and by cameras. The film shows a totalitarian regime, a world without freedom, where people constantly have to fear their neighbor might give away their ‘mistakes’. In THX 1138, a couple is making love while being watched by a band of ‘Big Brothers’, who eventually convict the couple.

The troubling thing is we don’t need a war to end up in a situation like the one described in George Orwell’s 1984, or portrayed in THX 1138, although the atrocities of war facilitate certain social reflexes. For example, after the second world war people publicly shamed women who were known to have a German, Nazi boyfriend. These women were accused of ‘collaboration’, and since official, legal charges take a lot of time to be followed through, impatient crowds took the matter into their own hands. As said, apparently you don’t need stores of rage and vengefulness, built by a traumatizing war, to seduce people to mock someone. You just need a person who ‘stands out from the crowd’ a bit, a ‘public figure’. A mayor, or some other ‘celebrity’. Kurt Cobain, late front-man of grunge pioneers Nirvana, describes it well when he reflects on how the media constantly try to find sensational stories about him and his lover, Courtney Love: “I think we’re just easy scapegoats… We turn into cartoon characters.” Being an easy scapegoat is one of the burdens of being a celebrity, which allegedly made Kurt Cobain commit suicide at the age of 27. But you don’t have to be a celebrity to be harassed, mocked and bullied. Tyler Clementi, a promising young man, was secretly videotaped by his classmates while having a sexual encounter with another man. The video was posted on the internet, as a ‘joke’. Eventually Tyler jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge, September 22, 2010. He was only eighteen years old.

There’s no place in this world for over-sensitive people. So it seems. To quote Charlie Chaplin from his magnificent speech in his equally magnificent film The Great Dictator: “Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness hard and unkind.” Indeed, we seem to use our knowledge to gain power over others and to “turn them into cartoon characters”. Yet I still believe we have a choice, as ‘free’ individuals, not to give in to processes of victimization and of scapegoating. We can give in to the power of a Love that wants to know the person ‘behind the cartoon’, that is concerned with personalities ‘beyond labels’. To ‘murder’ a person is to ‘steal’ his or her ‘nakedness’, his or her soul… We have a choice not to do that…

Alice Nahon, a Flemish poet from Antwerp, puts it this way (free translation):

“Before you go to sleep,

Look into your own heart,

And ask yourself:

Did I hurt someone’s heart

In the time between dawn and dusk?”


In Dutch:

‘t Is goed in ‘t eigen hert te kijken

Nog even voor het slapen gaan

Of ik van dageraad tot avond

Geen enkel hert heb zeer gedaan.

I’m a weak person and a coward in many ways, and I need this advice every day. I once met a drunk man on a bus who made racist remarks to a black woman. He asked me to hold his bottle of whiskey for him, while he kept harassing the lady. I remember the rage in his eyes, and the way he asked my approval of his behavior. I was too afraid to stand up against what he was doing. I forced myself to laugh. At the next stop, I got off the bus, 4 miles from home (around 6 kilometers), and continued walking. To this day I feel ashamed and sad about what happened then. From this experience I learned that it is necessary to question the deeper motivations of our actions at any time, in order not to commit evil where we see ‘no harm’, and where we think we are entitled to ‘defend ourselves’ or even ‘assert ourselves’… ‘creatively’. Not all of our actions are as innocent as they might seem. I don’t want to point fingers. I just made the next video compilation to reflect on what we are capable of as human beings – and I need this reflection as much, or even more so, as you do, dear reader.

Please click the following image to watch the video, and feel free to post comments (the quote on ‘common people’ is by alternative rock band Pulp, from their song by the same name)