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No. 41 – Apollonius & Cancel Culture

by | Jan 24, 2021 | Letters

For Love in a Time of Conflict

When the gentleness between you hardens
And you fall out of your belonging with each other,
May the depths you have reached hold you still.

When no true word can be said, or heard,
And you mirror each other in the script of hurt,
When even the silence has become raw and torn,
May you hear again an echo of your first music.

When the weave of affection starts to unravel
And anger begins to sear the ground between you,
Before this weather of grief invites
The black seed of bitterness to find root,
May your souls come to kiss.

Now is the time for one of you to be gracious,
To allow a kindness beyond thought and hurt,
Reach out with sure hands
To take the chalice of your love,
And carry it carefully through this echoless waste
Until this winter pilgrimage leads you
Toward the gateway to spring.

~John O’Donohue

Dear Friend,

Did you feel it?

If you were anywhere near the United States, this week was a collective release.

Some of us let go of hatred. Or maybe fear. Or disappointment. Or apprehension. As we released all of that, I heard tears of joy. I heard euphoria. I heard celebrations.

But in the same moment…

Some of us also let go of hope. Or maybe faith. Or a sense of unity. As we released all of that, I also heard sighs. I heard murmuring. I heard apprehension. I heard fear.

This is the reality of a life lived together. Sometimes, it feels like a zero-sum game, especially in a two-party state. One’s ascent to power comes at another’s demise. The emotions correspond with the elevation change.

I’ll be honest. I was alarmed by the collective release. According to the actuarial tables I’ve completed about 40% of my life, so I’ve been around the block a couple times, so to speak. I’ve seen a few changes of political power, both in the West and elsewhere. President Biden’s inauguration felt different to me.

Maybe it was the sneering messages to the departing administration from  public figures. Maybe it was the abrupt change in the Press. Maybe it was the anger in some celebrations. Maybe it was the wholesale dismissal of +70 million Americans, including 26% of non-White voters and 18% of Black male voters, as “white supremacists.”

It felt like national catharsis- an emotional, psychological and even spiritual purification.

It made me afraid.

This week I re-discovered the account of Apollonius, a second century guru famous for healing the Ephesians of their epidemic. I will turn it over to Philostratus, the ancient Greek author of Life of Apollonius of Tyana.

“’Take courage, for I will today put a stop to the course of the disease.’ And with these words [Apollonius] led the population entire to the theatre, where the image of the Averting God (Hercules) has been set up… And there he saw what seemed an old mendicant artfully blinking his eyes as if blind, and he carried a wallet and a crust of bread in it; and he was clad in rags and was very squalid of countenance.

Apollonius therefore ranged the Ephesians around him and said: ‘pick up as many stones as you can and hurl them at this enemy of the gods.’ Now the Ephesians wondered what he meant and were shocked at the idea of murdering a stranger so manifestly miserable; for he was begging and praying them to take mercy upon him.

Nevertheless, Apollonius insisted and egged on the Ephesians to launch themselves on him and not let him go. And as soon as some of them began to take shots and hit him with their stones, the beggar who had seemed to blink and be blind, gave them a sudden glance and showed that his eyes were full of fire. Then the Ephesians recognized that he was a demon, and they stoned him so thoroughly that their stones were heaped into a great cairn around him.

After a little pause, Apollonius bade them remove the stones and reacquaint themselves with the wild animal which they had slain. When they exposed the object they thought they’d thrown their missiles at, they found instead… a hound… in size the equal of the largest lion; there he lay before their eyes, pounded to a pulp by their stones and vomiting foam as mad dogs do.”

It’s a horrific story.

It’s part truth and part (ig)noble lie. As René Girard shows in, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, the account appears to be true, but the beggar was no demon. He was an old man. That fire in his eyes was the flash of anger that flushes through one when injured by the malice of another. [Fighters know what I’m talking about.] He had been turned into a pharmakos, a ritual victim assassinated to restore collective harmony.

And the plague? Girard suggests “that the plague of Ephesus [was] not necessarily bacterial. It [was] an epidemic of mimetic rivalries, an interweaving of scandals, a war of all against all, which, thanks to the victim selected by the diabolical cleverness of Apollonius, [was] transformed ‘miraculously’ in a reconciliation of all against one.” (Girard’s emphasis)

It’s the story of a community, Ephesus, discovering the single victim mechanism. What’s that?

Girard explains: “Once the unfortunate victim is completely isolated, deprived of defenders, nothing can protect her or him from the aroused crowd. Everyone can set upon the victim without having to fear the least reprisal. The victim may seem insignificant in relation to all the appetites for violence… but at this very moment the community desires nothing other than the victim’s destruction. This victim thus effectively replaces all those who were in conflict just a little earlier in the thousand scandals scattered here and there and who now are all mustered against a single target. No one in the community has an enemy other than the victim, so once this person is hunted, expelled, and destroyed, the crowd finds itself emptied of hostility and without an enemy.”

Cancel culture, anyone?

“Get to the point, please, Martyn.”

Ok… The departure of former President Trump and President Biden’s inauguration seemed to be more than a change of political power. It felt like a catharsis, a purification, a people discovering the single victim mechanism. [That the US Congress is continuing their impeachment (aka. the legal mechanism by which the Legislature removes a sitting President from office) of the now former President supports this.]

“Who cares? Why does that matter?” Well, the explanation will take a few paragraphs. Hang with me. We’ve got to go back to Ephesus and gain insight from Girard.

The initial premise of Girard’s argument is that we are mimetic creatures- we imitate the patterns around us. This proclivity works well as long as there’s a model. But when there’s not? That’s a different matter. So, in Ephesus, there’s one thing holding back the collective release offered by the single victim mechanism… the first stone.

Who’s going to throw the first stone at the victim? Who will undertake the first effort to destroy a man? There’s no model for it. That’s why, according to Philostratus, the Ephesians “were shocked at the idea of murdering a stranger so manifestly miserable.” There was not yet a model established for crushing an innocent human being with rocks. There was internal discord. The absence of a model. Confusion. What to do? What to do?

It requires work to overcome that absence. Unfortunately for the old beggar, there was one willing to do the work.

First, Apollonius issued commands to the crowd to lessen the psychological burden. He “ranged the Ephesians around him and said: ‘pick up as many stones as you can and hurl them at this enemy of the gods.’” [cf. Post-WWII Nuremberg trials- “just following orders”] Then, second, facing down their reluctance, “Apollonius insisted and egged on the Ephesians to launch themselves on [the beggar] and not let him go.” He had to coach the entire affair; it’s difficult to throw the first stone. [As Girard also points out, that’s why Jesus built up its significance to save the adulterous woman from being stoned in the Gospel of John: “Whoever is without sin should throw the first stone.”]

Now let’s return to 2021. If America has indeed, as I fear, discovered the single victim mechanism on a large scale,* then we need to be especially careful. The model has now been provided. The next time the collective is uneasy, some manipulative leader will search the temple grounds for a new victim. It will be easier.

When we encircle the next pharmakos, the fire in the eyes of the victim will convince us he or she should be destroyed. But in the passion of the moment, we won’t notice that fire is our own rage mirrored back by a creature merely desiring to live. No… we will not see that. Mobs have little power of discernment. Instead, we will see the evil we have been convinced exists. Our initial reluctance will break down and we’ll slay the victim with an eager thoroughness. And as its final breaths are taken, we will see it as less than human, confirming our condemnation. Then, we will celebrate.

It will be easier next time.

The point of this is not to put Donald Trump in the place of the innocent, unsuspecting beggar. It is to say that any one of us could be. The single victim mechanism is a vehicle of injustice. It’s a model that leverages the malice of a few to corrupt confused masses. It destroys lives and we employ it at our own peril.

The release the United States just experienced was not the healthy celebration we supposed. The first stone was just released.


PS. * – I’d argue cancel culture is typically single victim mechanism on a localized scale. This was the first national example I’ve experienced.

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