If you look at primitive rituals, what do they consist of ? They consist of a community voluntarily going into a crisis. A form of disorder. In order to reach sacrifice. This type of ceremony, which is the typical primitive ritual, is a reenactment of the scapegoat phenomenon ; understood as a sacred dispensation coming from the divinity. René Girard
The puzzling events, qualified of riots by our medias and politicians, which are happening now in the UK, and have happened before almost in the same fashion in France in 2005, are (un)surprisingly close to this definition of the ritual given by Girard.
A community voluntarily going into violence.
A reenactment of the scapegoat mechanism.
Cars burning, shops vandalized in London…
Are the rioters just trying to reenact a sort of ritual to free themselves of their position of scapegoats for the whole society ?
As read through the mimetic lens, the “riots” are all but a blind and meaningless form of violence. They are thought to be so because it is hard to understand why they seem to both target a specific type of victims (material goods and some of their representations) while at the same time lacking some kind of political representation (no leaders, no message).
The medias have spotted the “mimetic” nature of the movements accurately : gangs, bands, following each other, building on the example of some to lay devastation in the streets.
But the general understanding of this “mimesis” falls short in regard to a real explanation of the causes present at the roots of such a movement. The mimesis that is present here is not only the one making different rioters imitate the rioting they see others perpetrating.
Or scapegoating ?
The other side of the mimesis at work here is that those individuals are themselves perpetrating this huge ritual out in the open. They are looking for their own scapegoats. Literally burning them : cars, shops.
As Girard puts it : the crisis can only end when the scapegoat is sacrificed, or when its substitute is.
As sociologists put it : the young and poor of our cities are the scapegoats of our civilization. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-NalRVGQIZM)
As the young put it : they do not want to be the scapegoats and are looking for their own, transferring violence onto other victims, being here the symbols of their demise : expensive clothing and cars, banks… As some politicians had anticipated. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YItK1izQIwo)
The ritual substitution.
Hence one cannot stop at the “superficial” layer of the imitation at work here. In doing so, one will only see the superficial layer of the situation : one will think that the rioters are just stupid thugs stampeding the innocent city. The fact that those rioters are often young and seem to lack education and manners (as Cameron put it “they have no sense of respect”) are only operating as factors of selection for the society into blaming them. (Just as being black is a factor of selection for seeing one’s rights being neglected by the majority of the population).
The deeper layer is to see that if they are young and poor, they hence are likely to be taken as scapegoats, and hence likely to refuse that situation. Sociologists could say that society keeps them poor more or less voluntarily, precisely to use them as scapegoats (which is actually turning in a self-fulfilling prophecy). The deeper layer is that the imitation at work here is not the one of deciding to be blindly violent for the sake of it, but to expel the violence they have been targeted with on a substitute, on another scapegoat of their own. And their criteria of selection are the symbols of their perpetrators’ identity : things.
And where does that leave us ? Probably where any ritual leaves any community : at peace for a while once the sacrifice has been executed (either the young rioters will be sacrificed through repression, either they will end up burning all they can and stop with a feeling of accomplishment). But a ritual’s effects only last for a certain time. Next city ?