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Have you received those e-mails forwarding photos of babies dressed up in costumes? Or depicting babies sleeping in flower blossoms? Its one of those popular fads circulating online. I have to admit the photos are totally irresistible. What is it about babies? No matter my mood, when I look at one those cute smiling faces, I have to smile right back.
But even as I was smiling at a picture of a baby in a pink flamingo costume, I could hear the lyrics to one of my favorite Radiohead songs, “I Will” [Watch on YouTube] echoing in my mind. Unlike the baby photos the song is not nearly as uplifting.
I will lay me down
in a bunker
I won’t let this happen to my children
meet the real world coming out of your shell
With white elephants
Little babies’ eyes, eyes, eyes, eyes
Little babies’ eyes, eyes, eyes, eyes
Little babies’ eyes, eyes, eyes, eyes
Little babies’ eyes, eyes, eyes, eyes, eyes, eyes
While the song is intentionally written to sound like a lullaby, it refers to something much more serious: an act of transference which allowed us to shift a huge white elephant, all the fear and anxiety generated by 9/11, onto a sitting duck: Iraq. This is part of the dynamic of scapegoating defined by René Girard, one of the most important thinkers on the relationship of violence and culture [more on Girard]. Girard explains: scapegoating allows us “to elude problems that seem intractable.” It’s never a conscious activity. We didn’t knowingly transfer all our emotional trauma onto the Iraqi people. Its just that its extremely difficult to retaliate against terrorists, never mind bringing the problem of terrorism to some sort of resolution. Instead we redirected all that tension onto an easier target and ended up doing to the Iraqis what had been done to us.
The idea that “shock and awe” would somehow spare the population was a delusion. Not that we understood that at the time. We convinced ourselves every step of the way: insisting that we were liberating the Iraqis, that there would be minimal loss of life, that our soldiers would return home quickly, safe and unharmed, and that the whole thing would be wrapped up in a matter of months. As Girard says, “we are all prone to that delusion.” This is proven by the paradox that “all of us can observe and denounce numerous examples of scapegoating we have personally observed, yet none of us ever identify past and, above all, present instances of [our] own involvement in scapegoating.” (Violent Origins, 74)
In fact its easy to identify other examples, wars or acts of genocide in which those who initiated the violence felt completely justified. It seems to happen all too often. How is it that an entire population can delude itself this way and what, if anything, has the power to break through such delusions? For instance, what would allow us to recognize the incredible amount of suffering inflicted upon the Iraqi people, especially on all the innocent children who spent their nights in bunkers underground, as their world exploded all around them? What, for instance, would we see if we actually looked into their eyes?
In the last decade neuroscientists have discovered that babies‘ eyes hold important clues for understanding the evolution of the human species. Scientists now have evidence that we are hard wired for empathy, a capacity that begins to develop in the first moments of life. Its not just the fact that babies are so cute that compels us to smile; when we see a baby smile our brain has the same neurological response that the baby does. This is due, scientists say, to mirror neurons.
To view a video clip describing mirror neurons [Link Here].
From the first moments of life, babies mirror their parents’ facial expressions. Scientists observing the effects of this behavior on babies’ brains have discovered that all that imitation stimulates the development of the neurological systems which enable human beings to experience the emotions, the intentions of others, as if those emotions and intentions were our own. The more I smile at a baby, the more it smiles back. Before I know it I’m engaged in a back and forth game of imitation, poking out tongues and making silly faces. Scientists say that this process of mirroring is necessary for social connectedness.
After testing babies, neuroscientists performed similar tests on newborn monkeys, and discovered that they have the same ability, but to a far lesser extent. For instance, in the first day of life baby monkeys imitate their mother’s facial movements allowing their brains to adapt to their social environment. [Link to Journal Article] Scientists see this as evidence of a crucial link in our evolution.
Indeed, some are labeling the discovery of mirror neurons as the most significant breakthrough in the last decade, with the power to transform other disciplines: “Have you heard of neuroethics, neuromarketing, neuropolitics? You will in the years and decades to come, and research in these fields will be rooted, explicitly or otherwise, in the functions of mirror neurons.” (Iacoboni, Mirroring People, 7)
While others, including a few New Atheists, have identified mirror neurons as a biological basis for morality [link] [link]. As tempting as that optimism might be, after all “it follows that good imitators should also be good at recognizing emotions, and so endowed with a greater empathy,” (Iacoboni, Mirroring People, 112), I can’t help but wonder… If we’re wired for empathy, and if its true that’s its part of our DNA, then why aren’t we better off as a species? Why, for instance, can Jack on 30 Rock state the truism, “human empathy, its as useless as the Winter Olympics.” (30 Rock, “Audition Day,” Season 4, Episode 4)
In fact, Mark Iacoboni, neuroscientist and author of the popular book Mirroring People, says they have discovered a negative side to mirror neurons, which, I’ve noticed, the media has been far more hesitant to report. The same neurons which allow monkeys to adapt so quickly to their social group and surroundings, have, over the course of human evolution, acquired some bad habits. Iacoboni believes that at some point in the development of our species we acquired super mirror neurons, which enabled complex forms of imitation, which are far more complex than the basic mirroring found in monkeys: “In which individuals observing aggressive behavior not only acquire complex coordinated motor behaviors that make them aggressive and violent but also become convinced in the process - in an unconscious way - that such behavior is a good way of solving social problems.” (Mirroring People, 211) We resist such ideas, because “we are naturally inclined to think of ourselves as autonomous individuals who are not going to be influenced in any direct, slavish, monkey-see, monkey-do way by what we see. The data on imitative violence clearly threatens this precious notion.” (Mirroring People, 212)
Iacoboni says “we have seen how mirror neurons can undoubtedly be good for us, enabling feelings and actions of empathy for others, but they also provide a compelling neurological mechanism underlying imitative violence…” (Mirroring People, 211) We live in a world “filled with atrocities every day - and this despite a neurobiology wired for empathy and geared toward mirroring and sharing of meaning. Why is this?” Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that “the same neurobiological mechanisms facilitating empathy may produce, under specific circumstance and contexts, a behavior that is the opposite of an empathetic behavior.” (Mirroring People, 268-9).
Part of the answer lies in the fact that mirroring is pre-reflective, we respond before we are able to think about the choices we are making. Iacoboni focuses, and rightly so, on the effects of video games, advertising and addiction, which exploit and reinforce negative imitation. But in my opinion, the neurological mechanism he describes is no more evident, and no more frightening, than in the act of transference described by René Girard, that which led our entire country to war in Iraq.
Iacoboni believes we can use our knowledge of the mirror neuron system and its automatic mechanisms “to prevent evil.” (210) Some of the New Atheists would agree, that we can extend simple acts of empathy, like smiling at babies, to encompass the children of our so-called enemies. But how is this possible, if we are unable to resist or interrupt, even for a moment, those more complex forms of transference and scapegoating which override empathy? Especially given the evidence that our evolution goes hand in hand with our ability to nurture and protect babies over the course of their development, when their mirror neuron system is being formed. As traditional social structures which historically contained violence with violence (war, for instance) prove so disastrously futile in solving the worlds problems; more and more children are exposed to traumatic events which interrupt the development of empathy. When we consider the effects of war, of “shock and awe,” or starvation, ethnic cleansing, or even the plague of violence infecting our schools, on children’s brains, it becomes obvious that we need to find other ways to make the world safe for our children. It is time to break free of the complex neural structures which allow for transference, but in a culture saturated with violence, its impossible to imagine where to begin. In a sense we are brought to a standstill, to a deadlock in our own evolution.
In Mark 9:30-37 [link to text] the author says that Jesus “took a little child in his arms and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.’” Jesus actually engages us in a trajectory, which is the opposite of scapegoating, because he identifies not only himself, but the one who sent him with the helpless, innocent children, the victims of our delusions. But that’s not all…
The lyrics to the Radiohead song suggests that the bunkers built to protect people are really tombs. Not only are they the underground, hidden recesses where so many Iraqi children spent their evenings, some even losing their lives (to this day, the trauma they suffered remains invisible to the rest of world), the effects to all of us are far reaching, for it guarantees that we will continue to mirror the motor responses that turn normal, rational human beings into violent and aggressive people.
As I read Mark, Jesus not only reminds me just how lacking our empathy can be, I see that babies’ eyes hold the key. Not only do they engage us in the most basic acts of empathy, stimulating the neurons in our brains to smile at them, they beckon us, as ambassadors of the future, towards positive alternatives for the continued evolution of the human race, possibilities we have yet to imagine. Maybe then we’ll compose some new lullabies to sing our children to sleep. Isn’t it time to rewrite some of those traditional lyrics, at least the ones which tend on the morbid side: “Rock-a-by baby on the tree top…”? Think about it, its no accident that the first lines of the Radiohead song echo the children’s bedtime prayer:
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
- Sue Wright
I highly recommend Marco Iacoboni’s book, Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others (2009).
Why do we create idols? Only to destroy them? Princess Diana, Michael Jackson, Elvis, they all literally died for fame… and the list goes on. Some would say they paid the ultimate price for climbing too high, but are they really the only ones to blame for their tragic fate?
After watching Michael Jackson’s superstar status devolve into a media circus focused almost entirely on his bizarre behavior, his trials and subsequent death, I have to ask whether the whole world has gone insane? I can’t shake this sneaking suspicion that somehow we are all responsible for the death of the “King of Pop.”
When I shared my suspicions with a friend, she insisted I watch the South Park episode “Britney’s New Look,” which depicts the American public ritually sacrificing Britney Spears. [watch episode] [read synopsis]
When Kyle, one of the main characters, asks why Britney has to die, various members of the crowd explain that “nobody wants her to die, young man, we all just simply need her to…. Throughout history humans have found it necessary to engage in human sacrifice… But since Americans no longer like to do the killing themselves, we rely on the celebrity to kill itself… Britney was chosen a long time ago, built up and adored, then sacrificed for the harvest.” [watch clip]
In a brilliant scene by South Park’s writers, the crowd surrounds Britney as if ready to stone her, but in the very moment you expect some anonymous member of the crowd to throw the first stone, one by one they begin to kill her with camera shots [watch clip]. Members of the crowd explain that Britney was to supposed to kill herself a while ago, so now she has to be sacrificed in time for the corn harvest. And indeed that is a fairly accurate portrayal of how sacrifice functions in primitive cultures. My favorite French thinker, René Girard, explains: the sacrificial victim “is a substitute for all the members of the community… The purpose of the sacrifice is to restore harmony to the community, to reinforce the social fabric,” by redirecting the violence and discord that arises from conflicting desires and the competition over resources (Violence and the Sacred, 8).
Thus in South Park, the members of the crowd explain “its not just the press, everyone agrees she has to die… It’s all America, we’re all apart of this together.” However, we are more civilized than our primitive ancestors. We have economic and government institutions which insure the peaceful distribution of the “harvest,” so that we don’t have to compete over goods, but we still have the fundamental problem of desire. As Girard says, we no longer offer human sacrifices to appease the gods, but our need for idols does not disappear.
Another master of irony, Chuck Palahniuk, offers us a further clue in his novel, Choke. The main character, Victor, who’s convinced he’s the latest incarnation of Jesus, thinks he’s about to be stoned to death by the crowd. Victor, as much as he might want to be, is not a celebrity. He is however the momentary object of everyone’s fascination. When they discover that he’s been misleading them, the crowd quickly turns into a murderous mob. But instead of killing Victor, they tear down the edifice of his self-delusions, all his attempts to get attention, to be other than what he really is. For an actual celebrity the loss of their inflated image is probably more than they can bear, but for Victor it provides a rare opportunity to discover his identity for himself. But ironically, in a society which claims that we can be who ever we want, that we can have whatever we want, few people have the courage to really pursue this.
Instead, we prefer to worship celebrities. All the media hype magically grants them an irresistible allure, allowing the public to focus all their desire on the star. What would we do without them? We’d have to find satisfaction and fulfillment in our day to day lives, in our actual relationships. By channeling all our desire through the godlike images the media creates for us, we don’t have to confront our reality, our mediocrity, our flaws, all our shortcomings. We don’t have to face that secret fear that no one could possibly be attracted to us as we truly are? We don’t have to risk rejection.
We leave all the risk to the celebrities. But since they’re only human, they can’t keep up the show indefinitely. In South Park both the media and the public constantly criticize Britney: “she’s gained weight,” she’s “chubbed up,” has zits, scars from plastic surgery and “is obviously lip-synching.” Once the celebrity’s image has cracked, its just a matter of time before she’s gotten rid of and quickly replaced. As long as our appetite is fed without interruption, we won’t have to notice the human flaws in each other. But what really seals their fate: is the fact that all the love and admiration we initially lavish on them inevitably turns to hidden hate and resentment, because we all know in the back of our minds that we, like Victor, will never be the center of so much attention and desire. Obviously, we never admit this to ourselves, but instead find plenty of reasons to blame the celebrity.
It reminds me of one of those frenzied scenes in Dostoevsky’s novel The Possessed (also translated Demons), in which the entire town consumed with envy, is caught up in a murderous spree. In the novel Nicholas Stavrogin, who has an extraordinary mix of intelligence, good looks and aristocratic breeding, achieves a sort of celebrity status. As a young man, he is admired by all and quickly rises to the height of society. However all the attention and success thrown his way leads him not as one would expect to a long and brilliant career as a social or political leader, but to a series of bizarre and offensive acts. Like Britney Spears and Michael Jackson the constant media attention eventually turns our idols into freaks.
Once this happens, there is no turning back. The gossip surrounding Nicholas spreads like wildfire, but instead of ruining his popularity, it actually increases it exponentially, with the result that his admirers and even his close friends begin to treat him as a god. But this leaves him no way of knowing whether his exalted status is based on anything concrete in his own person, or whether its a vicious game in which he is the ultimate victim. Once he achieves this status, he can not conceive of returning to normal life. Instead he dreams of escaping to a remote mountain hideaway, to live out his life in isolation, but never does so. Wishing to be free of his admirers, he remains dependent on them for his very being, but that being doesn’t really exist.
As we know Michael Jackson was from a very young age deprived of a normal life; a painful reality from which even his music could not protect him. Indeed, the public fascination with Jackson’s eccentricities completely overshadowed his incredible talent. And despite the fact that he worked tirelessly for the comeback which would restore him in the public eye, tragically it was not until his death that suddenly everyone, everywhere began to play his songs again.
Even Jesus struggled with celebrity status. Aware of the dangers, he consistently deflected the crowd’s attention. Even so, he was followed everywhere he went. For instance, in Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 [link to text] Jesus tries to escape the crowds, but is quickly outmaneuvered. Mark says he took compassion on the crowd and healed them of their sicknesses. Maintaining his distance and refusing to be an idol is the only way he can continue to care for them, it is the only way to escape the love-hate relationship.
The moment celebrities seek isolation they are hounded and criticized for it. In South Park Britney tries to escape the paparazzi by going on a camping trip in the Colorado Rockies, but is quickly discovered. In fact the possibility of escape creates its own problems. Thom Yorke, the lead singer of Radiohead, publicly admits he hates his celebrity status. He writes in his blog, that the moment he gets a break, he quickly loses his sense of identity and purpose and sinks into deep depression. As Girard warns, “the affirmation of the self ends in the negation of the self.” To allow oneself to be raised to the status of a god inevitably brings about self-destruction, because the celebrity’s identity is only ever a projection of the public’s desire. Few stars discover this reality before its too late.
Girard says, “it is Stavrogin,” not his followers, “who bears the heaviest cross.” As with Michael Jackson, Dostoyevski’s reader is unable to decide just how human Nicholas really is, whether he feels desire, or whether he is completely cut off from his own humanity, being denied as he is, any real intimacy in his life. In Michael Jackson’s case, we watched him, over the course of his career, become sexless, even featureless, losing the distinct features of any palpable personality. Isn’t it incredibly sad that the more closely Jackson was imitated, the more slowly, but surely he destroyed his own appearance?
In a similar way Nicholas Stavrogin sets out on a path of self-destruction, possibly in a desperate attempt to free himself. Girard explains that Nicholas “is beyond desire. It is not whether he no longer desires because Others desire him or whether Others desire him because he no longer desires. Thus is formed a vicious circle from which [he] cannot escape… he becomes the magnetic pole of desire and hatred” (Deceit, Desire and the Novel, 163). Unfortunately, public demand for an idol is insatiable and those stars who chose to go this route, are inevitably consumed by it.
In Choke, Victor and Paige, his equally self-deluded partner, survive the crowd’s destructive furor, and are able for the first time “to see each other for real.” Freed not only from their own delusions, but also from allowing the world to define them as flawed and less than desirable, they have the chance not only to create some other reality, they are able to detect just a silhouette of their being in each other’s eyes.
So maybe folks shouldn’t be so quick to criticize Thom Yorke, for his coldness (he’s notorious for just walking away from admirers without response) [link to criticism]. Maybe he’s aware of the precarious position he’s in. It comes from time to time in Radiohead’s songs. “Life in a Glasshouse” is just one example [video] [lyrics], in which Yorke sings: “Of course, I’d like to sit around and talk, but someone’s always listening in,” and once again the crowd “is hungry for a lynching.”
For some reason Yorke’s resistance makes people furious, including other celebrity wanna-bees like 15 yr. old Miley Cyrus, who drummed up lots of publicity in 2009 by complaining about Yorke’s rudeness [link]. Sadly, she has no clue that she’s playing right into the public’s obsession. I truly hope that someone warns her that at the end of the South Park episode, she’s identified as the next one on the way to becoming a major superstar [watch clip].
The good news is, if South Park can make an episode exposing the true nature of the public’s fascination with celebrities, we, like Victor and Paige, may chose to give up this obsession with attention and fame, maybe then fewer childhood pop stars will have to self-destruct before our eyes.
What would summer be without the release of an action packed, blockbuster movie? We’re a culture addicted to displays of power, the proportions of which seem to be increasing, as special effects, high tech weapons and machines get more and more spectacular. Compare, for instance, the original Transformers TV Series with the newly released Transformers 2.
Is it me, or have the those robots gotten a bit more intimidating? For folks who aren’t sure what tranformers are: they’re a popular toy and TV cartoon introduced in the mid-80s, which spinned off a comic series, games and more recently a couple of movies. Transformers are alien robots from the planet Cybertron. They can ‘transform’ themselves, rearranging their bodies into everyday objects, usually vehicles. At times they will transform into devices or animals. [more info] Unsuspecting humans have no idea that their supposedly harmless cars, trucks or bull-duzors, are actually not what they appear to be. That is until, on a moment’s notice, they transform into dangerous alien robots. [watch demonstration]
I think human beings are capable of the same sort of thing. For instance, in 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 [read text] Paul is embroiled in a rivalry with other teachers who claim to be Christian apostles. In chapter 11 Paul, being ironic, labels them “super-apostles” (2 Cor. 11:5) for boasting of superior abilities and talents and for claiming miraculous powers of healing. Paul says they have “deceived” the Corinthians and led them astray. In 2 Cor. 11:13-15 Paul goes even further, and accuses his rivals of being ministers of Satan who have “transformed” themselves into apostles of Christ. To stress this point he uses the same word three times:
μετασχηματίζω metaschēmatizō: to transform the figure of something [link]
On the other hand, Paul too may be labeled a “transformer.” Postmodern philosopher, John Caputo in his book The Weakness of God [link] cites Paul’s statement in 2 Cor. 12:10, as the moment in which he, Caputo, quietly takes his leave of Paul. After a long list, boasting of his weaknesses, Paul makes an incredible claim:
Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2Cor. 12:10)
Caputo responds, “Paul inscribes his idea of the weakness of God that is revealed in the cross in a larger economy of power.” (Weakness of God, 42) For Paul insists that his weakness is not really what it appears to be, but instead “transforms” it into a power play: just another transformer, one that some philosophers claim is a far more dangerous stunt than anything those “ministers of Satan” could have conjured. As Caputo says, “the power of God is embodied in the helpless body whose flesh is nailed to the cross…” (Weakness, 54) it requires the full renunciation of any and all power tactics, however well disguised. This leaves me begging the question, how are we to tell the transformers apart from the real apostles, if they even exist at all?
In the Transformers first TV episode the story is immediately founded on a rivalry between the forces of good and evil. They are divided into two factions: the heroic Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, who protect humans, and the evil Decepticons, led by Megatron, who wants to take over the universe. However each side relies on power to overcome the other. As long as this is the case, displays of power always provoke new rivalries. This is precisely the case in this first episode, when one of the Decepticons, jealous of Megatron’s status and authority, boasts that he will take his place some day.
Granted, the Autobots (or “good” robots) seem very willing to spend much of their time as cars or trucks, as good citizens so to speak. Even so, the moment a rival transformer appears on the scene they immediately transform themselves into ultra-powerful robots. The conflict between the Autobots and the Decepticons led to the destruction of their home world Cybertron, and now the escalation of their rivalry threatens Earth too.
In 2 Corinthians Paul is being pushed to the limit. His rivals have clearly gotten the upper hand with the Corinthians, impressing them with their superior display of power. But this is precisely what identifies them as anything but apostles. By claiming to possess special knowledge and miraculous powers, they demonstrate that they’re just the same-old pagans in disguise, who have transformed themselves as Christians (Søren Kierkegaard, Christian Discourses, 66). Like the Emperor boasting of his victories in battle, making such claims as proof of one’s power or authority is first and foremost a power play, and a continual source of rivalry and conflict which undermines the entire community. Paul, on the other hand, chooses a very different tactic. As biblical-scholar Robert Hamerton-Kelly says, “Rather than enter into rivalry by imitating the opponents’ desire for power and prestige, he enters ironically by imitating the weakness and humiliation of Christ…In weakness the power of Christ to diffuse…. rivalry is most effective; so it is not despite his affliction that Paul is a successful apostle of Christ, but precisely because of it.” (Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, 175)
For instance, in 2 Cor. 12: 1-5, Paul responds to his rivals’ claims of mystical experiences, a typical claim to knowledge and authority in the ancient pagan world. Whether or not Paul actually had such an experience, receiving a special communication from God, he, unlike his rivals, is unwilling to boast of it. First, as we have already noted, to boasting is a power play, which always creates more rivalry, but more importantly, whatever encounter Paul did have with Jesus, or God, it had a negative, rather than a positive effect upon his confidence. Like Peter, who can never forget that at the crucial moment, he betrayed Jesus three times, Paul full of boasting, in his most arrogant moments, when he was totally convinced he was in the RIGHT, was doing the worst kind of WRONG. As the 19th century theologian Søren Kierkegaard says, Paul guarded the coats of the executioners while they stoned Stephen, an innocent man, to death (Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, 341) .
For Paul, to encounter the crucified God, is to realize that his own ego, his own judgment, his understanding of right and wrong cannot be trusted. When Paul says he is given a “thorn in the flesh,” sent by a “messenger of Satan,” he refers to the knowledge of his own guilt, which he can not forget (Kierkegaard, Eighteen, 340). That he, sick with rivalry and heady with power, was on a moment’s notice transformed into a murderer. The only confidence he is left with is his confidence in his own weakness, which finally allows him to identify with the victim on the cross. Therefore, the only good he can accomplish, as Kierkegaard says, is in keeping this thorn ever present in his mind.
We are each one of us, alien robots, capable, at a moment’s notice, of being transformed into rivals of our fellow human beings. When that happens, watch out, it doesn’t matter if you’re an Autobot or a Decepticon… without the self-awareness and humility that Paul has learned, we end up wreaking destruction, doing more evil than good. -Sue Wright