Sacrifice/Self-Sacrifice

Anyone who thinks about violence has to, at some point, attempt to come to terms with sacrifice.  The staged killing of a victim (whether animal or human) is part of just about every known religion.  So here is a violence deliberately chosen and carefully scripted.  What it its logic?  Why has it been seen as necessary and/or beneficial in so many cultures?

I have hardly got good answers here.  Everything I have read on sacrifice–from Mauss to Bataille to Girard–has puzzled me.  I only want to say two thing here.

Like Waldo everywhere present but never center stage, the notion of self-sacrifice lurks throughout Howes’s book. (There is an index entry on self-sacrifice, so Howes clearly knows this is an element of his whole position.)  Here’s one instance: “[F]ollowing the moral law may require self sacrifice.  Given that others often fail to practice self rule, the immediate consequences of doing so may be physically harmful to the person who acts according to their duty.  Gandhi was more clear about how this public demonstration of self-sacrifice might affect others. By holding fast to the truth and refraining from destroying or attacking others, the satyagrahi would offer a model of self-rule and moderation that might change others” (185).  This passage points toward both of the  things I want to say.

First, I think we reach here the nub of the resistance to pacifism.  Why should I submit myself, sacrifice myself, to the violent other?  Do we really believe the rape victim should sacrifice herself instead of acting in self-defense?

But let me hasten to add that this is not some kind of reductio.  Just the opposite.  It indicates how profound and radical pacifism is.  The logic of self-defense is congruent with the logic of much violence: i.e. some people, because of their behavior, deserve to be physically harmed or otherwise restrained/punished for their actions.  In forgoing this logic, pacifism is revealed to be “beyond good and evil.”  It is not concerned with separating out the worthy from the unworthy, those who are to be shielded from violence and those who are to be subject to it.  Pacifism refuses to legitimate any violence.  And in the name of that all-inclusive vision, and in the attempt to bring about a world of non-violence, it accepts that victimage may be imposed on the pacifists.

So I do not think you can have a full-bore pacifism without accepting the terrible, yet sublime, consequence of self-sacrifice.  Instead of violently attacking the other, the pacifist accepts the violence inflicted upon her by the other.  This seems close to insane–and makes pacifism a path that appeals to very few.

But the pacifist can hope that her actions are exemplary, are an illustration of a different way to live with others.  She may not live to see that new day, but her voluntary acceptance of victimage might enable that new day to dawn.

Which brings me to my second point.  Sacrifice is meaningless if not publicly staged, if not visible.  There must be spectators.  This is true both practically and theoretically.  Practically, it means that non-violent social movements will only succeed when their stoic acceptance of violence inflicted by their opponents is broadcast to the body politic as a whole.  Protest is theatrical and rhetorical.  It is aimed toward winning hearts and minds, at converting those who currently have not chosen sides.  The protesters say two things: one, come join us, and two, we occupy the moral high ground vis a vis our opponents. (I think it is almost always “the moral high ground”; protests work very differently–and usually not non-violently–when it is a question of advancing or defending particular interests, not moral principles).  If a regime can succeed in keeping the protestors out of the media, out of general sight, the protests do not have much chance of succeeding.

Theoretically, this theatrical nature of sacrifice connects up to ritual and to tragedy (understood here as the plays put on during the Greek Dionysian festivals).  This may connect as well to public executions and to lynchings.  The point is about public displays of violence–where the violence is scripted, mostly contained to a few chosen victims, and allows for some kind of participation by the congregated public.  Here’s where I lose the thread.  The persistence and near-universality of such public stagings of violence is obvious.  How to explain their omnipresence baffles me.  Just why have they proved so necessary to social cohesion?

Self-sacrifice, it seems to me, would stand as an attempt to intervene in not just generalized violence but also in particularized sacrifice.  Self-sacrifice is an attempt to rewrite the scripts of such rituals.  Self-sacrifice seems to require publicity in exactly the same way that sacrifice does.  But if sacrifice constitutes a public through its shared animosity toward the victim, self-sacrifice tries to constitute a public based on a repudiation of the dividing line between us, the outraged innocents taking vengeance, and them, the unworthy ones who have called forth our righteous wrath.

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