David Heinemeier Hansson

November 16, 2022

The Current Villain

One of Lefsetz's recurring topics is how music no longer drives culture. There's no longer a shared center. The biggest star of today is someone most of the world have never heard of. With tens of thousands of new tracks hitting Spotify every day, there's just too much volume, too much niche, for anyone ever to break through like the olden days. But humans still need something to come together around, thus: The Current Thing.

The concept of The Current Thing is simple enough. A centering political topic that brings everyone's attention together around a shared narrative. Russiagate, War in Ukraine, a decision from the US Supreme Court, whatever. The Current Thing needn't affect you personally, it needn't be particularly novel, not even singular in its expression of an issue. But it becomes the overwhelming topic for a moment. The thing everyone has to be up on, take a stand on, and preferably chime in with their support of on social media (whether it's for or against).

Watching The Current Thing unfold, then move on, can quickly become tiring once you recognize the pattern. Why this, why now? But at least there's usually some big overarching theme that you can find value in. Perhaps even the meta value of our niche-scattered culture finding a common topic, now that everything else is drifting apart. Although it seems that these days The Current Thing is almost exclusively some critical-theory derivative (utopian ideal -> contrast with imperfect world -> action plan to turn reality into utopia), and less, like in days past, a shared moment of glory: Man walking on the moon, your nation winning in sports, or some new invention.

But worse than the broad category of The Current Thing is the subcategory of The Current Villain. A subcategory that seems to eat more and more of its superset as time goes on. Just think about the number of characters that have occupied The Current Villain spot this year, and for what an absurd range of supposed transgressions: Joe Rogan, for having conversations about Covid. David Chapelle, for making jokes about trans people (and maybe soon again for jokes about jews?). Andrew Tate, for speaking about gender roles and masculinity. Jordan Peterson, for originally objecting to compelled speech. Kayne West, on accusations of anti-semitism. And finally, now, Elon Musk, for – I think? – buying a troubled social media platform and making changes.

Matt Taibbi has an excellent piece comparing this growing thirst for The Current Villain to the puritan witch hunts at the early days of the American colonies. To me, it's also startling how literal the echo of Emmanuel Goldstein from Orwell's too-frequently-quoted book 1984 is. This singular focus on an individual that has to absorb all our hate, our rage, our frustration with reality as we've come to see it.

But the larger intellectual framework that can help us explain what the hell is going on with this accelerating thirst for The Current Villain comes from René Girard. He's famous for his work on mimetic theory, which purports that almost all human behavior is guided by copying others. Specifically copying their desires. That we want what we want because others have it. But it's his work on scapegoating that is so fascinating to the analysis of The Current Villain.

In the book Wanting, Luke Burgis presents Girard's scapegoating mechanism as a process for discharging group tension. It's a defensive mechanism to prevent all-out internal war by placing all blame for whatever predicament that's creating the group tension on a single individual. The scapegoat selection is performed as follows:

Scapegoats are often insiders who are perceived to violate the group’s orthodoxy or taboos. Their behavior makes them appear as a threat to the group’s unity. They come to be seen as cancers or monstrous outsiders who have violated or destroyed the social bonds that hold the group together. Eliminating the scapegoat is the act through which the group becomes unified again.

Nobody is safe from being made into a scapegoat. During a mimetic crisis, perception is distorted.. even the smallest differences are amplified. People project their worst fears onto a scapegoat rather than face the crisis head-on. Nobody wants to pay the price.

If that doesn't describe our current social-media fueled quest for reputational sacrifice, I don't know what does. Especially for characters like Dave Chapelle, Kayne West, or Elon Musk. Individuals who were all seen as insiders in good standing until they violated a taboo, and then became the object of overwhelming animosity, as a mob formed to discharge the unresolved crisis over, say, trans issues or censorship issues.

Burgis' continues:

The scapegoating mechanism does not hinge on the guilt or innocence of the scapegoat. It hinges on the ability of a community to use a scapegoat to accomplish their desired outcome: unification, healing, purgation, expiation. The scapegoat serves a religious function.

Girard's scapegoating mechanism recognizes that the human sacrifices made to dissolve the tension often wouldn't really fix the underlying issue. Frequently, it would just be a release valve, but then the tension would slowly start to build up again, and thus require another sacrificial scapegoat later.

That feels key to understanding the acceleration we're currently living through. The scapegoats barely release any tension any more, especially since the shift from the early day of cancel culture that focused on minor characters with limited power to resist the mob, to major characters who can actually fight back. So the underlying questions on, say, trans or censorship issues remain unanswered and unresolved. Thus mobs form with ever greater frequency and ferocity in ever-more desperate attempts to dissolve the tension and restore unification. But it's just not working, no matter how vicious the prosecution of each campaign becomes, no matter how much the bar is lowered for qualifying transgressions.

So that's the diagnosis, but what's the prescription? How do we get out of this mimetic cycle of scapegoating? Ironically, given Musk's role as The Current Villain, it might just be if we sacrifice the entertainment of the colosseum. If Musk somehow does manage to destroy the worst mimetic amplifier of our day, Twitter, we might see some actual release of tension. At least for a while.

Short of that, Girard offers that the last time we saw a real shift in scapegoating dynamics was when the crucifixion of Christ gave us the perspective of the victim through the gospels of Christianity: "Let he who is without sin throw the first stone!".

So I guess all we need to resolve the situation is the second coming of Christ? Let me say a little prayer.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.