When it became public knowledge that PayPal co-founder and Christian billionaire Peter Thiel had financed Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker for invasion of privacy, old news became news again. Nearly a decade ago, Gawker outed Thiel as a gay man, and at the time Thiel vowed to get even. Was this lawsuit Thiel’s revenge?
The original case pitted Hogan’s right to privacy against Gawker’s freedom of the press. You may be aware that the suit revolved around Gawker publishing a sex tape of Hogan with a friend’s wife. Not Hogan’s finest hour — but personal ethics were not on trial here. Gawker lost the case big time. Hogan was awarded $140 million and Gawker lost again when the judge refused their request for appeal.
This must have been sweet satisfaction for Thiel, who no doubt felt that his personal life was nobody’s business but his own. But Thiel’s pockets are so deep that he could bankrupt Gawker simply by continuing to finance lawsuits against them, which is apparently perfectly legal. Is it right that even if Thiel never wins another case he could crush Gawker under the weight of legal fees? Even if you don’t approve of Gawker’s brand of journalism, does Thiel’s money give him the right to silence Gawker?
Navigating the boundary between privacy, free speech, and money is a vitally important task, but this brouhaha may be about something even more fundamental than that — something that is part of every breath we take as human beings.
Peter Thiel and René Girard
If we are going to sort this out, I think what we need is a little help from something Peter Thiel is quite familiar with: the mimetic theory of René Girard. In The New York Times, the writer, social commentator, and contributing Esquire editor Stephen Marche made the connection between Thiel and mimetic theory, and raised the question of scapegoating.
Marche writes in defense of Gawker:
Mr. Thiel is the most famous student of René Girard, the celebrated professor of philosophy at Stanford who developed the concept of the scapegoat mechanism. We blame others for our own sins and overcome that impulse only through “mimetic desire” — through mediation with other people. Mr. Thiel has turned Gawker into a scapegoat for the shifting world of celebrity culture that we all inhabit. He has made Gawker into a scapegoat for the world he himself is helping to create.
True confessions: I’m a mimetic theory junkie. I founded, direct, and write for the Raven Foundation, a site that provides social commentary through the lens of mimetic theory, and I’ve met Peter Thiel at conferences on Girard’s work. (His foundation, Imitatio, is dedicated to furthering research into applications of mimetic theory and — full disclosure — Raven has received grants from Imitatio.) Here, Mr. Marche would do well to have attended one or two mimetic theory conferences, for though his instinct for scapegoating is a good one, his understanding of mimetic theory is not.
Allow me to unpack the good and the not so good, starting with Marche’s detection of scapegoating as the key to unlocking this scandal.
Scapegoaters Are Us
Here’s how mimetic theory defines scapegoating: Scapegoating is about making ourselves right as a direct consequence of making someone else wrong.
Did you get that? Scapegoating is the activity of creating my own goodness by believing in the wickedness of others. We all do construct our identity against others (no use trying to get around it!) — which means our fundamental way of knowing who we are is by knowing who we are not. For example, I find it quite easy to identify myself as a morally upright person against Hulk Hogan’s sexual escapades. I take comfort in knowing that I’m so much better that he is!
Scapegoating is how we form community, too. Nothing generates bonds of friendship like agreeing on who does not belong at your table.
So Marche may be right that Thiel is blaming Gawker for the fallout from a “celebrity culture” that he has helped create: If Thiel is making himself right by making Gawker wrong, he may also be generating a sense of solidarity with his fellow libertarian celebrity billionaires, and creating a scapegoat.
Mimetic Rivalry — No, You’re Wrong
The part that Marche has missed is difficult to detect without some serious mimetic theory training. Marche mentioned mimetic desire as a cure for scapegoating — but that’s a poor definition. Mimetic desire is a very natural and distinctly human phenomenon. It simply means that we learn what to desire from others, especially from those we respect and admire. That’s easy enough to see. But it’s also true that we learn what to desire from those we detest and revile.
You can see how that works in the mimetic rivalry between Thiel and Gawker, because they simultaneously detest one another and share the same desires. I have chosen two statements, one from each of them that mirror each other. Here’s the comment from Thiel:
“It’s less about revenge and more about specific deterrence,” he said on Wednesday in his first interview since his identity [as the financial backer of the Hogan lawsuit] was revealed. “I saw Gawker pioneer a unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people even when there was no connection with the public interest.”
His point is that Gawker is doing a bad job of deciding what is in the “public interest” and that he is a better arbiter of what the public should know about.
Okay, here’s a comment from the Gawker Media’s Editorial Code written by John Cook:
Gawker Media Group’s web properties practice honest, conversational journalism about stories—whimsical or serious, joyous or grotesque—that matter, or should matter, to our readers.
Here Gawker is declaring that they, too, know what their readers want to know about — or should want to know about! They each want to tell us what to think and even what to think about.
A mimetic rivalry happens when rivals who want the same thing want it more and more precisely because of the other’s desire. But — and here’s the clincher — they refuse to admit that they are being influenced by one another! Thiel and Gawker, for example, would vehemently deny that they are anything like one another, and yet they want the same thing.
So Thiel and Gawker are scapegoats for one another, each defining themselves against the other while at the same time denying that their desires are mirror images of each other.
Who’s Your Scapegoat?
You may think I’ve dodged the question of privacy vs. freedom of speech in the public interest. I suppose I have. But I think the issue of scapegoating is the more important one, especially if you are concerned with social justice. I am not a moral relativist: I believe in right and wrong, that bullies are out there and that victims must be protected. And I do think that we need to work through the privacy, speech, and money issues in this case.
But I also know that all of us construct our identities by pitting our goodness against the wickedness of others. When we do that, the justice issues become sideshows to our need for scapegoats.
Scapegoating is not just for the rich and famous. Christians have been called to the ministry of reconciliation, which is the call to reconcile with the scapegoats who lie buried at the foundation of who we are.
“Where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus said, “I am there among them.”
Jesus was speaking the wisdom of the excluded and crucified scapegoat — the one who knows that whether you welcome him or exclude him, you need him more than you know.